History of the International Women’s Movement: A Dry Topic for those Wet behind the Ears.

Mark Conway

The Birth of an International Movement

To enter this topic into polite “cocktail” conversation is often difficult.  You are either met with glassed over eyes from those that are either ignorant and/or uninterested in the topic, or you are subject to vehement observation of a potential deviation from the accepted narrative.

One can, and probably should, consider the birth of the international women’s movement to the founding of the United Nations (UN) Status of Women’s Committee (SWC) in 1946, and its initial triumph in removing the reference to “men”, as being synonymous with “humanity”, in the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  This was laudably argued by the SWC as being more “inclusive language”, consistent with the concept of equality.

From there, the SWC managed to influence a number of international declarations/agreements over the following 20 years.  These include:

The International Labour Organization’s 1951 convention concerning Equal Remuneration for Men and Women Workers for Work of Equal Value, enshrining the principle of equal pay for equal work.

The 1953 Convention on the Political Rights of Women, the first international law instrument to protect the political rights of women.

The 1957 Convention on the Nationality of Married Women, following by the 1962 Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages.

The crowning achievements of this initial period resulted in the 1963 request by the UN General Assembly for the SWC to draft a Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, which was adopted by the UN in 1967.  This declaration contained 11 Articles which mostly consolidate the fore mentioned conventions.  Article 1 specifically declared that discrimination against women is “fundamentally unjust and constitutes an offence against human dignity”.  Though that “black fly in you chardonnay” may actually not be ironic, the fact that the initial “inclusive language” of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights begins to dissolve away. The absence of the inclusion of men is a little ironic, don’t you think.  

In essence, the objective of the first 20 years of work by the SWC was to legally build a level playing field which tried to establish equality between the sexes.  This work also inspired the United States in 1961 and Canada in 1967 to appoint their own “Status of Women” Commissions to evaluate the situation within their respected countries.  

These two national committees echoed the concerns of the UN’s SWC findings, and recommended measures to promote equality and women’s participation in both politics and the economy.  One interesting recommendation from the Canadian Royal Commission was to “undertake short-term measures, where necessary, to achieve it’s (these) objectives”.  What these “measures” were, and how “short term” they were to become some 25 years later, should be a concern for those that truly espouse the concept of equality.

The First International Women’s Conference:  Mexico City 1975

The year 1975 was chosen as the year of the first International Women’s Conference, to coincide with both the International Year of Women, and the start of the International Decade of Women (1975-1985).  The principle objective of this conference was to sustain the improvements already made, and to further “bestow the benefits” of equal opportunity on all.  In addition, the conference promoted “i) full gender equality, and the elimination of gender discrimination, ii) the integration and full participation of women in development, iii) as well as increasing the contribution of women by strengthening world peace”.

The inclusion of “world peace” was a major issue of conflict at the conference as it highlighted the major political/ideological differences that existed during the cold war.  These differences were principally between the United States, and the Eastern Bloc countries.  The United States promoted an “equality agenda”, and wanted to keep a narrow focus on what they believed to be “women’s issues”, whilst the Eastern Bloc promoted a “peace” agenda, wanting to incorporate issues like colonialism and Zionism into the discussion.  The United States considered these issues to be non-related, whilst the Eastern Bloc did not consider “sexism” not to be present in their societies; hence there was no need for an equality discussion.  This political discourse also haunted the following two conferences.

Some concrete developments that came about after this conference were the establishment of both the United Nations International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (UN-INSTRAW), and the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM).  UN-INSTRAW was the leading research and knowledge management organization to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment using a “gender perspective”.  While UNIFEM provided financial and technical assistance to promote women’s human rights.  These two agencies appear to be the first to direct monies directly to organizations assisting women.  The first of the “temporary measures“ to be employed to promote the development of equality.

In addition, the convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was enacted in 1979.  It is in this convention the phrase discrimination against women was clarified as “any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field”.

In hindsight, there are two other noteworthy observations that can be made from this conference.  Firstly, this is the first time that the term “gender” became dominant in the documentation related to SWC.  Secondly, the impetus from the Eastern Bloc to broaden the agenda to incorporate what could be considered “non-women” related issues.  Both of these will become much more prevalent 20 years later, to the familiarity of all who read this I am sure.

Copenhagen 1980

What was initially scheduled to be located in Tehran, was moved to Copenhagen as a result of the Iranian Revolution.  Though a Program of Action was adapted from this conference, this adoption was not by consensus as the political tensions from Mexico City had carried over.

In this Program of Action, the tone of the language began to change.  It cited the “reasons“ for the apparent discrepancy between the legal rights of women, and women’s ability to access those rights was blamed on:

  • The lack of sufficient involvement of men
  • Insufficient political will
  • Lack of recognition of the value of women’s contribution to society
  • Lack of attention to the particular needs of women
  • A shortage of women in decision making processes
  • Insufficient services to support the role of women, such as cooperatives, day care centers, and credit facilities
  • Overall lack of necessary financial resources

During this conference, again much of the dialog concerned promoting international cooperation, peace and security.  As well, there was much credence given to women’s struggled with colonialism, neocolonialism racial discrimination and apartheid.  It appears that the Eastern Bloc had gained the upper hand in deciding the agenda.  Both the American and Canadian delegations voted “no“ the conference’s resolution, but for all intents and purposes, delegates from the remaining countries began to fully embrace the Eastern Bloc’s “peace“ agenda.

The Program for Action called for stronger measures to ensure women’s ownership and control of property, their right to inheritance as well as child custody.  In addition, it was at this conference, for the first time, that domestic violence was explicitly mentioned in an official UN document.  The legislative measures recommended at this conference included both the ratification of CEDAW by member nations, and that nations enact legislation to accelerate full and equal participation of women, and to eliminate existing inequities between men and women.  This laid the foundation for additional “measures“ in order to promote equality.

Nairobi 1985

The Nairobi conference was scheduled to review and appraise the achievements of the UN’s International Decade of Women.  This conference has also often been cited as the “birth of global feminism“.

The conference found that generally the women’s movement had grown in number and scope, and that they represented an international force for equality, peace and development.  (Though the key findings of the statistics provided to the conference found that only a limited number of women had benefited from the improvements),  As a result, it was mandated that new ways to overcome the obstacles would be sought. 

Some of the recommendations to overcome these obstacles include the establishment of a “mechanism“ for women’s equal participation at all levels of the political process and public life.  There was also a call for the formulation of laws, programs and policies to harmonize the family and work balance. 

In addition, the continued discussion about domestic violence would lead to the appointment of Radhika Coomaraswamy as the first Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, and the adoption of the UN declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (1993).  The conference also recognized that gender equality was not an isolated issue, but encompassed all areas of human activity.   This would result in the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo (1994) beginning to recognize women’s health, education and rights a prerequisites for effective population control policies.

Beijing 1995:  The turning point for the Global Agenda for Gender Equality

The Beijing conference is the final of the four conferences to date, and provided a Plan of Action which has manifested in numerous national government policies/laws and programs that actively support and favor women.  In essence, all governments that signed on to the agreement have adopted a policy tool called Gender Based Analysis (GBA).  GBA mandates everything a government does must be subject to gender based analysis to correct for historical imbalances that exist.  It allows for the unequal distribution of monies and consideration to a specific gender.

The principle problem with this approach is that it is the domain of the Status of Women Committees in the various countries to present the gender specific data by which laws/programs and policies are enacted.  The Status of women committee is only required to act on behalf of women, and not men.  This is how the governments of the world can discriminate against men on all fronts, yet justify their actions as being, inclusive.  This is that “short term measure“ which if you are under 25 years old, has been in place since you were born.  In a future article I will explore how this policy tool has created a situation where Separate consideration is given to one group, But it is considered Equal.

I will allow Hillary Clinton to summarize it as she did at the conclusion of the Beijing conference.

Let it be that human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all. “