Women’s suffrage in the United States didn’t happen overnight. It was the culmination of a broad, decades-long movement during which women convened, fought, and were arrested for the legal right to vote. It took 72 years after the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, for the Nineteenth Amendment to be ratified on August 18, 1920—72 years for the US Constitution to state that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
Strides in women’s rights, both nationally and globally, have stemmed from ongoing movements that have outwardly questioned social norms and led to changes in policy. To commemorate the centennial anniversary of women’s suffrage in the US, we spoke with SIS dean Christine BN Chin, Distinguished Scholar in Residence J Ann Tickner, and SIS professors Shadi Mokhtari, Naomi Moland, Wanda Wigfall-Williams, Sarah Snyder, and Ambassador Sally Shelton-Colby. They discussed the impact of women’s representation and participation in activism and policy making in the context of global women’s rights movements.
Women’s Representation in Global Activism
According to Shadi Mokhtari, social norms change when more women participate in activism: “Just the mere presence of women on the street in activism that receives considerable mainstream attention helps to shift norms. Certainly, over the last decade, in the Middle East and many other parts of the world where there have been waves of public protests, women have made tremendous gains in carving out space for themselves and their voices within the public realm.”
When women are involved in all kinds of activism, they provide greater insights to issues that they may be experiencing themselves. Naomi Moland points out that women offer important perspectives when it comes to global issues like girls’ education, child marriage, and women’s labor equality. And in the broader context of human rights, women’s perspectives and participation in activism is vital.
“The male experience of human rights violations is still the default,” says Mokhtari. “By mainstreaming women’s experiences of oppression and suffering and discrimination, [these experiences] then become part of how we define what constitutes unjust action.”
Distinguished Scholar in Residence J Ann Tickner, a feminist international relations theorist who has done extensive work on the history of women’s transnational organizing, believes women’s involvement in activism is key to putting women’s rights on the international agenda: “The stronger women’s alliances can be, the more they can lobby for the things that are important to women.”
Tickner emphasizes that activism leads to women being able to enter the political arena and that progress at the institutional level has always been the result of at least 100 years of women’s transnational organizing.
Women’s Rights are Human Rights
In the US during the 1960s and 1970s, American activists were advocating for an increased focus on human rights abroad that transformed US foreign policy, but these movements did not focus on women’s rights. Sarah Snyder, a historian of US foreign relations, says that if there had been more women involved in human rights activism during this time period, there would have been more recognition that women face some rights violations uniquely.
“What has changed now is that you have many more women who are involved both in human rights activism and in the policymaking process, and so I think there’s greater sensitivity to not paint everything in broad brushstrokes,” says Snyder.
Since the mid-19th century, women’s groups have formed transnational alliances to raise awareness of the specific issues that women face. And during the UN’s 1995 World Conference on Women in Beijing, then-first lady Hillary Clinton gave her historic speech emphasizing that human rights are women’s rights.
Snyder sees this speech as pivotal to the US’s move toward the promotion of women’s and children’s rights worldwide: “It was really Hillary Clinton who signaled a shift in US support for women’s rights that continued in the following years.”
In Dean Chin’s view, “when it comes to the advances that have been brought about for women and society as a whole, the efforts in the late 20th century for societies to understand that women’s rights are human rights was key.”
Women’s Representation in Policy Making
“There are instances in which we need to focus specifically on the rights of women, and that doesn’t happen until you have more women in the policy making process,” says Snyder.
Tickner agrees that greater representation of women in policy making leads to a greater focus on women’s issues. She uses the example of Sweden’s move to follow a feminist foreign policy: “I believe it’s come about because Sweden has done much better on having women in government, and so something like that doesn’t seem so strange to them.” She also notes that Canada and Australia have put women’s issues very high on their foreign policy agendas.
Though there have been increases in women’s representation in US foreign policy making, the country still has a long way to go. Ambassador Shelton-Colby notes that when she finished graduate school, her first job was working in the US Senate. There, she focused specifically on foreign policy and national security, which, at the time, were considered men’s fields.
Since then, the US has had Madeline Albright, Condoleezza Rice, and Hillary Clinton serve as secretary of state, and women have, in Shelton-Colby’s view, come a long way in the field. To Tickner, Clinton, as secretary of state, really pushed what could be considered a feminist foreign policy—centralizing women’s issues in US foreign policy making.
“There has been a sea of change in terms of women’s roles in policy making,” says Shelton-Colby.
However, Shelton-Colby notes that the US lags behind many other countries in terms of gender representation in government: “I look at how many countries around the world have elected women as president or prime minister—but not the United States.”
The Importance of Inclusivity
After the achievement of women’s suffrage, the women’s rights movement in the United States transitioned from solely focusing on legal rights to increasing equality for women in all aspects of life during a period known as the long ‘60s—from 1955-1973. However, not all women’s experiences were included in that stride toward equality.
“What we’ve learned from first and second-wave feminism in this country is that [the movements] didn’t speak for all women,” says Dean Chin. “They were primarily class-based and led by white women.”
Dean Chin explains that it’s important for movements to speak for the varied experiences of all women and that women at different intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, and creed should be uplifted to a level playing field.
“It continues to be challenging, especially for women from marginalized communities, to gain representation in policy making and activism,” says Dean Chin. “Different groups of women have different lived realities, and building an inclusive society requires that we take this into account.”
It has been and still is difficult for all women’s experiences to be represented. Wanda Wigfall-Williams points out that women across the world continue to be marginalized based on their body type, hair color, skin color, hair texture: “The list goes on and on. It’s important for more voices to be included and for more women to have agency. We have to be open about this, and that’s difficult.”
Women’s rights movements that aren’t inclusive are limited in what they can accomplish.
“If you leave one population behind, then you leave all of us hamstrung,” says Wigfall-Williams.
And according to Moland, the goal of equality between women and men may be too simplistic of a binary: “If LGBT voices are included, especially transgender and gender non-conforming voices, that would coalesce well into the women’s rights movements.”
And when it comes to which voices should lead the way in these movements across the globe, Mokhtari emphasizes the role of local activists: “People who are locally positioned understand the dynamics [of their communities], which isn’t to say there isn’t a role for international actors. But it used to be that Western-based activists would dominate local women’s rights efforts and then produced counterproductive results.”
“I think it’s a balance,” says Moland. “Acknowledging that collaboration is okay—that cultures interact with each other and influence each other—and finding a balance so that Western cultures aren’t trying to push their version of women’s rights on other cultures.”
Progress and Pushing Forward
Mokhtari admits that the global feminist movement for decades has been sidelined, but women’s rights activists have achieved what she deems a psychological shift.
“All of the years of feminist activism and women’s rights activism has borne fruit in the sense that young women today are very self-assured, and they’re not shying away from fights on a variety of social justice issues,” says Mokhtari. “They’re challenging structures of power.”
One of the biggest successes for global women’s rights activism, according to Tickner, is when the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1325—the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) agenda. This was the first time that the UN addressed women’s issues around security specifically: “The passage of [the resolution] didn’t just happen because the Security Council suddenly thought they might finally attend to women’s issues having to do with security, but because women have been lobbying for these things since the mid-19th century.”
Though the SIS faculty members featured in this piece agree that progress has been made, as women globally have worked to undo long-standing structures of patriarchal power, they emphasize that there is still a long road ahead.
“If we stop with our successes, then there’s a danger in that,” says Wigfall-Williams.
“Women need to continue to push,” says Shelton-Colby. “You can’t just sit back and rest on your laurels if you’re a woman. You’ve got to go, fight, and vote for what you think is right.”