Women’s equality has been a hard-fought issue in almost every nation around the world. It’s a struggle that has, to a great extent, defined the social and political discourse of the modern era. Issues of social equality have gained recent, and significant, momentum and have manifested in movements like #MeToo and the increasingly powerful presence of women in politics, education, and social positions. We’ve seen a greater global understanding that our societies are informed by our biological makeup, not necessarily bound to it, which has opened conversations about the ways in which notions of gender roles create disparity of opportunity and outcome. But women’s political legitimation is only part of a battle that has multiple fronts, as women’s lives continue to be governed in ways that hamper our global potential.
In honor of Women’s Equality Day, we’re asking the question: How far have we come in regards to gender equality? Here, we look at hard-won victories of women’s suffrage throughout history, the areas of society that still need massive improvements, and the industries that are leading by example when it comes to female participation.
Note: Before delving into a discussion of the multifaceted and monumental process of equality, we (the authors) want to acknowledge our inherent inability as men to fully understand the experience of women throughout history and in the modern age. Women face obstacles in everyday life that will not similarly obstruct our progress in society. No matter how willing we are to look critically at this disparity, recognizing the extent of the problem and calling attention to it is only the most basic step toward actually addressing it. To stop there is an overt abuse of the privilege that creates and reinforces a flawed system. It is on us to go beyond this at every opportunity, and at Passion Passport, we take pride in providing a platform for inspiring women storytellers and creators from around the world. That said, in order to construct a system that empowers women most directly, we must constantly analyze our progress to this point and look closely at the issues that need society’s most immediate attention. Hopefully, that will mean making more people aware of how far we have left to go and shedding a light on the responsibility all individuals must take in advancing toward equality.
The Long March: A History of Women’s Voting Rights
In 1893, New Zealand became the first country to grant women the right to vote in government elections. New Zealand has often been a progressive nation, having been an active champion of the rights of underrepresented groups, such as their indigenous Maori population. After a two-decade-long struggle, with multiple defeats and a narrow victory that was spearheaded by the remarkable Kate Sheppard, women in New Zealand won the right to vote. While women may have been given the right to choose which men governed them in 1893 in New Zealand, they would only gain the right to fully challenge them in 1919.
This legislation was unique, not only because it was the first of its kind in any colonial government, because it also enfranchised Maori women. This particular fact stands in stark contrast to the outcomes of suffrage movements elsewhere in the coming century. Victories of women’s suffrage were often overshadowed by their piecemeal application. It was common for governments to exclude women from voting on the basis of their color, class, or colonial status — meaning that only a small minority of women would actually be allowed to vote. In most nations, women’s suffrage was initially granted exclusively to white, educated (which in 1900s terms means “upper class” or “land-owning”) women. In some nations, this would create divisions within women’s suffrage movements, as some believe partial enfranchisement was preferable to none.
No nation has had, by any measure, a spotless record when dealing with their oppressed or marginalized populations. While New Zealand does stand as an example of a nation that sought to better the lives of its citizens early on, it was only the beginning of what was to be a century-long march toward equality.
From then on, progress has been incremental. Australia soon followed its Oceanic neighbor in 1902, as well as many Scandinavian nations from 1906 to 1917. Canada also granted voting rights to women in 1917, but this legislation remained restricted to white women until 1960! The United States passed the 19th Amendment in 1920 (this article marks the anniversary), Britain followed suit in 1928, Turkey in 1934, France in 1944, and Italy in 1945. From the end of the 1940s onward, the rate at which women gained equal political status rose across the world. China passed its legislation in 1949 and India in 1950. This era also saw the awakening of a new wave of feminist thinkers, with writers like Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan publishing their works, “The Second Sex” and “The Feminine Mystique” in 1949 and 1963.
The 1950s and ’60s also saw a succession of African nations granting women improved, if not equal, status — generally concurrent with their decolonization. These advancements stand in contrast to the late adoption of similar legislation by European nations like Switzerland and Portugal, who only passed equivalent protections in 1971 and 1976, respectively. Middle Eastern nations like Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates were even later bloomers, only enacting their respective laws in 2005 and 2006 — and Saudi Arabia did so as late as 2011.
The Road Ahead: How Far We Still Must Go
This would be a good time to reiterate that laws allowing women the right to vote and run for office do not correspond to the general elevation of women’s social and cultural status in the societies listed here. Matters such as abortion rights, sexual harassment protections, maternity rights, and inheritance rights still remain hampered by divisive political rhetoric and entrenched social and cultural norms. For example, Saudi Arabian women were only given the right to drive this year. This interactive infographic from the Guardian illustrates just how far we have to go before women attain unadulterated equal standing.
Indeed, the largest gaps in equality between men and women remain in political and economic participation. According to the 2012 Global Gender Gap Report, only 60 percent of the economic outcomes gap has been closed, as well as only 20 percent of the political outcomes gap. This means that women are not empowered to be as economically or politically decisive as their male counterparts, mainly due to discrimination and gatekeeping that plague the professional workforce, as well as the wage gap that sees them paid 10 to 15 percent less than men who hold the same jobs. This is the current reality despite the fact that studies show that a country’s quickest route to becoming economically competitive is by improving the economic standing of women.
Politically, it is worth noting that as of July of last year, only 23 women in the world serve as Head of State or Head of Government in their respective countries, an extremely low number considering the almost 200 sovereign states worldwide. What’s more, data from June 2016 showed that only 22.8 percent of all lawmakers worldwide were women. And the region with the highest female participation in politics happens to be one whose residents are often named among the happiest on Earth — the Nordic countries of Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Iceland. That could just be a coincidence, but it’s not difficult to acknowledge the correlation there.
WOMEN’S EQUALITY IN THE TRAVEL SPACE
Modern women are truly taking their power back in the travel and tourism sector. Actions have been taken in these industries with a specific focus of accommodating and assisting women, which inspired the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) to launch the Action Plan to Empower Women Through Tourism in 2008. Initiatives like this have come about in response to the massive role that women already play in the travel sector, as these organizations aim to enable and legitimize this representation further. Women are the most significant users of tourism services and are highly represented in the industry’s providers, with the ILO estimating that up to 90 percent of global tourism wages can be attributed to positions worked by women. Moreover, women make an estimated 80 percent of important travel decisions for themselves and their families (in the U.S., this figure has reached as high as 92 percent).
The tourism industry and its relevant authorities have been awarded for accommodating and encouraging women’s business and leisure. A George Washington University study showed that nearly two-thirds of all travelers today are women. Women are also more likely to travel solo than men, despite the purported risks. Many of us have witnessed the typical warnings that solo female travelers receive: that it’s “too dangerous,” or that they’re “too young.” But the tourism industry perfectly demonstrates the knock-on effects of significant and valued female participation. Research shows that when women feel more systematically enabled to fulfill their capabilities, they disseminate more knowledge and create more economic opportunities for others. “Capability fulfillment” is a major model of human development that focuses on social conditioning and its effect on preferences. It holds that when barriers are removed for individuals to act as they please, all of society benefits. Encouraging a woman’s freedom of movement leads to the dissemination of egalitarian ideals regarding female’s environment and health. The travel industry does this by catering to the female consumer, who — as market trends show — is detail-oriented and relies on personal recommendations and experiences. Moving forward, political and commercial authorities ought to look to the example set by the tourism industry with regards to the treatment of women.
We have, by no means, come to the end of the march for women’s equality. While progress has gained significant momentum, disparities in the freedoms and protections afforded women in public, in the workplace, and on the road still need to be addressed. However, now, more than ever, women are their own champions. Websites like Zafigo, which is run by women’s rights activist Marina Mahathir, help inform women on how to travel to conservative countries more safely, and many other groups are helping combat discrimination against women around the world. But we should not think that the fight is over. Wherever we see injustice, we should speak out, and whenever we encounter mistreatment, we should lend a hand, because no society benefits from inequality.
By finding out ways in which we can support the fight for women’s equality globally, we can move toward a better future — a good start is to raise your voice on #Women’s Equality Day, and then every day thereafter.
Header image by Jerry Kiesewetter