A Celebration of Women’s Rights

To celebrate International Women’s Day, we are highlighting The Schlager Anthology of Women’s History and offering a sneak peek into the chapter focused on the modern women’s rights movement. The Schlager Anthology of Women’s History features carefully curated documents along with scholarly introductions that put each document into its historical context. Take a look at an introductory essay below as well as the featured documents!

Women’s Rights Are Human Rights

The women’s rights movement in the United States was primarily focused on securing equality for American women. However, there was always a recognition that the rights and liberties sought in the United States were also applicable to women around the world. By the 1900s, it became increasingly clear that there were deep disparities between the lives and lifestyles of women in the developed world and those in developing nations. By the later years of the twentieth century, female leaders from across the globe embraced the need to link women’s rights with the broader struggle to promote human rights. The phrase “Women’s rights are human rights” emerged in the 1980s as a call to action by feminists to secure equality and freedom for women everywhere.

Rigoberta Menchú Tum and Indira Ghandi

In 1992 Rigoberta Menchú Tum was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Menchú was an advocate for women’s rights and equality for indigenous peoples in her native Guatemala. In her acceptance speech, Menchú highlighted the struggles of indigenous peoples in the Western Hemisphere over the past five centuries. She called for reconciliation between the dominant European culture in her native country and the indigenous community through greater rights for native peoples.

While many countries had internal women’s rights movements, efforts to fight genderism at the global level were led by a growing number of female political leaders. Indira Gandhi was the third prime minister of India and the nation’s first female leader. She was a trailblazer who proved that women could not only lead major nations but lead during times of great crisis. In an address in November 1974 titled “What Educated Women Can Do,” Gandhi argued for the need to reform India’s educational system to better address the needs of girls. She also contended that her nation needed to move beyond outdated superstitions and customs to fully overcome “imbalances” in Indian society and allow women to better contribute to the future of their country. After serving as prime minister for more than fifteen years in two separate terms, Gandhi was assassinated on October 31, 1984.

Indira Gandhi (Prime Minister’s Office of India)

The 1995 UN Conference on Women

Then U.S. First Lady, future secretary of state, and future presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered a powerful speech on women’s rights to the United Nations World Conference on Women in Beijing, China, in September 1995. Clinton’s address called for an end to discrimination against women and a recognition that women’s rights and human rights were synonymous. Clinton cited specific examples of female abuse and condemned inequalities in education, pay, and healthcare faced by many women around the globe. The speech was widely credited with reinvigorating efforts to improve women’s rights.

Also speaking at the UN Conference on Women in 1995 was Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Bhutto twice served as prime minister of Pakistan, from 1988 to 1990 and from 1993 to 1996. She was Pakistan’s first female prime minister. In her address to the conference, Bhutto stressed the need for action. She defended Pakistan and other Islamic nations against accusations that Muslim women were treated as second-class citizens because of religion. Instead, she argued that Islamic women had a special responsibility to correct misperceptions about their religion that were used to justify gender discrimination. Bhutto also warned attendees of the need for specific actions to dismantle the patterns of discrimination against women. Bhutto was assassinated on December 27, 2007, while campaigning for another term as prime minister.

Benazir Bhutto in 1996 (Oliver Mark)

On the eve of the 1995 UN Conference, American feminist Charlotte Bunch spoke to representatives from non-governmental organizations. She warned of the rise of reactionary forces around the world that embraced discriminatory practices toward women. These forces also supported repressive measures against the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. Her solution to the growing threats to equality was to embrace definitions of human rights that were inclusive and broad.        

Social Justice Advocates in Kenya and Northern Ireland

For many a new conceptualization of human rights meant integrating issues such as environmental justice into the greater campaign for equality. Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her efforts to improve Africa’s environment. She was the first African woman and the first Kenyan to receive the honor. Maathai helped establish the Pan African Green Belt Network, which worked to conserve the environment by planting trees. In her acceptance speech, Maathai described how her organization sought to help impoverished women by enhancing soil quality and providing new resources through reforestation. Her initiative emerged as a means to help empower disadvantaged groups and as a symbol for human rights. The Green Belt Network also survived government efforts to suppress the organization because of its support for democracy in Kenya.

Photograph of Wangari Maathai (Wikimedia Commons)

Betty Williams won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976 for her work in trying to end the religious and political turmoil in Northern Ireland. Ireland had been part of Great Britain, but in 1922, the twenty-six mainly Catholic southern counties became independent. However, the six predominately Protestant counties of Northern Ireland remained part of Britain. In the 1970s, violence broke out in Northern Ireland as Catholic and Protestant groups fought. Catholic organizations such as the Irish Republican Army sought independence, while Protestant groups wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom. The conflict caused a large number of civilian casualties. Williams and fellow Nobel winner Mairead Corrigan Maguire created a group, Women for Peace. Williams later helped establish the Nobel Women’s Initiative with five other female recipients of the award, including Maguire, Menchú, and Maathai. The purpose of the group was to promote women’s rights within the broader context of human rights. In 2007 Williams gave an address, “Peace in the World Is Everybody’s Business.” Williams described her background and the history of violence in Northern Ireland. She then related how women in Northern Ireland worked together to try to end the violence. Ultimately, a peaceful solution to the conflict was found through the Good Friday Agreement in 1999.

—Written by Tom Lansford, The University of Southern Mississippi

Featured Documents in This Chapter

  • “Elena’s Story” (1950s?)
  • Indira Gandhi: What Educated Women Can Do (1974)
  • “Fabienne’s Story” (1970s)
  • “A Mother’s Life in Rural Pernambuco, Brazil” (1982)
  • Rigoberta Menchú Tum: Nobel Peace Prize Lecture (1992)
  • Hillary Clinton: “Women’s Rights are Human Rights, United Nations Speech” (1995)
  • Benazir Bhutto: Address at the Fourth World Conference on Women (1995)
  • Charlotte Bunch: Through Women’s Eyes: Global Forces Facing Women in the 21st Century (1995)
  • Queen Noor of Jordan: Remarks at the National Organization of Arab-American Women Banquet (1995)
  • Wangari Maathai: Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech (2004)
  • Betty Williams: Peace in the World is Everybody’s Business (2007)