In the US women got the vote in 1920 but many black women had to wait until 1966. In Saudi Arabia women only won suffrage in 2015.
The democratic system first appears in human history in 508 B.C.E. Needless to say it took a long time to catch on and suffered many setbacks – but when it did over the next 2500 years, most often men could vote, women couldn’t. These 20th century dates may look old but they are a stone’s throw away at the scale of history.
If voting took that long, many other rights have lagged even more. A particularly vivid example is that it took until 1993 for the United Nations to define “marital rape” as a human rights violation and it only became explicitly illegal in the UK in 1991. There are still many countries where a man cannot, by law, rape his wife.
I share all of this (and there’s much more to find, of course) because as we mark International Women’s Day there will be, as there always is, a loud chorus of people arguing that women have nothing left to protest against. Some believe women are, in fact, already equal. Some deliberately, and perversely, use the smokescreen of past feminist success to block out the inequities that remain.
The truth is an inconvenient one. Look at any listing of CEOs or world leaders; look at religious leaders and the list of the wealthiest. Even in the advertising industry (of which I’m a part) women in many of the most powerful jobs (like Chief Creative Officers or CEOs) are scarce.
#MeToo is so recent that its first major takedown was only last week. Harvey Weinstein is going to jail, though not for many of the crimes he apparently committed. It’s a powerful signal – that one of the most powerful men in Hollywood can pay that kind of price because of a few brave women willing to face him. But this kind of legal victory is rare – and will stay that way despite a few high-profile cases.
It remains a fact, found in survey after survey, that women are paid less than men for the same job; and are given less credit for their achievements. Again, this has been tackled in some big Hollywood incidents which somehow programmes our minds to believe it’s being addressed everywhere. It’s not.
All of this talks to a systematic oppression of women by men for, at least, thousands of years. It is so deeply engrained that women will often perpetuate the oppression themselves and on themselves. Even successful and powerful women carry these insecurities and doubts imprinted onto them by a lifetime of insinuations, “amusing” stereotypes and a global economic system that fears being unravelled.
So, the fight isn’t over. In many parts of the world it’s only just beginning. And even in the most equal societies there is some distance to go before women have the same opportunities, rights and privileges men do. Changing the law is one thing; extracting all of the sexist mind poisons is a long, long journey. And that’s only if misogynists in the shape of presidents and prime ministers don’t roll back even these modest gains.
It starts with a core belief: that women are equal to men in every important way. With this we can challenge our own prejudices and unconscious biases; with this we can challenge laws, topple bigots and sexists; with this we can change. Not just on March 8 but on every other day of the next 2500 years ahead.
Published on VMLY&R South Africa