International Women's Day 2017: Historians predict what the future holds

What does history suggest about what's in store for women's rights? 

Kashmira Gander
Wednesday 08 March 2017 11:21 GMT
(Getty Images )

President Donald Trump, who once said he would "grab" women by the "p****", is in the White House and the unpredictable outcome of the Brexit vote and the EU laws which protect women mean that some fear that their hard-won rights may be under threat.

In turbulent times, we look back in history to learn how to move forward and try to predict what might be round the corner when uncertainty feels like the only constant.

To mark International Women's Day, we asked some experts in politics and history what the time period they specialise in suggests about what the future holds for civil rights.

Dr Laura Schwartz, Associate Professor of Modern British History at Warwick University and expert in the history of British feminism, the history of the birth control movement and women's trade unions.

International Women's Day first began in 1909 in the US and was quickly taken up around the world in the next few years by the international labour movement. It was originally called International Working Women's Day and the aim was to highlight the poor pay and conditions faced by women workers.

The position of women workers in the early 20th century has striking comparisons with the position of migrant workers in Britain today. Women were entering the labour market in larger numbers than ever before (in both manual and white-collar jobs), and it was frequently argued by both conservatives who wanted women to remain in the home and male trade unionists that women needed to be kept out of the workplace because they drove down wages and took jobs away from men. Women workers, however, refused to accept such a line of argument – they too needed to work to earn a living and if unscrupulous employers used women as a cheaper labour force. The answer was not to deny women from the right to earn their own living, but for trade unions to welcome women into their ranks and demand decent pay and conditions for workers of all genders. International Women's Day originates, therefore, in strikes by Jewish and Italian migrant women workers in the garment industry in New York who defied the expectations of both conservatives and male trade Unionists and showed themselves to have the courage to undertake militant activity on behalf of themselves and all workers.

As a historian of the birth control movement and feminist campaigns throughout the 20th century for women to be able to access safe maternity provision, abortion and contraception, in order to be able to claim control over their bodies and the right to free sexual expression, I am interested and alarmed by recent moves within the NHS to compel many migrant women to pay for maternity services. I don't know of any extensive research done on this yet, but the number of midwives I have spoken to have said that this means many pregnant women are not consulting maternity services when they need to, putting the health of themselves and their future baby at risk. The situation is particularly bad for undocumented migrants who now fear that healthcare professionals might report them to border control, but also for women who do have the right to be in Britain, but who cannot afford to pay for maternity healthcare. This needs to be considered alongside the possible effects of Brexit and the removal of freedom of movement for the many women who come from countries inside the EU such as Poland, where abortion is illegal, and thus rely on the more progressive situation in Britain to access abortions and contraception. Anybody committed to pro-choice needs to be campaigning for women of all nationalities to be able to access both maternity services and abortion.

Dr Sylvia Ellis, Professor of American History at Roehampton University, specialist on US political and diplomatic history

Much of my work has focussed on the 1960s and early 1970s – a period characterised by protest, activism, the assassination of political figures (JFK, Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy), generational conflict, and identity politics, so turbulence was a feature. The political turbulence sparked by, amongst other things, the grassroots civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam, which helped to educate and radicalise women in America. Many of the women active in second-wave feminism were schooled in the demonstrations and activism of the civil rights and black power movements. I’ve been funded by the Nuffield Foundation to work on campus-based women’s centres and from the research I’ve found that many of the feminist pioneers who fought for a physical space and voice on campus for women had a history within the protest movements of the 1960s and early 1970s. Women’s centres have become a feature of the identity politics on US university and college campuses and currently play an important role as advocates and educators on women’s issues.

The turbulence surrounding Brexit, the rise of nationalism, and the Trump presidency has, and will, shake women into activism. The advances made by women – in health, education, employment, status – appear to be under threat and defending those gains will be important. I imagine we will see more demonstrations, more women joining and financing activist groups (many for the first time), and an increase in political lobbying. Women in the US have the power to sway elections, so it will be interesting to see how the political parties, especially the Democrats, respond to this political pressure, not least become the 2018 congressional elections could help determine just how much the White House can accomplish. There will, however, be a backlash to women’s activism and again the past shows us that gender does not always unite. The battle for the Equal Rights Amendment in the early 1970s were fought by women on both sides of the argument.

Now, women can’t be complacent about the rights they have. That some of the legal and political gains made in the 1960s and early 1970s are under threat. That the checks and balances of the American political system, and the important role of the fourth estate in making it accountable, will ultimately mean that the turbulence will subside.

History will demonstrate that the 2016 presidential election was, to a large extent, a gender battle. Clinton will become a feminist icon as someone who, formed in her political views in the 1960s (and recognising that activism and civic duty are essential for change), was a significant figure in the fight for social and political equality. Thus the period I study allows lots of insights into the present.

Dr Michelle Ryan, Professor of Social and Organisational Psychology at the University of Exeter and an expert in women and leadership

Theresa May's unopposed appointment as Prime Minister post Brexit is a textbook example of the glass cliff phenomenon, whereby women are more likely to occupy leadership positions in times of crisis. The great political turbulence since Brexit has seen male leaders, who are usually chomping at the bit, flee the leadership spotlight and leaving Theresa May with her poisoned chalice, and the media and public asking if she is fit for a job that no-one else wanted.

Such a situation has the potential to damage any advances we may have made in political gender equality - reinforcing stereotypes that women aren’t suitable for high office and discouraging other women from pursuing political careers.

Dr Sarah Richardson, lecturer in history at Warwick University and an expert in political culture of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries

Women’s role in the public sphere was always contentious in the period before they were fully incorporated into the political nation by being given the parliamentary franchise and entitled to hold the office of MP. There was generally an attitude that political commitment was unfeminine. Examples from the early nineteenth century include Lady Jersey, a devout Tory, who was described as given to unladylike actions, at one time grabbing the lapels of Lord William Russell, shouting at him ‘why should we have Germans to reign over us?’ Women often ascribed masculine characteristics to other women involved in politics. Lady Shelley wrote that Mrs Arbuthnot a confidant of Tory ministers in the 1820s had a ‘manlike sense’ and was ‘devoid of womanly passions’.

The nineteenth century was a less auspicious period for women’s rights and female equality, women nevertheless took an active part in politics. They refused to accept the limitations placed upon them and campaigned for change – as such there are scores of strong female role models in this period from well-known figures such as Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Fry and Emmeline Pankhurst to scores of lesser known women who were able to effect real change. So celebrating female achievement and positive contributions continues to be important. Many still go unrecorded. Misogyny anywhere needs challenging. Make explicit connections between sexist ‘banter’ and sexual violence against women – the darker side of the story. But we should never give up. It took 50 years from the start of the organised female suffrage campaigns to women achieving the parliamentary vote in 1918. But the women campaigners never gave up the struggle. There is still a long way to go for women to be treated as equals in British politics and reforms of processes and practices to encourage more women to engage are needed.

Dr Levi Roach, lecturer in Medieval History at Exeter University and expert in the reign of King Æthelred 'the Unready'

I am an expert in the reign of King Æthelred who has been compared with Donald Trump by Paul Krugman - not to mention the parody Twitter account 'Donaeld The Unready'.

Interestingly, Æthelred himself had major difficulties with the women in his live. He came to the throne as a child and initially his mother ran the show on his behalf. Upon coming of age, however, he drove her from court and reversed many of her policies. Around the same time, the Viking attacks which were to characterise the period began. Seeing these as divine punishment, Æthelred restored his mother to her previous position and reversed his more aggressive actions.

Whilst I'd be hesistant to draw strong historical parallels with the present day, if there's a lesson to be learned here it is that medieval regimes did well when a variety of voices were heard - including those of prominent women. When they were not, the result was internal division - and more often than not defeat and failure.

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