Women’s History: An Indispensable Heritage

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In a special post for International Women’s Day, we are highlighting several brave activists who fought for women’s rights and equality from different eras and places around the world. These are but brief snapshots of full and complicated lives, but may they inspire pride, comfort, and long-range vision for an equal world.

“Women’s history is women’s right — an essential, indispensable heritage from which we can draw pride, comfort, and long-range vision,” feminist scholar Gerda Lerner once wrote. This International Women’s Day, we are highlighting several brave activists who fought for women’s rights and equality from different eras and places around the world. These are but brief snapshots of full and complicated lives, but may they inspire pride, comfort, and long-range vision for an equal world.

Sojourner Truth (the United States)

Sojourner Truth (1797–1833), an American abolitionist, women’s right activist and writer, was born into slavery before escaping in 1826. She was one of the most charismatic and persuasive advocates for racial and gender equality.

Truth was promised her freedom by her “master,” John Dumont, by July 4, 1926. However, that day came and went, and Dumont refused to grant Truth her freedom. She fled the plantation, taking her youngest daughter with her. In New Paltz, New York, an abolitionist family took Truth and her daughter into their home. When Dumont came to reclaim his “property,” the family offered to buy Truth’s services from him for $20. He agreed.

After the New York Anti-Slavery Law passed, Dumont illegally sold Truth’s five-year-old son, Peter. Truth went to court and filed a lawsuit against Dumont, making her the first Black woman to sue a white man in the United States and prevail.

In 1829, she discovered her calling as an evangelist while working for an evangelistic preacher and dedicated herself to speaking out against slavery and oppression. In 1843, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth (which means “truth traveler”). Famously, Truth spoke about equal rights for Black women at the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention in Akron. This speech became known as her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, named for her incisive refrain.

In 1860, she began to work for the Freedman’s Bureau, a program designed to help former slaves transition to freedom. Her activism and efforts during the Civil War caught the attention of Abraham Lincoln, who invited her to the White House in 1864. Toward the end of her life, she moved to her daughter’s farm and spent her final years with her family.

Josephine Butler (the United Kingdom)

Josephine Butler (1828–1906) was a feminist and social reformer of the Victorian era in England. She campaigned for women’s suffrage and right to education as well as the abolition of child sexual exploitation and trafficking of women and children into European prostitution.

In 1869, Butler began her campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts, laws that permitted the arrest of women in prostitution and the forced examination for venereal disease, a process she described as surgical rape. Butler traveled the country speaking out against the laws, shocking the public that a woman would dare speak out loud about sexual issues.

In her examination of the effect of the Acts, Butler discovered the existence of children in prostitution and the trafficking of women and children from England to the rest of Europe. This inspired a campaign to fight trafficking and a general public outcry which led to the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, which raised the age of consent from 13 to 16 and introduced measures to stop children from being trafficked into prostitution.

Butler also stressed the importance of women’s education, lobbying Cambridge University to provide more courses for women. This eventually led to the creation of the all-women’s college at Newnham. Butler’s advocacy inspired much of the work done today to combat the sexual exploitation and trafficking of women and girls.

Anna Pappritz (Germany)

Anna Pappritz (1861–1939) was a German feminist, politician, writer, and founder of the abolitionist movement in Germany.

After a quiet childhood spent on her father’s farm, Anna moved to Berlin with her mother, where she quickly connected with the growing women’s movement. Later, while in England, Pappritz learned about prostitution, its regulation by the state, and the growing English abolitionist movement, led by Josephine Butler. Butler used the term “abolitionism” to name her efforts in freeing women in prostitution from forced registration and testing for sexually transmitted diseases. Greatly moved by Butler’s cause, Pappritz returned to Germany in 1899 and founded the first abolitionist association in Berlin.

In 1902, Pappritz was elected the only female board member of the German Society for Combatting Venereal Diseases, and in 1927 she advocated for the passage of the Law for the Control of Venereal Diseases, which banned state regulation of prostitution.

While Pappritz’s abolitionist efforts were later nullified by the Nazis during World War II, she laid an important framework for the present; the criminalization of the sex buyer rather than the women in prostitution is the system adopted by many countries around the world through the Equality Model (also known as the “Nordic Model”).

Alexandra Kollontai (Russia)

Alexandra Kollontai (1872–1952) was a Russian feminist, revolutionary, diplomat and writer, and an activist at the intersection of socialism and women’s emancipation.

In 1917, after the Russian Revolution, she was the first female minister in the Russian cabinet. As chair of the Women’s Department of her party’s Central Committee, Kollontai enacted important social reforms and worked to increase the representation of women in Russian society. At a time when motherhood and childbearing were considered the very core of female existence, Kollontai saw the “social idea, science, (the) profession, (and) creation” as central to a woman’s life. Through Kollontai’s leadership, Russia became the first European country to allow abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

Throughout her career, she maintained her conviction that a woman must be materially independent of her husband and relieved of the duties of motherhood in order to be truly . In doing so, she confronted the issues still debated by society today.

After a long career as a diplomat in various places like Norway, Mexico, and Sweden, Kollontai retired from active politics in 1945, but remained an important advisor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs until her death in 1952. While the international media paid tribute to her achievements after her death, the Russian press remained silent on the woman who asserted herself as a revolutionary, politician, and the first female diplomat in a male-dominated sphere.

Nawal El Saadawi (Egypt)

Nawal El Saadawi (1931–2021) was an Egyptian writer, women’s rights activist and doctor. She is considered an icon of the Egyptian women’s movement and “Umm El-women’s rights,” the mother of women’s rights in Egypt.

Throughout her life, El Saadawi articulated her beliefs both through her writing and her activism. Perhaps her most influential book was The Hidden Face of Eve (1977), which illuminated how patriarchy and poverty oppress Arab women. She included a visceral account of her own experience being subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM) at the age of six. She campaigned against FGM throughout her life, and finally, in 2008 a law passed banning FGM. Despite this progress, El Saadawi remained a realist; she knew the practice was still widespread and a law alone could not fully solve the problem.

In 1981 El Saadawi was imprisoned for speaking out against Anwar Sadat’s regime. In prison she continued to write, using smuggled black eyeliner and toilet paper. She also formed the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association, the first legal and independent feminist group in Egypt. However, the government dissolved it in 1991, and in 1993, due to massive religious and political hostility, El Saadawi fled to the United States where she taught at Duke University in North Carolina. She returned to Egypt in 1996 where she continued her activism, protesting in Tahrir Square in 2011. Today, the example of El Saadawi’s tireless activism for women’s rights energizes feminists all over the world.

Yayori Matsui (Japan)

Yayori Matsui (1934–2002) was a Japanese journalist and women’s rights advocate who pushed for transparency by the Japanese government of its sexual enslavement of Asian women during World War II.

Born in 1934 in Kyoto, Matsui traveled to Minnesota and Paris for her education; on her way back home, she visited several countries around Asia where she saw abject poverty close-up for the first time in her life. This firsthand glimpse of injustice would animate much of her life’s work.

In 1951 Matsui became one of the first female reporters in Japan, largely concentrating on social issues. In 1981, the newspaper posted Matsui in Singapore, where she learned more about the sex trade and “comfort women” — women forced into prostitution by the Japanese military in WWII. Upon retiring from her career as a journalist, Matsui became a full-time activist. In 2000, she helped organize a mock tribunal that invited former comfort women from all over Asia to testify. She was enraged when the Japanese press refused to cover the event and she filed a lawsuit against the national broadcaster.

“In an information society, no media coverage is the equivalent of nothing happening,” Matsui told a magazine a week before her death.

Fatoumata Sire Diakité (Mali)

Fatoumata Sire Diakité, born in Bamako, Mali, fought for the rights of women and girls in her own country and around the world. She dedicated her life to ending harmful cultural practices, including female genital mutilation and the system of prostitution.

Diakité founded the Association for the Progress and Defense of the Rights of Women (APDF) to protect and fight all forms of discrimination and violence against Malian women. Despite verbal attacks and threats of violence from local authorities and media, Diakité and APDF never wavered in their mission.

Before her death in 2016, Diakité instructed the new generations to always fight to uphold their convictions. “In a fight, you have to always be on the side of the truth,” she said. Diakité was a force in the African women’s movement, fearlessly raising for women’s rights and effecting tremendous change in laws related to violence against women.

Coralee McGuire-Cyette (Canada)

Coralee McGuire-Cyette is the executive director of the Ontario Native Women’s Association. Her work has been instrumental in publicizing the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, independent from the federal government (published in 2019).

As co-chair of the Indigenous Women’s Advisory Council, McGuire-Cyette worked alongside the province to develop Pathways to Safety: Ontario’s strategy in response to the Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. The plan defines six areas where improvement is urgently needed: safety and security, culture, health, justice, collaborative responsibility and accountability, and identifying and addressing anti-Indigenous gender-based analysis.

McGuire-Cyette’s vision for justice and safety for Indigenous women is just beginning. “Now we need to see leadership all across Canada. We need to see Canadian citizens. We need to see everybody has a role to play in order to ensure Indigenous women’s safety,” she says.

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This “Eyes on Trafficking” story is reprinted from its original location.


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