We often think that the concept of equality and women’s rights comes from the west, and was always part of European culture. That is not true!

At the beginning of the last century (just over a 100 years ago) women in England, as well as other European countries, were not allowed to vote, or own property in the same way that men did. And earlier than that it was not considered important for girls to be educated – they were the property of their fathers, and when they married, were seen as owned by their husbands.

Women in various countries rose up to protest against this inequality. A famous women’s movement in England was called the Suffragettes. They were militant, breaking laws in order to further their cause. They tried to storm the Parliament buildings in London, they chained themselves to railings so they couldn’t be removed by police (and many were attacked by police as well), they smashed windows, and bombed empty buildings and burnt post boxes. One suffragette, Emily Davidson, died when she ran in front of the king’s horse during a horse race in 1913.

Finally, in England, women were given the vote in 1918, but only if they were over 30 and owned some property. (This meant that no working class women were allowed to vote.) Only in 1928 were all women allowed to vote in the same way men were.

Other countries took even longer to extend the vote to women. France, for example, gave women the vote in 1945, but only if they were literate. It was only in 1965 that all French women were given the vote, and Switzerland only gave the vote to women in 1971.

At that time, women did also not get the same educational opportunities as men either. In the early 1800s women were not allowed to become doctors in England. There is a famous story of Doctor James Barry, who came to South Africa in 1816. He became known for challenging inequality, and performed one of the first successful caesarean operations (where babies are delivered from their mothers using surgery, not by a natural birth). At his death it was discovered ‘he’ was actually a woman. He had grown up as a girl but then passed himself off as a boy in order to get into medical school in Scotland and become a doctor!

At the beginning of the 1900s Europe and England were unequal and violent societies. Not only were women treated as property, but poor people were treated cruelly too. People – including young children – worked long hours in factories, and were punished if they didn’t follow the factory rules. Legal punishments for theft included whipping, or even the death sentence. Homosexuality was also against the law and could be punished by death.

The settlers from this culture became the brutal colonisers of Africa. In the struggle against the colonisers the concept of equal rights for all people became something we needed to fight for, and safeguard. This includes rights for people of all race groups, religions, genders and sexual orientations. We can be proud that our South African constitution is famous throughout the world for enshrining these – and other – rights in law.


Tell us: Why do you think women’s rights are important, or not?