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What Are Women's Rights?

What rights are included under the umbrella of "women's rights"?

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Balance Scale with man and woman
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Which rights are included under "women's rights" has varied through time and across cultures. Even today, there is some disagreement about what constitute women's rights. Does a woman have a right to control family size? to equality of treatment in the workplace? to equality of access to military assignments?

Usually, "women's rights" refers to whether women have equality with the rights of men where women and men's capacities are the same. Sometimes, "women's rights" includes protection of women where women are subject to special circumstances (such as maternity leave for child-bearing) or more susceptible to mistreatment (traffic in women, rape).

In more recent history, we can look at specific documents to see what were considered "women's rights" at those points in history. Although the concept of "rights" is itself a product of the Enlightenment era, we can look at various societies in the ancient, classical and medieval worlds, to see how women's actual rights, even if not defined by that term or concept, differed from culture to culture.

United Nations Convention on Rights of Women - 1981

The 1981 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, signed by many United Nations member states (notably not Iran, Somalia, the Vatican City and the United States and a few others), defines discrimination in a way that implies that women's rights are in "political, economic, social, cultural, civil" and other spheres.

Any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.

The Declaration specifically addresses:

  • eliminating prejudice in public education
  • full political rights to vote and to run for and to serve in public office
  • rights to change nationality equal to men's rights
  • marriage and divorce rights to be equal to men's, and elimination of child marriage
  • equality in criminal punishment
  • traffic in women, including exploiting prostitutes
  • employment rights, including non-discrimination in access to jobs, equal pay, and paid maternity leave

NOW Statement of Purpose - 1966

The 1966 Statement of Purpose created on the formation of the National Organization for Women (NOW) summarizes key women's rights issues of that time. Women's rights addressed in that document were based on the idea of equality as an opportunity for women to "develop their fullest human potentials" and to put women into the "mainstream of American political, economic and social life." Women's rights issues identified included those in these areas:

  • employment and economics
  • education
  • family, including marriage and divorce laws and home responsibilities
  • political participation
  • images of women in culture and social practice
  • opposition to "protectiveness" in work, school, church and so on, as limiting women's rights
  • racial justice because of the "double discrimination" experienced by women of color

Marriage Protest - 1855

In their 1855 marriage ceremony, women's rights advocates Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell specifically refused to give assent to laws which interfered in rights of married women in particular, including:

  • control over the wife's very person and her very legal existence as a person
  • custody of children
  • inheritance and ownership of real estate
  • the right to her own wages
  • equal rights to inherit a survivor's portion upon death of one of the spouses
  • choice of a place of residence
  • ability to make contracts including wills and the ability to sue in court in her own name
  • cchoosing her own name

Seneca Falls Women's Rights Convention - 1848

In 1848, the first known women's rights convention in the world declared "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal...." and in closing, "we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of the United States."

Areas of rights that were addressed in the "Declaration of Sentiments" were:

  • whether women had a voice in making laws that they were subject to, including whether women could vote
  • whether married women had any legal existence
  • whether women had property rights, including the right to income she herself earned
  • whether women could freely choose to end a marriage
  • whether women had custody rights over children after a divorce or separation
  • whether women had access to many professions, including theology, medicine and law
  • whether women had access to higher education
  • whether women had a voice in the Church, including whether women could be ministers or in other ways publicly participate
  • whether moral codes (about sexual choices) were the same for women as for men

In arguing to include the right to vote in that Declaration -- the one issue that was most uncertain to be included in the document -- Elizabeth Cady Stanton urged the right to vote as a path to gain "Equality of Rights." (Elizabeth Cady Stanton: "We Now Demand Our Right to Vote")

18th Century Calls for Women's Rights

In the century or so before that declaration, a few had written about women's rights. Abigail Adams asked her husband in a letter to "Remember the Ladies," specifically mentioning disparities in women's and men's education.

Hannah Moore, Mary Wollstonecraft and Judith Sargent Murray focused especially on women's right to an adequate education. Just the fact of their writing implied an advocacy for women's voices having an impact on social, religious, moral and political decisions. Mary Wollstonecraft called in her 1791-92 A Vindication of the Rights of Woman for recognition of both women and men as creatures of emotion and reason, and for such women's rights as (Mary Wollstonecraft - What Rights?)
  • the right to be educated (and a duty to educate her own children)
  • equal partnership between man and woman in marriage
  • control over family size
Olympe de Gouges, in 1791 in thefirst years of the French Revolution, wrote and published the "Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Citizen." In this document, she called for such women's rights as
  • free speech, including to reveal the father of her children
  • equality of children born out of marriage to those who were born within marriage, which implied an equal right of women to sexual relationships outside of marriage

Ancient, Classical and Medieval World

In the ancient, classical and medieval world, women's rights differed somewhat from culture to culture. Some of these differences were:

  • whether women were considered full citizens, or were considered the equivalent of slaves or minors under the authority of husbands or fathers
  • whether women could move around freely, or were confined largely to the home
  • whether women could freely choose or refuse marriage partners, or end a marriage
  • whether women had custody of children, especially after a divorce or in a dispute with the children's father
  • whether women could dress as they liked
  • whether women could own property or run businesses and control their own wages, income and wealth
  • which trades, occupations or professions were closed to women or more difficult for women than men to enter
  • whether women could be educated at all, or to the same level as men were
  • whether and how women had a voice in the public sphere, including voting or otherwise influencing the government and helping select those governing
  • whether women could represent themselves or others in legal proceedings, such as lawsuits and court actions
  • whether women could inherit the right to titles and rulership

Summary: what is included in "women's rights"?

Generally, then, claims about women's rights can be classified into several general categories, with some specific rights applying to several categories:

Economic rights, including:

  • right to own and dispose of property
  • right to inherit property in her own name and control it; right to designate who will inherit her property
  • right to her own wages and income
  • equality of survivor's rights upon death of a spouse (e.g. how much property one inherits, whether one has a right to continuation of a spouse's pension benefits)
  • access to jobs, trades, professions
  • equality of treatment within jobs, trades and professions, including promotions
  • equal pay for equal work, equal pay for work of equal value (comparable worth)
  • access to credit in her own name
  • equal participation in labor unions
  • right to job protection when taking maternity leave

Civil rights, including:

  • legal and contract rights
    • equality of citizenship (treated as a full adult, equal to males, rather than as a minor, a slave, or a legal non-entity)
    • general equality of rights under the law
    • ability to sue in court, to represent one's self
    • be a witness in court
    • serve on juries
    • serve as an attorney
  • marriage, divorce and parenthood rights
    • married women's legal existence separate from her husband
    • marriage rights, including consent to marriage and equal rights and responsibilities within marriage
    • keeping her own name after marriage
    • equality of rights in determining where to live
    • divorce rights, including equal ability to initiate divorce and rights to child custody and property division on the same basis as men
    • right to equal guardianship of children during marriage
    • right to child custody after divorce or widowhood
  • basic civil freedoms
    • free speech
    • freedom of religion
    • freedom to change nationality

Social and cultural rights, including

  • control over her own person
  • education - both basic and higher education
    • equal access to both basic and higher education
    • equal access to educational programs, including sports
  • professions open to women, including law, medicine, teaching, theology
  • roles in religious institutions, including voice, participation, serving as clergy
  • treatment within the military: roles, promotion, treatment
  • moral codes: absence of the "double standard"
  • choices regarding roles and responsibilities within the home
  • choices regarding roles and responsibilities regarding children
  • sexual choices, including sex outside of marriage
  • choice regarding family size and reproduction, and methods of controlling: contraceptives, abortion
  • safety from sexual mistreatment, including rape, traffic in women, and exploitation of prostitutes
  • choice of dress

Political rights, including

  • participation in the political sphere, including having a voice and influence
  • voting
  • running for and serving in political offices
  • inheriting titles and rulership in her own name
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