Gender Equality: the longest war

Women’s history is shaping our identity and gender-based inequality

The twentieth century marks a turning point in the emancipation of women. In Europe this movement began in 1900, when married women obtained the right to own savings, as well as the right to sign a contract of employment and to collect their own wages – at least until a ceiling of 3000 francs per year. World War I greatly accelerated women’s access to work. Men were at the front, but the engines had to continue turning. Women took also responsibilities in public offices such as mayor, as well as private offices such as lawyers. At the same time, the first measures in favour of women’s right to vote were announced. After WW I, the right to vote was granted to mothers and war widows, as well as to women imprisoned or condemned by the occupier. This timid measure was succeeded by the 1920 law which granted women (with the notable exception of prostitutes and adulterous women) the right to vote for communal elections. If the suffragettes were not successful earlier, it was because women were still not considered an integral part of society. Universal suffrage did not spread in the 30s because the crisis increased unemployment and measures were taken to reserve jobs for men, to reduce the salary of female civil servants as well as to stop their recruitment (except for the cleaning of the offices). These decrees, however, were repealed after massive protests by the feminist movements. Restrictions on the right to vote thus mirror restrictions of labour laws. We then had to wait for Second World War, at the end of which the demographic weight of women supplanted for the second time in thirty years that of men, before women would finally be granted the right to vote without restriction.
Since achieving the right to vote, women’s most vehement demand has become wage equality.
Over 50 years, women’s work has become increasingly accepted, but it is still too often regarded as a supplementary salary in the couple or family. Salaried occupations make it easier for women to participate in trade union life and to organise themselves more effectively. It was the European Union that answered these claims first. The Treaty of Rome (1957) dedicated its 119th article to equal pay for women and men and gave the signatory countries five years to implement it. This equality remains however purely theoretical, resulting in a growing discontent.
In Europe, women still earn on average 16% less throughout all sectors (women’s gross hourly earnings) but this salary difference is 34% for senior management positions in private companies!
There are less than 5% women CEOs of big companies and less than 15% of women in their executive committees despite women representing 60% of graduates. As long as there is no legal obligation, women literally disappear from positions of power. Even with quota regulation, if companies are not controlled properly and threatened by sanctions, the law is not respected. Belgium for example should have had 33% of women on boards of quoted companies by last year but is at 28% and no control nor pressure is being put on the companies. France is the opposite example with a vigilant government and civil society. They have now achieved 42% of women on boards, making them best-in-class in the EU.
Nothing is acquired for good. Jobs are evolving. Technical and computer skills will be the future pillars of our economy. But the presence of women in those areas of education is practically non-existent. In most of European countries, no effort has been seriously undertaken to achieve a semblance of gender diversity in all jobs and sectors. Such passiveness will likely lead to disparities that could destroy the efforts of a century of struggle.
Social struggles have brought great victories. Feminism nurtures many feminisms. New associations more strongly focused on communication have taken over; they use social medias as their main communication tool, but are also highly innovative in their communication actions: the Femen use their nakedness, the “Glorieuses” dress in red on the day of November when they start to work “for free”, the blogs of “Paye ta Shnek” gathers sexist comments, the 52 stick posters the night preceding sales season, American women march with a pink cat-ear hat, the Polish women display a hanger as a symbol of clandestine abortion, etc.
Equality between women and men has never been closer. And yet women’s rights have never been under such threat.
As Simone de Beauvoir predicted: “Never forget that all it would take is a political, economic or religious crisis for women’s rights to be called into question. These rights will never be vested. You have to remain vigilant your whole life.”
Isabella Lenarduzzi, founder and director of JUMP “Promoting Gender Equality, Advancing the Economy”