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Human Rights

Women's Rights

History of the Women's Movement

The Beginnings - Women's Rights Declaration

The call for the same rights for women in civil societies was initially trumpeted at the end of the 18th century. There were several reasons for this. Primarily, the Declaration of General Human Rights based on natural rights in France and the United States led to the same rights now being demanded for women.

Due to the development of the capitalist production work, the workplace and home became increasingly separated. This led to a new definition of the work distribution for the sexes. The woman was primarily defined as spouse and mother whose work in the family enabled and secured the success of the man outside the home. "Family" was now considered as a space for social communication and reproduction outside of the sphere of work exclusively reserved for the married couple and their children. Women were "relieved" of work. and instead were to create a private and intimate refuge in the family which complemented the outside world of career and the competition for money and power.

The civil society did not admit women as direct competitors in the production process. They were excluded from many economic, political and even private decisions. Women had limited opportunities for education, no control over their property, were not allowed to sign contracts or take up work without the permission of their husband. They were glaringly prejudiced against in divorce law and law of custody for children. At the same time, however, the foundation stone was laid for employing women at the lowest wages and exploiting them. This situation created the feeding ground for the first public demands for the same rights and opportunities for women.

France: "Declaration of the Rights of Women and Women Citizens"

Women played an important role in the social process of change that France experienced in the 18th Century. The uprisings that broke out during the continually reoccurring famines in France were traditionally led by women. Women had created social niches for themselves in which they exercised cultural, economic and political influence. In Paris the guilds of market and washer women were feared because of the loud demands they made. Many women fought side by side with their husbands at the barricades during the French Revolution. Their hope of achieving equal rights with men failed to come to fruition however. The women remained excluded from the proclaimed civil rights.

The writer Olympe de Gouges formulated the "Declaration of the Rights of Women and Women Citizens" in this situation. In its content, this document is closely aligned to the "Declaration of Human and Civil Rights" proclaimed in 1789. Revolutionary is the consistent inclusion of women in the formulation and legal articles:
"Woman has the right to mount the scaffold. She must equally have the right to mount the rostrum."
[The full text can be found in the document section]

She added precision to all the terms in the text where it was unclear whether men or women were meant. She replaced the words "person" or "man" with "woman and man" throughout and placed "woman citizen" next to each instance of "citizen".

She sent the declaration to the National Assembly for ratification. The declaration gave reason for excitement throughout France and even abroad. A "Social Contract between Man and Woman" (analogue to Rousseau's "Contrat Social") was also added to this. De Gouges wanted to replace the marriage contract which had existed up until that point with a contract based on equal opportunity. In her eyes, women were of particular importance because of their role as mothers. She derived special rights for women as mothers from this. She provoked contradiction from Rousseau and his supporters and the leading lights of the revolution with her revolutionary ideas. They concluded that women should be excluded from political debate due to their biological role.

As a consequence of the reign of terror, Olympe de Gouges was executed in 1793. The more civil society consolidated, the more rights were taken away from women again. In the same year, the National Assembly prohibited the women's clubs that had formed during the revolution and proclaimed a general ban on the right of assembly for women. The women were split up into various parties and interest groups and failed to stand up for their rights as a unified group. All hopes for equal opportunity failed as a result initially. The "Declaration of the Rights of Women and Women Citizens" collected dust in the archives for a long time and was not included in the official list of contemporary documents. It was first rediscovered and confirmed as a unique witness to history as a consequence of the women's movement.

USA: "Declaration of Sentiment"

A congress was called into life in 1848 in Seneca Falls in the state of New York by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott where discrimination against women was placed on the agenda for the first time. Most of the women who gathered there had also fought in the movement for the rights of blacks. The anti-slavery movement now sharpened the consciousness of women to the fact that they were also discriminated against as a social group. Among other things, the women's rights activists demanded:

bulletthe right of access to their own property and income,
bulletcustody of their children in the case of a divorce,
bulletextended divorce opportunities,
bulletimproved legal and economic security for divorced women,
bulletimproved access to education and a career and
bulletthe right to vote.

The "Declaration of Sentiment" was ratified and - similar to De Gouges' "Declaration on the Rights of Women and Women Citizens" - is closely based on the Declaration of Independence of 1776. This principle declaration was directed against the domination of men in all walks of life. The text is based on the premise that all men and women are born with the same rights to life, freedom and the search for happiness and that securing these undeniable rights is the one legitimate purpose of the state. All laws that force women into subordinate positions were declared illegitimate. Twelve resolutions join it that demand the equal treatment of women in the private, religious, economic and political context.
[the text can be found in the document section]

Although the Declaration and its authors were subsequently ridiculed and its contents misrepresented, it formed the origins of the women's movement in the USA, which fought for women's rights at an earlier time than the European movement and retained a model character.

[Author: Dorette Wesemann, Edited by: Ragnar Müller]

"First Women's Movement" (1848-1914): The Tough Fight for Political and Civil Rights
The "New" Women's Movement (from circa 1969): "The Woman the Half of the World - The Man the Half of the Home"
The Current Situation: Today's Activists and the Tasks of the International Women's Movement

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