Today marks International Women’s Day, a global celebration of female contributions to modern society. But today’s feminists would be remiss not to celebrate liberalism’s pivotal role in advancing women’s rights.
At the outset, feminism was a classical liberal movement. It was not a socialist or interventionist one, over-reliant on government action to spark change. The first feminists, such as America’s Judith Sargent Murray or England’s Mary Wollstonecraft, were individualists at their core, fighting for equality before the law. In the words of Wollstonecraft: “I do not wish women to have power over men, but over themselves.”
In the footsteps of the “first wave,” women should be proud to call themselves feminists without prejudices. At the same time, we should be able to criticize “fourth-wave” feminists who preach “toxic masculinity” and vilify men.
Where all feminists can agree is that the fight goes on. Women have undoubtedly come a long way over the centuries, but women’s rights are hardly guaranteed in many parts of the world. In certain areas, women are still openly victimized. Blessed with the right to vote and countless paths to success, American women often lose sight of the woman’s plight in less-developed parts of the world.
Outside of America, progress takes longer, if it ever materializes at all. In my home country of Argentina, women gained the right to vote only after World War II—nearly three decades after American women secured their suffrage. And that’s nearly six decades after 1893, when New Zealand became the first country allowing women to vote.
Today, Argentinian women are more empowered than ever before, but challenges remain. Women are naturally more vulnerable to domestic violence, based on their gender. In Argentina, for example, femicide is a pressing concern, with one Argentinian woman killed ever 32 hours. Argentina’s rate of gender-based violence is one of the highest in the world, prompting policymakers to launch the “National Action Plan to Prevent and End Violence Against Women” in 2017.
And, by comparison, Argentines “have it good.” Women elsewhere are not so lucky to live in a developed nation (albeit a flawed one), predicated upon democratic values. According to the United Nations, hundreds of millions of living girls and women have undergone some form of female genital mutilation (FGM). Recent estimates suggest the number is higher than 200 million. Think about that—200 million is more than the combined populations of the 10 largest U.S. states, including California and Texas.
In Africa and the Middle East, FGM is commonly used for the sake of “social acceptance” or the preservation of virginity. Girls and women may be mutilated as a rite of passage into adulthood or to fulfill a pre-requisite for marriage. Not only do the victims suffer unspeakable bodily harm, but they also cope with unimaginable trauma for a lifetime.
Long story short, the women of the West can count their blessings. Because of yesterday’s first-wave feminists and today’s women who carry on that tradition, tomorrow will bring an even brighter future for girls in places like Latin America and the United States. We have accomplished much—from women’s suffrage to the empowerment of female professionals in the workplace.
But progress remains elusive. In Sri Lanka, my organization—Atlas Network—worked with the Advocata Institute to reduce a national tax on female sanitary products. A basic necessity that was once unaffordable for many women is now widely accessible. Women should not be taxed for simply being women, yet they still are.
The Sri Lankan case study is emblematic of our 2022 moment. Women have come far indeed, but the journey is not over. Let’s celebrate when the fight is done—here, there, and everywhere.
Antonella Marty is the Associate Director of Public and Influencer Relations at Atlas Network. She also serves as a Fellow for Atlas Network's Center for Latin America and hosts the podcast Hablemos Libertad. The views expressed are the author's own.