A Brief Survey of Women's Rights from 1945 to 2009

Article excerpt

The story of the global struggle for women's rights since 1945 is just beginning to be told. (1) For a proper understanding of the continuities and changes in the struggle for women's rights during this period, we need to go back to the League of Nations, the predecessor to the United Nations. In addition, we need to consider more fully the important role of what are now often called "traditional women's organizations" in advancing women's rights on the international level, at least until 1975.

In 1975, the International Women's Year, there were three international women's organizations with "Consultative Status 1" at the United Nations,--the International Council of Women (ICW), the International Alliance of Women (IAW) and the Women's International Democratic Federation (WIDF)--out of a total of 24 international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with that status. The reasons why these three women's organizations had received that status will become apparent below, in a very brief survey of the history of women's rights from 1945 to 2009.


The international women's organizations that were active in the League of Nations, including the ICW, established in 1888, and the IAW, established in 1904, (2) together achieved two things that would be crucial for the struggle for women's equality in the long run. The first was the recognition that women's status was an issue that belonged on the international level. The second was the establishment in 1937 of the League of Nations Committee of Experts on the Legal Status of Women, which laid the foundations for the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). (3)

This League of Nations Committee consisted of three men and four women, including Kersten Hesselgren from Sweden, Suzanne Bastid-Basdevant from France, both involved with the ICW, and Dorothy Kenyon, a judge from the United States, who would be on the CSW from 1946-1950 and was IAW vicepresident from 1946-1952. (4)


A small number of feminists from different countries and backgrounds participated in the founding conference of the UN in 1945 as members of their national delegations. Continuing what had been started in the League of Nations, but also building on women's recent experiences in war and resistance and the related conviction that women had to contribute to creating a more peaceful world, they cooperated to get women's rights acknowledged as part of the broader UN commitment to human rights. Thus, Bertha Lutz, IAW vice president 1952-1958, Minerva Bernardino, ICW vice president 1947-1957, Amelia Caballero de Castillo Ledon, Isabel Sanchez de Urdaneta, Isabel P. de Vidal and Jessie Street worked together for the inclusion of the equal rights of men and women in the Preamble to the UN Charter and the acceptance of a sub-Commission on the Status of Women. (5)

During an inaugural session of the UN General Assembly in early 1946, Eleanor Roosevelt read "An Open Letter to the Women of the World", described as the "first formal articulation of women's voices in the UN and an outline of the role for women to play in a new arena of international politics and cooperation" (6) The letter had been initiated by Helene Lefaucheux, a member of the French delegation, and subsequently CSW chair 1948-1952, president of the French National Council of Women, and ICW president 1957-1963. Her predecessor in CSW was Bodil Begtrup, president of the Danish National Council of Women and IAW board member from 1946-1949.


In December 1948, the UN adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Thanks to the efforts of women such as Minerva Bernardino during the process of drafting the Declaration, Article 1 reads, "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights"--instead of the proposed "All men ...". (7) Begum Anwar G. Ahmed, CSW chair in the 1950s, was an IAW board member, vice president and president from 1955-1970. …