Becoming Human: The Origins and Development of Women's Human Rights
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Becoming Human:
The Origins and Development of Women’s Human Rights

I. Introduction

When the Taliban took power in Afghanistan in 1994, one of its first edicts removed girls from school, forbade women from employment outside the home, and required women to wear garments totally covering themselves when they appeared in public. This measure was a clear abrogation of the principles set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1 and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. 2 It struck at the most basic of women’s human rights, depriving them of economic, physical, and intellectual independence, and overturned what women internationally had been struggling to achieve for more than five centuries. [End Page 853]

As John Stuart Mill argued in 1869 in his essay, The Subjection of Women, 3 the question is whether women must be forced to follow what is perceived as their “natural vocation,” i.e. home and family—often called the private sphere—or whether, in private and public life, they are seen as the equal partners of men. 4 While the division of spheres, based on sex and known as patriarchy, may have been justified as a necessary division of labor in the early evolution of the human species, the system long ago outlived its functionality and has been challenged by women, and a few men, since, at least, the fifteenth century.

This article will trace the evolution of thought and activism over the centuries aimed at defining women’s human rights and implementing the idea that women and men are equal members of society. Three caveats are necessary. First, because women’s history has been deliberately ignored over the centuries as a means of keeping women subordinate, and is only now beginning to be recaptured, this is primarily a Northern story until the twentieth century. Second, because of this ignorance, 5 any argument that the struggle to attain rights for women is only a Northern or Western effort is without foundation. Simply not enough available records exist detailing women’s struggles or achievements in the Southern or Eastern sections of the world. The few records available to Northern writers attest that women in other parts of the world were not content with their status. Third, the oft-heard argument that feminism (read the struggle for women’s equality) is a struggle pursued primarily by elite women is simply another example of the traditional demeaning of women. History is replete with examples of male leaders who are not branded with this same charge, even though much of history is about elite men.

In addition, it is hoped that this article, and the current activism on behalf of women’s human rights, will stimulate historians and human rights activists to delve more deeply into the history of women’s human rights throughout the world and further develop this neglected half of history. Such historical research would be a contribution to promoting women’s human rights because it is from history, whether written or oral, that role models and traditions are created.

As historian Gerda Lerner has written:

[T]he fact that women were denied knowledge of the existence of Women’s History decisively and negatively affected their intellectual development as a group. Women who did not know that others like them had made intellectual contributions to knowledge and to creative thought were overwhelmed by the sense of their own inferiority or, conversely, the sense of the dangers of their [End Page 854] daring to be different. . . . Every thinking woman had to argue with the ‘great man’ in her head, instead of being strengthened and encouraged by her foremothers. 6

II. Executive Summary

The original contributors to women’s human rights were those who first taught women to read and, thus, to explore the world outside the home and immediate community. The idea of women’s human rights is often cited as beginning in 1792 with Mary Wollstonecraft’s book, Vindication of the Rights of Women, 7 published in response to promulgation of the natural-rights-of-man theory. Recent historical research, however, has revealed a much longer gestation period, beginning at least in the early...