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A history of women’s protests

The day after Trump is sworn in, thousands of women will march on Washington. They're in good company

By Jessica Abrahams  

The cover of the official programme for the Woman Suffrage Procession in Washington DC, March 3, 1913. Designed by Benjamin Moran Dale (1889-1951) ©Wikimedia Commons

On 21st January 2017, the day after Donald Trump is due to be sworn in as the next President of the United States, one of the biggest women’s rights demonstrations in US history is being planned.

In protest at the attitude towards women and women’s rights that the president-elect has shown, and amid concern about what his presidency could mean for women, activists are hoping to bring together hundreds of thousands of people to march on Washington, with plans for satellite protests emerging around the country.

Prospect takes a look back at some of the biggest women’s rights demonstrations in history and what they achieved.

1913, United States: Woman Suffrage Parade

On 3rd March 1913, the day before Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated as US President, up to 8,000 suffragists paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue—which passes the White House—to demand the right for women to vote. It may not seem huge by today’s standards but this was the first major suffrage protest in the US and it was a dramatic affair featuring nine marching bands and 20 floats.

The parade drew crowds of onlookers who far outnumbered the protesters, and many of whom were hostile to the women’s cause. Jeering and violence followed, resulting in the hospitalisation of 100 protesters by the end of the day, while police did little to help.

However, the mistreatment of the women turned the parade into a national news story and elevated the debate about women’s suffrage. American women secured the right to vote just seven years later.

1975, Iceland: Women’s Day Off

Last month, news outlets reported on how thousands of female employees in Iceland walked out of work early to protest unequal pay—but this act was inspired by another four decades earlier. On 24th October 1975, an estimated 90 per cent of Icelandic women went on strike—whether from housework, childcare or paid employment—spending the day at rallies instead to demand equal pay and demonstrate their importance to the economy. Chaos ensued: with the men forced to take over, schools, shops, factories and banks were shuttered.

The protest is seen as a turning point in the fight for gender equality in Iceland. The following year, parliament passed the Gender Equality Act, which outlawed gender-based discrimination. And soon afterwards, Iceland elected Europe’s first female president, Vigdis Finnbogadottir, who remained in power for the next 16 years.

1979, Iran: Protest against the veil

International Women’s Day, 1979, in Tehran—soon after the overthrow of the Shah in the Iranian Revolution. Women had gained a number of rights in the preceding decades, covering education, political representation and family life, but it soon became clear that women’s rights were not going to be protected under the country’s new revolutionary leaders. On the eve of 8th March, the newspapers carried an announcement that women were now expected to wear headscarves in public.

In response, more than 100,000 women—mostly with their heads uncovered—took to the streets alongside men for several days of protests in defence of women’s rights.

Despite the display of unity, the authorities were unresponsive to the protests. To this day, it is illegal for women in Iran to step outside the house without a headscarf.

2004, United States: March for Women’s Lives

Around a million US women took part in protests on 25th April 2004, mainly in Washington DC, against George W Bush’s policies on reproductive rights. A collaborative effort from a collection of women’s groups across the country, protesters objected to Bush’s ban on a type of abortion known as “dilation and extraction,” his stance on state funding for family planning and his failure to make the morning after pill more easily accessible.

It is thought to have been the biggest pro-choice demonstration in US history. Speakers and supporters on the day included Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright and Gloria Steinam, as well as celebrities such as Whoopi Goldberg and Moby.

March for Women’s Lives had little concrete impact on Bush’s policies, however. The abortion ban remains in place. Under Trump, the future of reproductive rights in the US is again uncertain.

2012, India: Protests against sexual violence

The brutal gang rape and murder of a young woman on a bus in New Delhi in December 2012 sparked fierce and widespread protests across India, a country grappling with high levels of sexual violence. There are no figures for how many took part in the demonstrations but photos show many thousands of men and women marching side by side, chanting and holding vigils. The BBC counted 4,000 alone at a single protest in Delhi, just one of many that took place in the days following the attack—and they have not stopped. Provoked by news of further horrific sexual assaults, protests have continued to erupt, demanding stronger police action to protect women from violence and harsher sentences for offenders.

Despite a poor reaction from police and politicians at the start, the sheer size and persistence of the protests has led to changes. A panel of jurists was assembled to examine the issue; new offences were defined under the law, criminalising acts such as stalking and sexual harassment; and the death penalty was introduced for rape cases in which the victim is killed and for repeat offenders—a direct response to the demands of the protesters, though many of us may object to it. Other legal issues, such as marital rape, are still being discussed.

2016, Poland: Black Monday

Earlier this year, Poland’s government proposed a total ban on abortions—even in cases of rape or where the woman’s life is at risk—in a country where abortion laws are already tight. The response? Inspired by the women of Iceland in 1975, millions of Polish women took the day off from work, classes and domestic chores as part of a nationwide strike, with many marching through the streets of cities dressed in black.

The abortion ban was overwhelmingly rejected by parliament a few days later.

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