Teaching Women’s Rights as Human Rights
Linking Past to Present


Alarming accounts of abuses of women’s human rights appear regularly in today’s media. Accounts tell of families who sell daughters for sex or servitude, of honor killings, of forced or prevented abortions, of the growing problem of aids among women, of worldwide incidences of domestic violence - and these are only a few of the issues of concern. However distressful, the prevalence of such sensational reports offers a unique opening to explore historical attitudes about about women and their position in society. Integrating primary source readings and student awareness activities into commonly taught topics are two ways to do so. In this article I model these approaches by discussing two short internet available source readings, and provide follow-up discussion questions. I also direct teachers to links to internet sources on this topic from commonly taught world history periods, and a list of suggestions for their use.
Women's human rights - a new concept: Only relatively recently has the fact that women’s rights need to be spelled out as a separate category been accepted and incorporated into the modern, expanding ideas about human rights. The effort to do so emerged as a distinct aspect of human rights during the international women's movements of the 1980s. Now, after immense efforts on the part of millions of women and men, there is recognition that beyond political and civic rights, there are social and economic arenas where women's’ rights have been ignored.

Two important international women’s rights documents are now used as tools by women’s rights groups around the world. One is the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW, entered into force in 1981). The Convention provides the basis for realizing equality between women and men through ensuring women's equal access to, and equal opportunities in, political and public life. It also is the only human rights treaty which affirms the reproductive rights of women and targets culture and tradition as influential forces shaping gender roles and family relations. As of November, 2006, 185 countries - over ninety percent of the members of the United Nations - are party to the Convention, making it the second most widely ratified international human rights treaty.

The second treaty is the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (UN Resolution, 1993). It spells out wide forms of violence against women. Its wording includes the phrase, “Recognizing that violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women, which have led to domination over and discrimination against women by men.”

International recognition of women’s human rights does not mean implementation. An essential step toward respecting, promoting and defending those rights is learning about them. Projects that introduce students to not only these treaties, but to the wide range of international and local women’s rights organizations are needed if women’s progress toward parity with men is to continue. For history teachers, first steps can be taken by having students explore past examples of ways societies have institutionalized gender divisions, and the struggles of some women as well as men to overcome those which they deemed to be repressive and harmful. The multiple international and local women's rights organizations with Internet sites provide places to locate current concerns. For example, there is a discussion on the Human Rights Watch site on inheritance customs in Kenya where, in some areas, the equal rights of widows to their property are obstructed.

Click to find links to women’s rights organizations, and excerpts from the treaties mentioned above.

Primary Source Readings: I encourage using primary source readings when they correspond to a topic or period that is commonly taught. Introducing at least one early in the course gives a base with which to compare to others from later times or cultures. Those that allow a woman (or women) to speak for themselves are naturally the most engaging. Students connect easily to readings which provide intimate examples of women’s agency and actual life experiences. Others, however, can be used to demonstrate the deep and almost universal belief in gender difference.
Early laws, codes, or influential teachings describe where males had rights and where women’s rights might have been restricted. They also demonstrate the extent to which social structure and gender attributes were culturally specific. Assumptions that men and women were essentially different creatures, not only biologically, but in their needs, capacities and functions, usually was felt to be a natural state, accepted without question. Learning of the existence of dualistic gender systems, which sometimes resulted in the subordination of women, helps explain the extent to which laws, work patterns, expectations, and societal attitudes shaped women’s lives. This is of key importance. Student awareness of the historical reality that gender mattered is essential to their understanding of the contemporary struggles for women’s human rights. Questions can be asked: To what extent have beliefs about gender differences in many societies changed? How have they remained the same? What obstacles have women around the world identified as the hardest to overcome?

Click to find a list of suggested primary sources and their internet links.

Two Examples:
Caroline Norton (1808-1877 England) and
Kishida Toshiko (1863-1891, Japan):

Both Caroline Norton and Kishida Toshiko broke social norms by publicly advocating change not only in the legal status of women, but in the way society viewed their roles. Their concerns illustrate issues from reform periods in the nineteenth century where maneuvering for women's rights within the context of marriage often took precedent over others, including female suffrage. Debates about women’s expanded rights within marriage and women’s access to education were voiced in many nations which were dealing with new ideas about societal change.

Caroline Norton’s emotional account describes her disastrous marriage. Another reading, her “Letter to the Queen” describes many of the restrictions on women’s rights in mid-century England. In 1824, at age sixteen, Caroline was pressured to marry an older politician. Her husband physically abused her; yet, given the laws of the time she was unable to secure neither a divorce nor access to her children when she fled from the marriage. Her husband, instead, had the legal right to desert his wife and hand over the children to his mistress. Caroline, a writer, went public, achieving immense notoriety. In her confessional first person accounts, she wrote a dramatic descriptions of her abusive marriage and of her attempts to get custody of her children. In 1855 she also wrote a letter to Queen Victoria in which she detailed not only the denial of her rights but those denied all English women.

Partly as a result of Caroline’s lobbying efforts, Parliament passed the Custody of Children Act in 1839, which gave women some visitation rights, and in 1857 Parliament passed the Marriage and Divorce Act. Since domestic violence remains one of the most pervasive human rights abuses, Caroline’s experiences can be expanded by student research into the extent of such abuse in their own country. As the new U.N. Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, recently said, “Violence against women is a pandemic...[i]t makes its hideous imprint on every continent, country and culture.”

Click for Caroline’s powerful accounts.

During Japan’s Meiji Restoration (1868-1912), male reformers and nationalists argued that improving the status of women was essential if other technologically advanced nations were accept Japan on an equal status. The phrase “good wife, wise mother” was coined, meaning that in order to be good citizens, women had to become educated and take part in public affairs. This opened door for small group of women to try to raise women’s consciousness. In the 1880s Kishida (Toshiko) was the first woman to travel throughout Japan making public speeches. She was a dynamic spokesperson on behalf of women and their rights, and attracted large audiences.

Kishida and other champions of social change for women faced harsh resistance. Kishida was often harassed by the police, and once was jailed. By the end of the century, the government reinstated the most conservative and oppressive model of the family in the Civil Codes of 1898. Japanese women were lumped together with mental incompetents and minors. Among other restrictions, a wife could not enter into a legal contract without her husband's permission, nor share in his estate after his death. Adultery was a crime for a wife but not for a husband. In the event of a divorce, the wife had no custody rights over the children. Gender-specific curriculum and sex segregation also was instituted in the schools. Two years later, under Article 5 of the Police Security Regulations, women were prohibited from joining political organizations and holding or attending political meetings.

Toshiko’s clarion call for “equality and equal rights,” plus excerpts from the Japanese Civil Codes of 1898, can be read as an example of the type of reaction women rights activists have had to face. Students can find out the situation for women in Japan today, discover other periods when the struggle for women’s rights suffered repression, or try to determine the situation of the global women's movements today. What successes have been made? What, in their opinion, are the greatest problems women still face?

Click to find an excerpt from one Kishida Toshiko’s speeches plus pertinent sections of the reactionary Japanese Civil Code of 1898.

Suggested Questions following the Readings

The following questions move from information gathering ideas to those asking students to draw conclusions supported by primary evidence.

1) First read for information. Then, list problems that Caroline and Toshiba mention. (Or, the main points they are trying to get across).

2) What are some of arguments, or actions, which the reading suggests as ways to solve some of these problems?

3) Think about this woman. Who was she? Does the reading tell us anything about her personality? What circumstances might have encouraged her to go public with her complaints?

4) To whom is the woman directing her concerns? What institutions are being taking to task?

5) Discuss the social and political climate in England and Japan that offered these women the opportunity to express their concerns.

6) Research the historic context of either Norton or Toshika’s complaints. What in your mind were two of the most restrictive ideas about women’s roles in this period. (Or, what were some of the major attitudes about women that led to the restrictions the reading described?)

7) Both Toshiko and Norton were women whose position in society gave them a platform for making their opinions public. Explain this. Do you think they spoke for all women? ( Or, did such restrictions affected all women in their society?) If not, give one reason why this was so.

8) Select a quote, or quotes, from the reading(s) which might have relevance for women in the world today. (Are there any similarities between the historic issues they raised and ones facing women in your country today? If so, what?).

9) How have ideas of gender changed since then? Which ones?

10) What do you think might be the effects the denial of women’s human rights issues had on the society in which these women lived? On the future of their society?

For an additional essay with annotated primary source women’s rights links find: “Her Marriage Bondage”: Useful Websites for Linking Women’s Marriage Rights Past to Present, by Lyn Reese. Click Here!

Lyn Reese is the author of all the information on this website
Click for Author Information

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