August 12

Women’s Rights: The Long Road From “Not a Person” to Gender Equality

In a speech in 1982, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said, "The battle for women's rights has largely been won." I guess you could call Thatcher an extreme optimist. Gender parity has been and continues to be a hot-button issue. We've come a long way in the last few centuries, but we still have ways to go.

I didn't want to just know the names of things. I remember really wanting to know how it all worked. Elizabeth Blackburn, Winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.

Hertha Ayrton

The Royal Society, by its own definition, is a "Fellowship of many of the world's most eminent scientists and the oldest scientific academy in continuous existence."

In 1902 the Society received an unusual nomination from John Perry, a professor of Engineering and Mathematics.

Perry, supported by eight other signees, submitted a nomination request to the Royal Society with a proposal to admit scientist Hertha Ayrton as a member. The reason the request was highly unusual? Hertha Ayrton was the first woman ever to be nominated for a fellowship position in the Royal Society.

Sadly, the nomination was about as far as Ms. Ayrton got. The only other (remotely) female presence to ever be in the Royal Society was the bust sculpture of Mary Somerville in the council library. Bear in mind that this was before tokenism (the practice such as hiring a person who belongs to a minority group only to prevent criticism) was even a thing.

Upon receiving the nomination, a bewildered Society, trying not to set a precedent by accepting a woman, quickly referred the case to its legal department. They, in turn, did what legal departments do best—used a ton of legalese to deny the request. Among other things, they said:

We are of opinion that married women are not eligible as Fellows of the Royal Society. Whether the Charters admit of the election of unmarried women appears to us to be very doubtful (also).


The crux of the matter, the Counsel advised, was that the Royal Society's Fellows had to be "persons." And because Mrs. Ayrton was a married woman, she had no personhood.

Whoa, what?


Yes, barely a century ago, under English Common law, the doctrine of "Couverture" applied to married women. According to this principle, when a woman married, she stopped having an independent legal existence of her own, and her identity was considered to be merged with that of her husband. In other words, she was no longer a "person" of her own accord.

Forget women's rights. Married women weren't even considered people.

And because Hertha Ayrton did not have a legal existence of her own, the Royal Society's stance was that she could not be admitted. (Never mind that the Society did not attempt to modify their statutes even to consider accepting single women, who, in contrast, still had some rights left.)

The Society was an old boys club and stayed that way until 1945, when crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale became the first woman to be accepted as a fellow.

The women's rights movement

Following the above (and other similar) setbacks, not surprisingly Hertha Ayrton and her daughter Barbara went on to become active participants in the women's suffrage movement.

Ayrton also happened to be a close friend of Nobel-prize-winning scientist Marie Curie who was, at that time, enduring her own saga of vilification owing to her gender.

When Marie Curie did not get enough credit for discovering radium (the press credited just her husband Pierre Curie for the work), Hertha Ayrton fought hard in the media for Marie Curie's rights. She said,

Errors are notoriously hard to kill, but an error that ascribes to a man what was actually the work of a woman has more lives than a cat.

Misogyny through the ages

Women's rights and lack of place in the social order aren't new by any means.

One of Greece's pre-Socratic philosophers and thought leaders, Thales of Miletus, is famously quoted as saying,

There are three attributes for which I am grateful to Fortune: that I was born, first, human and not animal; second, man and not woman; and third, Greek and not barbarian.

I hope Thales' comments are a testament and a sympathy statement to women's lack of standing in Greek Society at that time and not borne out of pure misogyny. We'll never know.

But the truth is women never stopped trying to be heard.

Abigail Adams

In another planet and time, Abigail Adams would have been referred to as one of America's founders herself instead of just as the wife and advisor to America's founding father, John Adams.

Not one to withhold her views and opinions, Abigail Adams wrote at length and frequently to her husband during the course of the American Revolutionary War.

Remember the ladies

In a well-documented letter to John Adams dated March 31, 1776, Abigail Adams writes:

I long to hear that you have declared an independency…and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. 
Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.
That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute, but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of Friend.

So, was Abigail Adams successful in her quest to better women's rights? Let's just say, old habits die hard. It took almost 150 years after that letter for Congress to pass the 19th Amendment giving American women the right to vote.

That was over a century ago. How about since then? Have we progressed to gender parity yet?

The law is an ass

We hear anecdotes and sometimes even encounter strong women who manage to challenge and overturn social prejudices. I'm sure some of you readers fall into that category as well. The world owes you a debt of gratitude.

But those are exceptions. We have ways to go before we can lay down the baton for women’s rights.

In Charles Dickens' novel Oliver Twist, the character Mr. Bumble blames his wife for something he himself is accused of doing. When Mr. Bumble is told, "the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction," Mr. Bumble responds (after making sure his wife isn't in the room)

If the law supposes that, the law is a ass—a idiot. If that's the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is that his eye may be opened by experience.

Sure, we can make all "who wears the pants in the house" jokes, but at the end of the day, gender inequalities are still very real and prevalent across our culture. Worst of all, these disparities are still deeply ingrained in our psyches. And they show up in unexpected places.

Is the gender gap narrowing?

In October 2021, the Brookings Institution published a post on how college enrollment and completion are falling rapidly among men compared to women. The data pointed to a ten-point gap between women and men completing college—with a twist in the tale. Women are ahead by ten points compared to men.

Studies such as the above resulted in a flurry of frantic and wildly speculative headlines. Writer Hannah Rosin published a book with the title The End of Men. Other captions worldwide screamed to indicate that the gender gap hasn't just narrowed but has completely reversed. Women’s rights experts, however, remained nonplussed.

Then, slowly, as new data started to trickle in, it became clear that the experts were right. We ought to save our sympathy for the “poor men.” Because women's academic excellence has thus far not translated into meaningful workplace diversity.


For instance, the same month that the Brooking institutions published their study, the management consulting firm McKinsey ran this depressing headline: Still struggling: Not enough women in the C-suite.

Forget the C-suite; what about the regular workforce?

The good news is that women are now participating at a higher rate in the labor force, but the flip side is that the jobs women do usually don't pay as well. The gender pay gap is still very much a phenomenon.

And job-equality is just one metric. The story repeats itself in many other areas. The truth is women's rights have ways to go.

There are many reasons—enough to fill a whole library, let alone a blog post—for why women aren't “there” yet. But there's one factor that we (you and I) may be able to chip away at—the constant need in our culture to have our women go above and beyond in everything they do.

The Confidence Gap

In May 2014, the Atlantic magazine published an article titled The Confidence Gap documenting what we already all know intuitively—there is a wide chasm in the level of confidence between the sexes even when they are both equally qualified to do a job.

When Hewlett-Packard tried to fill its top management positions, recruiters noticed that women only applied for promotions when they felt they met 100% of the qualifications for the job. In contrast, men felt confident enough to apply when they could barely meet 60% of the required qualifications. In other words, unlike men, women feel the need to be perfect to be confident.

The need to go above and beyond

The confidence gap isn't a problem that just presents itself in adulthood. It's a phenomenon ingrained in our psyches, probably caused by centuries of conditioning. As a result, even young girls feel the need to go "above and beyond" even as the boys in their classes seem content to barely eke it out.

In a NY Times opinion piece, clinical psychologist Lisa Damour says

Instead of standing by as our daughters make 50 flashcards when they were assigned 20, we can step in and ask them why. 

Are girls simply looking for insurance and making plans B, C, and D when Plan A would have sufficed (and that was all the boys do anyway)? This problem needs to be nipped in the bud because overperformance doesn't stop with academics.

A news article titled know your value referenced a 2021 report that showed how women leaders invested 60% more effort than their male colleagues into emotionally supporting their teams during the pandemic because they felt they “needed to.” The intention is noble, but the consequences for overperforming women are unfortunately not pretty—they burn out much faster from their jobs. 

Damour recommends that as teachers, parents, and adults, we step in and question when our girls overperform by default because they feel they "have to." The good news is that it's a doable task.

With some awareness, everyone can intervene and check in with our girls (and young women) when they hold themselves to impossible standards of perfection.

In Short

At the end of the day, more than any metric, the gender pay gap is considered by many as a true indicator of whether we, as a society, have managed to achieve gender parity. And now, in the 21st century, women are still behind, earning just 80% of what men earn, with everything else being equal.

In the 7th Century BC Thales of Miletus thanked fortune, among other things, for being born as a man and not a woman.

If you're a glass-half-full person, I guess you could say women are better today than during Thales' time. However, the reality is that women's rights still have a long way to go.

We can start by questioning why women, and even school-going girls, feel the need to go the extra mile to be noticed. Diversity is the hot-button topic of the decade so far, but asking women always to go above and beyond to earn recognition in the workplace is misguided advice.

Women have a much better time than men in this world; there are far more things forbidden to them― Oscar Wilde



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