13 Moments That Changed Women’s History Forever

In honour of International Women's Day on March 8, we're celebrating those moments in history when, for women, doors of opportunity suddenly flung open.

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Women's rights are human rights
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The future is female, thanks to these moments in the past

We probably think of women’s history in terms of several major milestones, but the truth is that these milestones have all been hard-won by years of back-breaking, often unrecognized labor by scores of activists and ordinary women. While these major moments, from the United States to Australia to Saudi Arabia and beyond, are incredible and should be celebrated, they’re all steps along the path to equality, and we have a long way to go.

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Chicago, Around 1915 -- The Earliest Beginnings Of Women's Participation In Government. Five Women Learning How To Use A Voting Machine In Chicago
Photo: Nara Archives/Shutterstock

1895: South Australia gives women the right to vote

Who knew that Australia was so ahead of the times in allowing women to cast their ballots in national elections? The South Australian Parliament passed a constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote in December of 1894, which meant women could vote in the following year’s elections. The battle was hard-won. Women had reportedly fought for a decade to make this historical event happen. According to The National Museum of Australia, South Australia became the first electorate in the world to grant equal political rights to men and women.

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National League of Women Voters hold up signs reading, 'VOTE', Sept. 17, 1924. Millions of women voted in 1920 and 1924, but in a lower proportion than men.
Photo: Everett Historical/Shutterstock

1920: The United States ratifies 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote

It’s hard to believe that it was just over 100 years ago that women were first permitted to vote in the United States. That’s what happened on August 18, 1920, when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, thanks to the tireless efforts of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott. Organizing for women’s suffrage dated back to 1848, at the historic Seneca Falls Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, the first women’s rights conference in the United States.

Read up on 10 incredible women you didn’t learn about in history class.

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President Kennedy passes out pens, at the White House after signing a bill to provide equal pay for women. From left: Ethlyn Christensen of the YWCA; Rep. Leonor Sullivan, D-MO; Mrs. Joseph Willen of the National Council of Jewish Women; Rep. Edna Kelly, D-NY; Margaret Mealey, foreground, checkered dress, of the National Council of Catholic Women; Rep. Edith Green, D-OR; and Mrs. Carolyn Davis of the United Auto Workers
Photo: Harvey Georges/Shutterstock

1963: Equal Pay Act passed in the United States

Former President John F. Kennedy backed amending the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act—as part of his New Frontier Program—so that women could be paid the same wages as men performing the same job. This act aimed to put a stop to sex-based wage discrimination, though to this day, women earn substantially less than men on average, according to Catalyst, a global nonprofit.

Read the inspiring story of how one Toronto woman is helping others pull themselves out of poverty.

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Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg Listens to Us President Bush During a Swearing in Ceremony in the Benjamin Franklin Room of the Department of State in Washington Dc Friday 28 January 2005 Secretary Rice Who is the Second Woman and the First Black Woman to Become Secretary of State Was Sworn in by White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card Wednesday Evening Hours After the Senate Confirmed Her by a Vote of 85 to 13 in a Private Ceremony at the White House
Photo: Shawn Thew/Shutterstock

1971: Reed v. Reed

Up until the early 1970s, if a relative in the United States died, the job of administering the estate was automatically given to the male relative, not the female. Obviously, this created some major family friction. In Reed v. Reed, the Supreme Court ruled that this violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, according to this ACLU summary. Note: this was the same year the late Ruth Bader Ginsberg established the Women’s Rights Project.

Don’t miss the incredible story of the woman who raised 200 kids.

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Thousands rallied at the Wesley Bolin Plaza on the State Capitol grounds in Phoenix, Ariz., after a march for abortion on the day before the anniversary decision of Roe v. Wade
Photo: Larry Woodall/Shutterstock

1973: Roe v. Wade

Probably one of the most contentious U.S. court rulings regarding women’s rights over the last 75 years, Roe v. Wade handed the difficult decision of whether to end a pregnancy over to the woman who is pregnant. Courts, doctors, politicians, and other individuals could no longer make that decision for them, according to this Supreme Court ruling.

Don’t miss our countdown of the strongest female literary characters of all time.

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WAEHLER Lisbon residents vote in a polling station, as Portugal goes to the polls in a general election to pass judgement on 10 years of Social Democrat rule. Opinion polls showing the Socialist have a slight lead
Photo: GUILHERME VENANCIO/Shutterstock

1976: Portugal grants women the right to vote

Before the 1960s, women living in Portugal had few rights, especially when compared with North America and other European nations. They couldn’t get a Portuguese passport or travel to another country without their husband’s consent. The year 1976 was a major year to be a woman living in Portugal because that’s when the country’s constitution was amended to give women the same voting rights as men.

Meet the Toronto lawyer transforming her industry by mentoring young Black women.

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Man proposing to his girlfriend
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1980: New Marriage Law passed in China

China’s New Marriage Law in 1980 granted certain rights to women during the legal contract of marriage: Women needed to be 18 years or older to marry, both parties had to consent, and the courts could reject marriages with ulterior motives (such as human trafficking and arranged marriages). Under the New Marriage Law, divorce proceedings started to consider women’s rights, including child custody and division of property.

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Japan's new Defense Minister Tomomi Inada inspects a honor guard on her first day at the Defense Ministry in Tokyo, . Inada, a woman with revisionist views of World War II history, has been named Japan's defense minister in a Cabinet reshuffle. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe changed more than half of the 19-member Cabinet on Wednesday in a bid to support his economic, security and other policy goals
Photo: Shuji Kajiyama/Shutterstock

2003: Japan’s government vows to fill more senior-government roles with women

In 2003, Japan declared the ambitious goal of aiming to have 30 per cent of senior-level government jobs in the country held by women. Apparently, it was too ambitious, because it was later revised to seven per cent by 2020, taking into account the lack of an uptick a few years into the new initiative. Government officials blamed the slow pace of cultural shifts. Hopefully, one day Japan will be in the same position as Paris, France: In 2020, the city was fined 90,000 euros for appointing too many women (11, or 69%) to senior government positions. Only five men were appointed, and the imbalance violated a rule that at least 40% of positions should go to people of each gender. The city paid the fine, and the rule has since been amended.

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Participants of the rally against female genital mutilation hold placards at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany, 23 November 2017. A group of activists 'TERRE DES FEMMES' organized the event ahead of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on 25 November which was designated by the United Nations.
Photo: H. JEON/Shutterstock

2012: United Nations passes a resolution banning female genital mutilation

The terror—and, unfortunate reality—of young girls up to the age of 15 having their genitals mutilated came to a screeching halt in 2012 (at least on paper) when the United Nations called on citizens worldwide to stop the practice, which has been most common in certain countries in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, affecting as many as 200 million girls and women. Thanks to increased awareness of this physically and emotionally scarring practice, Feb. 6 was named International Day of Zero Tolerance.

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Aziza Yousef drives a car in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as part of a campaign to defy Saudi Arabia's ban on women driving. In the six months since Saudi activists renewed calls to defy the kingdom's ban on female drivers, small numbers of women have gotten behind the wheel almost daily in what has become the country's longest such campaign
Photo: Hasan Jamali/Shutterstock

2017: Saudi Arabia lifts ban on female drivers

Imagine being a woman in this Middle Eastern country and needing a man to give you a lift for simple errands like picking up groceries at the market or visiting a friend. In the fall of 2017, the Saudi Arabian government lifted the ban on female drivers, which took effect in June the following year.

Check out more good news stories from around the world.

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Horizontal color capture taken at a hindu wedding in Surat India. Photo session after the ceremony of the happy hand holding couple displaying their rings of matrimony and the bride lays her claim
Photo: Arfabita/Shutterstock

2017: India rules sex with minors illegal

Another sign of the modernization of India was a Supreme Court ruling in October that deemed rape with a female under the age of 18 (even if the minor is a child bride) illegal. Further, being charged with this crime can result in a 10-year prison sentence. This ruling helps discourage the tradition of child brides and speaks to the country’s attempt to create more equal marriages (age-wise, at the very least).

Here’s what Canadian travellers should know before planning a trip to India.

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Lebanon repeals law

2017: Lebanon repeals law that sided with male rapists

It’s hard to believe, but up until the summer of 2017, a male rapist in Lebanon could be exonerated if he married his rape victim. In August, Lebanon’s Parliament finally repealed this ancient and horrific law at the urging of Lebanese and international women’s rights activists.

Here’s how to keep caring in an age of cynicism—and change the world.

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Hundreds of BBC staff protest over equal pay outside the Corporation's headquarters. Former China editor Carrie Gracie spearheaded the campaign
Photo: Associated Newspapers Ltd/Shutterstock

2018: Iceland requires fair pay for women

Some countries talk a good game about equal pay for women, but Iceland made it the law of the land. Earlier this year, Iceland became the first country in the world to make it illegal—resulting in a fine—to pay men and women in the same job differently. One major difference between this law and the Equal Pay Act in the United States is that the burden is no longer on the employee to make this claim.

Next, read up on 10 great Canadian women you didn’t learn about in history class.

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