The story of the global struggle for women's rights since 1945 is just beginning to be told.1 For a proper understanding of the continuities and changes in the struggle for women's rights during this period, we need to go back to the League of Nations, the predecessor to the United Nations. In addition, we need to consider more fully the important role of what are now often called "traditional women's organizations" in advancing women's rights on the international level, at least until 1975.

In 1975, the International Women's Year, there were three ¬international women's organizations with "Consultative Status 1" at the United Nations, -- the International Council of Women (ICW), the International Alliance of Women (IAW) and the Women's International Democratic Federation (WIDF) -- out of a total of 24 international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with that status. The reasons why these three women's organizations had received that status will become apparent below, in a very brief survey of the history of women's rights from 1945 to 2009.

Women's Organizations in the League of Nations

The international women's organizations that were active in the League of Nations, including the ICW, established in 1888, and the IAW, established in 1904,2 together achieved two things that would be crucial for the struggle for women's equality in the long run. The first was the recognition that women's status was an issue that belonged on the international level. The second was the establishment in 1937 of the League of Nations Committee of Experts on the Legal Status of Women, which laid the foundations for the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).3

This League of Nations Committee consisted of three men and four women, including Kersten Hesselgren from Sweden, Suzanne Bastid-Basdevant from France, both involved with the ICW, and Dorothy Kenyon, a judge from the United States, who would be on the CSW from 1946-1950 and was IAW vice-president from 1946-1952.4

The Period from 1945-1975

A small number of feminists from different countries and backgrounds participated in the founding conference of the UN in 1945 as members of their national delegations. Continuing what had been started in the League of Nations, but also building on women's recent experiences in war and resistance and the related conviction that women had to contribute to creating a more peaceful world, they cooperated to get women's rights acknowledged as part of the broader UN commitment to human rights. Thus, Bertha Lutz, IAW vice president 1952-1958, Minerva Bernardino, ICW vice president 1947-1957, Amelia Caballero de Castillo Ledón, Isabel Sanchez de Urdaneta, Isabel P. de Vidal and Jessie Street worked together for the inclusion of the equal rights of men and women in the Preamble to the UN Charter and the acceptance of a sub-Commission on the Status of Women.5

During an inaugural session of the UN General Assembly in early 1946, Eleanor Roosevelt read "An Open Letter to the Women of the World", described as the "first formal articulation of women's voices in the UN and an outline of the role for women to play in a new arena of international politics and cooperation".6 The letter had been initiated by Hélène Lefaucheux, a member of the French delegation, and subsequently CSW chair 1948-1952, president of the French National Council of Women, and ICW president 1957-1963. Her predecessor in CSW was Bodil Begtrup, president of the Danish National Council of Women and IAW board member from 1946-1949.

In December 1948, the UN adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Thanks to the efforts of women such as Minerva Bernardino during the process of drafting the Declaration, Article 1 reads, "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights" -- instead of the proposed "All men.".7 Begum Anwar G. Ahmed, CSW chair in the 1950s, was an IAW board member, vice president and president from 1955-1970. The list of prominent ICW and IAW women involved with the UN goes on and includes Helvi Sipilä, who in 1972 was the first woman Assistant Secretary-General, and, at the time of her appointment, ICW vice president as well as president of the Finnish National Council of Women.8

The Women's International Democratic Federation (WIDF), established in Paris in late 1945 with an anti-fascist, left-feminist orientation, was the third major international women's organization involved in the UN. In 1947/8, the ICW, IAW and WIDF received "Consultative Status B"9 with the UN Economic and Social Council, which allowed them to participate as observers at CSW sessions and access its reports and documents. With the CSW's approval, they could also address its sessions. The archives and publications of these three organizations show that they have always made active use of these rights and have conscientiously acted as liaisons between the UN and the women they represented.

Cold War

However, after the initial period of cooperation between feminists of different backgrounds and persuasions, the unfolding cold war decisively changed the climate and had very negative impact on the global struggle for women's rights, although the CSW managed to "secure the legal foundations of equality" in the period until 1962.10

A very concrete example is that the largest and probably most active international women's organization of the time, WIDF, lost its Consultative Status in April 1954 entirely due to contemporary cold war politics, and in what friends and foes recognized as an undemocratic procedure. Among those who protested, in vain, were Jessie Street (in a personal letter to UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld) and Dora Russell from the United Kingdom. WIDF was readmitted to the UN only in June 1967. Once they were back, this organization contributed decisively to the women's cause: it was WIDF president Hertta Kuusinen from Finland who in 1972 proposed to the CSW to hold an International Women's Year.11

International Women's Year, 1975, and the Decade for Women, 1976-1985

International Women's Year had an impact worldwide beyond expectations and was followed by the UN Decade for Women. The global women's movement as we now know it largely came into being in the context of the four UN World Conferences on women: Mexico City (1975), Copenhagen (1980), Nairobi (1985) and Beijing (1995) -- each consisting of an official UN conference and a parallel NGO conference, and each bigger and more diverse than the previous one.12 Women of the ¬global South and North clashed during the first two world conferences, but at Nairobi "consensus was found when women of the South were [.] ready to speak more freely about male-female relationships, and women of the North [.] saw firsthand that women's issues are not limited to gender equality and accepted at last that global factors affect women's conditions. [.] New global feminist organizations, such as Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN) [.]were created".13

In 1979, the UN adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), incorporating "the principles of women's rights and equality between the sexes in the provisions of international law".14 However, the fact that this Convention was needed indicated "that universally-recognized human rights are still not enjoyed equally by women and men. If they were, no convention on the elimination of discrimination against women would be needed".15

The Struggle for Women's Rights since 1985

Since 1985, the notion of "women's rights" has become more encompassing and influential. A breakthrough occurred at the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, where women's rights were finally explicitly recognized as human rights -- not less, not separate.

In addition, the Beijing Platform for Action, adopted at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women, included "the elimination of all forms of violence against women" as a key objective, whereas the 1979 CEDAW does not even mention violence against women!16 And although there is still no Convention on the elimination of all forms of violence against women, the UN now understands violence against women as an issue of security, human rights and war crimes, as exemplified in Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's support for the effort to end sexual violence.

"Human Rights for All"?

A long-term perspective not only helps to understand the various phases of women's struggle, but also to appreciate the historical nature of what has been accomplished. Women's oppression is not "natural" but historical, and as such it is thousands of years old.17 Only some 200 years ago, in 1793, did the French Government guillotine Olympe de Gouges, who during the French Revolution had composed "The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen." Building on the achievement of feminists within the League of Nations, the UN since 1945 has become the transnational centre and "unlikely Godmother"18 of women's rights, not as a given, but thanks to the hard work of and cooperation between mainly women who represented their governments and/or international women's organizations, and women working within the UN system. In that process, but especially since 1975, the international women's movement has become a global grassroots women's movement and less dominated by elite women from the North.19 In addition, within UN policy, a discursive shift has taken place from women as victims and objects to women as actors, with a concomitant focus on their empowerment.20

In direct relation to the irreversible growth and greater diversity of the women's movement, another key development is that the meaning of "women's rights" has expanded enormously since the 1940s, from a mainly legal interpretation prioritized by Western countries, to the acceptance of socio-economic rights as equally fundamental to political rights, to the inclusion of the right to "family planning", i.e., a woman's right to control what happens to her own body and, most recently, to the right to live free from violence. The notion that women's rights are human rights has become more accepted since 1993, and the links between women's rights and both development (nowadays, "sustainable development") and peace have become clear. Task Ahead But as important as it is to understand the progress that has been made, it is equally crucial to be aware of the enormity of the task that lies ahead. Despite the almost universal recognition of women's rights at the formal level, the "deep[er] structure" of women's secondary status and oppression persists, whether in countries that top the UN gender equality index or those at the bottom. There is no country in the world where women enjoy equal status with men. Moreover, the gulf between rich and poor countries has increased, and the rise of various religious fundamentalisms is a threat to women's rights in many places.21

Finally, although their literacy rates are rising, women still make up nearly two-thirds of the world's illiterate people. They also continue to be two-thirds of the world's poor (living on $1 a day or less), perform two-thirds of the world's work, and produce 50 per cent of the food, while earning only 10 per cent of the income and owning one percent of the property.22 These overall figures are as mind-boggling as on their first publication a few decades ago, when they were nearly the same. In addition, violence against women is a worldwide phenomenon of immense proportions. The United Nations Development Fund for Women reports that "for women aged 15 to 44 years, violence is a major cause of death and disability".23

Thus, whatever may have been achieved is a work in progress at best. For most women, their human rights still exist only on paper. The "women of the world don't want any more words from their governments -- they want action".24 Whether the current shift away from the UN and "toward global justice movements as the pivots of the global women's movement's attention"25 will help is an open question.


1. I am very grateful to Sara de Jong and Arlette Strijland of Aletta, Institute for Women's History in Amsterdam, for their suggestions for literature for this piece; and to Ellen Dubois (UCLA) for answering a question about Minerva Bernardino.
2. The IAW began as the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, was renamed the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship in 1926, and just International Alliance of Women in 1946.
3. Miller 1994; Winslow 1995.
4. IAW Congress Reports; Lake 2001; Miller 1994; Offen 2001; Whittick 1979; Women in a Changing World 1966.
5. Coltheart 2004; Galey 1995; Pietilä 2007; Whittick 1979. The sub-Commission became a full Commission in 1947.
6. Pietilä 2007, 12.
7. Pietilä 2007, 18.
8. IAW Congress Reports; Newsletter ICW; Reports of the CSW.
9. From 1970, Consultative Status A, B, and C were named 1, 2 and 3. ICW, IAW and WIDF were upgraded from "B" or 2 to "A" or 1 between 1969 and 1975 (Yearbooks of the United Nations).
10. Pietilä 2007, 21.
11. The earliest proposal for IWY and CEDAW that I have seen came from the Union of Australian Women, affiliated with WIDF, in a letter to the UN Secretary-General, dated 23 February 1972. See UN Archives New York, S-0446-0228-0005, file "Consultative Arrangements and Relations with WIDF." (UN archives; Yearbooks of the United Nations; Pietilä 2007, 39; De Haan 2009; Popa 2009; on the CSW, see esp. Reanda 1992).
12. For more information on these conferences, see the WomenWatch website (; see also Pietilä 2007, available on line.
13. Snyder 2006, 36; see also Walter 2001, xxi.
14. Pietilä and Vickers 1996, 126.
15. Pietilä 2007, 27.
16. Pietilä 2007, 30-32.
17. Lerner 1986.
18. Snyder 2006.
19. Antrobus 2004; Basu 1995; Ferree and Tripp 2006; Fraser and Tinker 2004; Jain 2005; Peters and Wolper 1995.
20. Zinsser 2002.
21. see e.g., Chen at al 2005; Ross 2008.
24. WEDO 2005, quoted in Harcourt 2006, 16.
25. Harcourt 2006, 1.