Female activism: 10 remarkable protests from around the world

For centuries, women have taken to the streets to fight discrimination, instigate change, and make their voices heard. As Women's History Month continues, we look back at 10 remarkable examples...

Police lead away a suffragettes, arrested for chaining herself to the railings of Buckingham Palace
1

The Suffrage movement – 19th Century to the present, worldwide

The right of women, by law, to vote in national and local elections has been a topic of discussion since ancient times. But serious campaigning for female suffrage in the modern world can really be seen to have begun in the late-19th century, with New Zealand, in 1893, becoming the first self-governing country in the world to give all women the right to vote in parliamentary elections. The fight by suffrage campaigners in New Zealand, such as Kate Sheppard, inspired women across the world to take up the fight in their own countries.

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In Britain, late 19th-century parliamentary reforms, which had given more men the right to vote, yet rejected petitions to enfranchise women at the same time, led to the creation of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), which boasted more than 50,000 members. Years of non-violent campaigning ensued under the leadership of Millicent Garrett Fawcett, including lobbying MPs, petitions to parliament, marches and protests. But with their pleas falling on deaf ears, many women became frustrated at seemingly fruitless peaceful tactics and decided to take more direct action. And so the Suffragettes were born in the form of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), led by Manchester suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst with her daughters, Christabel, Sylvia and Adela, under the motto ‘Deeds Not Words’.

Suffragettes parade through the streets of Washington, DC, in 1913
Suffragettes parade through the streets of Washington, DC, in 1913. (Photo by Photo12/UIG/Getty Images)

From around 1905, a new strand of the women’s suffrage movement grew and demonstrations became increasingly angry, with window smashing, hunger strikes, arson attacks and even bombing deployed by militant suffragettes. Ultimately, it was the essential work of women in World War I that proved to be the catalyst for change, and in 1918, some 8.5 million women (over the age of 30 who met a property qualification) were granted the right to vote. It would not be until 1928, however, that all British women over the age of 21 became enfranchised.

Between 1893 and 1960, 129 countries and territories granted women the right to vote, including the US (in 1920, following ratification of the 19th Amendment). Black and Asian women in the US were still subject to discriminatory voting laws, however, which persisted until the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In Australia, Indigenous women were not enfranchised until 1962, while black women in South Africa had to wait until 1993 and the end of Apartheid – more than 60 years after white South African women were granted voting rights. The most recent country to grant women the right to vote (in local elections since the country has no national elections) was Saudi Arabia, in 2015.

2

Aba Women’s War – 1929, Nigeria

From November–December 1929, some 25,000 women in the provinces of Calabar and Owerri in southeastern Nigeria rebelled against oppressive policies introduced by British colonial administrators, including a new market tax.

The women attacked European-owned stores and Native Courts run by colonial officials, and in some areas forced British-imposed ‘warrant chiefs’ to resign. But they faced brutal retaliation from colonial troops, with more than 50 women killed and dozens more injured.

The uprising is widely considered to be one of the first major challenges to British authority in West Africa during the colonial period, and many of the proposed plans were dropped as a result, including the market tax.

3

The matchgirls’ strike – 1888, UK

Members of the Matchmakers Union who went on strike at the Bryant and May's factory in London
Members of the Matchmakers Union who went on strike at the Bryant and May’s factory in London. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In 1888, with the support of socialist activists, some 200 girls at London’s Bryant & May factory downed tools in protest against work conditions and meagre pay. They were joined by 1,200 more workers and the company eventually conceded to their demands promising, among other things, to abolish fines and wage deductions and
introduce a breakfast room.

4

Women’s March on Versailles1789, France

The Women's March on Versailles was a protest about the price and availability of bread
The Women’s March on Versailles was a protest about the price and availability of bread (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

One of the earliest events of the French Revolution, the Women’s March started in the marketplaces of Paris in protest against the scarcity, and escalating cost, of bread. Before long, thousands of women brandishing weapons were en route to the Palace of Versailles, determined to force Louis XVI back to Paris.

The king heard their grievances but, unconvinced, some of those in the crowd besieged the palace and nearly captured Marie Antoinette. The siege only ended when Louis XVI agreed to move the royal court back to the city.

5

The Putilov strike – 1917, Russia

Striking Putilov workers in St Petersburg, on the first day of the February Revolution
Striking Putilov workers in St Petersburg, on the first day of the February Revolution. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

On 8 March 1917, International Women’s Day (23 February in the old Russian calendar), groups of (mainly) women began gathering on Nevsky Prospekt in the Russian capital of Petrograd.

By midday, numbers had swelled to tens of thousands, many clutching homemade banners demanding change. The afternoon saw them joined by female textile workers who had gone on strike in protest against bread shortages, and by late afternoon, some 100,000 people – including men – had joined the strike.

The following day, as many as 150,000 people took to the streets, some looting, overturning trams or fighting police; others simply marching for change. After a rally in Znamenskaya Square, where speeches called for an end to the monarchy, the crowds finally dispersed. But the demonstration, led initially by women, helped sow the seeds of the Russian Revolution.

6

Women’s March – 1956, South Africa

“Wathint’ Abafazi, Wathint’ Imbokodo!” (“You strike a woman, you strike a rock”), sung 20,000 South African women of all races and backgrounds in unison.

Gathered outside the headquarters of the South African Government, in Pretoria, this demonstration on 9 August 1956 protested against the compulsory carrying of passes by black women, which controlled and limited where they could travel and prevented them from finding better-paid work in the city. “We shall not rest until we have won for our children their fundamental rights of freedom, justice, and security” declared the petition presented to government.

7

Miss World protest – 1970, UK

Demonstrators protest at the 1970 Miss World contest in London's Royal Albert Hall
Demonstrators protest at the 1970 Miss World contest in London’s Royal Albert Hall (Photo by Leonard Burt/Central Press/Getty Images)

The 20th Miss World beauty pageant was thrown into disarray in 1970 when women’s liberation protesters stormed the Royal Albert Hall in London, where 58 women were competing for the Miss World title. The 100 million viewers (22 million in the UK alone) watching the event on TV screens across the world could only gape as host Bob Hope was pelted with rotten fruit and vegetables, flour and stink bombs.

As well as objecting to the idea of women being judged solely on their looks, the protesters also wanted to draw attention to the multinational companies and press who supported the competition. The protesters were each fined around £1,500 in today’s money and some spent a night in the cells; the BBC stopped broadcasting the event in the 1980s.

8

Miss Australia Quest protest – 1981, Australia

In 1981, the International Year of Disabled Persons, feminist and disability advocate Lesley Hall and others from the Women With Disabilities Feminist Collective smuggled protest placards into the finals of the Miss Australia Quest competition, at St Kilda Town Hall in Victoria.

The pageant was being held to raise funds for the then-named Spastic Society (now Scope), supporting people with cerebral palsy. But Hall – who also lived with a mobility-limiting condition – and her co-campaigners stormed the stage to protest against the stigmatisation of people with disabilities, none of whom were represented at such beauty pageants.

9

Women’s Liberation Movement – 1960s–80s, worldwide

Bella Abzug (1920 - 1998) is running for Congress and is one of the chief organisers of the Women's Liberation Day parade in New York, on the 50th anniversary of women winning the vote in the United States. She is carrying an anti-motherhood sign reading 'Free the female body from pain and inequality. Put motherhood in a test-tube'. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Bella Abzug (1920 – 1998) is running for Congress and is one of the chief organisers of the Women’s Liberation Day parade in New York, on the 50th anniversary of women winning the vote in the United States. She is carrying an anti-motherhood sign reading ‘Free the female body from pain and inequality. Put motherhood in a test-tube’. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

The Women’s Liberation Movement emerged in the 1960s – predominately in the West – during a period of rapid social and cultural change, and campaigned on a range of issues affecting women – from the objectification of and violence against women, to equal pay, reproductive and abortion rights and sex-based discrimination.

A host of methods – both legal and illegal – were used to raise awareness of the issues at the heart of the movement, and to demand social and legal change – including protest marches, ‘die-ins’, letter writing, flour bombing, as well as supporting women at a grass roots level in consciousness-raising groups.

10

Greenham Common – 1981–2000, UK

29 October 1983 Greenham Common - women cut down large sections of the perimeter fence. (Photo by: Photofusion/Jenny Matthews/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
29 October 1983 Greenham Common – women cut down large sections of the perimeter fence. (Photo by: Photofusion/Jenny Matthews/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

In September 1981, the Welsh group ‘Women for Life on Earth’ arrived at Greenham Common, Berkshire, to protest against the decision to site 96 Cruise nuclear missiles there. When attempts to discuss the decision were ignored, they set up camp outside the fence surrounding RAF Greenham Common airbase. The Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp was born.

For the next 19 years, women occupied the camp 24 hours a day, in all weathers, and without electricity or running water. One of the biggest events held at the site took place in December 1982, when more than 30,000 women joined hands around the base. The missiles were removed between 1989 and 1991, but the Peace Camp remained as a protest against nuclear weapons; the last women left in September 2000.

Charlotte Hodgman is editor of BBC History Revealed

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This content first appeared in the December 2020 issue of BBC History Revealed