3 friendships that reshaped women’s rights

March 29, 2017

What’s better than a story of one revolutionary woman changing the face of women’s rights? Feminist friends joining up to make history together. These women where all legendary in their own right, but when they combined their efforts, they moved mountains.

From changing Egyptian perceptions of women in Islam, gaining women the right to vote in the Philippines, to bringing together the burgeoning feminist movement in Russia, these women deserve your attention.

Huda Sha’arawi and Eugénie Le Brun

Huda Sha’arawi

It’s pretty much impossible to read about the Egyptian feminist movement without seeing the names Huda Sha’arawi and Eugénie Le Brun. At a time when women’s movements were heavily restricted and women were confined to their homes, Huda and Eugenie argued that many of these limits were not found in the Quran, but Egyptian society.

Eugenie was born in France, where she received an education and participated in the intellectual pursuits of the French intellectual elite. When she met and married Husayn Rushdi Pasha, who would go on to become an Egyptian Prime Minister, she moved with him to Cairo and chose to convert to Islam.

An avid academic, Eugenie studied the Quran and came to the conclusion that, contrary to western views at the time, Islam afforded women many rights and, in itself, was a liberating force. She argued that many abuses of women were due to corrupt interpretations by powerful figures, and began hosting salons in her home for women to come together and discuss issues.

Huda was one of these women. The two became close friends, and Huda considered Eugenie a life-long mentor. After Eugenie’s death in 1908, Huda continued and grew her practise of gathering women for public lectures. These lectures led to the Egyptian Feminist Union, the first formal feminist group, which laid the groundwork for huge wins for women’s rights in Egypt. In 1910, she opened a school for girls that taught academic subjects – pretty radical when midwifery was the most other schools offered.

A particularly pivotal movement in Egypt’s feminist history came in 1923. Before her death, Eugenie would talk unveiling as a choice that the Quran actually allowed. Huda made the decision to veil and unveil at various times in her life, placing the emphasis on the Quran’s respect of women’s choice. Eugenie changed Huda’s life, and Huda went on to change the lives of millions. By 1925, primary education was compulsory for girls as well as boys, thanks to demands form the Egyptian Feminist Union, and eventually women were admitted to the national university.

Concepción Felix and Pura Villanueva Kalaw

A stamp of Concepción Felix, and Pura Villanueva Kalaw

In the early 1900s, Concepción Felix was one of the first women to attend law school and be admitted to the bar in the Philippines. Pura Villanueva Kalaw was a writer, journalist, and suffragette. Together, they’re credited with being some of the first feminists in the Philippines.

In their early days, the women went about their work in advancing women’s rights in different ways. Concepción founded the Feminist Association of the Philippines, which called for prison and labour reform for women and children and the inclusion of women on local education and community boards. Two years later, she co-founded La Gota de Leche, an organisation that supported mothers and their children with their medical and nutritional needs – and is still going today.

Pura took a different tact – in 1906, she organised a suffrage group, and only a year later, their efforts saw the first suffrage bill being submitted to the Philippine Assembly.  She wrote a column and edited the women’s page for a prominent newspaper, and later co-edited a pro-suffrage publication.

After a visit from American feminist Carrie Chapman Catt in 1912, Concepción and Pura joined forces with other women and forced the Society for the Advancement of Women. Things really picked up steam from there – through their collective action, the women lobbied for suffrage. It took them 17 years, thousands of signatures, and a several calls for action, after the government flip-flopped on an original bill of rights in 1933. But in 1937, a plebiscite was held and a landslide victory of 447,725 saw women finally gain the right to vote. All thanks to women working together.

Anna Filosofova, Maria Trubnikova and Nadezhda Stasova

Anna Filosofova

Anna Filosofova, Maria Trubnikova and Nadezhda Stasova were trailblazers in Russia’s feminist movement in the mid-19th century. Growing up in wealthy noble family, Anna received some level of education at home – but university and formal education were still unobtainable, even for a women of her social standing.  When she married into a family who owned serfs, labourers bound to serve their lords, she became increasingly concerned with the life of those who society had deprived of opportunities.

Soon she met Maria, who gave Anna books on women’s rights. Together with their friend Nadezhda, they became increasingly concerned with society’s treatment of poor women. But rather than simply give money, they believed that educating women, teaching skills like sewing and connecting them with work would improve their lives in the long-term.

In 1860, they founded ‘Society for Cheap Lodging and Other Aid to the Residents of Saint Petersburg’, which provided women with low-cost housing and connected them with sewing work in local businesses.

This was a pretty revolutionary idea at the time – but the trio weren’t done yet. In 1867, they petitioned the Tsar to allow women to enrol in university courses. This was pretty quickly denied, but the Education Minister did allow women to start attending lectures at universities. After negative public reaction saw these shut down, Anna and her associates opened the Bestuzhev Courses for women in the late 1870s.

When Russia finally opened all universities to women after the revolution, these courses were no longer the only way for women to get an education – but these women were honoured by the Tsar for their trailblazing work.

These feminists show the strength, power and resilience of women working together – and how powerful they can be in creating lasting change. They also personify why we work the way we do – in collaboration, in solidarity, and as part of a global movement.

Note: As with many of history’s sHEROes, not all these women have recorded images – but this doesn’t lessen their amazing contributions.

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