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This International Women’s Day We Are Taking a Look at the Evolution of Women's Rights Movements in Portugal

This International Women’s Day We Are Taking a Look at the Evolution of Women's Rights Movements in Portugal

Each year on the 8th March we celebrate International Women's Day. Contrary to what is most often associated with International Women’s Day; this day is not marked by flowers, chocolates and the offering of compliments to the women in your life. This day, in my view, has two main purposes.   

The first goes back more than six hundred years, when women started to stand up against gender inequality. As we know, for centuries women's role in society was solely that of procreation and of looking after the home and children.   

The fight for gender equality began to really develop in the Age of Enlightenment, in the 17th and 18th centuries, in which a growing recognition of the need for freedom and equality came about. Movements fighting for equal rights were born out of societal dissatisfaction, particularly among women, and these early movements formed the foundations for many of the shifts that took place in gender equality. Women began to claim bigger roles in social, economic and political spheres. 

One of the primary struggles was the right to vote. As soon as women were granted this right, they gained the power to participate in a democratic society. This struggle persisted over a long period of time. The first country to grant women the right to vote was New Zealand, in 1893. England played a very important role in the pro-suffrage movements, however, women only managed to obtain the right to vote after the First World War (1918). This achievement was directly related to the influence the strength of female labour demonstrated during the war.   

In Portugal, the first woman to have the right to vote was Carolina Beatriz Ângelo, a doctor who, as "head of the family" after becoming a widow, took advantage of a gap in the legislation and on 28 May 1911, became the first woman to vote for the Constituent Assembly. The law stated that all "Portuguese citizens over 21 years of age, who knew how to read and write and were the heads of families" could exercise their right to vote. Carolina Beatriz Ângelo used her status as head of her family after becoming widowed, and ability to read and write, to enable her to vote. After a court hearing, she was granted the right. At this time it was not common for woman to be literate, much less be head of family.  

Portuguese society could have taken advantage of this occasion to extend the vote to all women in the same situation, but no. Instead the Portuguese government rewrote the legislation, excluding women from the right to vote.   

Only in 1931 was the right to vote effectively granted to Portuguese women, but even then this right was only for women who were heads of family, i.e., all married women would not be given this right, as this power was only attributed to their husbands.  

Women only became able to vote in Portugal, regardless of their marital status, after the 25th April revolution. It was only in 1976 after the Carnation Revolution that we witnessed a real political and social change in Portuguese legislation, with no distinction between men and women: 

"The electors of the Constituent Assembly are Portuguese citizens of both sexes, over 18 years of age, completed by 28 February 1975, resident in the electoral territory or in the overseas territories still under Portuguese administration, as well as the non-residents therein indicated in the present diploma."       ( Law No. 621-A/74.[9] Art. 1)  

Nowadays, for Portuguese women, the right to vote seems to be a "normal" or "acquired" right, but looking at history, it was not so long ago that women were not allowed to vote. The coup d'état of April 25th was only roughly 50 years ago. The time our grandmothers were in the prime of life, it was impossible for them to have an active voice, purely because they were married. They weren’t valued as human beings, as people or able to express their opinions and have the power of decision in their lives and in the lives of the community they belonged to.  

It is scary for me, as a woman, to think that in such recent times, women were seen as inferior beings who did not have the capacity to make decisions. 

This paragraph brings us to the second purpose, in my opinion, of the celebration of International Women's Day: reflection.  

For me on this day it is essential to reflect, not only as women but as a society, on what happened not so long ago. To be conscious of, and value what our ancestors did for us, so that today we can be seen in society as thinking, active beings, workers, individuals and as capable as any man. We are all human beings, albeit with different biological characteristics, but these differences, in my opinion, should be used as an added value and not as the basis for any kind of discrimination.   

The UN made March 8th "International Women's Day” in 1975. I remind you that at that time in Portugal, married women were still not allowed to vote. Sometimes this day is belittled, but it is incredibly important, and one should look past the gifts and flowers, and focus on what we as women have accomplished, not only on this day, but everyday. 

Fortunately, in the period of history in which we live, our reality is quite different from that talked about above. Today, women can hold positions of leadership, they are seen at work as productive and capable. Domestic work is better divided between men and women and girls can dream of being whatever they wish, without having to face revolts and demonstrations that happened in times that despite seeming in the distant past, in reality, are not. Proof of this happened very recently in our country. On 22nd February last year, the women's football team secured for the first time in history, their presence in a World Cup. This qualification only confirmed what has been known for some time, that football, like so many other things, is no longer just a man's sport.   

To me, as a woman, but above all as a mother of two girls, I am happy, and more relaxed having been born in a time when we can be free, when we are an asset to society, a society that gives us the freedom of choice, decision and to be happy in our own way; the way in which we desire.

Written by: Cláudia Ferreira