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Four Takes: On the rights of women 25 years after the Beijing Declaration on Women

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of “We Should All Be Feminists.”JANETTE PELLEGRINI/GETTY IMAGES/FILE

September 20, 2020

Earlier this month, the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration on Women passed with little notice. Produced by the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women, the document marked what elated advocates saw as a turning point in the struggle for equal rights.

In a historic address, then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton called on all nations to acknowledge that women’s rights are inseparable from human rights. Writing in the October issue of The Atlantic, Clinton notes that in the years since, women have realized gains across the globe. Yet a UN Population Fund report warns that the COVID-19 pandemic could prove “catastrophic” for women, with setbacks that include increased caregiving burdens, diminished access to contraceptives, and more intimate-partner violence.

Over the summer, Americans also marked the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which afforded women the right to vote. (In theory, that is: discriminatory state laws thwarted millions of Black women from casting ballots until the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed.) Many now argue that the vote alone is not enough. To ensure that their voices are truly heard, more women must hold office.

In “The Right to Be Elected: 100 Years Since Women’s Suffrage,” the Boston Review Forum has called on several scholars to weigh this elusive goal. In her informative lead essay, Jennifer M. Piscopo notes that more than 70 nations have adopted quotas. Some require political parties to run certain percentages of women for office, others to reserve a certain number of legislative positions for them. (The push has been notably strong in Latin America, with Argentina leading the way.)

Hoping to spur such action, the Beijing conference had highlighted women’s low representation. Yet today, as Clinton points out, only four countries in the world have gender parity in their legislative bodies.

Like many, she argues that augmenting women’s power means increasing their representation in both the public and private sectors. In “Launching While Female: Smashing the System That Holds Women Entrepreneurs Back,” Susanne Althoff focuses on women’s efforts to establish their own businesses. Based on interviews with more than 100 women and nonbinary entrepreneurs, “Launching While Female” combines keen analysis with tales from the front lines.

Studies show that women-led startups perform better than companies launched by men. Yet investors commonly subject women’s projects to higher standards, awarding them less than 3 percent of all US venture capital.

Arlan Hamilton, a Black woman who has gained a following in tech circles, launched her own venture capital fund in 2015. She aimed it at startups led by women, people of color, and those who identify as LGBTQ, after being told once too often that such groups were bad bets. In three years, she raised and doled out more than $4 million to 100 companies, showing on a small scale what was possible.

In Althoff’s telling, the entrepreneurial world remains very much a boys’ club. Women seeking the kind of support men enjoy are stymied by negative stereotypes and, often, sexual harassment. Not surprisingly, they cite a lack of confidence as one of the greatest hurdles to success. Yet for women, projecting too much self-assurance can alienate investors. To achieve influence, one study showed, they must (unlike men) also be perceived as caring.

One woman who has grown sick of this game is Jennifer Palmieri. The director of communications for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, Palmieri has followed up her best-selling book, “Dear Madam President,” with a feminist manifesto. “She Proclaims: Our Declaration of Independence From a Man’s World” calls on women to reject masculine definitions of success and to support each other’s ambitions.

No Stopping Us Now: The Adventures of Older Women in American History,” by Gail Collins, offers a few centuries’ worth of models. For years now, Collins has been serving up a wry indictment of the sexism pervading the American political system, through both her New York Times column and a growing number of books.

Beginning in the mid-1800s, she writes in her latest, women in their 50s and 60s led the first great push for equal rights. Since then, progress has often depended on breakthroughs by individuals such as Millicent Fenwick, a liberal Republican from New Jersey who was first elected to Congress at 64. Collins notes that when Fenwick took her seat, in 1975, she was one of just 19 women in the US House of Representatives. Those numbers have improved, yet today, women still make up less than a quarter of the lower chamber.

One frequently proposed answer, echoed by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in “We Should All Be Feminists,” is to raise our daughters, and sons, differently. (With Adichie’s compact classic, and with thanks to indulgent editors, this column temporarily becomes 4½ Takes.)

Based on a TEDx talk delivered in 2012, “We Should All Be Feminists” is a rallying cry aimed foremost at African audiences. Adichie articulates familiar themes, but with such charm and clarity that her reach extends further, to the universal aspirations of Beijing. We should all read her.

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