This Women’s History Month, we have cause to celebrate. But we also need to consider the many challenges before us. As we look back at the turmoil of 2020 – a global pandemic, the deepest global recession since World War II and rising inequality– we must remember that throughout history some of the most tumultuous and tragic periods have led to chapters of profound progress and rebirth. In the United States, a record number of women were voted to both Congress and state legislatures. Ethiopia closed 70.5% of its gender gap. 15-year-old Gitanjali Rao became Time Magazine’s first-ever “Kid of the Year.” Saudi Arabia made some ground-breaking progress toward parity as part of its Vision 2030. Iceland closed 70% of its political empowerment gap and Rwanda became the first country to have a majority of women in its government. However, despite such monumental gains, there has also been tremendous setback – a crucial reminder that our responses must be alive in our ongoing journey toward gender equality.
For one, we need to recognize that progress is not linear. As a woman born and raised in pre-revolutionary Iran during a relatively liberal period, I left in the immediate aftermath of the Islamic Revolution. From afar, I witnessed my birth country radically shift and with it the lives of its women, who for over four decades now, have challenged the gender discriminatory laws and fought to regain their rights and their right to self-determination.
The pushback on women’s rights in countries like Iran are powerful reminders not to be complacent in our assumption of linear progression when it comes to gender equality. Not that women haven’t always fought for their rights. In fact, generations of women have made seminal contributions in practically every field, yet they occupy a mere 0.5% of recorded history.
In my book, Anonymous Is a Woman, I explore the erasure of women’s achievements from history, highlighting fifty women innovators in various fields, who pushed the boundaries, boldly questioning and challenging why they could not be equal with men and participate in society. They represent a mere fraction of the thousands of women who deserve proper recognition for their extraordinary contributions in practically every sector, and they should all be household names, yet remain obscure figures.
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Take, for example, American scientist Eunice Newton Foote, who in in 1856 became the first person to discover the principal cause of global warming. As a woman she was not allowed to present her findings at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, thus a male colleague took her place.
This is a discouraging tale, yes, but it is also an important reminder that with every challenge comes opportunity – the chance not just to make things different, but maybe even better. Writer Anais Nin wrote “Life shrinks and expands in proportion to one’s courage.”
This is why I’m so excited to collaborate with Girl Up on this social awareness campaign to mark March Women’s History Month. I’m in tremendous awe of the courage and wisdom of Girl Up leaders across the world and the global community of partners Girl Up has built to improve the education, health, safety, and leadership opportunities for girls all over the world – a collective of passionate, inspirational young women, dedicated to leading the way for social change in their communities and beyond.
As a historian and writer of women’s hidden histories, I hope that the many unsung women of history that paved their way will inspire these young women leaders of tomorrow with the knowledge and strength of a long and relentless journey of perseverance by a global sisterhood to move beyond gender barriers.
This journey begins the moment you find your personal calling. It grows when you envision and create your own narrative. And it flourishes with every step that brings you closer to fulfilling your destiny. Remember, when one woman wins, all women win. And when one woman fulfills her destiny … it inspires other women to do the same.
Dr. Nina Ansary is an award-winning Iranian-American author, historian, and women’s rights advocate. As a UN Women Global Champion for Innovation and Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics Centre for Women, Peace & Security, she regularly presents her work on the transformative role women are playing in global affairs at multilateral conferences, think tanks and universities in the US and the UK, including Columbia, Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge.