On New Year’s Day, Indian women stood shoulder to shoulder in a human chain stretching more than 300 miles to show their support for gender equality.
The Kerala State government organized the protest, along with more than 170 political and social organizations, to affirm women’s rights and demand social reform following violent riots over women’s attempts to enter Sabarimala temple, which was closed to women of childbearing age for centuries before India’s Supreme Court overturned the ban in September.
As many as 5 million women participated, making the “women’s wall” one of the largest demonstrations for women’s rights in history. Will this mass protest by millions of Indian women make a difference? If the past is prologue, chances are high — throughout history, women’s movements around the world have translated mass collective action into political, social and economic change.
Here are five transformational women’s marches that have altered history.
The French Revolution was sparked by a women-led demonstration in 1789. As the price of bread skyrocketed, pushing families into poverty and starvation, an estimated 7,000 women gathered in Paris, occupying the city hall to demand that grain stores be opened to address the hunger crisis. After being ignored, the women appealed directly to King Louis XVI, walking 12 miles to the Palace of Versailles. A delegation of women met with Louis XVI, but when he hesitated to comply with all of their demands, the marchers turned violent and the royal family was forced to return to Paris. The women took on the French monarchy and powerfully asserted the will of the people.
Women’s rights advocates in the early 20th century successfully deployed marches to win the right to vote. In 1908, a series of public demonstrations organized by the United Kingdom’s Women’s Social and Political Union culminated in “Women’s Sunday,” a political rally of more than 250,000 people thought to be the largest-ever demonstration at that point in British history. Across the Atlantic, the 1913 women’s suffrage parade in Washington, D.C. became the first civil rights demonstration in the U.S. capital, a tactic that has been used by activist groups ever since. The 1913 rally, held the day before President-elect Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, drew more than 5,000 women from across the country and generated national publicity that reignited the ultimately victorious U.S. movement for women’s suffrage.
On August 26, 1970, 50 years after women gained the right to vote in the United States, 50,000 women paraded down Fifth Avenue in New York City; it was described by Time magazine as the largest gathering for women’s rights since the suffrage protests. The event, called the Women’s Strike for Equality, was sponsored by the National Organization for Women. The march established feminism as a force to be reckoned with and sparked sister demonstrations across the country. Just two years later, in June 1972, Title IX passed, forbidding discrimination on the basis of sex in educational programs that received federal financial assistance. A few years later, in October 1975, Icelandic women organized a nationwide strike and protest to demand gender equality that brought the country to a standstill and highlighted the critical importance of women’s contributions to the economy. The strike led to the enactment of a gender equality law In Iceland the following year and seeded the ground for the 1980 election of Vigdis Finnbogadottir, former president of Iceland and the world’s first woman to become head of state in a national election.
Around the world, women have taken to the streets amidst seemingly intractable conflict, catalyzing public support for peace and creating turning points in movements to end violence. One example: In Northern Ireland in 1976, marches organized by women drew tens of thousands and were a defining moment in the struggle to end the decades-long strife known as the Troubles. The organizers behind the marches, Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams, won the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize. Similarly, in Liberia in 2003, the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace led weekly rallies and sit-ins, uniting women across ethnic and religious divides. Their efforts helped force warring parties to the table to hammer out a deal that ended the brutal Liberian civil war.
The Women’s March in January 2017 was likely the largest single-day protest in the United States, and the largest global women’s rights protest in history. With crowds of hundreds of thousands gathering in cities across the country, an estimated 3 to 5 million American women participated, joined by at least 261 additional sister marches in countries around the globe. The Women’s March heralded a new global wave of women’s activism that has been sustained by the viral #MeToo movement — which has reached 85 countries — and has resulted in historic numbers of women running for office worldwide. The 2019 Women’s March is scheduled for Jan. 19.
From the French revolution to the present, women’s voices and leadership have shaped the course of human history. India’s remarkable “women’s wall” may be the latest and largest example, but it surely won’t be the last.
Rachel Vogelstein is the Douglas Dillon senior fellow and director of the Women and Foreign Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations. Rebecca Turkington is assistant director of the Women and Foreign Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations.