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Women's Rights in the Spotlight at Mercy

Women's march

As we enter women’s history month on the heels of the second Women’s March and the #MeToo movement, one thing is clearer than ever: women’s rights is very much a current issue. “Even though we’ve had the right to vote for almost a century,” explains Mercy history professor Maureen MacLeod, Ph.D., “women still struggle to make our voices heard. Yes, it may have been a fight that our foremothers fought, but we must continue on. It’s not over. And women are still fighting for the ability to vote in other parts of the world.”

The ongoing nature of the fight for women’s rights was a central focus of a history course that MacLeod taught last semester: Global Women’s Suffrage Movements. Since coming to Mercy in 2015, she has wanted to teach students about the global context of women’s history and help them understand that women’s rights are still taking shape today. She notes that Saudi women, for example, voted for the first time in 2015 and were only recently—in the middle of MacLeod’s course last semester, in fact—granted the right to drive starting in June 2018.

The course began with the history of women’s suffrage in the United States in order to build students’ foundational knowledge. While tracing the path to women’s suffrage, students examined case studies of specific states. Then, the course’s lens expanded to focus on case studies of how women won the vote in countries across the world, including Zimbabwe, China, Russia, and Iran. Finally, each student selected a country or region, independently researched the history of women’s rights there, and presented their findings to the class. One student focused on Australia where women won the right to vote in the early 20th century—many years before the United States. However, aboriginal women were left out, and they had to agitate to receive even basic rights because they were not recognized as women. Other students studied women’s rights in Germany, Spain and Italy under fascism. When women were no longer allowed to work or attend school, there was no real uprising, revealing apathy for the idea of women having roles outside the home. Some students will present expanded versions of their research at an undergraduate history conference in early April to receive feedback from both Mercy faculty and guest faculty.

In developing this course, MacLeod aimed to build students’ awareness and inspire them to take action in some way. And it was a clear success. With a diverse group of students enrolled—both women and men, both history majors and non-majors—the course helped expose a cross-section of Mercy undergraduates to the evolving history of women’s rights. “I think we still have a lot of work to do for women,” student Liz Barbecho explains. “I realized that there were common themes among every country we learned about. Women were oppressed by men, social norms, and their cultures. Despite this, there were still women who fought hard to get the right to vote and have more freedom!” Many students wanted to do more with their knowledge, so they joined the Women’s March or contacted their representatives to ask them to advocate for women’s rights. “Students are ready to volunteer to be part of something,” MacLeod says. “That’s inspiring and the best reward. They’re taking part in their futures and becoming activists.”

The course Global Women’s Suffrage Movements contributes to a larger, Mercy-wide emphasis on women’s empowerment. On Friday, March 2, women from the Mercy community—particularly first-generation and nontraditional college-educated women—will have the opportunity to explore women’s leadership and empowerment at a conference entitled Pathways to Power: The Journey of Women to Empowerment. Keynote speaker Joy-Ann Reid—an award-winning journalist and host of MSNBC’s “AM Joy”—along with several other presenters will help women find their voices and ways to make a difference. The conference will take place on Friday, March 2 from 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. in the Mercy College Rotunda on the Dobbs Ferry Campus.

Conference attendees might meet MacLeod—who helped plan the event—and students from Global Women’s Suffrage Movements who will be speaking that day. As they take action in this way, Mercy students join the ranks of women throughout history who have fought for their rights.