Big News: Women on the Money!
The U.S. Treasury has just announced that a portrait of a woman will appear on the $10 bill. Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew will make the choice by the end of the year.
Support the woman nominee of your choice, and keep those cards and letters pouring in to the Treasury!
A woman on the ten dollar bill would be a great milestone, but we ought to run the numbers to see how much the Treasury really values that woman. First, the woman will have to share the $10 with Alexander Hamilton: she will appear on only half the bills. Second, the $10 bill is worth only half the $20 bill. Third, there are four time more $20 bills in circulation than $10 bills (2 billion $10s versus 8 billion $20s). Hence, the woman will appear on a half of a half of a fourth - only one-sixteenth - of the 160 billion bucks that Andy Jackson commands on the $20. Is that fair?
It’s disturbingly similar to the total compensation of the thirteen women compared to that of the 187 men among the 200 best paid American chief executives, around one-sixteenth. It’s almost like Treasurer Jacob Lew adjusted the woman’s place on the currency to match the gender imbalance of American executive compensation. Maybe he didn’t want to embarrass the boys’ club by letting a woman look more valuable than the lads.
The WomenOn20s site, which was mentioned several weeks ago in Part 1 of this essay, announced in May that its voters (600,000 in all) chose abolitionist, underground railroad conductor, and suffragist Harriet Tubman to be their candidate for the first woman on the $20 dollar bill.
Here is what literate and witty Gail Collins, NY Times columnist (also former NYT editorial page editor and author of America’s Women) says about Tubman versus Jackson.
(For Part 1 of this essay on Women's Literation, see:
OK, enough about money, now back to literacy and women’s rights.
Why spend more time on this subject?
First, as a fundamental precept of human rights, women should have access to education equal to what men have, and where the State supports education, it has the obligation to educate girls equally as well as boys, women as well as men.
Second, out of sheer self-interest, anyone who works in the typographic industry should favor women’s literacy because it potentially doubles the size of the market for books, magazines, newspapers, fonts, and related forms of information exchange mediated through literacy, including social media and search. Moreover, in commerce, women’s literacy has a multiplier effect because women are the major consumers in modern literate society: they buy not only for themselves but on behalf of others in their families. Women make decisions on major family purchases of new cars, homes, health care, vacations, and other big-ticket items. In modern societies, information that influences buying decisions is often conveyed through literacy, including package labeling, signage, reviews, and advertising.
Whether one’s motivation is morality or money, women’s literacy is a key factor in success.
Part 1 of this essay traced connections between education of women in the 19th century and achievement of women’s suffrage in the early 20th century in Britain and America. The pattern for Britain and America was that women’s literation came first, followed by educated women agitating for the vote and eventually getting it, but one or two generations (40 to 50 years) after universal education had been instituted for girls as well as boys.
But is the Anglo-American pattern a fluke? Does it apply to other countries?
In modernizing, industrializing European nations, the sequence from women’s literacy to women’s suffrage is often similar to the Anglo-American pattern, but around the world, in countries formed from former colonies, former kingdoms or empires, or derived other political structures, the sequences and outcomes of women’s literation often differ.
Here are a few examples.
FRANCE: the Gallic approach to women’s literacy and suffrage
In France, as was true in western and European civilization since antiquity, the aristocracy was generally more literate than lower classes, and in each social class, women were less literate than men. The lowest literacy rates were among women in the laboring class and rural populations. France differed in politics, religion, culture, and industry from Britain, but literacy disparities between men and women were not dissimilar. In the 19th century France, literacy rates for men ranged, roughly, from 20% to 60%, and for women, 10% to 35%, with a great deal of variation depending on urban versus rural location, social class, and geographic region.
Before the French Revolution, and for several decades afterwards, primary schooling in France had been provided and administered mainly by the Catholic Church. After the Revolution, French Republican (revolutionary) politicians favored secular education as part of a broader conflict between radical and conservative ideologies. Radicals and Republicans were anti-clerical and anti-monarchist, hence and supported free, secular public education for a secular society. Political conservatives, favoring the church and monarchy, believed that education administered through the church would better inculcate traditional religious and political values. This opposition was not unique to France or to the 18th and 19th centuries. Similar disputes over secular and religious education remain rife in many countries today, albeit involving different religions and political systems.
Whether secular or religious, public or private, the number of primary schools in France did increase during the 19th century and gradually raised literacy rates for men, but not as much for women; girls were still excluded from education during much of the century.
But, after almost a century of debate on education, in 1881 and 1882, the French parliament passed two laws that established universal, free, secular, and mandatory elementary schooling for girls as well as boys. These laws are often called the “Jules Ferry” laws after the minister of public instruction credited with their creation and implementation.
French hopes for public schooling resembled those that motivated the British Education Act. One goal was to strengthen France in international industrial competition by educating industrial workers, who, it was asserted, needed more education than farmers. An urgent goal was to raise the human quality of France’s armed forces, which had suffered a humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, when the Prussian military was better organized, better led, and used more modern transportation (railroad) and communication (telegraph) than French forces. A third goal of education was to reinforce the French political system by providing a literate electorate. A related goal, for the Republicans, was to strengthen the secular state with secular education, thereby diminishing the power of the conservative church and its monarchist supporters.
If, like Britain and America, France had a fifty year gap between girls education and women’s suffrage, it would have instituted women’s suffrage around 1932, fifty years after the Jules Ferry laws were passed. In the event, women's suffrage was not passed in France until 1944, and the first national elections in which women could generally vote was in 1945, sixty-three years after the second Jules Ferry law of 1882.
France, which had declared the “Rights of man and of the citizen” in 1789, in the French Revolution against the old monarchist regime, did not get around to recognizing women’s rights until 1944, some 155 years later.
That was not because France lacked outstanding literate women during those years. In the 19th century, George Sand (pseudonym of Aurore Dupin) was a famous novelist notable also for her non-conformist life style. Her contemporary, Flora Tristan was a prolific writer and campaigner for women’s rights and socialism, but died relatively young and is less well remembered outside of France, but Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa wrote a novel about her and her grandson, Paul Gauguin.
In the early 20th century, there was the popular novelist Colette, probably best known in the US for her novel Gigi, which was made into a musical and popular film starring Maurice Chevalier, Louis Jourdan, and Leslie Caron in the title role. Très French. Colette was also notorious for her liberated life style.
Most relevant to this essay is France’s pre-eminent feminist philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir, the peer of France’s most celebrated philosophers and intellectuals, including her long-time partner, Jean-Paul Sartre, and others of their time, including philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty and anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. Despite her brilliant intellect and achievements, De Beauvoir was not able to vote until she was 37. Her influential feminist treatise The Second Sex, was published in 1949.
GERMANY: the Prussian approach
It is more difficult to chart the course of elementary education of girls in Germany because there was a great deal of variation among the different German states prior to the unification of Germany in 1871 (achieved after Prussia’s defeat of France). Among the various, independent German states, Prussia took an early lead in education as well as in warfare. During the first half of the 19th century, Prussia established free primary schooling, including girls and boys, and promoted professionally trained school teachers, state funded schools, and secular education. Higher education for girls was, however, limited by the conservative German attitude toward women’s education expressed in the old maxim: ”Kinder, Küche, Kirche” maxim (“Children, Kitchen, Church”).
Nevertheless, secondary schools for girls were established in Prussia in 1872. Some 46 years later, women’s suffrage in Germany was established near the end of World War I, in 1918, after Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated and the German Imperial government was replaced by a revolutionary government. The first German national elections in which women could vote were in 1919, nearly the same time as in Britain and America, but a quarter-century ahead of France.
OTHER EUROPEAN COUNTRIES
Some European countries established women’s suffrage in advance of England and Germany, while others lagged behind, some far behind.
In accord with the socially progressive proclivities of Scandinavian societies, Finland instituted women’s suffrage in 1906; Norway in 1913, Denmark in 1915. Sweden allowed women some voting rights in the 18th century but rescinded them in 1771. In 1862, Sweden restored the right to vote in municipal elections to tax-paying women who were unmarried, divorced, or widowed. (Married women had to let their husbands do the voting.) National women’s suffrage was not instituted until 1919, in time for the national election in 1921.
In several countries, women’s suffrage was established around the end of WWI or WWII. Profound disruptions of society followed by establishments of new social or political orders seemed to favor women’s suffrage: Poland, in 1918; Netherlands, in 1919; Italy, in 1946; Belgium, in 1948; Greece, in 1944 (partial), and fully in 1952.
Former British colonies had established some levels of women’s suffrage before Britain itself: New Zealand in 1893; Australia in 1901-1902, Canada in 1917-1918. Apparently, women’s suffrage was more easily established in countries distant from the main European and American nexuses of power.
Switzerland lagged behind in women’s suffrage, but in literacy, Switzerland was one of the first countries in Europe to institute free, compulsory, primary schools. By the late 19th century, most Swiss women were literate, and Swiss women had begun to petition the government for the right to vote. Women increased their efforts in the early 20th century, notably at the time of the Swiss General Strike in 1918.
Despite Switzerland’s early and progressive efforts in education, women’s literacy alone did not soon result in women’s suffrage. It took a hundred years. The campaign for suffrage became mired in male bureaucracy at the federal level, and male voters were generally against it.
As a nominally neutral country that did not directly experience the upheaval of war and social disruption, the Swiss temporized on the issue of women voting, even in face of renewed demands at the end of WWII. In 1959. two-thirds of Swiss voters (all men, of course) rejected women’s suffrage. It seems remarkable that the birthplace of Helvetica - that clean, orderly, precise, sober paragon of progressive typography, the graphical emblem of the corporate information age - remained a decisively sexist bastion even in the liberated swinging ‘60s. While Swiss typography was aesthetically conquering Europe and America, patient Swiss women back at home were denied the right to vote at the federal level until 1971. It suggests that the dangerous actions of English and American suffragettes may not have been ineffective in advancing the vote.
These short histories have touched only on Anglo-American and European literacy and suffrage. What about Asia? Let's look at the fascinating subject of literacy and gender in Japan.
Women have been literate in Japan for more than 1,000 years but did not receive the right to vote until 1946, under pressure from the occupying American forces determined to reform aspects of Japanese society after WWII. In traditional Japan, as in Western societies, literate women in Japan were principally members of the nobility. The first, and perhaps the greatest, Japanese novel, the Tale of Genji (Genji Monogotari) was written perhaps a few years after 1,000 AD by a noblewoman known by her pseudonym, Murasaki Shikibu (Lady Murasaki, or literally, “Lady Purple”).
Yaeko Sato Habein, in The History of the Japanese Written Language, University of Tokyo Press, Tokyo, 1984, writes that "Genji Monogotari is the most widely studied and best-known tale of the Heian period, or perhaps, of the entire history of Japanese literature."
Yasunari Kawabata, Japanese novelist and Nobel laureate in literature, said: "The Tale of Genji in particular is the highest pinnacle of Japanese literature. Even down to our day there has not been a piece of fiction to compare with it". http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tale_of_Genji
Murasaki Shikibu, as a literate woman in the sophisticated Heian period of medieval Japan, wrote in a cursive Japanese syllabic script called Hiragana. Derived from cursive Chinese brush writing, Hiragana represented only the syllables of spoken Japanese, not the words represented in borrowings of Chinese logographic script. The relatively small numbers of syllables in Japanese are represented by some 50 characters in Hiragana (augmented by some diacritics and digraphs), contrasted with the thousands of kanji characters based on Chinese logograms which educated Japanese men wrote.
When Lady Murasaki wrote her great novel, kanji was men's writing, and hiragana was women's writing. This gender distinction and discrimination excluded many women from the Chinese literature read by men, but aristocratic women nevertheless became skilled at writing poetry and prose fiction and were sophisticated in the art of personal correspondence. Calligraphic skill was a much-prized accomplishment of aristocratic women and contributed greatly to their aura of attractiveness, as memorably described in The Tale of Genji.
Calligraphic elegance as a major contribution to a woman’s attractiveness is a distinctly alien notion in contemporary American media, where the alleged attractiveness of female celebrities, actresses, and super-models is hardly based on their handwriting. (It must be admitted, however, that the Kardashians have done wonders in popularizing the use of the letter ‘K’ in trash magazines. The letter K is only the 22nd letter in frequency of usage, only 0.69% in text (ignoring the difference between frequency of capital and lower-case), but the Kardashians must surely have vaulted K up several levels in frequency in supermarket check-stand celebrity magazines and tabloids.)
Over several centuries, the kanji and hiragana scripts ceased to be discriminated by gender and instead were been merged into a complex writing system. The logographic kanji characters are used for nouns, verb stems, adjective stems, and some adverbs, while the syllabic hiragana characters are used for particle words and inflectional prefixes and suffixes to nouns, verbs, and adjectives. To over-simplify it, the different scripts are used for different parts of speech.
Kanji is used for most lexical words and hiragana for most grammatical particles and part-words. In addition to kanji and hiragana, another syllabary, katakana, which represents the same syllables as hiragana but looks different, was originally used for exegesis of Buddhist texts, but has also become a component in standard Japanese writing where it is used for foreign words. Yet another script, romaji - Latin characters and numerals - has also been merged into the system for use in signage, acronyms, and company names. A fifth category of Japanese written symbol, emoji (“picture characters”) includes smile faces, hearts, arrows, icons, animals, faces and other characters to signify common objects, events, instruments, emotions, and other accoutrements of daily life. (See: Janet Shibamoto Smith, "Japanese Writing" in Peter Daniels and William Bright, The World's Writing Systems, Oxford U. Press, 1996.
Although the Japanese writing system has become rich and complex by absorbing and adapting different scripts, that has not hampered literacy nor the growth of a modern high-technology society in modern Japan. When General MacArthur was the “Gaijin Shogun” (officially, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers) in post-war Japan, a group of American educators advocated abolition of the “Chinese-derived ideograms” in favor of the alphabet, without which Japan would never achieve technological parity with the West. Ah, educators, what would we do without them? The Japanese did adopt the Latin alphabet but also kept their traditional writing. Now Americans are adopting emoticons and emoji.
The number of emoji has increased to more than 800, although emoji frequency of usage is unclear; possibly it follows Zipf’s Law. For example, take a look at the hundreds of “Apple Color Emoji” in Apple OS X. Developed in the modern technological consumer era, these icons have a toy-like, commercial, fun graphical look compared to the far older, formal brush-written scripts that long ago diverged from iconic forms.
In terms of character frequency in printed text, kanji characters range from slightly more than fifty percent of printed Japanese text, to slightly less than twenty-five percent, depending on the nature of the text and the literary register. Kanji usage is in inverse proportion to hiragana and katakana, but the relative proportions vary according to context. Publications of general interest and government publication may contain more than fifty percent kanji, but in magazines specifically for men or for women the percentage of kanji may fall below thirty percent. (See: http://www.japanesestudies.org.uk/articles/2005/Tomoda.html)
Hence, in some contexts, hiragana, after a complex process of socio-linguistic-graphical evolution over a thousand years, has become as frequent or more frequent in text than kanji. To over-simplify the situation, women's script has become more popular than men's script in some contexts in modern Japanese literacy. By social patterning, there has been a retrograde devolution back toward the Heian era distinction of syllable-script for women, word script for men (government, etc.). Moreover, this process is not yet over.
A 21st century literary phenomenon in Japan is the cell phone novel, “keitai shousetsu”. These are written by young women (and sometimes by young men, perhaps writing as women) often by typing in hiragana on phone keyboards, easier than typing kanji. Cell phone novels often portray the lives of young people and employ more kana and non-standard punctuation to convey nuances of meaning and vernacular. There are claims that these cell-phone novels, which may use higher percentages of hiragana characters, and also a higher percentage of katakana, than in standard prose, are of lower artistic quality than traditional literature, but, nevertheless, and once again, women are in the forefront of literary innovation in Japan, and they are innovating in what was formerly women's script. Originally published on-line, several cell phone novels have subsequently appeared in print.
Lady Murasaki doesn’t need homage, but she’s receiving it on hundreds of thousands of cell phones anyway.
In terms of Japanese literary style, the frequency of kanji compared to kana may be analogous with the frequency of Latinate to Anglo-Saxon vocabulary. More kanji = more educated in Japan; more Latin = more educated in English. But educated style doesn't necessarily mean more popular literature. Compare, say, the short-word prose style of Ernest Hemingway or Dashiell Hammett to the Latinophilic prose of Henry James. Who is read more often today, outside of academic literature courses? Browsing the “Mystery” section of a bookstore finds far more followers of Hammett’s style than of Henry James’. You have to go to the smaller “Literature” section for the more Latinate style. That is, if there is a nearby bookstore you can go to anymore.
It would be interesting to know the frequencies of kanji, hiragana, katakana, romaji, and emoji in cell-phone novels compared to traditional novels. In the age of digital texts, it would not be too hard to compile such data for cell-phone novels because they are first "published" in electronic form, and hence the characters can be identified an tallied by their digital codes. The same for ebooks of traditionally styled novels.
For further discussion of this, see:
One other homage to Murasaki Shikibu. In 1980, Shiseido, the giant Japanese cosmetic company, brought out a perfume named "Murasaki" in honor of the Heian novelist (presumably her name recognition, after a mere 1,000 years, helps sell the product in Japan). On the perfume bottle and packaging, Murasaki's name was written in cursive hiragana characters, as she may have written it herself, a thousand years ago, and the color of the perfume is purplish, signifying the meaning of her name. Today, when sold in the west, "Murasaki" perfume is translated into Latin letters in a cursive informal script that conveys some of the same deft freedom as the original hiragana. Thus the spirit of Lady Murasaki’s hiragana echoes in the west.
Association versus Causality
The histories of the path from women’s literacy to women’s suffrage in Britain, America, several European countries, and Japan, show a strong association. First comes women’s literation, then women’s liberation (at least in the form of voting rights).
Is the association causal? Does women’s education result in women’s political power? It seems plausible, and certainly, there is strong belief in the connection, both among those who favor it and among those who oppose it.
What about the reverse process? When women gain the right to vote before a substantial number of them are literate, does that result in expansion women’s rights?
Such questions of causality cannot be answered in laboratories, and historical events and processes often appear to be affected by multiple factors, so it is difficult to prove which factors, if any, caused which results. Nevertheless, we can look for illustrative examples.
Egypt is the home of one of the oldest literate civilizations on earth. Rudimentary Egyptian writing appeared as early as 3300 BCE, in the form of marks on pots and tags for objects. Egyptian Hieroglyphics arose around 3100 BCE, and, including its descendant scripts, Hieratic and Coptic, was used in Egypt for over three thousand years, well into the Greco-Roman period. Estimates of literacy rates in ancient Egypt are around one percent of the population, perhaps less. Among the Egyptian aristocracy, women had property rights, social status, and political power; and some even became Pharaoh, like Queen Hatshepsut of the 18th Dynasty (circa 1500 BCE), but evidence for women’s literacy is scanty.
In Ptolemaic (Greek) and Roman Egypt, the literacy rate may have risen to 5% to 10%, similar to literacy rates in Greece and Rome at the time, but it is not clear how many women numbered among the literates, but at least some women were literate. The Roman historian Plutarch wrote that Cleopatra, shortly before her suicide by the bite of an asp, wrote and sent a letter (tablet) to Octavius Caesar, who had just defeated Cleopatra’s lover, Marc Antony.
After the Islamic Arab conquest of Egypt in the 7th century AD, the official administrative language became Arabic, written in Arabic script. Evidence for Arabic women scribes is generally scanty, although one tradition relates that in Baghdad, the renowned 11th century calligrapher Ibn al-Bawwab learned calligraphy from the daughter of Ibn Muqla, a famous calligrapher of a generation earlier who had devised the naskh style of Arabic script and passed it on to his daughter. Other accounts, however, name different teachers for Ibn al-Bawwab.
In modern Egypt, women’s suffrage was enacted in 1956, but today, an estimated 23% of Egyptian women remain illiterate, especially among the poor, among whom women’s illiteracy rates may range as high as 36% in some parts of the country. Universal suffrage has not resulted in universal literacy for women.
The histories of other African countries also suggest that women’s suffrage does not necessarily entail expanded rights or education for women. Forces blocking women’s rights appear to include colonialism and its aftermaths, as well as persistence of traditional political, cultural, and religious beliefs, and in addition, poverty.
Under colonial rulers, most African countries did not permit voting by non-white men and women, but when former colonies gained independence, women’s suffrage was often part of the liberation and formation of a new state.
Sudan lies immediately south of Egypt and was the home of several ancient civilizations, including the Meroite empire, which used writing derived from Egyptian hieroglyphic and demotic writing. With the advent of Christianity in the Sudan in the 6th century AD, the Meroite script was replaced by Coptic script. With the advent of Islam in Sudan, Arabic script became dominant. Literacy rates in ancient and medieval times seem to be unknown but presumably low, as in Egypt.
Sudan today is linguistically and graphically diverse, with more than one hundred languages spoken in Sudan, and written variously in Arabic, Ethiopic, and Latin scripts. Published literacy rates do not distinguish among languages and scripts, so it is not clear how literacy is distributed in society, although there are typical distinctions between urban (more literate) and rural (less literate) and upper class (more literate) and lower class (less literate).
Sudan has been riven by colonial and civil wars, including the current Darfur conflict, and is now one of the poorest countries in Africa. Sudan gained independence from Egypt and Britain in 1956, but short-lived civilian governments have been followed by a military coups d’état.
In the first half of the 20th century, formal elementary education for girls began but expanded slowly. By the late 1940s, educated women began to campaign for women’s rights through the formation of women’s unions and associations. Women gained the vote in Sudan’s constitution in 1953, but by 1956, only around 4% of Sudanese girls and women were literate. A new constitution was adopted 1964, but in 1968, a civilian government was overthrown by military coup, and in 1989, another military coup established a government with a former general as president. Although there have been subsequent elections, the same former general, Omar al-Bashir, remains in power after 26 years, despite being accused by the International Criminal Court of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. A few days ago, he had to flee a conference in South Africa in order to avoid arrest under a warrant from the International Criminal Court.
By some measures, literacy rates for Sudanese women resemble those of pre-industrial Britain of the 1600s or early 1700s, with only a third of women literate, but recent surveys give much higher estimates: 63% most recently, 35% in earlier surveys, but only 10% estimated in the 1970s. It is not clear what spurred the increase in literacy, assuming the figures are accurate, which they may not be. Differences between estimates highlight the difficulty of gathering accurate statistics in a country torn by social strife, civil wars, repressive regimes, and governmental manipulation of information.
Sudanese women are said to have voted in large numbers in Sudan’s national elections in 2010, but the incumbent male president, former general Omar al-Bashir, who came to power in the 1989 coup, won re-election with 68% of the vote, while Sudan’s first female presidential candidate, Dr. Fatima Abdel-Mahmood, received only 0.3% of the vote. Apparently, women did not vote for the woman candidate for president, but the election was clouded by alleged vote rigging, ballot stuffing, and other irregularities. In 2015, President al-Bashir extended his 26 year reign as President by winning 94.5% of the national vote. Opposition parties boycotted the vote and protested election fraud.
Restrictions and repressions of Sudanese women in most areas of society today suggest that suffrage alone is not a reliable predictor of women’s rights and social equality. [see wikipedia article, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender_inequality_in_Sudan and other
The re-election of former General Bashir after 26 years in power may lead some Americans to criticize the frequency with which former generals and colonels take power in third world countries, but we should remember that twelve former generals and six former colonels have been elected President of the United States. Forty-one percent our presidents have been former high-ranking military officers. Some were outstanding. Washington is revered, Ike is liked, and TR (Teddy Roosevelt) was our greatest conservationist President, but other former officers did not serve with much distinction in office, and some didn't serve for long. Former general William Henry Harrison (“Old Tippecanoe”) lasted only a month and a day.
After long-standing ethnic and religious divides between the northern and southern parts of Sudan, a 2011 referendum led to the division of the country and formation of a new country, the Republic of South Sudan, from what had previously been Southern Sudan.
Dashing hopes for successful independence, South Sudan has been convulsed by a protracted, multi-party civil war fueled by political, regional, ethnic, and tribal rivalries. Over a million people have been displaced within the country and half a million have fled to neighboring countries. South Sudan has been in conflict with Sudan over oil production and revenue. The UN and international aid agencies have reported multiple atrocities, including torture and execution of civilians, and mass rapes of women and girls, and the UN aid coordinator was recently expelled by the government in retaliation for criticism.
South Sudan has one of the highest illiteracy rate of any country in the world. Its recent literacy figures are reported as 40% for men and 16% for women. Despite ostensible women’s suffrage, the situation for women in South Sudan is among the worst in the world, amid conflict, poverty, and famine. South Sudanese women have the highest maternal mortality rate in the world, 2,054 deaths per 100,000 live births.
The vote has not brought appreciable benefit to the women of South Sudan.
Although the chronology was somewhat later, women’s literacy and suffrage in South Africa followed the British pattern, but only for the colonial white population. A literate vanguard of white South African women - descendants of British, Dutch, and other European colonists - advocated for women’s suffrage for two decades, finally gaining the vote in 1930, achieved with less violence and imprisonment than in Britain two decades earlier. In 1931, all white adults, women as well as men, were granted the right to vote when South Africa, which had been a self-governing “dominion” of the United Kingdom, became a sovereign nation, although still allied with the UK in the Commonwealth of Nations.
For the indigenous African population, however, the vote and other human rights were restricted or eliminated by colonial governments. South Africa had been successively colonized by Dutch, British, and other Europeans in the 17th and 18th century. After a series of wars between European colonizers and ethnic Africans, and then between different European colonizers (the Boer wars) in the 19th century, South Africa came under British rule. It gained nominal independence from Britain in 1910, but, in the European pattern, white men, but not women, had the right to vote
Indigenous black South Africans of either sex, despite constituting the majority of the population, were denied voting and other human rights and oppressed by a plethora of racist restrictions under the umbrella of “apartheid”. After long struggle, universal suffrage for all ethnicities of South Africa was eventually achieved in 1994. Since then, South Africa has conducted regular elections and has not suffered from the coups d’état that chronically affect many newly independent and third world nations.
(The history of suffrage for Native Americans is not something that the United States can be proud of. Disenfranchisement of indigenous populations was a common colonial practice. Some Native American women, notably in the Iroquois Confederacy, exercised a range of political powers, including nomination of chiefs, but after the American Revolution, the Iroquois, who had sided with the British, were suppressed and their lands confiscated. Native American women and men were not granted full US citizenship until 1924, but their voting rights continued to be denied or limited by several states until the sweeping Voting Rights Act of 1965. Even after that law, voting rights for Native Americans, as for African Americans, continued to be blocked and hindered in several states.)
Women’s suffrage was first granted in Afghanistan in 1923, but revoked in 1929 after a change in government. A new constitution in 1964 again granted women the right to vote. Women’s rights were further advanced in later years under various governments, but in the late 1970s, Afghanistan became a pawn in a proxy war between the Soviet Union and the US. The CIA provided money and weapons to Afghanistan’s mujahideen to fight the Soviet-backed forces, but no appreciable funds to secure or advance women’s rights. After the Soviet Union withdrew its military support for the socialist government, Afghanistan became embroiled in civil war until the 1996 victory of the Taliban, a movement of religious fundamentalists. The Taliban revoked most political and social rights for women, undoing three-quarters of a century of incremental progress for women. After the US and Britain ousted the Taliban through military intervention, yet another Afghan constitution granted voting rights to women, who were able to vote in 2004.
After a decade of financial, developmental, and military support and political pressure from the US, estimates of women’s literacy in Afghanistan range variously from 12%, 15%,18%, to 32%, or higher, depending on the survey, date, and segment and locale of the population surveyed. The highest figures are for younger groups, perhaps indicating beneficial effects of a dozen years of American aid for girls’ education. As American forces withdraw from Afghanistan, there is pessimism about whether educational and political advances for women will be maintained. Despite ostensible women’s suffrage and ostensible progress in education, Afghanistan has been ranked as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women, especially for women activists.
From the Sudan, South Sudan, and Afghan examples, it appears that wars and revolutions can depress women’s rights and education, but, as noted above for the European, American, and Japanese histories, gains in women’s suffrage often appears to follow war or revolution if a substantial portion of women are already literate and have some economic, if not political, power, and if the political systems of the country stabilizes.
The social distortions and lingering effects of colonialism are often cited as reasons for political instability in former colonies. Fifty years of political independence may not be a long enough time. After a country becomes independent, how much time is needed before women’s rights are established? In the United States, it took 144 years between the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the granting of women’s suffrage in 1920. In England and France, it took around 1500 years, give or take a few decades. Roman armies withdrew from England around 410 AD, and from Gaul around 450 AD. Of course, the pace of history is faster today than it was 1500 or 2000 years ago, or so we imagine. I would bet that when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, everybody in Rome thought events were moving very fast indeed.
Even today, more than two centuries since the 13 Colonies, Americans should not feel overly superior about our democracy and voting rights. “Between one-quarter and one-third of all eligible voters - more than 50 million Americans - are not registered [to vote].”
We still have a long way to go, so let's get back to women on the money.
Don’t forget to tell Treasurer Jacob Lew which woman you want to see on the $20. And if she only gets on the $10, then demand that your bank offer $10 bills in its ATMs!
For history of education in France, see François Furet and Jacques Ozouf, "Three Centuries of Cultural Cross-fertilization: France" in Literacy and Social Development in the West: a reader, edited by Harvey Graff, Cambridge University Press, 1981. Further discussions of the development of literacy in early modern Europe can be found in the same volume.
For a book-length treatise by Furet and Ozouf, see Reading and Writing: literacy in France from Calvin to Jules Ferry, Cambridge U. Press, 1982. Furet and Ozouf frame their discussion in terms of social class, rivalry between church and state, and competition between nations.
A broad discussion of literacy, spanning millennia around the world, is by Albertine Gaur, Literacy and The Politics of Writing, Intellect Books, Bristol, Portland, 2000. Gaur is the former Head of the Department of Oriental Manuscripts and Printed Books at the British Library. (I often assign her earlier book, A History of Writing, as a textbook when I taught digital typography at Stanford.)
The Cambridge Handbook of Literacy, edited by David R. Olson and Nancy Torrence, Cambridge U. Press, 2009, includes essays on historical literacy, Chinese literacy, and literacy in the Arab world, among other wide-ranging topics.
British social anthropologist Jack Goody has written several books with thoughtful, deep views of literacy, not limited to a present day Anglo-American focus. See, for example: The Domestication of the Savage Mind; or The Interface between the Written and the Oral; or The Logic of Writing and the Organization of Society.
Other topics are referenced by URLs in the text, and recourse to Wikipedia is also helpful for many of the topics.