Tuesday, September 1, 2015


Campaign for women's suffrage in Belgium, 1908.
Source: Getty Images
Feminism (n.):
Belief in or advocacy of women's social, political, and economic rights, especially with regard to the equality of the sexes.

Ah, what a dangerous word to (rightly or wrongly) bandy about these days. Or has it always been so?

In any case, the role of women in Belgian society, and particularly their rights and how hard they had to fight to get them, is the subject of this post.

Before Belgium's independence, when its states were under the control of Napoleon I, women weren't considered for much else except for reproduction purposes (or for men's pleasure, depending on which strata of the society you happened to belong to). For though he was behind great changes for his country and revamped the French legislature, among other things, Napoleon didn't believe those rights were meant for the "inferior sex."

It's fun to see how the corset changed appearances at the beginning of the 20th c. until becoming mostly non-existent
after WWI.
General party for Belgian Women
A social program to help women and children
in fighting (1) alcoholism, (2) ignorance,
(3) debauchery, (4) war, and to protect mothers
and children.
It's actually thanks to the Great War (I know, isn't it crazy to think that good things can come from such terrible events?) that women started getting some form of recognition for their contribution to Belgian society. Namely, more and more young girls were allowed (though not necessarily encouraged) to pursue higher education, some voting rights were awarded to them though with some restrictions (only a few who had special roles in the war or had become widows and hadn't remarried since had full voting rights(1), and they had to wait until after WWII to get their full rights), and many more women got to enter the workforce (and not necessarily out of necessity).

But even then, women weren't allowed to get just any job. Most professions, closely guarded by male syndicates, were closed off to them (2). Their salaries, except for those typical "female professions" that therefore didn't have any men performing them, were barely above that of children workers (because, hey, if you don't have any voting rights and the syndicates don't care about you, then who cares about what you have to say, right?). And even if women were allowed certain professions, such as factory work (the advent of machinery and automated processes certainly helped a lot in this regard), they could never join the executive ranks.

Stamp of Marie Popelin, doctor of law
(died in 1913)
She contributed largely to obtaining
the first legal reforms in favor
of women in Belgium
It was even worse for housewives. They were expected to do all the work at home, every day of the year, yet were not allowed a single penny of their husband's hard-earned money. Worse, their husbands generally weren't willing to "descend" to their wives' level and help out with such menial tasks as household chores, those being inferior to men's condition (but not so for women).

What is interesting to note here, however, is that already by then Scandinavia (and Sweden in particular) was much more developed in that regard, considering stay-at-home mothers' work to be just as important as that of their husbands, and thus awarding them a portion of their men's salaries.

But, by the time Ms. De Craene-Vanduren wrote the above-mentioned observations in 1930, things were starting to move a little more, thanks to the feminist movements (the oldest one being the Belgian League for Women's Rights, established in 1892) and the help of the three major political parties themselves to some extent (in trying to give them full voting rights, no matter the social class, improve women's economic status, and help those in need).
Hubertine Auclert (1848-1914)
Belgian feminist who discovered the movement
thanks to Léon Richer, a Parisian feminist.
Proposed a divorce law that allowed the just
distribution of property between both parties.

De Craene-Vanduren also noted in her essay Le Féminisme that to truly get things to change for the better, all of society's prejudices against women needed to be dealt with starting with the educational system. For at school, back in those days, boys were separated from girls, the first to be taught the virile qualities of initiative, decision-making, reflection, judgement and to be encouraged to take an active part in social life, while the latter were taught to deal with all that was considered "sentimental" and forced to stay at home or within a restricted family circle.

It took another 50+ years after the writing of that essay for Belgium to finally ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1985), giving equal rights to both men and women in education, employment, social and economic activities, and parenting, while also awarding women reproductive rights to prevent discrimination against mothers in their careers.

Later, in 2002, Belgium also introduced quota laws in its government, where only 50% + 1 of the candidates could be of the same sex on the election lists, at all political levels. It's perhaps not surprising, therefore, that the unadjusted gender pay gap in the public sector in Belgium seemed a little discriminatory against men in 2013 (3):

Source: EU Commission Stats

Then, in 2008, Belgium was ranked #28 in the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report.

But progress still needs to be made (particularly in Wallonia, where discrimination is more prevalent than in Flanders, probably due to its lower educational level and the fact that Wallonia is still predominantly industrial/agricultural--didn't I say those two regions sometimes have pretty significant differences?).

In 2013, the unadjusted gender pay gap was still 10% (22% if based on annual earnings)--still, a vast improvement from the close to 45% gap in 1972:
Source: EU Commission Stats.
The gap is smallest for highly-educated women, but the overall labor force participation of women is still pretty low. Part of the reason for the huge disparity between actual annual salaries is that a greater number of women work part-time, a fact due in large part to an inequality in the division of care, fiscal disincentives, and the lack of adequate childcare facilities.

Women also receive fewer fringe benefits, though that could be because they don't negotiate on the same footing as men do (see as to reasons why here--as you will see, many of the prejudices rampant in our society back in the 1930s are still alive today):

However, if one looks at the gender pay gap by age, it shows the gap being a lot smaller for those below 34 years of age (< 3.1%) vs. say those aged 55-64 (16.9%):

Source: EU Commissions Stats
Hopefully, that is a sign of changing trends and not a statistic that will worsen once women get closer to the average marrying/reproducing age (29.6 in Belgium for women), and if women keep on having a higher graduation rate than men do (though not by much: 73% of girls graduated from high school against 71% boys in 2010), this positive trend in salaries may continue (assuming the reduction in government expenditure doesn't negatively affect it).
Employment discrimination in the EU
Source: EU Parliament

In any case, were she still around, I believe Ms. De Craene-Vanduren would have been rather pleased to see how far Belgium's come in terms of gender equality since the 1930s, and would have encouraged the country to keep it up!

For those of you who want to find out more about some of the great women in Belgian History, I recommend you check out this website.

(1) Here the words "not remarried" are very important, because if a woman were to marry in those days, she basically gave all of her rights away to her husband (whereas before marriage were were under the full jurisdiction of their father). That also meant she couldn't do what she wanted with her own assets, but had to let her husband do with it as he willed. Worse, women didn't even have any rights on their own progeny.

(2) Such jobs include magistracy and diplomacy, for instance. But even though more women were entering other professions, such as becoming doctors, didn't mean the population necessarily trusted them all that much. It took a long time for those views to change as well.

(3) The gender pay gap in private industries went as high as 25% in the white-collar sectors on an hourly-pay basis, and around 37% in the blue-collar sectors on an annual wage basis.

Le Féminisme, by Ms. De Craene-Vanduren for 1830-1930 La Patrie Belge, Editions Illustrées du "SOIR" Bruxelles
Gender and Women's Rights, Kingdom of Belgium Foreign Affairs
Gender Equality in Belgium, WikiGender 
Gender Index Org. - Belgium
Tackling the Gender Pay Gap in the European Union, 2014
Gender Pay Gap Statistics - Eurostat
The Gender Pay Gap in Belgium - 2014, Institute for the Equality of Women and Men
OECD Better Life Index - Belgium
Education at a Glance, 2012 - OECD

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