I have to admit it; once I began my exploration of which individuals throughout history might qualify as candidates for the quest I described in my post last week [The greatest _______ (fill in the blank); how do we decide who or what is most important to count?], I realized that I had bitten off more that I could chew, at least in a week. The commenters who had said “That’s a lot of thinking” and “What a lot of work” were right!
I’m fairly satisfied with the categories I proposed last week, but each one has an awful lot of scope. As a reminder, these are my categories for making the world a better place, in absolutely no particular order:
- Improve the rights for women (voting, working, education, driving, planned parenthood, etc.)
- Improve the rights of children (end forced labour, access to education, access to healthcare, end forced child bride marriages, etc.)
- Improve the rights, respect, and dignity of minority groups (overcome discrimination, oppression, enslavement, systemic racism, displacement, etc.)
- Fight for safe passage and hope for a future for refugees, whose numbers are growing
- Combat global poverty
- Promote peace
- Provide inspirational leadership by demonstrating the values of peace, compassion, and human dignity
- Combat climate change and environmental degradation
- Promote wildlife conservation
- Advance medical knowledge and improvement in health worldwide
Now to decide who I think is most deserving of being the most significant contributor in each category. In acknowledging the enormity of doing justice to each of these extraordinarily important topics, I’ve reconciled myself to restricting my considerations to 2 categories each week. As it is, each really deserves its own blog post, but we’ll try for two. So, let’s get started.
#1 Improve the rights for women.
I’m starting with my first category because, well, it happened to be the first one listed. And, my, what a big topic. Stop and think about it. Is the right to vote the most fundamental starting point to ensuring/improving women’s rights? Maybe. Probably. But think about how many issues of women’s rights are being rolled back around the world as we speak, starting in our own backyards. Everywhere from Afghanistan to Texas and points in between. Access to planned parenthood, freedom to go to school, freedom to work, freedom from sexual harassment and rape, freedom to drive without a male guardian in the car, freedom to leave the house without a male guardian. On it goes.
I have decided that ensuring women’s right to vote is absolutely essential to ensuring a continued improvement to further rights for women – for full equality. Without that voice at the ballot box there can be little expectation of continuing movement forward. So I’ve restricted my hunt in this category to the person in history who has made the greatest contribution towards ensuring the right of all women to vote.
The history of women’s suffrage (right to vote) is a long one, with decades of very tough struggles. There were a few very impressive early adopters and also some distressing later retractors, where government gave the women the right to vote and the next government took it away again. Early rights to vote for women in some countries started by allowing the vote only to women who owned property and women who were widows. Period. And indigenous people in Australia, Canada, and the US obtained the vote far later than others, as did people of Asian descent in Canada, to that country’s shame.
Some milestones in the history of women’s right to vote
Although the courage and tenacity of all the suffragette leaders are incredibly inspiring, I’ve chosen Elizabeth Cady Stanton, from upstate New York, as the person who has contributed the most towards women obtaining the right to vote, a movement whose work is not done. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a suffragette, abolitionist, and human rights activist throughout her life, and was involved to organizing national and international conferences to spur the movement forward, starting with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. Her work was not only effective but also served as an inspiration to women activists worldwide who followed in her footsteps.
#2 Improve the rights of children.
It is generally agreed, and most recently articulated through UNICEF and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that, minimally:
- Children should be protected from abuse, exploitation and harmful substances
- Children should be provided with an education, health care, and an adequate standard of living (food and shelter)
- Children should be respected for their evolving capacities, and
- There should be specific protections for vulnerable populations such as Indigenous children and children with disabilities.
There are many, many worthy organizations that work hard to help provide and/or support these hopes and expectations. Some are associated with the United Nations, some are associated with religious affiliations, and others are NGOs with a focus on children. The need is great and ongoing.
In 1924, the League of Nations adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, which was inspired by Polish physician Janusz Korczak and social activist Eglantyne Jebb. The Declaration gave specific rights to children and specific responsibilities to adults; it marked the first time that a world body acknowledged that children (should) have certain rights. The philosophy underlying the Declaration of the Rights of the Child was that “humanity owes to the Child the best that it has to give”.
From the Save the Children website:
Eglantyne Jebb (1876-1928) – the woman who founded Save the Children a century ago in 1919 – was one of the world’s most charismatic, fiercely intelligent and influential champions of human rights. A British social reformer and former teacher, Jebb was appalled by newspaper photos she saw of children starving in enemy countries like Germany and Austria – starving because Allied troops’ blockades wouldn’t let supplies through. She joined Fight the Famine Council, a group working to get food and medical supplies to these children. She stood in Trafalgar Square and handed out leaflets that showed the emaciated children with a headline: “Our blockade has caused this – millions of children are starving to death.”
… at the 1924 League of Nations convention in Geneva, Eglantyne presented a Declaration of the Rights of the Child to leaders from around the world. Written by her, this short but clear document asserted what she believed were the human rights of every child. Stressing the need to especially remember “forgotten” children, the rights she called for read, “the child that is hungry must be fed, the child that is sick must be nursed, the child that is backward must be helped, the delinquent child must be reclaimed, and the orphan and the waif must be sheltered and succored.” The declaration was adopted a year later and adopted in an extended form by the United Nations in 1959. The declaration later inspired the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, a landmark human rights treaty.
So many people and organizations have been involved in efforts to help children in so many heartbreaking situations over the decades, including recently the remarkable young Pakastani, Malala Yousafzai, who courageously continues to fight for education for girls even after being shot by the Taliban at her school. But after giving it lots of thought my vote of most impactful individual in this category goes to Eglantyne Jebb. Between her influence in the League of Nations passing the Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1924 and the 144 million children who have been helped by the Save the Children organization that she started more than 100 years ago, she has left an extraordinary legacy in helping children around the world.