2018 was actually a good year for women around the world. Here’s why.
2018 has been a year, hasn’t it?
But 2018 wasn’t all bad — some genuinely positive things took place, particularly in the sphere of women’s rights.
Spain appointed a majority-women cabinet. Voters in Ireland struck down one of the most draconian abortion bans in the developed world. Women in Saudi Arabia are finally able to drive legally. And female candidates — particularly women of color — broke historic ground in the US midterm elections.
Separately, these advancements may appear small. But taken together, they remind us that 2018 was actually a really important year that will likely pave the way for many more advancements to come.
In case you need a positive pick-me-up going into the holidays (and who doesn’t), here’s a quick roundup of some of the advancements women made in 2018.
Spain has a new cabinet, and most of its ministers are women
In June, Spain’s new Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez made history by appointing a majority-female cabinet. Almost two-thirds of his cabinet-level appointees — 11 of 17 — are women.
Sanchez, who was sworn in on June 2, described his cabinet appointees to reporters as “pro-gender equality, cross-generational, open to the world but anchored in the European Union.” Only a few decades ago, Spain had no women ministers, so this move represents quite a huge shift.
It also sets Spain apart: The country overtook Sweden and France in having the highest female cabinet representation in Europe. The US, as well, has a ways to go to catch up. According to the Atlantic, President Donald Trump has appointed twice as many men as women to positions in his administration, and his Cabinet is composed of 19 men and only five women.
It’s a pretty well-known fact that women are frequently underrepresented in government and positions of political leadership. But as more women climb into these seats of power, they’re making it easier for the women who come after them to succeed, and laying the groundwork for future generations.
Women in Saudi Arabia can now drive legally
This summer, women in Saudi Arabia finally gained the legal right to drive.
After King Salman announced last September that the longstanding ban would be lifted, women in the Gulf country were finally able to register for driver’s licenses and take the wheel in June. Female drivers said they were greeted enthusiastically on the road by many male drivers honking and giving them the thumbs-up sign, police officers handing out flowers, and general celebration.
“It will change things,” Fadya Basma, who became one of the first women to legally drive for a ride-hailing company in Saudi, told the Guardian in June. “Saudi will never be the same again.”
Lifting the ban means women in Saudi Arabia have more freedom of movement than they’ve had before — but a lot of problems remain.
As Sarah Wildman wrote for Vox:
Saudi women will still be subjected to the repressive male guardianship system, which requires women to seek permission from a male relative (father, brother, husband, son) to do almost anything, from getting married to working outside the home to even basic freedom of movement within and outside the country. Saudi women were only given the right to vote in December 2015.
And though the new policy does represent a significant change (and one that was motivated by economic reasons), it was not without controversy.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, better known as MBS, had touted lifting the ban as part of his package of much-publicized reforms to the country. However, Saudi women have been protesting for the right to drive for years, often at their own peril. And under MBS, whom the international media lauded for being a liberalizing force, several women activists who advocated for lifting the ban were detained and remain in prison. Some have even reportedly been subjected to torture.
So although lifting the driving ban in Saudi Arabia is certainly a step in the right direction, it doesn’t go nearly far enough.
Voters in Ireland struck down a draconian ban on abortion
In May, Irish citizens voted to repeal the eighth amendment to Ireland’s constitution, paving the way for legalized abortion in the country.
Ireland’s constitutional abortion ban was considered the strictest in the developed world — it made no allowances for rape or if the woman’s health was at risk, though it could be challenged in the case of a clear and imminent risk of death.
As a result, many women traveled outside the country to receive abortions if they had the means to do so. Others found ways to terminate their pregnancy illegally — and often dangerously.
In 2012, a woman named Savita Halappanavar died in Ireland from sepsis related to a miscarriage, and an investigation found that the abortion law had played a role. This incident laid the groundwork for pro-abortion rights activists to raise the issue, and when Ireland’s prime minister called for a referendum on the amendment, voters struck it down.
As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp wrote, many saw the vote as “a historic victory for Irish feminists, who had been campaigning for the amendment’s repeal ever since it was passed in 1983.”
“Pro-repeal sentiment was especially strong among young and urban voters,” Beauchamp noted, “suggesting that a new left-leaning and secular majority had supplanted the more conservative Catholic older generation.”
Ireland’s president signed the abortion referendum bill in September, and the government is currently working on legislation to regulate how the new policy will work. The health minister predicted that women would be able to have legal access to abortion services at clinics in the country in early 2019.
Women — and women of color in particular — broke records in the US midterm elections
There’s been much talk of how President Trump — a man who has openly bragged about being able to sexually assault women — has galvanized female voters over the past few years to become more politically active.
Those rumors were borne out in November when a record number of female candidates were elected to the House of Representatives, and all across the country, women — and particularly women of color — made history.
As Vox’s Caroline Houck explained:
In Kansas, Democrat Sharice Davids became one of the first Native American women elected to the United States legislature; New Mexico’s Deb Haaland became the other. And Congress will get not one, but two Muslim women serving for the first time ever: Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar and Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, both of whom won by resounding margins. Democrat Ayanna Pressley will become the first black woman to represent Massachusetts in the House.
Women broke other historic barriers as well: South Dakota’s Kristi Noem became that state’s first female governor, and in Vermont, Christine Hallquist became the first openly trans woman in the US to run for governor. Stacey Abrams, who ran for governor in Georgia on the Democratic ticket, was the first African-American woman gubernatorial nominee of a major party. (A more comprehensive list of firsts for women in this year’s midterm elections can be found here.)
These gains are significant, and will stretch far beyond this election cycle.
According to a report from the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, more women in lawmaking positions means legislation that affects women and families may increase.
Women in legislative roles are also more likely to work with their partners across the aisle, and according to one study, women try to build coalitions and bring about new policies more than their male counterparts. It goes without saying that young women also gain from having women in positions of power as role models and mentors.
American women are still fighting for equal representation in government, on corporate boards, and elsewhere, but the 2018 midterm elections were an important sign that they’re making progress.
Women made other advancements in 2018 as well
In Iran, women watched the World Cup in a sports stadium alongside men for the first time in decades. Though the official ban is still in place, it was an important symbolic step in the right direction.
In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will be the second elected head of state to give birth while in office, and the first elected leader ever to take maternity leave — showing skeptics that it is indeed possible to be both a prime minister and a mom.
The Nobel Peace prize was awarded jointly this year to Denis Mukwege, a Congolese surgeon who treats rape victims, and Nadia Murad, an Iraqi woman and a member of the Yazidi religious minority who was captured by ISIS. Murad is now an activist who advocates for victims of sex trafficking, and is the first Iraqi woman to receive the award.
Finally, in countries as varied as the United States, China, India, and Japan, the #MeToo movement jump-started an international conversation about harassment and sexual assault, and began the important process of holding accountable powerful men who had been abusing their power for decades.
This is a limited list, and there are doubtless many other examples. But put together, all of these advancements show that 2018 wasn’t all bad — and actually was, at some points, surprisingly good.
And because of these steps, next year is likely to be even better.