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A stepping stone towards gender equality: the Ad Hoc Committee on Women’s Rights 1979-1981

Written by Claudia Touceira

The European Parliament has a long history of interest and involvement in women’s rights and gender equality. As early as 1957, the Treaty of Rome included the principle of equal pay for male and female workers (Art. 119 : Each Member State shall during the first stage ensure and subsequently maintain the application of the principle that men and women should receive equal pay for equal work. […] ), as part of the creation and functioning of the common market. As pointed out during a debate in plenary in October 1961, the topic was not only seen as a commitment between Member States, but also an engagement towards workers. Eliminating pay-gaps between men and women was already seen as a stepping stone towards ending all gender-based discrimination.

copyright European Union, 1979

copyright European Union, 1979

In 1966 Parliament formally urged Member States to change the situation for female workers by implementing Article 119 and called for greater cooperation between national parliaments and social partners to improve women’s academic and professional lives and their opportunities in the working world. However, the sad reality was that, despite the many EP resolutions and Council directives, Article 119 was still not applied by most Member States.

In the Parliament, however, female representation had grown, reaching 16% of MEPs in July 1979. The election of Simone Veil as first President of the European Parliament after the first direct elections marked a turning point in the history of Parliament. Several political groups tabled motions for resolutions calling for the creation of a committee responsible for women’s rights.

On 26 October 1979, a Parliament majority voted in favour of establishing an Ad Hoc Committee on Women’s Rights. This Committee was given the task, in partnership with the European Commission, of preparing a debate proposing improvements to women’s quality of life, particularly in the working world, and achieving equality between genders in all fields.

Yvette Roudy, a French MEP, was elected chair of the Committee at the constitutive meeting on 13 December 1979. The Committee had 35 members: 24 women and 11 men. Dame Shelagh Roberts (UK), Vera Squarcialupi (IT) and Mechthild von Alemann (DE) were appointed Vice-Chairs ( list of the members of the Ad Hoc Committee for the duration of its activities).

copyright European Union, 1982

copyright European Union, 1982

Yvette Roudy was determined to get to work quickly on the Committee’s agenda. After working through Parliamentary recess in the summer of 1980 the Committee appointed Johanna Maij-Weggen (NL) as rapporteur on the situation of women in the European Community. The Committee also contributed to a European Commission survey, with a questionnaire on women’s perception of discrimination in the workplace. Another important step in raising awareness of the issues was the public hearing organised by the Committee in Milan, on the female workforce in medium sized enterprises and the social security system for women in Member States.

In February 1981, almost 500 women, including 60 female journalists and representatives of women’s groups, came to Luxembourg to follow an important debate in the Plenary which led to the adoption of a resolution on boosting existing initiatives, and creating new instruments and campaigns to improve female education, health care and legal status. The emphasis was on increasing female access to study and teaching jobs in areas previously considered ‘reserved’ for men, such as science or engineering. With regards to health care, the resolution also covers the important point of protection for mothers, allowing women to have a healthy pregnancy without prejudice to their professional career. The aspect of voluntary termination of pregnancy was also included in the resolution and raised heated debate in Plenary. Finally, with this resolution, the European Parliament also drew attention to providing support for specific groups of women, such as migrant women or women living in developing countries, through the development of internal and external economic and political relations.

At the time, the creation of a standing committee for women’s rights was discussed, but MEPs remained divided. The Ad Hoc Committee did, however, open the door for the Standing Committee set up in 1984, providing a European platform for women to voice their thoughts and fight for their rights.

For further information, read our study ‘Equalising Opportunities: The Women’s Rights Committees 1979-1999’ or contact us at

About Historical Archives

The Historical Archives maintain and make available to the public the documents related to the legislative and political activity of the European Parliament from 1952 until the 6th parliamentary term (2004-2009).

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