Answering the Call of Herstory

State of the Feminist European Union

(Authored and published by Cheryl Miller Van Dÿck, W20 EU Co-HOD, on 16 September 2023)

As a proud European feminist, activist and global representative of EU feminist civil society for many years, I am overjoyed to celebrate the groundbreaking accomplishments on gender equity and women’s rights achieved under leadership of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, that she highlighted in her State of the European Union speech this week.

Here are my feminist takes from the SOTEU speech by Madam President (emphasis and links added) which, in my opinion, reflects a step-change for feminist policy in the EU and worldwide.

1) Within the first minutes of her speech, Madame La Présidente was talking about women, the achievements for women–and society–delivered under her leadership, and about being a woman!

“I would also like to thank you for the ground-breaking and pioneering work we did on gender equality. As a woman, this means a lot to me.

We have concluded files that many thought would be blocked forever, like the Women On Boards Directive and the historic accession of the EU to the Istanbul Convention.

With the Directive on pay transparency we have cast into law the basic principle that equal work deserves equal pay. There is not a single argument why – for the same type of work – a woman should be paid less than a man.”

Do women work 13% less hard than men at the same job? …No. No they don’t.
2) Next, we get the message that there’s still more to do, especially on the topic of gender-based violence. Of course.

“But our work is far from over and we must continue pushing for progress together. I know this house supports our proposal on combating violence against women. Here too, I would like that we cast into law another basic principle: No, means no. There can be no true equality without freedom from violence.”

3) Then VDL* expressly references motherhood and, indirectly, the adverse impact on women of shouldering 75% of care work in the EU–often without recognition, benefits or compensation. 

“At the same time millions of parents – mostly mothers – are struggling to reconcile work and family, because there is no child care.”

*Btw how cool is it that “VDL” is member of the all-caps-acronym Club of Very Cool People like Brussels home-town favorite “JCVD”… ??!
4) And she mentions youth and NEETS, who are both more likely to be women. Yes, in the European Union, young women are less likely than young men to leave home, get an education, or hold down a job outside the home for money.

“And 8 million young people are neither in employment, education or training. Their dreams put on hold, their lives on stand-by. This is not only the cause of so much personal distress. It is also one of the most significant bottlenecks for our competitiveness. Because labour shortages hamper the capacity for innovation, growth and prosperity.”

NEETS in the EU are mostly Young Women
5) Linked to this, the proportion of employed women in the EU trails that of men by 11 percent. As the W20, we keep fighting for G20 nations to deliver on “25×25” Brisbane Targets, to shrink by 25% the gender gap in labour market participation by 2025. The recent G20 New Delhi Leaders’ Declaration** reaffirms G20 commitments to this objective. 

**The G20 New Delhi Leaders’ Declaration 2023

“So we need to improve access to the labour market. Most importantly for young people, for women.”

A global gendered job gap – Source: ILO
6) This isn’t a subject-matter take per se but a fist-pump for VDL amplifying the work of Christine Lagarde, President of the European Central Bank, another women-in-leadership icon!

“Christine Lagarde and the European Central Bank are working hard to keep inflation under control.”

7) Any progress on making digital technology safer and more respecting of citizens rights is going to positively impact the well-being of women in the digital society. Women are the biggest target of gender-based violence and harassment in physical and digital spaces. This is why the EU’s full accession to the Istanbul Convention, which enforces freedom from the threat of violence, is also a critical achievement under VDL’s leadership. 

“[E]urope has become the global pioneer of citizens rights in the digital world. The DSA and DMA are creating a safer digital space where fundamental rights are protected. And they are ensuring fairness with clear responsibilities for big tech. This is a historic achievement – and we should be proud of it.”

The DSA and DMA and Istanbul Convention. OH MY.
8) Now cue discussion on AI and the leadership role Europe continues to play–the “Brussels Effect”***–in determining global digital technology policies based on human rights.  Again, these AI “guidelines” are critical since women are humans (!) and at greater risk than men of threats posed by AI: Discrimination, harassment, violence, and job security (since women’s work tends to be more precarious, and under/unpaid to start with)!

***The Brussels Effect Anu Bradford, Columbia Law

“The same should be true for artificial intelligence. 

It will improve healthcare, boost productivity, address climate change. But we also should not underestimate the very real threats.Hundreds of leading AI developers, academics and experts warned us recently with the following words:

‘Mitigating the risk of extinction from AI should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks such as pandemics and nuclear war.’

AI is a general technology that is accessible, powerful and adaptable for a vast range of uses – both civilian and military. And it is moving faster than even its developers anticipated.”

Nothing at all disturbing about the lack of women in this AI-generated image of AIs and Humans, posted on the European Parliament ‘AI Act’ webpage…

NB: Why is AI moving faster than anticipated? No women AI developers and NO women tech decision-makers. No guard dogs. No guiderails. Except VDL, of course. 

“So we have a narrowing window of opportunity to guide this technology responsibly. I believe Europe, together with partners, should lead the way on a new global framework for AI, built on three pillars: guardrails, governance and guiding innovation.”


“Our AI Act is already a blueprint for the whole world.”


“Now we should bring all of this work together towards minimum global standards for safe and ethical use of AI.”

9) What follows deserves a big shout-out to our G20 India and W20 India Presidency teams for an agreement that underscores this historic moment for EU-India geopolitical and economic relations (and my favourite picture from this year’s G20 Summit).

“[T]he most ambitious project of our generation. The India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor.”

Caption This – Photograph: Evelyn Hockstein/AFP/Getty Images
10) Women are disproportionately impacted by climate change, a fact explicitly articulated in the 2023 G20 India Leaders’ Declaration. They are also at the greatest risk of perils inherent to displacement caused by climate change, war, political upheaval, etc. As such, action to improve the situation anywhere on this continuum–tackling climate change, migration, human trafficking, gender-based violence, and boosting asylum protections and assimilation and other social efforts–will benefit women. 

“[W]ith the Pact [on Migration and Asylum], we are striking a new balance. Between protecting borders and protecting people. Between sovereignty and solidarity. Between security and humanity.”

“Acknowledging the disproportionate impact of climate change […] on all women and girls, accelerating climate action must have gender equality at its core.” G20 New Delhi Leaders’ Declaration 2023, Page 26
10bis) Ditto regarding human trafficking. And the emphasis is justified!!!!!

“And we need to work with our partners to tackle this global plague of human trafficking. This is why the Commission will organise an International Conference on fighting people smuggling. It is time to put an end to this callous and criminal business!”

Her son didn’t understand. And he asked his mother why she was crying. She answered: ‘Because we are home.’ ‘But this is not Ukraine,’ he argued. So she explained: ‘This is Europe.’

11) The narrative that follows is tragic. All too common. And cannot be amplified enough. Kudos to President von der Leyen for making the heart and soul of her SOTEU address the story of Victoria Amelina–refugee, mother, journalist, and victim of the cruelties of male-perpetrated-violence (WAR) in Ukraine! Slav zhinki! Viva mujeres! Slava Ukraini!

“Honourable Members,

On the day when Russian tanks crossed the border into Ukraine, a young Ukrainian mother set off for Prague to bring her child to safety. When the Czech border official stamped her passport, she started crying. Her son didn’t understand. And he asked his mother why she was crying.

She answered: ‘Because we are home.’

‘But this is not Ukraine,’ he argued.

So she explained: ‘This is Europe.’

Victoria Amelina

On that day, that Ukrainian mother, felt that Europe was her home. Because ‘home is where we trust each other’. And the people of Ukraine could trust their fellow Europeans.

Her name was Victoria Amelina. She was one of the great young writers of her generation and a tireless activist for justice.

Once her son was safe, Victoria returned to Ukraine to document Russia’s war crimes. One year later she was killed by a Russian ballistic missile, while having dinner with colleagues. The victim of a Russian war crime, one of countless attacks against innocent civilians.

Amelina was with three friends that day – including Héctor Abad Faciolince, a fellow writer from Colombia. He is part of a campaign called ‘Aguanta, Ucrania’ – ‘Resist, Ukraine’, created to tell Latin Americans of Russia’s war of aggression and attacks on civilians. But Héctor could never imagine becoming the target himself. Afterwards, he said he didn’t know why he lived and she died. But now he is telling the world about Victoria. To save her memory and to end this war.

And I am honoured that Héctor is here with us today. And I want you to know that we will keep the memory of Victoria – and all other victims – alive.

Aguanta, Ucrania. Slava Ukraini!”

Honourable Members, this was Europe answering the call of history.

12) More war. More displaced women and children. We cannot shrink from the responsibility of caring for them. This is Europe answering the call of HERSTORY! 

“Since the start of the war, four million Ukrainians have found refuge in our Union. And I want to say to them that they are as welcome now as they were in those fateful first weeks. We have ensured that they have access to housing, healthcare, the job market and much more.

Honourable Members, this was Europe answering the call of history.

And so I am proud to announce that the Commission will propose to extend our temporary protection to Ukrainians in the EU. Our support to Ukraine will endure. We have provided 12 billion euros this year alone to help pay wages and pensions. To help keep hospitals, schools and other services running.”

VDL answering the Call of Herstory
13) Answering that call. Again. This is where I wax romantic about my love of the European Union. They say the converted are the most militant. Guilty. 

“We need to set out a vision for a successful enlargement. A Union complete with over 500 million people living in a free, democratic and prosperous Union. A Union complete with young people who can live, study and work in freedom. A Union complete with vibrant democracies in which judiciaries are independent, oppositions are respected, and journalists are protected. Because the rule of law and fundamental rights will always be the foundation of our Union – in current and in future Member States. This is why the Commission has made the Rule of Law Reports a key priority.”


“And it will help ensure that our future is a Union of freedom, rights and values for all.”

14) And now the baton is passed to my adopted nation, Belgium. As a committed feminist, our Prime Minister Alexander De Croo will no doubt continue to heed the Call of Herstory! 
CLG for ADC for You-And-Me ftw

“[W]e will put forward our ideas to the Leaders’ discussion under the Belgian Presidency. We will be driven by the belief that completing our Union is the best investment in peace, security and prosperity for our Continent. So it is time for Europe to once again think big and write our own destiny!”


“If it matters to Europeans, it matters to Europe.

Think again about the vision and imagination of the young generation I started my speech with. It is the moment to show them that we can build a continent where you can be who you are, love who you want, and aim as high as you want.

A continent reconciled with nature and leading the way on new technologies.

A continent that is united in freedom and peace.

Once again – this is Europe’s moment to answer the call of history.

Long live Europe.”

15) Mic drop. 
From one great Leader of the Free World to Another..

Thank you, Madam President, for your leadership and vision over the last five years which have made these successes a reality! It’s a great time to be a European… feminist!

Read the full text and watch the video of Ursula von der Leyen’s SOTEU 2023 speech.

Or watch it here care of EURONEWS:

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