With the possibility of America’s first woman president looming, it’s appropriate to consider the monumental struggle for gender equality.
For millennia, female inferiority was presumed, and mandated, in virtually every human culture. Through most of history, the brawn of heavier males gave them dominance, leaving women in lesser status – often mere possessions of men, confined to the home, rarely educated, with few rights.
Many were forced to wear veils or shrouds when outdoors, and they couldn’t go outside without a male relative escort. Fathers kept their daughters restricted, then chose husbands who became their new masters.
In Ancient Greece, women were kept indoors, rarely seen, while men performed all public functions. Women couldn’t attend schools or own property. A wife couldn’t attend male social events, even when her husband staged one at home. Aristotle believed in “natural slaves” and wrote that females are lesser creatures who must be cared for, as a farmer tends his livestock.
Up through medieval times, daughters were secondary, and inheritances went to firstborn sons. Male rule prevailed. Anthropologists have searched for exceptions, with little success – except possibly some Iroquois tribes in Canada, where women reportedly had some rights.
In the 1930s, the famed Margaret Mead thought she found a female-led group in New Guinea, but she later reversed her conclusion and wrote: “All the claims so glibly made about societies ruled by women are nonsense. We have no reason to believe that they ever existed…. Men everywhere have been in charge of running the show.”
As The Enlightenment blossomed in the 1700s, calls for women’s rights emerged. France’s Talleyrand wrote that only men required serious education and women should learn just to manage “the paternal home.” This infuriated England’s rebellious Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, contending that females have potential for full public life.
Reformer John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) wrote The Subjugation of Women in 1869 after his wife had written The Enfranchisement of Women, calling for a female right to vote. The husband protested: “There remain no legal slaves, save the mistress of every house.” As a member of England’s Parliament, Mill sought voting by women and became president of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage.
“The legal subordination of one sex to another is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement,” Mill wrote.
The western world wrestled nearly a century before women finally won the right to vote.
Around the world, various other nations followed, some more slowly than others. In Switzerland, women didn’t gain full ballot rights in all districts until 1991. Saudi Arabian women finally gained only partial voting in December 2015.
Social struggles never really end. Western women still haven’t gained full equality. Their pay remains below the average for male workers. In some places, American women couldn’t serve on juries until the 1950s. Some Muslim and African cultures remain medieval, with women subjugated, with girls less-educated, with “honor killings”, and with genital mutilation of girls.
An Amnesty International report said:
“In the United States, a woman is raped every six minutes; a woman is battered every 15 seconds. In North Africa, 6,000 women are genitally mutilated each day. This year, more than 15,000 women will be sold into sexual slavery in China. Two hundred women in Bangladesh will be horribly disfigured when their spurned husbands or suitors burn them with acid.
“More than 7,000 women in India will be murdered by their families and in-laws in disputes over dowries. Violence against women is rooted in a global culture of discrimination which denies women equal rights with men and which legitimizes the appropriation of women’s bodies for individual gratification or political ends.”
This article has been excerpted from: ‘The Long, Long Journey to Female Equality’.