Women Through History: Women's Experience Through the Ages
Overview of Women's Experience Through History
Coming up in this article....
- Women in Ancient Times
- Women in the Middle Ages: Church and Medicine
- Women in modern history, including twentieth century feminist revolution
The Changing Experience of Women Through History
Throughout history, women have had very different experiences at different times. Some past societies had women who were warriors, powerful priestesses, and political leaders. At other times strict expectations have been placed on women, with (male) writers portraying them as inferior to men.
Looking at how a society treats its women can be very enlightening. An investigation into the position of women at different points in history shows us how our society has grown and changed.
Often we think of history developing in a straight line. Women enjoy a better level of equality in present-day Western societies than at any time in history that we know of. Unfortunately, the further back in history you go, the less equality women have had. However, the truth is not so simple. In fact, women through history have gained and lost power at different times.
We can also remember that in many parts of the world today, women do not enjoy equal opportunities to earn, participate in politics or get an education. They can face gender-based violence and discrimination. Progress is not inevitable - we need to take action to ensure women have a life of dignity and fairness.
Women in Ancient Times
Surprisingly perhaps, ancient history records many strong female figures - rulers and warriors who did deeds the history-writers thought worthy of recording. Cleopatra, Boudicca, Esther. Their names echo down history to the present day.
The first poem written down, which has survived to the present day, was written by a women called Enheduanna. She was a priestess in Sumerian civilisation and her poem is a prayer of praise to a female deity called Innana. So, the first known author was a woman - very interesting given that in later times women were discouraged from writing and even from learning to read!
The impact of Greco-Roman culture was significant. Within the Roman empire, for example, women had a role defined by staying at home and staying out of politics. The Greeks may have invented democracy but they didn't give women the vote. However, in other parts of the ancient world, women played a significant historical role.
In the Celtic culture of Gaul (now France) and the British Isles, women fought as warriors alongside their men. What they may have lacked in physical strength, they are said to have made up for in the fierceness of their attacks. Boudicca, a British Celtic queen who fought against the roman invaders of her country is a prime example of how a woman at this time could be a political and military leader.
Women and the Church in Medieval Europe
In the early Christian church, there is evidence that women could hold positions of influence equal to men. This was particularly true of followers of Gnostic Christianity in the first and second centuries AD who had female bishops among their communities. As sensationalised in the Da Vinci Code, there are indications that Mary Magdalene was once a significant religious leader - on a par with Peter and the other apostles. An apocryphal gospel of Mary Magdalene was discovered in the late nineteenth century in Egypt - only an important religious figure would have a gospel named after them.
But all this was to change. In the fourth and fifth centuries AD, there was a systematic degrading of women in the writings of the 'Church Fathers'. Writers such as Tertullian. Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome vented bitter spleen against women - women were weak and hysterical and open to temptations they said, women's hair should be covered as it was the work of the devil, men stood between women and God in the hierarchy of the universe ... on and on they wrote. It was these church fathers who blamed Eve for the downfall of humanity, and by extension all women, everywhere.
Their writings seem to have had a huge impact. Even today, women cannot be priests in the Catholic church which has followed on from these early traditions.
The treatment of women in Medieval medicine also shows how women have been put down through history. Women had traditionally been herbal healers, and their wisdom was very valuable in a world without modern medicine. Often they gave their help to friends and neighbours freely, or in exchange for small items.
As the middle ages wore on, men began to muscle in on what had traditionally been the realm of women. Apothecaries, barber-surgeons, alchemists and doctors began to compete with herbal cures. Doctors dismissed these herbal remedies as quackery, in favour of their own practices which frankly were a lot less effective - blood-letting, leeches, balancing humours and suchlike. They also charged large sums of money for their 'help'. Eventually, it became illegal to practise medicine at all without having studied at university, and guess what? Medieval universities did not admit women! This persecution culminated in accusations of witchcraft and the mass-burnings of women accused of witchcraft in the 1600s.
At the same time the new male doctors had some interesting perspectives to give on women's health. They regarded women as prone to 'hysteria' (this word comes from the latin word for womb), and 'lunacy' (they linked madness to the phases of the moon, and by extension to the female menstrual cycle). Their diagrams of conception showed women as passive empty vessels that merely hosted the male seed - it wasn't until the 1900s that medical science recognised that women provide 50% of DNA in the creation of a baby!
Women in Modern History
Modern History is generally seen as beginning in the late 1500s with the Renaissance. While the Renaissance artists painted beautiful female nudes, the Renaissance did not seem to greatly affect women's historical experience. If anything, women's role became more deeply defined as the homemaker and nothing else.
Across Europe, women could not vote, were strongly discouraged from owning a business and had many fewer property rights than men. Young aristocratic women were often forced into political marriages where all their property transferred to their husband and they were effectively trapped. Strict expectations of women's chastity prevailed, and women who broke the rules were punished as criminals and social exiles.
It is only really in the twentieth century that women have made such gains in equality that it is nothing short of revolutionary. Women's groups such as the Suffragettes campaigned successfully for women to be granted the right to vote - in most countries this had happened by 1930. The two world wars showed that women could take men's place in factories, that they could work outside the home as well as within it and that they could contribute to the economy.
After WWII many women were reluctant to go back to their previous lives. They had enjoyed the camaraderie and sense of purpose of the factories. So much so that the fifties saw a backlash - the media and advertisers at this time emphasise a strongly traditional female role and the value of passive behavious such as 'keeping your man happy' and 'putting his needs first'.
The feminist revolution of the sixties and seventies went on to change women's experience forever. While full equality has now been reached it is now natural to see female politicians, doctors, business leaders, and writers. It seems crazy now that a woman could be dismissed as automatically dumber than a man, or that a woman could be barred from a profession because of her gender (Catholic priesthood notwithstanding!).
At the end of the day what is important is that women have a choice about how they want to be, and behave and how they spend their time. Women through history have not always had that choice - often society has placed strict controls on them. We owe a debt of gratitude the women who went before us and changed the rules forever.