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.
Geoff with a G on August 29, 2020:
I went searching for when historically women lost equality and this article gives a bit of information regarding this. I genuinely believe neither gender is inferior so I’m not sure if men or woman deserve to dominate within a culture. My question is: does one being dominant create excitement and competition thus encouraging sexual interaction and thus preserving the species?
If both sexes are equal does life become boring and we just wonder why we are here?
The Known Truth on December 24, 2019:
5 Months ago i made this comment, and let me finish what i forgot to say. Many of us men for your information that had women Curse at us for no reason at all by just saying good morning or hello to them, since there are many of us good single men that are seriously looking to meet a good single woman to settle down with. Why should these women Curse at us for when we really are looking for a relationship today, and by the way i had other single friends that i know that also had very bad experiences with these type of very troubled women as well. So is it our fault that many of these women are very mean and nasty to us men? Of cause not,since we never did anything wrong to these women in the first place. It is a real shame that many of us men can't find love at all today, and these women are very severely mentally ill to begin with to act this way with us. Gee Wiz, most women in the past weren't like today at all. Why now? If many of us men had been born in the past, we would've never had this trouble at all finding love which we would've been all settled down ourselves already.
The actual truth on July 20, 2019:
If you believe women are "losers", "idiots", "pathetic". Then you are the real low life in the situation. Women are people just like men, since when does having a vagina make you any less of a person? Men should really look up to the fact that women in have been constantly knocked down for being born female yet still, work hard to become who they want to be. The fact that women are saying no to "serving" or being your "bitch" should be something appreciated. If you ever find yourself a partner 'The Known Truth' i am sure you will never truly love them because if you did, you would allow and encourage them to be who they want to be.
The Known Truth on July 13, 2019:
Well if a man was looking for a good old fashioned woman to meet, which he never had any problem at all since most women at that time were very old fashioned and real ladies too. Today feminism killed it for many of us single good men that are still seriously looking. They really are so very pathetic today altogether unfortunately since these idiots have really changed today from the past. No wonder why our family members lucked out back then when they met one another. What in the world happened to these loser women today?
Doglover44 on June 19, 2019:
I liked this article because it is true,
Yes on May 01, 2019:
Even though I'm a boy I support the equality of men and women
Jamie on February 14, 2019:
I get the feeling the 'full equality has now been reached' bit is a typo. 'Now' should be 'not'. Writer means to say that although equality's not quite there yet, we've come some of the way because it's normal to see female doctors etc now.
boi on October 03, 2018:
jamie on September 23, 2018:
I enjoyed the article until the last couple paragraphs. "Full equality has now been reached" W O W wtf
emma on August 27, 2018:
hi. im sorry but what on earth led you to believe that full equality has been reached. it has not. it is far from being reached. yes we have come leaps and bounds from where we were a century ago but there is still so much to improve like the pay gap, education gaps and just women being discriminated in general. it would be greatly appreciated if you could change this article as people that do not have much knowledge, or who are just oblivious to the world around them may believe this. thank you. rant over.
dnjsn on July 23, 2018:
full equality has not been reached
boy boy fat boy on May 06, 2018:
Liliana 12345 on April 12, 2018:
I think that this website is amazing Because for a fine fact I did not know at all that the first poem was invented by a woman I love poems I honestly think this website although I loved I'm so honest because I'm not just saying this because I'm a girl people think that women are only meant to cook take care of the house to London take care of children but as woman's can do more than that we can rule the world if you want to we could dominate anything that comes into our path if you stand strong
Anonymous on April 05, 2018:
Good article, except that women not being able to be preists in the catholic church is not due to discrimmination or anything, its because the priest is the representation of jesus on earth, it is church cannonical law (thats laws that not even the pope can change) because jesus was a guy. Its just to do with the beliefs of the religion, guys arent allowed to be nuns.
T on August 06, 2017:
random student on March 25, 2017:
Really helpful article. Thankyou for making my assignment easier.
Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on June 05, 2016:
I believe you. What do you think can help these women?
Kenza Salmi from Algeria on June 03, 2016:
Unfortunately, millions are really suffering .
Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on June 02, 2016:
I understand. You make a good point - many women do not enjoy the same freedoms.
Kenza Salmi from Algeria on June 02, 2016:
It is a very nice and well-done article.But I want to inform you that we still have some countries in the world in which women are really suffering , for example, of not making choices concerning their personal life by their own instead their parents or brothers usually do.
Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on May 01, 2013:
You make a good point!
onlooker on April 29, 2013:
It is hard to imagine that people try to forget the Mother aspect of life when it comes to these issues. There have always been spiritually powerful women throughout the ages including the times of Jesus
Visitor on April 11, 2013:
Thanks a lot for writing this.
Nils Visser from Brighton UK on September 20, 2011:
You might be surprised though that even during the darkest days of history, there were always the most remarkable women breaking the mould and doing spectacular things.
Alien Al from Houston MO. 65493 on May 05, 2011:
Nicely done there was some good came out of the movement .I had just published an article this morning ,covering some on the 60`s , and the feminist revolution but from a different angle,The intent was good
but it was hijacked and funded for a much darker reason