Women Through History: Women's Experience Through the Ages

Updated on June 24, 2018
The feminist protests of the sixties and seventies brought many changes.
The feminist protests of the sixties and seventies brought many changes.

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!

Feminist poster from the twentieth century.
Feminist poster from the twentieth century.

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.

Questions & Answers

    Comments

      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment

      • profile image

        boi 

        6 weeks ago

        cool article

      • profile image

        jamie 

        8 weeks ago

        I enjoyed the article until the last couple paragraphs. "Full equality has now been reached" W O W wtf

      • profile image

        emma 

        2 months ago

        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.

      • profile image

        dnjsn 

        3 months ago

        full equality has not been reached

      • profile image

        boy boy fat boy 

        6 months ago

        bot party

      • profile image

        Liliana 12345 

        7 months ago

        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

      • profile image

        Anonymous 

        7 months ago

        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.

      • profile image

        15 months ago

        Nice work

      • profile image

        random student 

        20 months ago

        Really helpful article. Thankyou for making my assignment easier.

      • Marie McKeown profile imageAUTHOR

        Marie McKeown 

        2 years ago from Ireland

        I believe you. What do you think can help these women?

      • Kenza-Salmi2 profile image

        Kenza Salmi 

        2 years ago from Algeria

        Unfortunately, millions are really suffering .

      • Marie McKeown profile imageAUTHOR

        Marie McKeown 

        2 years ago from Ireland

        I understand. You make a good point - many women do not enjoy the same freedoms.

      • Kenza-Salmi2 profile image

        Kenza Salmi 

        2 years ago from Algeria

        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 profile imageAUTHOR

        Marie McKeown 

        5 years ago from Ireland

        You make a good point!

      • profile image

        onlooker 

        5 years ago

        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

      • profile image

        Visitor 

        5 years ago

        Thanks a lot for writing this.

      • Nils Visser profile image

        Nils Visser 

        7 years ago from Brighton UK

        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 profile image

        Alien Al 

        7 years ago from Houston MO. 65493

        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

      working

      This website uses cookies

      As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

      For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://owlcation.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

      Show Details
      Necessary
      HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
      LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
      Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
      AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
      Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
      CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
      Features
      Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
      Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
      Marketing
      Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
      Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
      Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
      Statistics
      Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
      ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)