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Regardless Of Sex

Among the rights women want are control of property, equality of opportunity in education and employment, suffrage, and sexual freedom. The women’s rights movement, also known as feminism and women’s liberation, arose in Europe in the late 18th century. Although today most women throughout the world have gained many rights according to law, in fact complete political, economic, and social equality with men remains to be achieved.

In early societies, women bore and raised children, cared for the home, and helped maintain the family’s economic production. Men hunted, made war, and, in settled agrarian societies, assumed primary responsibility for field crop production. Because of women’s varied domestic activities, it is likely that they were responsible for the invention of weaving and potting. Some scholars argue that the discovery throughout the European continent and the Near East of thousands of stone figures of female goddesses dating from the Paleolithic period and later indicates that these were originally goddess-worshipping, matricentric civilizations.

Male dominance, however, was preeminent from the time of the earliest written historical records, probably as a result of men’s discovery of their role in conception as well as the development of hunting and warfare as prestige activities. The belief that women were naturally weaker and inferior to men also was sanctioned by god-centered religions. In the Bible, God placed Eve under Adam’s authority, and St. Paul urged Christian wives to be obedient to their husbands. In Hinduism the reward of a virtuous woman is rebirth as a man.

Therefore, in most traditional societies, women generally were at a disadvantage. Their education was limited to learning domestic skills, and they had no access to positions of power. Marriage was almost a necessity as a means of support or protection. Pressure was constant to produce many children. A married woman usually took her husband’s status and lived with his family, with little recourse in case of ill treatment or nonsupport. Under Roman law, which influenced later European and American law, husband and wife were one, with the woman the possession of the man. As such, a woman had no legal control over her person, her own land and money, or her children. According to a double standard of morality, respectable women had to be chaste but men did not. In the Middle Ages, feudal law, in which landholding carried with it military obligations, encouraged the subordination of women to men.

Some exceptions to women’s dependence on men did exist. In ancient Babylonia and Egypt women had property rights, and in medieval Europe they were permitted to join craft guilds. Some women had religious authority, for example, as Siberian shamans and Roman priestesses. Occasionally women had political authority, such as Egyptian and Byzantine queens, heads of medieval nunneries, and Iroquois Indian women, who appointed men to clan and tribal councils. A few highly cultivated women flourished in ancient Rome, China, and in Renaissance Europe. Men of the lower classes often lacked rights as well but, struggling to preserve their own dignity in a harsh world, such men were unlikely to sympathize with the plight of women.

The Enlightenment, with its egalitarian political emphasis, and the Industrial Revolution, which caused economic and social changes, provided a favorable climate for the rise of feminism, along with other reform movements in the late 18th and the 19th centuries.

During the French Revolution, women’s republican clubs in France pleaded that the goals of liberty, equality, and fraternity should apply to all, regardless of sex. The subsequent adoption of the Code Napoléon, based on Roman law, however, obliterated any immediate realization of such hopes on the Continent. In England, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), the first major modern feminist work. Its demands for equality and its revolutionary tone made it unacceptable at that time.

Of deeper significance for women was the Industrial Revolution. The transformation from handwork, which women had always carried on at home without pay, to machine-powered mass production meant that lower-class women could become wage earners in factories. This was the beginning of their independence, although factory conditions were hazardous and their pay, lower than men’s, was legally controlled by their husbands. At the same time middle- and upper-class women were expected to stay at home as idle, decorative symbols of their husbands’ economic success. The only other option for respectable women of any class was work as governesses, clerks, shop assistants, and servants. Such conditions encouraged the feminist movement.

On the Continent, feminist groups appeared sporadically but lacked strength. The Roman Catholic church opposed feminism on the grounds that it would destroy the patriarchal family. Agrarian countries held to traditional ideas, and in industrial countries feminist demands tended to be absorbed by the socialist movement.

In largely Protestant, rapidly industrializing Great Britain and the U.S., feminism was more successful. The leaders were primarily educated, leisured, reform-minded women of the middle class. In 1848 more than 100 persons held the first women’s rights convention, at Seneca Falls, N.Y. Led by the abolitionist Lucretia Mott and the feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, they demanded equal rights, including the right to vote, and an end to the double standard. British feminists first convened in 1855 behind the limited goal of property rights. The Subjection of Women (1869) by the British philosopher John Stuart Mill focused public attention on their cause.

Colleges were founded for women, such as Mount Holyoke (1837) in South Hadley, Mass., and Girton (1869) in Cambridge, England, although the right to admission to male-dominated universities took longer. Married women’s property acts, passed in England in 1870 and at various times in the U.S., gave women control over their property. Later, provisions were made for divorce, alimony, and child support. Labor legislation improved hours and wages for women. Suffrage, which came to be a primary goal of British and American feminists, encountered substantial resistance, despite massive and sometimes violent campaigns. In both countries the right to vote was only granted after World War I, partly in recognition of women’s war contributions as paid and volunteer workers.

After wars and revolutions in Russia (1917) and China (1949), new Communist governments discouraged the patriarchal family system and supported sexual equality, including birth control. In the Soviet Union, however, the majority of working women held low-paying jobs and were minimally represented in party and government councils. Birth-control techniques were primitive, day-care centers were few, and working wives were responsible for keeping house and tending children. China more fully preserved its revolutionary ideals, but some job discrimination against women persisted. Socialist governments in Sweden in the 1930s established wide-ranging programs of equal rights for women, which included extensive child-care arrangements.

In Britain and the U.S. progress was slower. The number of working women increased substantially after the two world wars, but they generally had low-paying, female-dominated occupations, such as schoolteaching and clerical work. Little opportunity existed in high-paying, male-dominated professions and major government posts. Advocates of birth control agitated for decades before women’s right to family planning was recognized. An Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the U.S. Constitution, to remove at one stroke legal, economic, and social restrictions on women, was introduced into Congress in 1923 but made no headway.

In the 1960s, however, changing demographic, economic, and social patterns encouraged a resurgence of feminism. Lower infant mortality rates, soaring adult life expectancy, and the availability of the birth-control pill (after 1960) gave women greater freedom from child-care responsibilities. These aspects, combined with inflation—which meant that many families needed two incomes—and a rising divorce rate, propelled more women into the job market.

As working women encountered discrimination in many forms, the women’s movement in the U.S. gained momentum. A presidential commission was established in 1960 to consider equal opportunities for women. Acts of Congress entitled them to equality in education, employment, and legal rights. In 1964 the Civil Rights Act, initially intended only for blacks, was extended to women.

In the late 1960s and early ’70s active feminists organized numerous women’s rights groups. Notable among these is the National Organization for Women founded by Betty Friedan and others in 1966 (which represented more than 250,000 members by the mid-1990s), and the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, founded three years later. In 1972 the Supreme Court declared that abortion was legal, and the ERA was passed by Congress and sent to the states for ratification. By the June 1982 deadline, however, the ERA had been ratified by only 35 of the required 38 states.

The women’s movement questioned certain social institutions and traditional values, basing many of its arguments on scientific studies suggesting that most supposed differences between men and women result not from biology but from culture. Many women objected that the English language itself, by reflecting traditional male dominance in its word forms, perpetuated the problem. Successful efforts to reform the language included the introduction of the title Ms. as an alternative to Miss or Mrs.; the substitution of gender-neutral for gender-based terms, such as firefighter for fireman and flight attendant for stewardess; and the avoidance of the male pronoun he (for example, by the use of a phrase such as he or she) when referring to persons who may be either male or female. The women’s movement also sought to foster changes in male-female relationships within the family, including the sharing of domestic roles and the avoidance of gender stereotyping in children’s toys and books, television programs, and other media. An increasing number of women chose to use their maiden name after marriage, either in place of, or in conjunction with, their husband’s name. Much attention was given to consciousness raising, to make women aware of their shared abilities, experiences, and problems.

While many feminist objectives enjoyed widespread support in the U.S., others were extremely controversial. The objectives included equal pay for equal work; federal support for day-care centers; recognition of lesbian rights; preservation of legal abortion and reproductive rights; concerted action against rape, and wife and child abuse; and discrimination against older and minority women.

American women made many gains in the 1980s and ’90s, while continuing to work to resolve the inequalities that still existed. Women’s groups campaigned effectively for the creation of rape hotlines and crisis centers, “date rape” prevention programs, and shelters for battered women. Elsewhere in the world the women’s rights movement has also made some progress. In nearly every nation, women have the right to vote and hold public office. - Lois W. Banner, M.A., Ph.D.

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