A History of Women

By Tim Lambert


Women in Sumer

Sumer was the world’s first civilization. It arose in what is now Iraq at about 3,500 BC. Sumerian women could own property such as land and slaves. They could also own businesses. Women could be witnesses in court the same as men. Some Sumerian women could read and write. Some women were doctors, others were scribes or priestesses.

Women in Ancient Egypt

In Ancient Egypt, women had a lot of freedom. They could come and go as they pleased. They could own property and they could sign contracts. However, most women worked in the home. There was a great deal of work to do as most homes were largely self-sufficient. The woman made the family’s clothes and prepared food such as grinding grain to flour to make bread. Even in a rich family, the woman was kept busy organizing the slaves. There were some women doctors in Ancient Egypt.

A woman called Sobekneferu ruled Egypt around 1800 BC. Later a woman named Hatshepsut ruled Egypt c. 1479-1458 BC. Another woman, Twosret ruled Egypt c. 1191-1189 BC.

The Ancient Egyptians had a goddess of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Her name was Seshat. Girls from well-off families were sometimes taught at home.

Nefertiti, a famous queen of Egypt

Women in Ancient Israel

In Ancient Israel women could own property. The Book of Proverbs describes an ideal woman. It says ‘she considers a field and buys it’. (Proverbs 31:16). As well as making clothes for her family the ideal woman sells clothes to merchants.

When a father died his sons inherited his property. The oldest son was given a double share. Daughters could only inherit property if there were no sons. However, sons who inherited property were expected to support the women in the family. In Israel, girls learned skills like spinning, weaving, and baking from their mothers.

Women in Ancient Greece

The Greeks worshiped goddesses as well as gods. Greek women took part in religious festivals However in a wealthy family, women usually stayed apart from men. They usually stayed in the back or upper part of the house. In a rich family, the wife was expected to run the home and very often manage the finances. However rich women would normally stay indoors and send slaves to do the shopping.

Poor women, of course, had no choice. They might also have to help their husbands with farm work. Women, even rich ones were expected to spin and weave cloth and make clothes. However, in Sparta, women could own and inherit property. (Spartan women owned much of the land). We also know from records that women owned land in Thessaly and the Cretan city-state of Gortyn. In Ancient Greece, some women were tavern keepers. Others sold food or perfume. Some were wool workers.

In Ancient Greece, some girls were taught to read and write. Women from wealthy families were often well-educated. Girls married when they were about 15. (Except in Sparta where they were typically older). Marriages were often arranged for them. However, women could divorce their husbands.

Women were not allowed to participate in the Olympic Games. However, women had their own games dedicated to the goddess Hera (wife of Zeus). The Heraean games were held once every 4 years.

Despite the warm climate, Greek women wore clothes that covered most of their bodies. Greek women wore rectangles of woolen cloth folded and pinned together with holes for the arms and head. It was tied at the waist. This garment was called a peplos.

Towards the end of the 5th century, some Greek women began to wear a long linen tunic called a chiton. Women also wore cloaks called himations. Women wore jewelry like necklaces, bracelets, and anklets. Rich women carried parasols to protect themselves from the sun. Women did not cut their hair unless they were mourning. It was worn in many different styles.

Persian Women

In Ancient Persia, women could own property. Many of them had jobs. Some women were made managers, in charge of both male and female workers. If the king died the queen could rule until the crown prince came of age.

Women in Rome

In Rome, women could not vote or hold public office. However, women were allowed to own and inherit property and some ran businesses. (In the Bible there is a woman named Lydia who sold purple cloth). In certain trades, some women helped their husbands, especially in silver working and perfumery.

Furthermore, some women were priestesses or worked as midwives or hairdressers. Some women were gladiators. However, in the Roman Empire, most jobs were done by men.

Most women were fully occupied with looking after children and doing tasks like spinning wool for the family. Rich women had more freedom, especially if they were widows. Roman women could divorce their husbands.

Roman Women wore long dresses called a stola, dyed different colors. Often they wore a long shawl called a palla. Both Roman men and women wore a loincloth or shorts called subligaculum. Women also wore a band of cloth or leather around their chest called a stophium.

Famous Women of the Ancient World

Among the famous women of the Ancient World was Sappho, a Greek poet who lived around 600 BC. Theano of Crotona was a great mathematician born about 546 BC. Gorgo queen of Sparta (born c. 508 BC) was an influential woman. Arete of Cyrene was a famous philosopher who lived about 400 BC. About 150 BC Aglaonike was a woman astronomer. Metrodora was a Greek woman doctor who lived in the 3rd or 4th century. She wrote a famous book called On the Diseases and Cures of Women. Another famous woman of the Ancient world was Hypatia (355? -415 AD). She was a mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher who lived in Alexandria, Egypt.


In the Middle Ages, women spun wool and they did cooking and cleaning. Women washed clothes, baked bread, milked cows, fed animals, brewed beer, and collected firewood! In the Middle Ages, some women were spinners, brewers, jewelers, parchment makers, and glovers. In Medieval townswomen often helped their husbands with their work. Sometimes if a man died his widow would carry on his trade.

In Saxon England (before 1066) married women could own property. However, after the Norman Conquest in 1066, the idea of coverture developed. It meant the husband and wife were seen as one unit. So a married woman could not own property in her own name.

Nevertheless, in the Middle Ages, some middle-class women ran their own businesses. In England the mystic Margery Kempe ran a brewery and later a horse mill, using horses to grind corn. Single women and widows could still own property. Women married to craftsmen usually learned their husband’s trade and carried it on if their husbands died.

Some women became nuns but they too had to work hard. At least they did if they were from poor families. Class distinctions still applied in nunneries. Nuns from rich families were given the easiest work such as spinning wool and embroidery.

In upper-class families, young men and women did not normally choose their own marriage partners. Their parents arranged their marriage for them. Children from poor families might have more choice about who they married but by the time they were about 7 or 8 they had to start helping their parents by doing simple jobs such as chasing away birds when crops had been sown or helping to weave wool.

Saxon women (before the Norman Conquest of 1066) wore a long linen garment with a long tunic over it. They also wore mantles. Both men and women used combs made of bone or antler. In the 12th and 13th centuries, clothes were still quite basic. Women wore nightie-like linen garments. However, they did not wear knickers. They wore a long tunic (to their ankles) and over it another garment, a gown. Women held their dresses with a belt tied around their waists.

In the Middle Ages, both sexes wore clothes made of wool but it varied in quality. Wool could be fine and expensive or coarse and cheap. In the late 14th and 15th centuries clothes became much more elaborate. Fashion in the modern sense began. For the wealthy styles changed rapidly. Women wore elaborate hats.

Famous Women of the Middle Ages

There were many great women in the Middle Ages. Hilda of Whitby 614-680 was an influential woman in the Saxon church who founded the abbey at Whitby. In 664 she hosted the Synod of Whitby, an important church meeting. Hildegard 1088-1179 was a theologian and writer. She also wrote about medicine. And she wrote music and a play. Trota of Salerno c. 1100 was a famous doctor. (Salerno in Italy was famous for its medical school. Women were allowed to study there). Rebecca Guarna was another famous woman doctor.

Matilda 1102-1167 claimed to be the queen of England 1135-1154. (Although there was another claimant to the throne and they fought a long civil war). Julian of Norwich 1342-1416 was a famous mystic and writer. Julian wrote about the ‘motherhood’ of God. Margery Kempe was another famous woman mystic. Christine de Pisan 1364-1432 was another famous woman writer.


In the 16th century, women were not allowed in professions (such as doctors, lawyers, and teachers) and female employment was often menial and low paid. However, women were allowed to join some of the guilds (organizations of tradespeople and skilled workers).

In 1562 a law, the Statute of Artificers, made it illegal to employ a man or a woman in a trade unless they had served a 7 year apprenticeship. However, in the case of women, the law was often not enforced. Very often the guilds (who regulated trade) let male members employ their wives or daughters in their workshops. Furthermore, if a craftsman died his widow often carried on his trade.

In the 16th century, some women worked spinning cloth. Women were also milliners, dyers, shoemakers, and embroiderers. There were also washerwomen. Some women worked in food preparation such as brewers, bakers, or confectioners. Women also sold foodstuffs in the streets. Furthermore, a very common job for women in the 16th century was a domestic servant. Other women were midwives. However, most women were housewives and they were kept very busy. Most men could not run a farm or a business without their wife’s help.

In the 16th century, most households in the countryside were largely self-sufficient. A housewife (assisted by her servants if she had any) had to bake her family’s bread and brew their beer (it was not safe to drink water). She was also responsible for curing bacon, salting meat, and making pickles, jellies, and preserves (all of which were essential in an age before fridges and freezers). Very often in the countryside the housewife also made the family candles and their soap. A 16th-century housewife also spun wool and linen.

A farmer’s wife also milked cows, fed animals, and grew herbs and vegetables. She often kept bees. She also took goods to market to sell. On top of that, she had to cook, wash the family’s clothes, and clean the house. A 16th-century housewife was also supposed to have some knowledge of medicine and be able to treat her family’s illnesses. If she could not they would go to a wise woman. Only the wealthy could afford a doctor.

Poor and middle-class wives were kept very busy but rich women were not idle either. In a big house, they had to organize and supervise the servants. Also if her husband was away from home the woman usually ran the estate. Very often a merchant’s wife did his accounts and if was traveling she looked after the business. In their spare time, rich women liked to hunt deer and hares with dogs. They also liked hunting with falcons. Wealthy women also played cards.

In the 16th century, girls did not go to school. However, girls from well-off families were usually educated at home. Tutors taught upper-class girls. Middle-class girls were taught reading, writing, arithmetic, and skills like sewing by their mothers. Merchant’s daughters were very often taught to run their father’s business. Some women were taught to read by their husbands or by the parish priest.

In the 16th century, some upper-class women were highly educated. Two of Henry VIII’s wives, Catherine of Aragon and Catherine Parr were well-educated. (Catherine Parr was a famous writer). Queen Elizabeth I was also well educated and she liked reading. Girls learned music, dancing and needlework. They also learned to read and write. They might also learn languages like Greek and Latin, Spanish, Italian, and French. However, towards the end of the 16th century girls spent less time on academic subjects and more time on skills like music and embroidery.

Of course, most children in Tudor England did not go to school. Boys and girls from poor families were expected to start working and contributing to the family income from the time they were about 7 years old. Even in wealthy families, people believed that girls should not be idle. They were allowed some time to play but otherwise, they were supposed to work e.g. by weaving or reading suitable books.

Most women in the 16th century were wives and mothers. Life could be hard for spinsters. Often they lived with relatives but they had to work long hours to support themselves. In the 16th century, marriages were usually arranged, except for the poorest people. Divorce was unknown. (Though marriages were occasionally annulled. That is it was declared they had never been valid). Legally girls could marry when they were 12 years old. However, normally it was only girls from rich families who married young. The majority of women married in their mid-20s.

Childbirth was dangerous in the 16th century. Poor women tended to give birth about once every two years. Rich women gave birth more often, perhaps once a year. That was because poor women breastfed, which reduced their fertility. Rich women gave their babies to wet nurses to breastfeed.

In the 16th century, clothes were usually made of wool or linen. Only rich women could afford cotton and silk. However, there were many grades of wool. You could buy expensive fine wool or cheap, coarse wool.

In the 16th century, women wore a kind of petticoat called a smock or shift or chemise made of linen or wool and a wool dress over it. A woman’s dress was made of two parts, a bodice, and a skirt. Sleeves were held on with laces and could be detached. Working women wore linen aprons.

In the late 16th century many women wore a frame made of whalebone or wood under their dress called a farthingale. If they could not afford a farthingale, women wore a padded roll around their waist called a bum roll. Rich women enjoyed embroidery. Many of their clothes were embroidered even hats and shoes.

In the 16th century, all women wore hats. The poorest women wore a linen hat called a coif. In the early 16th century, women wore hats called gable hoods (because they looked like the gables on the end of roofs). However, Anne Boleyn introduced the curved French hood into England. Then, in the late 16th century bonnets became fashionable. Rich women wore ostrich feathers in their bonnets. It was fashionable for wealthy women to have pale skin (if you were sunburned it showed you were poor as you had to work in the hot sun). Women whitened their skin with egg whites or white lead. They reddened their lips and cheeks with cochineal (a dye made from crushed beetles).


Little changed for women in the 17th century. In the 16th century, some upper-class women were highly educated. (Elizabeth I was well educated and she liked reading). They learned music, dancing and needlework. They also learned to read and write and they learned languages like Greek and Latin, Spanish, Italian, and French.

However, towards the end of the 16th century girls spent less time on academic subjects and more time on skills like music and embroidery. Moreover, during the 17th century, boarding schools for girls were founded in many towns. In them, girls were taught subjects like writing, music, and needlework. The first women’s magazine was The Ladies Mercury published in 1693.

In the 17th century, women wore a linen nightie-like garment called a shift. Over it, they wore long dresses. The dress was in two parts the bodice and the skirt. Sometimes women wore two skirts. The upper skirt was gathered up to reveal an underskirt. From the mid 17th century it was fashionable for women to wear black patches on their faces such as little stars or crescent moons.

Famous Women in the 17th Century

Famous English women of the 17th century included the philosopher Mary Astell (1666-1731) and the writer Aphra Behn (1640-1689).

In other parts of Europe Elena Piscopia (1646-1684) was a great Italian woman philosopher. A German woman, Maria Clara Eimmart was a noted astronomer (1676-1707). So was Maria Cunitz (1610-1664).

In the world of music, Francesca Caccini (1587 – c. 1640) was a composer and singer. Barbara Strozzi (1619 – 1677) was a composer. So was Isabella Leonarda (1620 – 1704).


Life for women in the 18th century was essentially the same as in the 17th century. In the 1700s girls from well-off families went to boarding schools. Poor girls sometimes went to dame schools where they were taught to read and write. Also, in some towns, there were charity schools called blue coat schools because of the color of the uniforms. In Britain, women were not allowed to attend university and the professions were closed to them. However, in 1732, Laura Bassi was made a professor of anatomy in Bologna, Italy.

In the 17th century and 18th centuries, a married woman could not own property. However, when a woman was about to marry her family could put some property in trust for her. It was called a separate estate. For instance, land could be held in trust for her and she was entitled to keep any income from it. Her husband had no right to it. Widows who were planning to marry a second time could also create a separate estate. Some people left some property in their wills to female relatives to be held in trust for them, as a separate estate. A husband also had a legal duty to support his wife. The husband was also responsible for his wife’s debts.

Famous Women of the 18th Century

Laura Bassi Laura Bassi (1716-1774) was a famous women physicist in Italy. There were many other famous women in the 18th century. Caroline Herschel (1750-1848) was a famous astronomer. Maria Kirch (1670-1720) was also a famous astronomer. Emilie du Chatelet (1706-1749) was a woman physicist and mathematician. Maria Agnesi (1718-1799) was also a famous mathematician. Catharine Macaulay (1731-1791) was a famous historian.

In 1792 Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Hannah Glasse (1708-1770) was famous for her cookery books. Anne Seymour Damer (1749-1828) was a famous woman sculptor.

Meanwhile, Queen Anne was the queen of Britain in the years 1702-1714. Catherine the Great was Empress of Russia in the era 1762-1796. In 1777 during the American War of Independence, Sybil Ludington made a heroic ride.

Catherine the Great

In the 18th century, women wore stays (a bodice with strips of whalebone) and hooped petticoats under their dresses. Fashionable women carried folding fans. Fashion was very important for the rich in the 18th century but poor people’s clothes hardly changed at all.

In the 18th century, pale skin was fashionable. So were dark eyebrows. Women also used rouge abundantly. Perfume was also commonly used. In the early 18th century a new scent was made in Cologne. Later in the century it became known as Eau de Cologne. In the 18th century, some women wore false eyebrows made of mouse fur. They were glued to the face.

Well-off women enjoyed reading and playing musical instruments. They also went dancing and to the theater. Puppet shows like Punch and Judy also drew the crowds. Furthermore, in the late 18th century the circus became a popular form of entertainment. Girls played with wooden or rag dolls.


During the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution transformed life in Britain and other countries in Europe and North America. By the end of the century, life was becoming more and more comfortable for most women. Some reforms were made in the 19th century. In 1842 a law banned women and boys under 10 from working underground. In 1844 a law banned all children under 8 from working.

Then in 1847, a Factory Act said that women and children could only work 10 hours a day in textile factories. In 1867 the law was extended to all factories. (A factory was defined as a place where more than 50 people were employed in a manufacturing process). An act of 1878 said women in any factories could not work more than 56 hours a week.

In the 19th century being a domestic servant was a common job for women. Other women worked as charwomen or laundresses. Many women worked at home finishing shirts or shoes. Others made boxes or lace at home. In the Black Country in the West Midlands of England, some women made chains in forges by their homes. In the 19th century married working-class women often worked – they had to because many families were so poor they needed her earnings as well as her husbands.

In the 19th century, most working-class girls got some education. In the early and mid 19th century the churches provided some schools. After 1870 the state provided them. Well-off women were kept busy running the household and organizing the servants. Some also helped their husband run a business.

In 1874 the first successful typewriter went on sale and the telephone was invented in 1876. These two new inventions meant new job opportunities for women.

In the 19th century, well-off women practiced archery. In the late 19th century tennis, croquet and cycling were popular pastimes. Women first played at Wimbledon in 1884. Some intrepid women went mountaineering.

Meanwhile, women gained more rights during the 19th century. In 1848 the first convention on women’s rights in the USA was held at Seneca Falls, New York. About 300 women and men attended. Finally, 68 women and 32 men signed the Declaration of Sentiments calling for equal rights for women.

In 1849 Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman in the USA to gain a medical degree. In 1859 she became the first woman to have her name entered in the British General Medical Council’s medical register. In Britain, the first woman to qualify as a dentist was Lilian Lindsay in 1895. The first woman to qualify as an architect in Britain was Ethel Charles in 1898.

Until the late 19th century in Britain, a married woman could not own property in her own right (though it could be held in trust for her). However, the 1870 Married Women’s Property Act stated that a married woman’s earnings belonged to her. Further Acts were passed in 1882 and 1893. They allowed married women to own, buy, and sell their property the same as a single woman.

Meanwhile, in the USA the first state to allow married women to own property was Mississippi in 1839. During the 19th century, the other states followed suit.

In 1893 New Zealand became the first country to allow women to vote in national elections. Meanwhile, in the USA the first women’s rights convention was held at Seneca Falls in 1848. The campaign for women’s rights in the USA in the 19th century was led by Susan B Anthony (1820-1906) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902).

In the early 19th century women wore light dresses. In the 1830s they had puffed sleeves. In the 1850s they wore frames of whalebone or steel wire called crinolines under their skirts. In the late 1860s, women began to wear a kind of half crinoline. The front of the skirt was flat but it bulged outwards at the back. This was called a bustle and it disappeared in the 1890s.

In the 19th century, women still wore corsets. About 1800 women started wearing underwear. They were called drawers. Originally women wore a pair of drawers i.e. they were actually two garments, one for each leg, tied together at the top. In Britain, in the late 19th century women’s drawers were called knickerbockers then just knickers.

Famous Women in the 19th Century

There were many famous women in the 19th century. Florence Nightingale was a famous nurse (she was also an accomplished mathematician). Elizabeth Fry played a key role in prison reform.

In the USA Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross in 1881. An Englishwoman named Mary Kingsley explored parts of Africa. Ada Lovelace was a famous mathematician. Marie Curie (1867-1934) was a famous scientist. Maria Mitchell (1818-1889) was a famous astronomer. Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) was a famous gardener. On 7 September 1838 Grace Darling rowed a little boat 1 mile through a storm to rescue 5 people from a steamship that had struck rocks. She became a heroine.

There were also famous women writers in Britain in the 19th century. Among them were Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans). In 1818 Mary Shelley published her novel Frankenstein. Famous American women writers included Harriet Beecher Stowe and Louisa May Alcott.


During the 20th century, women gained equal rights with men. Technological and economic changes made it inevitable that women would be given the same rights as men.

By 1884 the majority of men in Britain were allowed to vote. So in 1897 local groups of women who demanded the vote joined to form the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). The organization was moderate and its members were called suffragists.

However, in 1903 a more radical organization was formed called the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Emmeline Pankhurst led it and its members were called suffragettes. The suffragettes committed crimes like arson and vandalism. However, the WSPU did not want votes for all women – only those who met a property qualification. The suffragettes halted their campaign when the war began in 1914.

However, in 1918 in Britain, women over 30 were allowed to vote if they met a property qualification. In 1928 they were allowed to vote at the age of 21 (the same as men). In 1919 Nancy Astor was elected an MP. She was the first woman MP to take her seat in the House of Commons. In 1929 Margaret Bondfield became the first female cabinet minister. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher became the first female Prime Minister.

Meanwhile, all women in the USA were given the right to vote in 1920 (although in some states women could vote before that). Rebecca Latimer Felton was appointed (not elected) the first woman US senator in 1922. In 1925 Nellie Tayloe Ross becomes the first woman governor of a US state (Wyoming). In 1932 Hattie Ophelia Caraway became the first woman elected to the US Senate. In 1933 Frances Perkins became the first woman appointed to a presidential cabinet. She was secretary of labor. In 1981 Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman judge on the US Supreme Court.

More occupations were opened to women during the 20th century. In 1910 the first policewoman was appointed in Los Angeles. In 1914 the first policewomen were appointed in Britain.

In Britain, the 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) opened certain professions to women. They were allowed to be solicitors, barristers, vets, and chartered accountants. They were also allowed to be magistrates and members of juries. In 1919 The first female solicitor in England was Carrie Morrison in 1922. Also in 1922, Irene Barclay became the first female chartered surveyor.

In 1917 the WRNS (Women’s Royal Naval Service) was formed. So was the WRAF (Women’s Royal Air Force). In 1938 the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the female branch of the British army was formed.

In the mid-20th century, most married women did not work outside the home (except in wartime). However, in the 1950s and 1960s, it became much more common for them to do so – at least part-time. New technology in the home made it easier for women to do paid work. Before the 20th century, housework was so time-consuming married women very often did not have time to work. At the same time, the economy changed. Manufacturing became less important and service industries grew, so creating more opportunities for women.

In 1963 in the USA an Equal Pay Act compelled employers to pay men and women the same amount for doing the same job. An Equal Pay Act was passed in Britain in 1970. In 1973 in Britain, women were admitted to the stock exchange for the first time.

From 1975 it was made illegal to sack women for becoming pregnant. Also in 1975, the Sex Discrimination Act made it illegal to discriminate against women in employment, education, and training. In 1984 a new law stated that equal pay must be given for work of equal value.

In 1921 Dr Marie Stopes opened the first birth control clinic in England. Contraceptive pills became available in Britain in 1961.

Among many firsts in the 20th century in 1956 Rose Heilbron became the first woman recorder in Britain and in 1958 Hilda Harding became the first woman bank manager. In 1965 Elizabeth Lane became the first female High Court Judge. Then in 1976, Mary Langdon became the first female firefighter in Britain.

In 1900 women wore long dresses. It was not acceptable for women to show their legs. From 1910 women wore hobble skirts. They were so narrow women could only ‘hobble’ along while wearing them.

However, during World War I clothes for women became more practical. Meanwhile, in 1913 Mary Phelps Jacob invented the bra. She used two handkerchiefs joined by ribbons. In 1915 lipstick was sold in tubes for the first time. In the early 1920s women still wore knickers that ended well below the knee. However, during the 1920s knickers became shorter. They ended above the knee. In the mid-20th century, younger women wore briefs.

A revolution in women’s clothes occurred in 1925. At that time women began wearing knee-length skirts. In the mid and late 1920s, it was fashionable for women to look boyish. However, in the 1930s women’s dress became more conservative. During World War II it was necessary to save material so skirts were shorter. Clothes were rationed until 1949.

Meanwhile, the bikini was invented in 1946. In 1947 Christian Dior introduced the New Look, with long skirts and narrow waists giving an ‘hourglass’ figure. During the 1950s women’s clothes were full and feminine. However in 1965, Mary Quant invented the mini skirt and clothes became even more informal.

Last revised 2024