A History of Women’s Rights

By Tim Lambert

Women’s Rights in The Ancient World

Women’s Rights in Sumer

In the Ancient World, women’s rights varied from one civilization to another. Sumer was the world’s first civilization. It arose about 3,500 BC in what is now Iraq. 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.

Women’s Rights in Ancient Egypt

In Ancient Egypt, women had a great deal of freedom. They could own property and they could sign contracts. (There is evidence that in Ancient Egypt some women could read and write). Women could also divorce their husbands. 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.

Women’s Rights 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). 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.

Women’s Rights in Ancient Greece

In Ancient Greece, people worshiped goddesses as well as gods. Women did participate in some religious ceremonies but not in politics or warfare. In a wealthy family, women were kept apart from men. They were usually confined to the back or upper part of the house. Girls married when they were about 15. Marriages were often arranged. However, women could divorce their husbands.

In a rich Greek family, the wife was expected to run the home and, sometimes, to 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 owned much of the land. We also know from records that women owned land in Thessaly and the Cretan city-state of Gortyn.

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. n Sappho, a Greek woman poet lived around 600 BC. Theano of Crotona was a great mathematician born about 546 BC. About 150 BC Aglaonike was a woman astronomer.

Women’s Rights in Ancient Persia

In Ancient Persia women could inherit and 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’s Rights in the Nabatean Kingdom

The kingdom existed in what is now Jordan and northwest Saudi Arabia in the period 168 BC-106 AD. In Nabatea women were equal to men. They could inherit and sell property and bring lawsuits. Some Nabatean queens ruled jointly with their husbands and appeared on coins. One famous Nabatean queen was Chuldu. She ruled jointly with her husband in the years 9 AD and 16 AD.

Women’s Rights 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 New Testament there is a woman named Lydia who sold purple cloth). Roman women could obtain a divorce.

Meanwhile, Celtic women had a good deal of freedom and many rights. Celtic women could rule in their own right. One famous woman of the ancient world was Boudicca. She was the queen of the Iceni, a Celtic tribe who lived in what is now Norfolk in England. She led a rebellion against Roman rule.

Another famous woman of the Ancient world was Hypatia (370? – 415 AD). She was a mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher who lived in Alexandria, Egypt.

Women’s Rights in the Middle Ages

In Saxon England (before the Norman Conquest in 1066) married women could own and inherit 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 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 often learned their husband’s trade and carried it on if their husbands died.

Women’s Rights in the 16th and 17th Centuries

In 1513 Henry VIII went to war in France. He made the queen, Catherine of Aragon, Governor of the Realm, and Captain-General of the home forces in his absence. In other words, he was willing to entrust the kingdom to her.

In 1544 Henry went to war in France again. This time he made Catherine Parr regent in his absence.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the professions (teacher, lawyer, doctor) were closed to women. However, some women had jobs. Some of them worked spinning cloth. Women were also tailors, 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. A very common job for women was a domestic servant. Other women were midwives and apothecaries.

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. 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 he was traveling she looked after the business. Often when a merchant wrote his will he left his business to his wife – because she would be able to run it.

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. Their mothers taught middle-class girls reading, writing, arithmetic, and skills like sewing. Merchants’ daughters were very often taught to run their father’s businesses.

In the early 16th century, some upper-class women were highly educated. Two of Henry VIII’s wives, Catherine of Aragon and Catherine Parr were well-educated. Elizabeth I was also well educated and she liked reading. Wealthy girls 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.

In the 16th century, marriages were usually arranged, except for the poor. Divorce was unknown. 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.

Women’s Rights in the 18th Century

There was little change in women’s rights in the 18th century. Girls from well-off families went to school but it was felt important for them to learn ‘accomplishments’ like embroidery and music rather than academic subjects.

Nevertheless, there were several famous women writers and scientists in the 18th century. Maria Kirch was a famous astronomer. So was Caroline Herschel. Laura Bassi was a physicist. Maria Agnesi was a famous mathematician and Emilie du Chatelet was a woman physicist and mathematician. In 1792 Mary Wollstonecraft published a book called A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

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.

Women’s Rights in the 19th Century

In the 19th century, women gained more employment opportunities. In the 19th century, most working-class girls began to get some education. In the early and mid-19th century, the churches provided some schools. After 1870 the state provided them.

In early 19th century Britain, working conditions were often appalling but parliament passed laws to protect women and children. In 1842 a law banned women and boys under 10 from working underground. 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 1874 the first successful typewriter went on sale and the telephone was invented in 1876. These two new inventions meant more job opportunities for women. Ultimately technological and economic change transformed the lives of women.

There were many milestones for women in 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 qualify as a doctor. Then in 1872, Victoria Woodhull became the first woman to run for president of the USA. The first American woman to be elected mayor was Susanna Mador Salter in 1887. The first woman in Britain to qualify as a dentist was Lilian Murray in 1895. The first woman to qualify as an architect in Britain was Ethel Charles in 1898.

There were many famous women writers in the 19th century. Among them were Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans).

In 1867 in Britain, John Stuart Mill introduced an amendment to an act of parliament to allow (some) women to vote. But the amendment was rejected by 196 votes to 75. Nevertheless, it was the first attempt to give women in Britain the right to vote in national elections. In 1869 Mill published his book The Subjection of Women. In it, he argued for legal equality for women.

Meanwhile, laws were passed against domestic violence. In 1853 in Britain, a law made the punishment for wife-beating up to 6 months in prison with or without hard labor. In the USA Tennessee passed a law making wife-beating a crime in 1850. By 1870 it was illegal in most US States. Maryland was the last US state to pass such a law, in 1882. Meanwhile in Britain in 1878 a law allowed a woman to obtain a separation order from a magistrate if her husband was violent.

In the late 19th century women gained opportunities in higher education. In the USA in 1841 three women gained bachelor’s degrees from Oberlin College. They were the first American women to gain bachelor’s degrees. In 1877 Helen Magill White became the first woman in the USA to gain a Ph.D. London University was the first British university to award women degrees in 1880.

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

Meanwhile, in the USA the first state to allow married women to own property was Mississippi in 1839. New York passed a Married Women’s Property Act in 1858. During the late 19th century the other states followed suit.

In the USA the first women’s rights convention was held at Seneca Falls in 1848. The same year astronomer Maria Mitchell became the first woman member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Martha Hughes Cannon was elected to the Utah State Senate in 1896. She was the first woman state senator.

In Britain, in the 19th century, women could not vote in parliamentary elections. But before 1835 they sometimes did vote in local elections. However, a law of 1835 banned women from doing so. A law of 1869 restored that right. But things did not go smoothly. In 1872 a court ruling banned married women from voting in local elections. However, in 1894, a new law restored the right to married women. However, women were still not allowed to vote in parliamentary elections.

A statue of Millicent Fawcett
Millicent Fawcett, campaigner for women’s rights

Women’s Rights in the 20th Century

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.

In 1907 women could be elected to county and borough councils. But they could still not vote in national elections. In 1897 in Britain, 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 organisation was formed called the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). It was led by Emmeline Pankhurst and its members were called suffragettes. Suffragettes committed crimes like vandalism and arson. They also planted bombs. However, the WSPU did not want votes for all women – only those who met a property qualification. The suffragettes halted their campaign when the First World War began in 1914.

Many men supported the suffragists and wanted women to be allowed to vote. In 1907 they formed the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage.

However, not all women wanted to be able to vote. In Britain, the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League was formed in 1908. Its president was a famous writer named Mary Humphry Ward.

In 1918 in Britain, women over 30 were allowed to vote if they met a property qualification. In 1928 all women in Britain 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 woman Prime Minister of Britain.

In the USA the campaign for women’s right to vote was led by Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In 1869 Stanton and Anthony founded the National Woman Suffrage Association. Also in 1869 Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell founded the American Woman Suffrage Association. The two joined forces in 1890 as the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).

However in the USA as in Britain some women were anti-suffragists and they opposed women being allowed to vote. In the USA a woman writer named Grace Duffield Goodwin published a book called Anti-Suffrage: Ten Good Reasons, in 1912. In it, she explained why, in her view, women should not be allowed to vote.

Meanwhile, the territory of Wyoming allowed women to vote in 1869. When Wyoming joined the union in 1890 it became the first state in the USA to allow women to vote. Some other states followed. Finally, in 1920 the 19th Amendment gave women in all states the right to vote.

Meanwhile, in 1917 Jeannette Rankin became the first woman to serve in Congress (in the House of Representatives). Then in 1922, Rebecca Latimer Felton became the first woman US senator. (However, she was appointed not elected) . In 1925 Nellie Tayloe Ross became the first woman governor of a US state (Wyoming). In 1932 Hattie Ophelia Caraway became the first woman elected to the US Senate. In 1981 Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman judge on the US Supreme Court. Madeleine Albright became the first US secretary of state in 1997.

Other countries also granted women the right to vote. New Zealand was the first country in the world to allow women to vote in national elections in 1893. Elizabeth McCombs was elected the first woman MP in New Zealand in 1933. In Australia, women were granted the right to vote in federal elections in 1902. Women were first elected to the Australian parliament in 1943. In Canada, women were allowed to vote in federal elections in 1918. Canada gained its first woman MP in 1921. Her name was Agnes Macphail.

From 1906 Finnish women were allowed to vote. Furthermore, in 1907 Finnish women became the first in the world to win seats in a national parliament. In Norway, women were given the vote in local elections in 1907 and national elections in 1913. Denmark allowed all men and women to vote in 1915. Germany and Austria granted women the right to vote in 1918. The Netherlands followed in 1919. Sweden gave all women the right to vote in 1921. In Spain, women gained the vote in 1931. In Turkey, women gained full voting rights in 1934.

However, in France, women were not allowed to vote until 1944. Women in Italy were given the right to vote in 1945. Women in Greece were allowed to vote in 1952 but in Switzerland, they were not allowed to until 1971.

The first woman to become prime minister of a country was Sirimavo Bandaranaike in Sri Lanka in 1960. The first woman to be president of a country was Isabel Peron in Argentina in 1974. (Although she was originally vice president. She took over the presidency because the president was dying). The first woman to be elected president of a country was Vigdis Finnbogadottir in Iceland in 1980.

In the 20th century, more occupations were opened to women. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson became the first woman mayor in Britain in 1908.

Meanwhile, In 1910 the first policewoman was appointed in Los Angeles. The first policewomen in Britain went on duty in 1914.

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. Ada Summers was the first woman to sit in court as a magistrate 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 1958 Hilda Harding became the first woman bank manager in Britain.

Nevertheless, in the early 20th century it was uncommon for married women to work outside the home (except in wartime). However, in the 1950s and 1960s, it became common for them to do so – at least part-time. New technology made it easier for married women to do paid work. Before the 20th century, housework was so time-consuming it left married women no time for work. The economy also changed. Manufacturing industry became less important but service industries grew, which created more job opportunities for women.

In the USA the Equal Pay Act 1963 compelled employers to give equal pay for equal work. In 1974 the Equal Credit Opportunity Act made it illegal for creditors to discriminate against women. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 made it illegal for employers to discriminate against women on the grounds of pregnancy. In Britain, in 1970 an Equal Pay Act made differences in pay and conditions between men and women illegal.

In 1973 women were admitted to the stock exchange. In 1975 a new law 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 the late 20th century the number of women in managerial and other highly-paid jobs greatly increased.

In Britain from the 17th century to the 20th century if a couple was engaged and the man broke off the engagement the woman could sue him for breach of promise. (Similar laws existed in Canada and many US states). However, during the 20th century attitudes changed and cases became less and less common. In Britain, the law was repealed in 1971.

Meanwhile, in 1930, Amy Johnson became the first woman to fly from Britain to Australia. In 1963 Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space. The first American woman in space was Sally Ride in 1983. The first British woman in space was Helen Sharman in 1991.

My Youtube video about the history of Women’s rights

Last revised 2024

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