Women’s Role Throughout History
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Throughout history times have changed, this can also be said of women. As periods changed so did the demands and opportunities. Women were able to adapt to these new changes remarkably well, and so they were able to shape and influence these periods, as well as benefit from them. Life for the American woman in the 19th century was full of conflicts and struggles. Women suffered from a lot of discrimination, and were not allowed to vote, attend universities, speak in public or own property, and were essentially forced to fight for their place within society. Regardless of these difficulties, women gathered strength in numbers and succeeded in establishing permanent social changes. This paper will examine how women’s role has changed throughout history, the women’s rights movement, and what can still be improved for women. In early societies, women gave birth and cared for children, cared for the home, and maintained the family. Male domination however was important from the early written historical records, probably as a result of men’s discovery of their role in development of hunting and warfare as resourceful activities (77, Gonzalez).
The belief that women were weaker and inferior to men was also suggested by religions. As the bible states, God placed Adam in authority to watch over Eve, and St. Paul urged women to obey their husbands (77, Gonzalez). Therefore, in traditional societies, women generally were at a disadvantage. Their education was limited to learning home based skills, and they had a harder time gaining a position of power. Drucker explains in his essay of jobs that required no skills or knowledge that they didn’t already possess (227, Drucker). But, he failed to talk of opportunities for women. However, some opportunities available to women were “domestic servants, laundresses, and prostitutes…were the largest occupational groups…” (224, Hirata).
The Industrial Revolution meant a lot to women also. The home-produced crafts, which women had always created at home, without receiving any pay, transformed into machine powered mass production meant that lower class women had a chance to become wage earners in factories (225, Hirata). This was marking the beginning of their independence, although factory conditions were unsafe and the pay, lower than a man’s; this was all legally controlled by their husbands. At the same time the middle and upper class women were expected to stay at home as homemakers, showing their husband’s achievement. These are the conditions that encouraged the feminist movement.
With its political importance, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution caused economic and social changes (251, Kerber et al). This provided a favorable condition for the increase of feminism, along with other reform movements in the late 1800’s and 1900’s.The Women’s Rights Movement was founded out of a desire for all women to have a public voice, and a status equal to men in society. Many say that the movement began in 1848 at Seneca Falls, where women gathered from all over to declare their rights, and to voice objections to the fact “…that while all men of every race, and clime, and condition, have been invested with the full rights of citizenship under our hospitable flag, all women still suffer the degradation of disfranchisement” (259, Kerber et al). It was the first appearance of an organized women’s voice demanding a say in what they had struggled so hard to build.
They began to speak out against “The fact of sex, not the quantity or quality of work, in most cases, decides the pay and position…”, and that “Representation of women has had no place in the nation’s thought” (261, Kerber et al). The movement would secure women’s voting rights, equal pay for equal work (still a fallacy), and the guarantee of rights equal to those of every male citizen. It would soon change into the feminist movement whose aims would be “…transformative, but its methods…peaceful…” (206, Kerber et al).Women’s rights guarantee that women will not face discrimination on the basis of their sex. Until the second half of the 20th century, women in most societies were denied some of the legal and political rights accorded to men. Although women in much of the world have gained significant legal rights, many people believe that women still do not have complete political, economic, and social equality with men (224, Hirata). Throughout much of the history of Western civilization, cultural beliefs allowed women only limited roles in society.
Many people believed that women’s natural roles were as mothers and wives. These people considered women to be better suited for childbearing and homemaking rather than for involvement in the public life of business or politics (224, Hirata). Widespread belief that women were intellectually inferior to men led most societies to limit women’s education to learning domestic skills. Well-educated, upper-class men controlled most positions of employment in society. Because most women lacked the educational and economic resources that would enable them to challenge the system, women generally accepted their inferior status. In the late 18th century, in an attempt to remedy these inequalities among men, political theorists and philosophers asserted that all men were created equal, and therefore were entitled to equal treatment under the law (230, Hirata).
Once governments in Europe and America began to make new laws guaranteeing equality among men, significant numbers of women and some men began to demand that women be granted equal rights as well. At the same time, the Industrial Revolution in Europe and America further divided the roles of men and women. The split between home and work reinforced the idea that women’s “rightful place” was in the home, while men belonged in the public world of employment and politics (232, Hirata).
The progress in the U.S. was much slower. The number of working women increased after the two world wars, generally they had low paid, female dominate jobs, such as school teachers, waitresses, and clerical work. However in the 1960’s, rapidly changing demographically, economic and social patterns encouraged a reoccurrence of feminism (92, Gonzalez). As working women dealt with discrimination in many ways, the women’s movement in the U.S. gained force. The women’s movement also questioned moral values and social institutions. Many of its arguments were based on scientific studies suggesting that most assumed difference between man and women result from culture not from biology.
In the early 1970’s feminists organized women’s rights groups, ranging from the National Organization for Women, founded in 1966 and claiming nearly 250,00 members to smaller, radical groups (94, Gonzalez). The largest convention of women ever held in the U.S. met in Houston, Texas. It allowed the feminist report written by the presidential commission, which was meant to serve as an official resource and guide to government action. They discussed equal pay for equal work, recognition of lesbian rights, legislation of abortion, federal support of daycares, and the attention of serious problems with rape, wife abuse, child abuse, and discrimination of minority and elderly women.
This country has gone through many changes, some good and some bad, best demonstrated by the 1984 nomination of Geraldine Ferraro; however women lost progress associated with issues such as affirmative action and equal pay with men. Providing strength and leadership through unconventional and mostly unnoticed means. From the early feminists a struggle has stayed alive, a struggle for survival, whether physically or politically, and through this struggle women have guaranteed their place, not only in society but in history as well.
Drucker, Peter F. “The Age of Social Transformation.” The New Humanities Reader. Houghton Mifflin Company. 2003. Pg. 221-227.
Gonzalez, Martin. “Accessing the Status of Women.” International Women’s Rights. May 2002: 77-95. Academic Search. Ebsco. University of Idaho Library, Moscow, ID.
Hirata, Timothy. “Women’s Welfare and the Environment.” A Journal of Women’s Studies. 2001, Vol. 22 Issue 2, pg. 224-232. Academic Search. Ebsco. University of Idaho Library, Moscow, ID.
Kerber, Ruth. “Representing Women.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies, 1997, Vol. 18 Issue 3, pg. 205-261. Academic Search. Ebsco. University of Idaho Library, Moscow, ID.