Women’s Movement, campaign to obtain political, social, and economic equality between women and men. Among the equal rights campaigned for are control of personal property, equality of opportunity in education and employment, equal suffrage (that is, the right to vote), and equality of sexual freedom. The women’s rights movement, also known as feminism and women’s liberation, first discernibly arose in Europe in the late 18th century. Although by 1970 most women throughout the world had gained many rights according to law, in fact, complete political, economic, and social equality with men remains to be achieved.
The women’s movement is made up of a diversity of elements and is non-hierarchical in structure. It does not adhere to any particular set of formal principles, but one of the overall assertions does prevail: the idea that all women share a common oppression, which is not experienced by men, and of which men generally are the political, social, emotional, and economic beneficiaries.
With the re-emergence of Western feminism in the 1960s, the emphasis of the movement was very much on the fact of the personal being political, that is, that women’s individual experiences of subordination were not isolated incidents rooted in particular personality differences, but were each an expression of a common political oppression. There was also, early on, a concern for the importance of sisterhood, but this notion has been accused of lacking coherence and integrity in the event of persistent racial and class prejudice within the movement. In fact, the differences between women, as well as their areas of common ground, have themselves become topics for feminist academic research in recent years.
The movement falls broadly into three strands: exploration of solidarity and consciousness-raising, which facilitates the assessment of political and social position; campaigning on public issues, such as abortion, equal pay, childcare, and domestic violence; and the academic discipline of women’s studies, which attempts to provide a theoretical analysis of the movement.
II TRADITIONAL STATUS
Some scholars argue that the discovery throughout Europe and the Near East of stone figures of female goddesses dating from the Palaeolithic period might imply that early societies were originally goddess-worshipping, matriarchal civilizations. Male dominance, however, was pre-eminent from the time of the earliest written historical records, probably as a result of men’s realization of their role in conception as well as the development of hunting and warfare as prestigious activities. The belief that women were naturally “weaker” and “inferior” to men was also sanctioned by god-centred religions. In the Bible, for instance, God placed Eve under Adam’s authority, and St Paul urged Christian wives to be obedient to their husbands. Similarly, according to traditional Hindu custom, a virtuous woman is considered to be one who worships her husband (pathivratha) and derives great power from her virtue to protect her husband and herself.
Therefore, in most traditional societies, women were generally 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, and the pressure was usually constant to produce children, especially male heirs. A married woman generally took her husband’s status and lived with his family, with little recourse in cases of ill-treatment or non-support. Under Roman law, which influenced later European and American law, husband and wife were regarded as 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 respectable men did not. In the Middle Ages, under feudal law, the land was usually passed on through the male line. Land carried with it political power, and, because feudalism had effectively disinherited women, it helped bring about their subordination to men.
Some exceptions to women’s dependence on men did exist, however. In ancient Babylonia and Egypt women had property rights, and in medieval Europe, they could 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 women, who appointed men to clan councils. A few highly cultivated women flourished in the ancient civilizations of Rome, China, and in medieval and Renaissance Europe.