A BRIEF HISTORY OF WOMEN FROM ANCIENT TIMES TO TODAY
By Tim Lambert
Women in Ancient Egypt
In Ancient Egypt women had a great deal 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 families clothes and prepared food such as grinding grain to flour to make bread. Even in a rich family the woman was kept busy organising the slaves.
Furthermore a famous woman Pharaoh called Hatshepsut once ruled Egypt.
Life in Ancient Egypt
Women in the Old Testament
In Israelite society the father had authority over his family. He could divorce his wife if he wished. He could also arrange marriages for his children. People in Israel got married very young. A girl could marry when she was 12.
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.
In Israel children did not go to school but their parents had a duty to teach them God's laws. Girls learned skills like spinning, weaving and baking from their mothers.
In Ancient Israel some women were businesswomen. Proverbs describes an ideal wife. The writer says ‘She considers a field and buys it’. As well as making clothes for her family the ideal woman sells clothes to merchants.
Life in the Old Testament
Women in Ancient Greece
In a wealthy family women were women were kept apart from men. They were usually confined to the back or upper part of the house.
In a rich 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.
Girls married when they were about 15. Marriages were arranged for them and often their husband was much older than them.
Life in Ancient Greece
In Rome the father had authority over his wife and children. He could whip or beat his children and he could divorce his wife if he wished.
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. There were also some female doctors. 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.
Celtic women had more freedom than Roman women. Celtic women could rule in their own right.
One famous woman of the ancient world was Bouddica. She was queen of the Iceni, a Celtic tribe who lived in Norfolk. She led a rebellion against Roman rule.
Another famous woman of the ancient world was Hypatia (355?-415 AD). She was a mathematician, astronomer and philosopher who lived in Alexandria in Egypt.
Life in Rome
Upper class Saxon women had considerable freedom. Saxon women were allowed to own and inherit property and to make contracts. However most Saxon women had to work hard spinning and weaving, preparing food and drink and performing other tasks.
Women in the Middle Ages
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. Some women became nuns but they too had to work hard.
In the Middle Ages it was not unusual for middle class women to run their own businesses. In England the mystic Margery Kempe ran a brewery and later a horse mill, using horses to grind corn. Women married to craftsmen usually learned their husband's trade and carried it on if their husband died.
In the Middle Ages Julian of Norwich was a famous mystic. Christine de Pisan was a famous writer. So was Hildegard.
Women in the 16th and 17th Centuries
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 tailoreses, 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 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.
In those days 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 families candles and their soap. The Tudor 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 families clothes and clean the house.
The 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 organise and supervise the servants. Also if her husband was away the woman usually ran the estate. Very often a merchant's wife did his accounts and if was travelling 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 1513 Henry VIII went to war in France. He made Queen Katherine 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 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. Merchant's daughters were very often taught to run their father's business.
In the early 16th century some upper class women were highly educated. (Elizabeth I was well educated and she liked reading). They learned music and 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. (It was considered more important for girls to learn 'accomplishments' than to study academic subjects).
Most women 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. 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.
A famous Tudor woman was Bess of Hardwick who was married 4 times and became the richest woman in England after Queen Elizabeth I. Veronica Franco (1546-1591) was a famous Italian poet. So was Vittorria Colonna.
The first women's magazine was The Ladies Mercury published in 1693
Famous women of the 16th century
Women in the 18th Century
The position of women changed little 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.
In 1792 a woman named Mary Wollstonecraft published a book called A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
In the late 18th century Caroline Herschel was a famous astronomer. In France Madame Anne de Stael was a famous writer.
Women in the 19th Century
In the 19th century century women gained more rights and some women became famous novelists.
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.
In the 19th century wealthy women were kept busy running the household and organising the servants. Well to do women often also did charitable work.
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.
The first British woman doctor was Elizabeth Garrett Anderson in 1865. Elizabeth also became the first woman in Britain to become mayor of a town (Aldeburgh) in 1908. 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.
In 1869 John Stuart Mill published his book The Subjection of Women, which demanded equal rights for women.
At Oxford University halls were built for female students (later they became colleges). Elizabeth Wordsworth founded Lady Margaret Hall for women in 1878. Somerville College for women was founded in 1879. St Hilda’s College was founded in 1893 by Dorothea Beale.
In 1893 New Zealand became the first country to allow women to vote in national elections. The first Women’s Institute was founded in Canada in 1897. The first in Britain was founded in 1915.
There were many famous women in the 19th century. Two of them were Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole. They reformed nursing.
Elizabeth Fry played a key role in prison reform. Mary Kingsley explored parts of Africa. Ada Lovelace was a mathematician. Marie Curie was a scientist. Gertrude Jekyll was famous gardener. In 1886 Josephine Cochran invented the dishwasher
There were also 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 1818 Mary Shelley published her novel Frankenstein.
Women 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.
By 1884 the majority of men in Britain were allowed to vote. However women were not 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 organisation 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). Emmeline Pankhurst led it and its members were called suffragettes. Some suffragettes broke the law and were imprisoned. Some prisoners went on hunger strike but in 1913 the government passed the Cat and Mouse Act which allowed them to release hunger strikers then arrest them again when they recovered. However the suffragettes halted their campaign when the war began in 1914.
Furthermore by no means all women were suffragettes. Many women were anti-suffragettes. They opposed women being allowed to vote. In Britain the Women's National Anti-Suffrage League was formed in 1908. Its president was Mary Humphry Ward, a famous novelist.
On the other hand many men supported the suffragettes and wanted women to be allowed to vote.
In 1918 in Britain women over 30 were allowed to vote. In 1928 they were allowed to vote at the age of 21 (the same as men). In 1919 Nancy Astor became the first female MP and in 1929 Margaret Bondfield became the first female cabinet minister. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher became the first female Prime Minister.
More occupations were opened to women. In 1910 the first policewoman was appointed in Los Angeles. In Britain the first policewomen were appointed in 1914. Meanwhile in 1913 Emily Dawson became the first female magistrate in Britain. Then in the 1919 Sex Disqualification Removal Act allowed women to become lawyers, vets and civil servants. (The first woman solicitor in Britain was Carrie Morrison in 1922). Also in 1922 Irene Barclay became the first woman chartered surveyor in Britain. In 1958 Hilda Harding became the first woman bank manager in Britain.
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.
Nevertheless in the early 20th century it was unusual for married women to work (except in wartime). However in the 1950s and 1960s it became common for them to do so - at least part-time. New technology in the home made it easier for women to do paid work. Meanwhile the economy changed. Manufacturing became less important and service industries grew creating more opportunities for women.
In 1970 differences in pay and conditions between men and women were made illegal. In 1925 a woman named Oonagh Keogh became the first woman in the world to belong to a stock exchange when she joined the one in Dublin. However in Britain women were not admitted to the stock exchange until 1973. 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. Meanwhile in 1976 Mary Langdon became the first female fire fighter in Britain.
Meanwhile during the 20th century new appliances made housework much easier. By the 1920s vacuum cleaners and washing machines were available but only rich people could afford them. They became more common in the 1930s, though they were still expensive. By 1959 about two thirds of British homes had a vacuum cleaner. However fridges and washing machines did not become really common till the 1960s.
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 1930 Amy Johnson became the first women to fly from Britain to Australia. In 1963 Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space. In Britain in 1995 Pauline Clare became the first female chief constable.
A Timeline of Women
A History of Womens Clothes
A History of Womens Underwear
A History of Womens Jobs
Famous Women in History