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The oppression of women has deep roots in all cultures, even in the West, but not as deep as you might think. On the other hand, it has been difficult to get rid of the oppression. In fact, it is less than 100 years ago that political equality between men and women was introduced in democratic countries, and economic and social equality still have a long way to go in most countries.

Gender roles in the oldest cultures

In many hunter-gatherer cultures, there was close to equality between men and women, although often with a certain bias in favour of men.

The invention of agriculture initially meant an increase in status for women. As soon as the earth was seen as the main source of food, the myths changed. The earth, which allows the grain to grow, was compared with the woman who gives birth, and the myths came to be about the great fertility goddess, Mother Earth. This gave women high status in the first farming communities, while fertility became the essence of religion.

The men take power

But when cattle were domesticated about 6000 BCE, the plough invented around 4500 BCE and communities gradually grew, the balance between men and women changed. Hunting had always been the men's territory, so cattle herding got the same status. In addition, the new technologies were automatically taken over by the men, and when the production of bronze was discovered around 3800 BCE and iron about 1000 BCE, the situation worsened further for women.

The larger communities and the new technologies produced more wealth and property ownership was allotted to the men. With prosperity came increased trade and travel between cities and that was allocated to the men too. It was simply too dangerous to go outside the town walls, so women could not be allowed to travel around.

Expanding towns and cities and a larger population have, all other things being equal, always produced more conflicts and the warrior was eventually given his own status and mythology. At the same time, increased prosperity meant that there really was something for warriors to steal. Besides gold and goods, they also stole women and children, so women gradually became a part of the man's property.

Men thus became the ones who were politically active, those who could travel around, those who wielded power and those who owned everything. It was therefore the men who formulated the myths too. Technological development, mythical explanations of the way things were and divine laws thereby reinforced each other in depriving women of power, but it was not a uniform picture.

Individual women with power

The ancient Egyptians, for example, had almost equal rights. This can possibly be explained by the fact that they were not constantly at war with someone, like the city states in the Middle East were. This was simply because, in relation to the Middle East, Egypt lay hidden behind the Sinai desert and, in relation to the rest of Africa, was also largely shielded by desert.

Egyptian agriculture was also not as physically demanding as other places, because the Nile supplied irrigation and fertilizer for the fields. Furthermore, for much of the year, the men were called up to build pyramids, so the women could maintain their share of control over production.

In the late dynasties, Egypt had several reigning queens, such as Cleopatra 51-31 BCE.

Women in the Bible and in the biblical era

Seen with modern eyes, the Old Testament seems like a collection of barbaric, misogynous rules. But apart from those legal paragraphs in the Pentateuch which were copied directly from Hittite, Mesopotamian and Assyrian laws, the Law of Moses mostly meant a humanisation of relationships towards both women and slaves. From the Assyrian laws from the 1200s BCE, for example, it can be seen that married women, widows and daughters of free men should wear headscarves. Prostitutes, however, were not allowed to wear headscarves; if a prostitute was caught wearing a headscarf, she would be sentenced to 50 blows with a stick and have tar poured over her head.

There is no doubt though that even in the Bible it was the men who were in charge. All the great stories in the Old Testament are about men, but it is worth noting that, as the narrative progresses, women become powerful actors in the stories. Noah's wife only gets a mention and we don't even know her name. Abraham's wife, Sarah, is vividly described but not depicted as a woman of initiative. It's not until Rebecca and Rachel appear that women make a firm entrance into the course of the story.

The Talmud, which came into being between approx. 200 BCE and 400 CE, consists of rabbinical interpretations of the commandments in the Pentateuch. The role of women is discussed in these writings, although it would never have occurred to the rabbis to include a woman in their discussions. From a modern point of view, the oppression continued, but in fact the rabbis stated that parents were required to give an education to both girls and boys.

Female Christian grassroots

Christianity began as an underground movement among women and slaves and had no official leadership as such. But as soon as Christianity became the official religion and was admitted to the circles of power during the 4th century CE, men took over and created a hierarchical leadership which excluded women.

Women in Islam

In the society in which Muhammad was living in the 7th century, women had virtually no rights, and the Quran meant an improvement of women's status. From not being counted as anything other than a part of the property, women became recognised as equal worshippers in relationship to God. Furthermore, women gained the right to earn money and get themselves an education, and the Quran condemns men who bemoan the birth of a daughter. However, boys and men were still assigned greater value and still had the most rights. The Muslim community did not in practice make it possible for women to support themselves. Instead, polygamy continued and the highly developed Muslim communities in the Middle Ages did not produce more female theologians or scientists than the Christian ones.

Opportunities for women in the Middle Ages

Christianity gave women the opportunity for education and a form of independent life in the Middle Ages. A woman who wanted to get an education, or who didn't have a man to support her, could go into a convent. As nuns, they enjoyed great respect and many became skilled and reputed scholars. But they didn't get access to the church's top ranks and the price was a permanent farewell to a sexual life and a family.

One of the prominent female Christian thinkers was Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). She was a great theologian, mystic and composer, but is best known for her studies of nature. She interpreted her observations of nature in the medieval scholastic tradition, where she used them to demonstrate God's greatness.


The title of the first real feminist must however be awarded to Christine de Pizan (1364-1431) of Venice. She could not recognize herself in the church's image of women and refused to accept that men had been created more perfect than women. On the contrary, according to the Bible, Eve was created as an equal partner to Adam! Using examples from history and from her own time, she argued that women were responsible, dynamic, morally reliable and equipped with leadership skills.

Marie de Gournay (1565-1645) was born in Paris and became deeply fascinated by the thoughts of Montaigne. She wrote a letter to him, after which they met and he became her mentor. After his death, his widow asked her to republish, and write the foreword to his essays. In her own works, de Gournay argued for equality between men and women, and she would not accept women being considered intellectually inferior or prevented from getting an education and participating in politics.

Finally, she commented ironically on the church's view of women and on the absurdity that women were welcome to receive Holy Communion and could be saved and enter Paradise, but could not have an equal share in the men's earthly privileges. In addition, a woman was permitted to baptise in an emergency situation, but she could not perform other sacraments. De Gournay saw it as nothing other than a monopolisation of male power. The argument that men were more suited to leadership and being rulers because of their physical strength was dismissed by her, saying that there would then be many animals that would be better suited as leaders than men.

Setback for women

Inspired by the Apostle Paul, Luther insisted that "man is a woman's head", and thus the Reformation brought no improvement in the position of women. On the contrary, women had more rights and opportunities under Catholicism, where there was a possibility of convent life and education.

Political equality

The struggle for equality was spread over a long period and it was not until the 19th century that there were concrete, lasting results. New Jersey was the first state in the USA to give women the right to vote in 1776, but it was then withdrawn in 1807. It took another 40 years before women again had a serious influence on developments. In 1848, the first women's congress was held in the USA and the first women's clubs were founded in France in the same year.

Denmark got its first constitution in 1849, but it only applied to the male half of the population. In 1857, unmarried women were given equal powers and the same inheritance rights as men. That same year, women gained full freedom to trade, and in 1859 it became possible to take a teacher's exam.

In 1862, Swedish women got the right to vote in local elections; votes were graded in accordance with tax payments and, until 1909, only applied to unmarried women.

In 1869, unmarried women in England got the right to vote in local elections, and the same year, women in the state of Wyoming got full suffrage.

In Denmark, the Danish Women's Federation was established in 1871, and in 1875, women gained access to university. In 1880, married women got the right of disposal over money they had earned themselves, followed in 1899 by the Act on women's property rights.

In 1906, Finland became the first country in the world to introduce full democracy with unrestricted equal rights both to vote and to stand for parliament for both women and men.

In 1908, Danish women got the right to vote in local elections. In 1913, women gained full voting rights in Norway, followed in 1915 (in practice, 1918) by women in Denmark and Iceland.

The right to vote was not gained without a struggle though, especially in Great Britain where women were given a hard time. The police took heavy-handed action against the so-called suffragettes when they marched, and the leading women were often imprisoned in their struggle for equal rights.

Between 1918 and 1921, women in Austria, Germany, Poland, Holland, Czechoslovakia and the USA got full voting rights and, in 1928, it was the turn of women in Great Britain; in Switzerland, they had to wait until 1971.


Development towards equality between men and women is thus not an inevitable progression but neither is inequality. Our societies are organised the way we ourselves choose to organise them; most of the rights that women have in the West are less than 100 years old.

Next chapter: Misgivings About Democracy - Farewell to Individuality