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Women’s Place in Society throughout Western History: A Timeline Features 

Women’s Place in Society throughout Western History: A Timeline

Today, men and women have (almost) equal rights in most developed countries. However, progress is urgently needed for female minorities, as well as for women living in developing countries. Nonetheless, one thing is certain: thousands of women’s rights activists are to thank for the progress made up until this point.


Although I disagree with Hegel on most things, he was right about one thing: progress is always imperfect. There have been moments in history where women have had a lot of power and respect, followed by eras of severe oppression. 


For example, did you know that the first known author was a woman? Enheduanna, a High Priestess of Sumer, southern Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq), wrote a poem praising the goddess Innana in the 23rd century BCE; it is the first piece of literature with a known author.


Other examples of powerful women in ancient history include Cleopatra, who ruled Egypt from 51 to 30 BCE, and Boudicca, a Celtic Warrior Queen that led an uprising against the Roman Empire in 60 or 61 CE.


However, powerful women in ancient history are exceptions, as most women in that era were married off at 13 or 14 years old to men more than twice their age. 


Moreover, married women in Ancient Greece (8th century BCE – 146 BCE) were not allowed out of their homes without their husband’s permission, which was only given so that they could buy food for their families; when running these errands, they were forbidden to speak to anyone but the merchant.  


It seems surprising that Ancient Athens, whilst inventing education, democracy, theatre, math, and philosophy, did not think to give any rights or formal education to their women, as they were viewed as biologically inferior to men.


By contrast, women in the Celtics (12th century BCE – 300 BCE) were treated with much more respect. They could not be married off against their will, and they were not considered property that was to be kept under the guardianship of their fathers or husbands (a concept that was still around in the 19th century CE)!


Even more surprising is the lack of stigma surrounding divorce and remarriage; marriage was viewed as the partnership between two people, rather than as a religious ceremony. 


However, this partnership was not always an equal one; the person who brought the most livestock to the family was considered to be the head of the family, regardless of their gender. This tradition led to feuds between partners, as both tried to steal or kill off each other’s cattle to establish their dominance.


Celtic women could also be educated, have a career in the same disciplines as men could, train to be warriors, train warriors themselves, and reign over their kingdom. 


Queens were still not very common, as the Celts were still largely a patriarchal society. Nonetheless, it is interesting to see how the Celts viewed women with such respect and dignity, yet, today, people continue to use the argument that “women are biologically weaker than men; therefore, they are inferior” so as to justify disparities between the sexes.


Much later, around the first century CE, women played key roles in early Christian movements. Women were the leaders in the first Christian homes, played key roles in group worship, and some were even thought to be prophets.  


Those who were prophets would give public speeches to spread the word of Jesus. They also preached, taught, lead prayers, and performed the eucharist meal.  


The 4 gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, even agreed that men and women were equal; it was only when Saint Paul, along with the other writers of the New Testament, linked women with Eve and “The Fall of Man” that Christian misogyny first emerged. 


Unfortunately, it stuck to this day, as women still cannot be priests, cardinals, or popes. Although the Vatican said in 2013 that it is “theologically and theoretically” possible for a woman to become cardinal, this has yet to happen. To this day, several other leadership positions in various Christian sects are still denied to women.


In the Middle Ages, women that practiced herbal medicine for free, or in exchange for small items, were soon completely disregarded in the world of medicine. Taking their place were male apothecaries, alchemists, and the like, whose practices were much less effective and more costly for the patient; these practices consisted of “blood-letting”, leeches and balancing humours.


Eventually, all medicine practitioners without a university degree were outlawed. Of course, universities at the time did not admit women.


Soon enough, with the turn of the 17th century, the famous witch hunts occurred, as women practicing herbal medicine were deemed witches, persecuted, and burned alive. 


Also around this time, the new male doctors would diagnose women with “hysteria” and “lunacy;” they saw the female womb as an empty host for the male seed. In fact, it wasn’t until the 20th century that science acknowledged that 50% of a baby’s DNA came from the mother!


Now, my timeline brings us to the 20th century, at which point most of us know what happened: the Suffragettes brought forth the first wave of feminism, where feminists would take to the streets and demand the right to vote. 


In Europe, this was granted in 1930, whereas, in Quebec, it was only granted to white women in 1944 and to Native women in 1960.  


Second-wave feminism began in the 1960s in the United States, and it focused on a much wider range of issues. From the introduction of the concepts of marital rape and domestic violence to the establishment of rape-crisis and women’s shelters, these women were pioneers for the gender equality.


However, it is important to note that the fight is far from over, and the concept of intersectionality has not been addressed enough in historical feminist movements.  


Most advances we have seen in society throughout history were solely advantageous to upper-class heterosexual white women, thereby continuing to ignore issues that are specific to queer individuals and visible minorities. 


Hopefully, our generation will be the one to break the barriers our ancestors have set between us, and to finally give a voice to those who have been silenced for far too long.


By Sophie Dufresne

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