Women's Rights, guarantees of political, social, and economic equality for women in a society that traditionally confers more status and freedom to men. Among these rights are control of property, equality of opportunity in education and employment, suffrage, and sexual freedom. The women's rights movement, also known as feminism and women's liberation, 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 remained to be achieved. See also Woman Suffrage; Women, Employment of.Traditional Status Some scholars argue that the discovery throughout the European continent and the Near East of thousands of stone figures of female goddesses dating from the Paleolithic period (see Paleolithic Art) and on indicates that early societies were originally goddess-worshiping, matrifocal civilizations. Male dominance, however, was preeminent from the time of the earliest written historical records, probably as a result of men's discovery of their role in conception as well as the development of hunting and warfare as prestige activities. The belief that women were naturally weaker and inferior to men also was sanctioned by god-centered religions. In the Bible, God placed Eve under Adam's authority, and Saint Paul urged Christian wives to be obedient to their husbands. In Hinduism the reward of a virtuous woman is rebirth as a man.Therefore, in most traditional societies, women generally were 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. Pressure was constant to produce many children. A married woman usually took her husband's status and lived with his family, with little recourse in case of ill treatment or nonsupport. Under Roman law, which influenced later European and American law, husband and wife were 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 men did not. In the Middle Ages, feudal law, in which landholding carried military obligations, encouraged the subordination of women to men.Some exceptions to women's dependence on men did exist. 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 and tribal councils. A few highly cultivated women flourished in ancient Rome, China, and Renaissance Europe.Men of the lower classes also lacked rights, but they could console themselves by feeling superior to women. Struggling to preserve their dignity in a harsh world, such men were unlikely to sympathize with the plight of women.Beginnings of Change The Age of Enlightenment, with its egalitarian political emphasis, and the Industrial Revolution, which caused economic and social changes, provided a favorable climate for the rise of feminism, along with other reform movements in the late 18th and the 19th centuries. In France during the French Revolution, women's republican clubs pleaded that the goals of liberty, equality, and fraternity should apply to all, regardless of sex. But the subsequent adoption of the Code Napol on, based on Roman law, obliterated any immediate realization of such hopes on the Continent. In England, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), the first major modern feminist work. Its demands for equality and its revolutionary tone made it unacceptable at that time.Of deeper significance for women was the Industrial Revolution. The transformation of handicrafts, which women had always carried on at home without pay, into machine-powered mass production meant that lower-class women could become wage earners in factories. This was the beginning of their independence, although factory conditions were hazardous and their pay, lower than men's, was legally controlled by their husbands. At the same time middle- and upper-class women were expected to stay at home as idle, decorative symbols of their husbands' economic success. The only other option for respectable women of any class was work as governesses, clerks, shop assistants, and servants. Such conditions encouraged the feminist movement.On the Continent, feminist groups appeared sporadically but lacked strength. The Roman Catholic church opposed feminism on the grounds that it would destroy the patriarchal family. Agrarian countries held to traditional ideas, and in industrial countries feminist demands tended to be absorbed by the socialist movement.In largely Protestant, rapidly industrializing Great Britain and the Unitd States, feminism was more successful. The leaders were primarily educated, leisured, reform-minded women of the middle class. In 1848 between 100 and 300 people attended the first women's rights convention, at Seneca Falls, New York. Led by the abolitionist Lucretia Mott and the feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the feminists demanded equal rights, including the vote and an end to the double standard. British feminists first convened in 1855 behind the limited goal of property rights. The Subjection of Women (1869) by the British philosopher John Stuart Mill focused public attention on the British feminist cause.Colleges were founded for women, such as Mount Holyoke College (1837) in the United States and Girton (1869) in England, although the right to admission to male-dominated universities took longer. Married women's property acts, passed in England in 1870 and at various times in the United States, gave women control over their property. Later, provisions were made for divorce, alimony, and child support. Labor legislation improved hours and wages for women. Suffrage, which came to be a primary goal of British and American feminists, encountered substantial resistance, despite massive and sometimes violent campaigns. The right to vote was only granted after World War I, when the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was approved by the Congress of the United States in 1919, partly in recognition of women's war contributions as paid and volunteer workers.
20th-Century Developments After wars and revolutions in Russia (1917) and China (1949), new Communist governments discouraged the patriarchal family system and supported sexual equality, including birth control. In the Soviet Union, however, the majority of working women held low-paid jobs and were minimally represented in party and government councils. Birth-control techniques were primitive, day-care centers were few, and working wives were responsible for keeping house and tending children. China more fully preserved its revolutionary ideals, but some job discrimination against women existed. Socialist governments in Sweden in the 1930s established wide-ranging programs of equal rights for women, which included extensive child-care arrangements.In Britain and the United States progress was slower. The number of working women increased substantially after the two world wars, but they generally had low-paid, female-dominated occupations, such as schoolteaching and clerical work. Little opportunity existed in high-paid, male-dominated professions and major government posts. Advocates of birth control agitated for decades before women's right to family planning was recognized. An Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, to remove at one stroke legal, economic, and social restrictions on women, was introduced into Congress in 1923 but made no headway.In the 1960s, however, changing demographic, economic, and social patterns encouraged a resurgence of feminism. Lower infant-mortality rates, soaring adult life expectancy, and the availability of the birth-control pill (after 1960) gave women greater freedom from child-care responsibilities. These developments, combined with inflation-which meant that many families needed two incomes-and a rising divorce rate, propelled more women into the job market. In the late 1960s they made up about 40 percent of the work force in England, France, Germany, and the United States. This figure rose to more than 50 percent by the mid-1980s.As working women encountered discrimination in many forms, the women's movement in the United States gained momentum. A presidential commission was established in 1960 to consider equal opportunities for women. Acts of Congress entitled them to equality in education, employment, and legal rights. In 1964 the Civil Rights Act, initially intended only for blacks, was extended to women. In 1972 the Supreme Court declared that abortion was legal, and the Equal Rights Amendment was passed by Congress and sent to the states for ratification.The women's movement also questioned social institutions and moral values, basing many of its arguments on scientific studies suggesting that most supposed differences between men and women result not from biology but from culture. Many women objected that the English language itself, by reflecting traditional male dominance in its word forms, perpetuates the problem. Some women experimented with new kinds of female-male relations, including the sharing of domestic roles. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, active feminists organized women's rights groups, ranging from the moderate National Organization for Women (NOW), founded in 1966 and claiming about 250,000 members by 1985, to smaller, more radical groups. Much attention was given to consciousness raising to make women aware of their common disadvantages. Private and governmental efforts converged in November 1977, when the largest convention of women ever held in the United States met in Houston, Texas, under government sponsorship. It ratified the feminist report drawn up by the presidential commission, which was intended to serve as an official guide to governmental action.The objectives of the women's movement included equal pay for equal work, federal support for day-care centers, recognition of lesbian rights, continued legalization of abortion, and the focus of serious attention on the problems of rape, wife and child beating, and discrimination against older and minority women. By the June 1982 deadline the Equal Rights Amendment had been ratified by only 35 of the required 38 states; it was opposed by many women who feared the loss of alimony and of exemption from military service. Moreover, a strong conservative reaction contested federal support of day care, abortion, and lesbianism as immoral and destructive of the family. The amendment was defeated.American women have made many gains in the last decade, perhaps best exemplified by the 1984 nomination of Geraldine Ferraro as the Democratic candidate for vice president of the United States. During the administration of President Ronald Reagan, however, women lost ground on issues such as affirmative action and pay equity with men (although in 1986 the Supreme Court of the United States upheld the use of affirmative action to remedy past job discrimination).Elsewhere in the world the women's rights movement has made some progress. In more than 90 percent of the nations, women can vote and hold public office. Aided by the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (1946), women in many nations have gained legal rights and fuller access to education and the professions. However, the advent of industrialization in non-Western nations has destroyed some traditional economic arrangements that favored women and has made underpaid factory labor the only work available to them, while the reappearance of fundamentalism (for example, in the Muslim world) has sometimes brought about the reemergence of oppressive practices toward women. In 1975 the United Nations launched a Decade for Women program, and major conferences were held in 1975, 1980, and 1985. "Women s Rights," Microsoft(R) Encarta(R) 97 Encyclopedia. (c) 1993-1996 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.