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Women’s Rights Since Pre-History to 1600 A.D Term Paper


Introduction

For many decades, historians have associated women’s rights with human rights.1 Although women’s rights share some characteristics with the latter, they differ, based on the inherent historical and traditional bias against women rights, in favor of rights exercised by the male gender.2 Women’s rights refer to the entitlements of the female gender, across all age groups and across different social, economic, and political strata. Many societies enshrine these rights in their constitutions, while others infer these rights through unwritten social behaviors expected from men and women alike. Similar to other rights, women’s rights change. Often, they change through the inclusion of new rights and the elimination of social barriers for growth. Common issues that are synonymous with the women’s rights movement include autonomy issues, rights to own property, rights to education, rights to equal pay, and rights to marital, or parental, ownership.3 This paper uses these issues to understand women’s rights that characterized the pre-historic period to 1600 A.D. It does not have any bias towards a specific demographic or social characteristic. The paper explores these rights in three categories – political rights, social rights and economic rights.

Political Rights

Before 1600 A.D, few societies allowed women to take part in the political development process. In this regard, few women held political positions of power. Exceptions existed in monarchies, where some queens exercised political power, temporarily.4 Mainly, they did so to make sure that there was a smooth power transition between their husbands and sons. Some sections of the Catholic Church also allowed women to exercise political power as heads of catholic convents.5 In other societies, women could not take part in political processes. For example, they did not enjoy the right to vote. In fact, countries that consider themselves as “progressive democracies” (today) did not give women the right to vote until the 20th century. Therefore, this right was a “recent” one. In ancient Rome, women enjoyed citizenship rights, but they could not run for a political office, or vote.6 However, outside the political field, ancient Romans gave women the right to change their “personal politics.” In this regard, the status of a woman varied across the same continuum as a man’s status would. For example, the status of a woman varied from a peasant to a wealthy person. The latter situation often occurred when a woman had a rich father, or a wealthy husband. Caecilia Metella is one such woman who held a high status in the society based on this connection. In this regard, most women from the medieval times could determine their social and political destiny, but the responsibility to others mainly rested on the men (politically).

Social Rights

Many societies often overlooked the female gender in many aspects of economic and political development during the medieval period.7 Their societal contributions focused on social matters (by virtue of being instruments of siring new citizens).8 This observation emerged after investigating sex and reproduction during prehistoric times. Here, it is important to understand that social constructions of sexual behavior (including taboo and regulation) had a profound impact on women. Since many societies did not allow foreigners to enjoy the same rights as natives did, they mainly expected the women to give them legitimate heirs.9 This expectation reduced the freedoms of women to move around and get the partners that they wanted. Therefore, many societies closely guarded women’s sexuality through strict patriarchical systems (especially during their reproductive years). Some societies encouraged incest by encouraging women to sire children with close male relatives.10 The main aim of doing so was to make sure that a family’s financial resources remained within the family. In the East, women experienced brutal treatment in the hands of their male counterparts because they experienced exclusion and isolation.11 Many Arab societies termed this practice as Purdah (sex segregation). Some societies in the East also married off young girls (between five and ten years) to men who were unknown to them.12 In this regard, women had limited social rights.

Economic Rights

Unlike the modern-day era where women strive for equal pay in the workplace, pre-historically, women were gatherers, as the men hunted for food. This was their main economic activity. Some historians say that during the pre-historic era, women’s rights, in economic development, were equal to men’s rights because gathering was equal to hunting.13 In fact, some historical excerpts suggest that hunting was a later socioeconomic activity (compared to gathering) because men developed advanced hunting tools through the improvement of tools associated with gathering. Therefore, women took part in daily economic activities by gathering fruits, insects, vegetables and such like foods to feed their families. Through agriculture, their economic roles changed, as they became farmers. Some historians affirm this fact through an analysis of pre-historic African women who farmed and provided for their families.14At the same time, men participated in manual labor and took care of the animals in the homestead, thereby providing a co-dependent economic system for growth. In this regard, women’s economic contribution to their families gave them equal rights to their male counterparts.

The above dynamics also stretched to the middle age period, when women participated in the same economic activities as men did. For example, the labor force in the Caliphate allowed women and men, from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, to participate in economic activities.15 For example, in the primary sector, women worked as farmers. In the secondary sector, they worked as construction workers, dyers, and spinners (among other professions). In the tertiary sector, they were caregivers, brokers, peddlers, and scholars. In fact, in certain economic sectors, women held a monopoly over men.16 For example, they often monopolized specific branches of the textile industry, such as spinning, embroidery and dying. Wage labor issues were uncommon then.17 Similarly, workplace equality was uncommon until the 18th and 19th centuries.

Concerning property rights, many medieval societies did not allow women to own property. This was the norm across many regions of the world. In fact, even modern societies denied women this right until the mid 19th century. However, some “progressive” ancient societies allowed women the right to own property during the Middle Ages. For example, ancient Egyptian laws allowed women to exercise the same property rights as men did.18 Therefore, Egyptian women could own private property. The scope of this property entitlement included ownership of livestock, slaves, and servants. The Egyptian law also allowed women to bequeath their property to other people and, at the same time, inherit any property bequeathed to them. Women in the Egyptian society also had the right to divorce their husbands and begin such legal proceedings without a male companion.19 Comparatively, other societies that allowed women to inherit property required that they have a male companion who would allow them to do so. Although some of these societies allowed women to exercise the right to own property, the men still outnumbered them in most trades. Thus, their roles still focused on the home and family.

Conclusion

Based on the issues highlighted in this paper, we see that, from prehistory to 1600 A.D, most women had fewer rights, compared to their male counterparts. One key finding of this paper is that all women belonged to the home. Therefore, the society confined their political, social and economic rights within this space. Religious and cultural influences mainly defined these boundaries. For example, politically, existing constitutional laws, such as the Greek law, supported such limitations. Religiously, the church allowed women to hold political positions within the structure of the church. Outside these structures, we find that most medieval societies perceived women as “inferior” human beings. Therefore, most societies often denied them the same rights that the men enjoyed because both sexes were not equals. Many ancient scholars supported this view.

For example, Aristotle believed that all men needed to control their women.20 Although these observations apply to many medieval societies around the world, this paper also points out that some ancient societies were relatively “progressive” because they allowed their women to exercise minimal rights, such as the right to hold property and the right to rule. Nonetheless, many modern women’s rights, such as the right to vote and the right to education, are relatively “recent” rights that emerged after the 18th century. Comprehensively, the women rights movement is broad and encompasses different cultural, social and political practices of different societies.

References

Duiker, William. World History. London: Cengage Learning, 2012.

Kishlansky, Maek. Sources of World History. London: Cengage Learning, 2011.

Meyer, Jørgen. “Women in Classical Athens in the Shadow of North-West Europe or in the Light from Istanbul.” HIST. Web.

Raaflaub, Kurt, and Rosenstein Nathan. War and Society in the Ancient and Medieval World. New York: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2001.

Footnotes

  1. William Duiker, World History (London: Cengage Learning, 2012), 1-7.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Maek Kishlansky, Sources of World History (London: Cengage Learning, 2011), 40-56.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Kurt Raaflaub and Rosenstein Nathan, War and Society in the Ancient and Medieval World (New York: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2001), 1-10.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Jørgen Meyer, “Women in Classical Athens in the Shadow of North-West Europe or in the Light from Istanbul,” HIST.
  12. Ibid.
  13. William Duiker, World History (London: Cengage Learning, 2012), 12-24.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Jørgen Meyer, “Women in Classical Athens in the Shadow of North-West Europe or in the Light from Istanbul,” HIST.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
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IvyPanda. (2020, June 20). Women’s Rights Since Pre-History to 1600 A.D. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/womens-rights-since-pre-history-to-1600-ad/

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"Women’s Rights Since Pre-History to 1600 A.D." IvyPanda, 20 June 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/womens-rights-since-pre-history-to-1600-ad/.

1. IvyPanda. "Women’s Rights Since Pre-History to 1600 A.D." June 20, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/womens-rights-since-pre-history-to-1600-ad/.


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IvyPanda. "Women’s Rights Since Pre-History to 1600 A.D." June 20, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/womens-rights-since-pre-history-to-1600-ad/.

References

IvyPanda. 2020. "Women’s Rights Since Pre-History to 1600 A.D." June 20, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/womens-rights-since-pre-history-to-1600-ad/.

References

IvyPanda. (2020) 'Women’s Rights Since Pre-History to 1600 A.D'. 20 June.

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