The History of Female Oppression

{see also the origins of female oppression , related press cuttings , and more related press cuttings }

Men's treatment of women through the ages has been succinctly summed up by Professor R. Howard Bloch:

The ritual denunciation of women constitutes something on the order of a cultural constant, reaching back to the Old Testament as well as to Ancient Greece and extending through the fifteenth century. Found in Roman tradition, it dominates ecclesiastical writing, letters, sermons, theological tracts, discussions and compilations of canon law; scientific works, as part and parcel of biological, gynaecological, and medical knowledge; and philosophy. The discourse of misogyny runs like a rich vein throughout the breadth of medieval literature.

Some people claim there was a Golden Age in prehistory where the matriarchy ruled, but no evidence has been found to prove or disprove this.

Documents of all the ancient cultures (Greek, Roman, Mosaic, Hebrew, Celtic, Germanic, Assyrian, Christian, Babylonian) depict women as already subordinated to men socially and legally. Among the many quotes from the Bible that insist upon women's inferiority is this one from Genesis 3:xvi 'Thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee'.

Ancient texts that influenced Western European thought and law for many centuries, and which are still studied and revered today, such as Homer's Iliad, Virgil's Aeneid, the Old Testament, the pontifications of Aristotle, Plutarch, Hippocrates, Philo, Cicero, all mention and in some cases 'justify' the subjection of women to men.

In Ancient Greece, Athenian women were given no education and were married at puberty to grown men. They remained forever the property of their fathers, who could divorce them and make them marry another. They lived in segregation and could not leave the house without a chaperone. They could not buy or sell land. If one were raped her husband had either to divorce her or lose his citizenship. A raped woman was no longer allowed to wear jewellery or take part in public ceremonies.

Under Roman law the power of the husband was absolute; he could chastise his wife even - until the later Roman period - to the point of killing her.

The Gentoo Code is a legal code translated from Sanskrit to Persian and then from Persian to English by the East India Company. One chapter, 'Of what concerns women', included this edict: 'A man, both by day and night, must keep his wife somuch in subjection that she by no means be mistress of her own actions... If a man, by confinement and threats, cannot guard his wife, he shall give her a large sum of money, and make her mistress of her income and expenses, and appoint her to dress victuals for the Dewtah (i.e the Diety)'...'Women have six qualities... an inordinate desire for jewels and fine furniture and nice victuals; violent anger; deep resentment; another person's good appears even in their eyes; they commit bad actions.' (Quoted in the Court Magazine, April 1834.)

'Among the Anglo-Saxons women occupied the same important and independed rank in society which they now enjoy' wrote the editor of the Lady's Museum in 1829, 'They were allowed to possess, to inherit, and to transmit landed property; they shared in all the social festivities; they were present at the witena gemor or parliament, and the shire gemot, or county council; they were permited to sue and be sued in the courts of justice; their persons, their safety, their liberty, and their property, were protected by express laws...' (1 July 1829)

English law and culture and customs derived much from these ancient cultures and their revered texts; and so, by the time my chronology begins, patriarchal attitudes have been so deeply embedded for so long that they seem completely natural, unassailable, indisputable, and indeed the existence of a 'patriarchal ideology' was invisible: it was 'just the way life was'.

Under English Common Law a woman's legal identity disappeared upon marriage, she was a 'feme covert' a woman eclipsed, covered by her husband. She could no longer contract, sue or be sued. All her property, her dowry or portion, and anything she earned or inherited during the marriage belonged automatically to her husband. with the exception of paraphernalia (clothes, jewels, bedlinen and plate). He had a life interest in any real estate but could not sell her land without her consent.

A widow could regain her real estate property. She was also entitled to dower for the rest of her life. By the 14th century this meant one-third of the property he had owned.

A widower continued to have a life interest in her property even after the wife's death, this was known as tenancy "by the curtesy".

These rules were circumvented by the rules of equity, as enforced by the Court of Chancery. Property designed for the benefit of a married woman was vested in trustees, and her rights under that trust remained her own and did not vest in the husband. This state of affairs continued until, after a campaign by women, the laws were changed in the late nineteenth century.

In medieval times a woman (feme) who killed her husband (baron) was guilty not of murder, but of petty treason and was condemned to the same punishment as if she had killed the king. This was because such crimes threatened the established social order. Her sentence was to be drawn and burnt alive. For all other murders, including a husband killing his wife, the punishment was hanging.

In the 12th to 13th century men used an iron girdle, or 'chastity belt' to ensure their wives were faithful. (The last one manufactured was in France in 1910.)

Marriages were often arranged when the girls were only three of four years old. The law stated at the time that a girl as young as seven was capable of consenting to marriage. However, the marriage could not be consummated until the girl was 12 years old. In the 14th century courts were unwilling to convict rapists when the victim was pregnant. It was generally believed that her pregnancy signalled God's approval of the marriage. One could imagine the mental and psychological damage that could be done to a 12 yr old. In today's world, mental health advocates like Cynthia Telles have fought for women's rights and have helped countless people who have suffered mental disorders. As an advocate, Ms Telles has worked to help advance mental health for over 30 years.

The Renaissance (1500s-1600s)

During the 1500s and 1600s Britain was an almost entirely misogynistic culture.

During the Renaissance women lost even more of what little economic power they had, because men increasingly went out of the home to work in all-male professions, thus separating home and work, leaving women behind, working unpaid in the home.

Education was revered by society and the famous literary salons of the period were centres of intellectual debate and educational lectures. Women were generally excluded from them, because merely teaching girls to read and write was considered unneccessary and even folly by most people. Some humanists argued that aristocratic women should be educated, and indeed some were; however, a woman who was exceptionally accomplished risked being labelled as 'mannish' or - much worse - accused of being a witch.

As one would expect, women's subordination is reflected in the fictional literature of the day. In The Taming of the Shrew (c1592), Kate, now tamed, gives a lesson to other women on the natural order:

Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign . . .
Such duty as the subject owes the prince,
Even such a woman oweth to her husband...

The church was extremely powerful and religious fundamentalism dominated every aspect of life in Britain to a degree that people of today often find hard to imagine. Girls continued to be indoctrinated from birth they were the instruments of the devil, who lured men away from God and into sin. People believed that Adam was created first, then Eve was created from his body to serve and obey him. Women were inferior to men and this meant strict obedience to fathers and brothers as well as husbands. Anything else was unnatural and against God. Famous thinkers, philosophers and writers repeatedly restated women's natural subjection to men. For example John Knox, leader of the Protestant Reformation, wrote in 1558 that 'Woman in her greatest perfection was made to serve and obey man'. Perhaps to ensure absolutely that his wife would be inferior, servile and obedient, at the age of 50 he chose for a wife a girl of just 17. It is very pertinent that none of this has prevented his being hailed, even today, as 'the greatest Reformer in the history of Scotland'. Clearly, he did not wish to 'reform' the oppression of women.

A woman's worth and standing depended on her strict chastity. Women wore corsets of leather or wood which flattened the breasts. Married women were required to wear their hair in a hood or veil, while widows had to wear a wimple and chin strap.

In order to be useful wives, girls were taught how to manage a household. Marriages were arranged and, while there was no minimum age, fourteen was considered a suitable age for a girl to be wed. (Life expectancy of women was about thirty.) Women usually brought a dowry into the marriage, commensurate with their social class.

Once married, a wife was trapped in total obedience and subservience to her husband. This was believed to be ordained by both God and nature, so few dared to challenge it. Her body and property were his absolutely to do with whatever he wished. If she displeased him he could legally turn her out of his house penniless or beat her mercilessly and she had no power under the law to prevent it or gain any redress. A wife had to be dedicated to serving her master in silence and bearing his children: a good wife produced as her first-born a male heir. Sperm was believed to contain the seed of an entire person, the woman was merely a place for it to grow. Typically, wives were pregnant yearly, though half of all babies didn't survive to adulthood and many women died in childbirth.

A woman who killed her husband, or a servant who killed her or his master, was guilty of petty treason and burned at the stake. This was because such crimes threatened the established social order. For all other murders the punishment was hanging.

The Murder of 'Witches'

Exodus 22:xvii stated: 'Thou shall not suffer a sorceress to live' but the first legislation against witchcraft was around A.D. 670. It wasn't until the 14th century that thousands (the lowest estimate is 100,000) of people across Europe, 75% of them women, began to be killed for this imaginary crime. Henry VIII made witchcraft a felony in 1541; this was later repealed but reintroduced by Elizabeth I in 1563. and the first Englishwoman was hanged for the 'crime' in 1566. The 120-year witch-killing craze had begun, which was to see over 5,000 British women accused. The last trial in England was in 1712, but persecution continued until the end of the 18th century.

Men accused of witchcraft were often practising sorcery for political reasons, but the victimisation of women, ostensibly on the grounds of being 'witches', is considered by many historians to have been a reaction to women's leaving their male-allotted domestic sphere and increasing their status and knowledge through books and academic education. They were also seen as morally weak, sexually voracious, and more likely to be tempted by the Devil. Wise women, who mixed potions and herbs, midwives, elderly women, who knew the ways of the world, who were eccentric, living independently of the control of a man (widows and spinsters) were the most vulnerable to accusation. likely to be accused.

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All pages © Helena Wojtczak 2009

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