Never underestimate the power of a woman — or 100 (Emma Gray, Damon Dahlen).
Women have been second-class citizens since the stone age. This is largely because babies need several years of constant care so a woman had to depend on a man to support her and the child during that time. The supporting male took advantage of that and became overly protective to make sure that the offspring she was carrying was his (she is the only one who really knew). Many of the outrageous restrictions on women that developed are still enforced leaving women underrepresented in electoral politics. A mere 22 % of world governments include women and only 17 % of government heads are women (U.N. Women). Women have always objected to their subordinate condition but it has not always been reported and there is no physical evidence that archaeologists can find to substantiate the struggle. However, a careful look at literary evidence reveals some attempts by women who bravely refused to accept their traditional role in male-dominated societies.
Some of the earliest evidence comes from ancient Greece in the story of the Amazons who used men only to procreate. The Amazons kept the female babies and sent male babies away with their fathers. We read also of Greek women who joined cults that were dedicated to the agricultural goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone. Their secret cultic rites offered women social bonding and the opportunity to express themselves away from the eyes of men to relieve the oppressive stress of their daily lives. Sometimes the celebrations turned violent, imitating the Maenads who engaged in frenzied dancing and slaughter of men (Euripides, Bacchanals) . Other gender-based issues are highlighted in Aristophanes’ play, Lysistrata (411 B.C.E.), a comedy wherein the women of Athens vow to withhold sex from their husbands until they stop fighting the Peloponnesian War.
Roman women were also subject to male domination. A woman of the Republic was not allowed to vote or hold office but she could inherit property. Once married, she and her property belonged to her husband and she was supposed to devote herself to raising his children (M. Jastrow). But the Punic Wars (264-146 B.C.E.) left land and wealth in the hands of widows and fatherless daughters. The 2nd Punic War (218-201 B.C.E.) was especially lethal leaving at least 50,000 Roman soldiers dead and many women in charge of their property. That alarmed the Senate so they passed the Oppian Law (216 B.C.E.), which limited the amount of wealth a woman could have. The women objected and organized to lobby the magistrates. When that didn’t work, the women blockaded the city streets and barricaded the doors to the meeting room until the law was repealed. (Livy, 34.1)
Women’s history goes silent after that except for William Shakespeare’s “Merry Wives of Windsor,” a comedy about women who together plan to punish an obnoxious man. It is a fantasy but it indicates that 17th century Elizabethan society recognized the power that women might have if they united for an issue. In the late 18th century in enlightened France, the Marquis de Condorcet suggested that women should be allowed to vote but that idea was quickly squelched, and there were clear efforts to keep women submissive in the 19th and 20th centuries. Between 1830 and 1896, Godeyʹs Ladyʹs Book and Magazine published articles suggesting that “proper” women should not be educated in anything except homemaking because they could not think for themselves (“don’t you worry your pretty little head dear”). Society also insisted that women’s morals could be easily corrupted so male protection and guidance was essential to keep women from falling into sin. Housewives were told to arrange bookshelves to separate the female authors from the male authors unless the authors were married to each other. Elizabeth Blackwell dispelled such nonsense by becoming the first woman to earn a medical degree in 1847. The officials of Geneva Medical College admitted her as a practical joke but despite being ostracized by both educators and patients, she finished at the head of the class and opened a medical school for women. In 1895, her autobiography, "Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women", helped to change women’s image in society. (pbs.org)
Equality was not yet theirs although women every-where continued to demand it. Some by writing, such as Jane Austin and the Bronte sisters who wrote of women and social issues, and others by joining feminist groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the National Woman Suffrage Union. They also led rebellions such as the Nigerian women who gathered in the early 20th century to protest government policies (Materiait al., The Women’s War of 1929). In London, just after WWI, women went on strike to demand equal pay. They had held men’s jobs while the men were at war, and many continued to work alongside the returned soldiers but for lower wages because government officials insisted that women were less productive. Currently no country has agreed to equal pay for equal work although Iceland is considering a law to require it (NPR, 3/9/17).
Finland was the first to grant women suffrage (1909), the U.S. in 1921, the U.K in 1928, Saudi Arabia in 2015. Today, women all over the world unite against gender prejudice as they did so many millennia ago, in the hope of at last gaining equality.