For thousands of years, women were oppressed, suffering social and legal inequality and subject to the whims of their husbands and fathers. This went on for so long that most people, men and women, began to take it for granted that women were innately inferior to men: they were less mentally and physically able than men, and therefore fit only for a second-class role in society.
The reality was that women’s second-class status was based not in biology, but in social conditions. It was not, as men claimed for so long, because women were inferior in strength, intelligence, courage, and so on. Nor was it, as some feminists later claimed, because men had an innate urge to dominate women.
For the great majority of human history, the sexes were pretty much equal. Under Stone Age conditions, there could be no exploitation of one sex by another, because everyone lived at the level of subsistence. It was only with the rise of agriculture and the resulting explosion of social wealth that women began to lose status relative to men. This was because the areas of growth that laid the foundations of the first civilisations — the herding of animals and the ploughing of land — were both male-controlled. This gave men a huge advantage over women in terms of wealth and relative power. In short, they were the beneficiaries of a historical process.
Women were increasingly chained to the home, burdened with childcare, and were sometimes literally the property of men.
Of course, there were always powerful women, figures who would later be acclaimed by people keen to redress the imbalances of traditional history. There were women who inherited power through dynastic succession such as Cleopatra, Elizabeth I and Catherine the Great. There were women who won prominence for their deeds, such as Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole. But the reality of life for most women across the world was one of hard work and disadvantage, and little of what they said or did was recorded.
In the next post we will look at what this meant for women in the 19th century.