In honor of International Women’s Day earlier this month I read a neat article from The Independent about the best and worst places to be a woman. They broke it down throughout various disciplines, education, opportunity, health care, and the like. It was no surprise to me that Scandinavian countries ranked so high in so many areas and that Iceland was named the best place to be a woman. (I’m part Scandinavian, after all) It was interesting to see other places throughout the world ranked high in other areas though. Like Rwanda being the best place to be a female politician.
So it got me thinking…. When were the best and worst times to be a woman?
Now if you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time then you know I’m something of a History Apologist. I believe very strongly that the past was not such a bad place to live and that modern people have serious misconceptions about what conditions were like in bygone eras. Your average modern person just assumes today is the best time has to offer.
Personally, I disagree.
Yes, there are some amazing advances that women have in the 21st century. Healthcare, for one. The rate of death in childbirth is lower than it has ever been. Uniquely female chronic conditions are understood better now, without taboo, and they are able to be treated with modern techniques. This goes for mental health issues as well as just physical ones. Because remember, in the late 19th century hysterectomies were performed because a woman had become “hysterical” and needed to have her uterus removed to calm down.
So acute healthcare is light years better today. But I am in the school of thought that says the day-to-day health of your average person, female or male, was actually much better at various points in history. Prior to the 20th century people moved more, walked more, and “exercised” more as part of their daily routine. In this regard I believe that the late 19th and early 20th centuries were healthier. I’ve had doctors back me up on this one too, although since it was within private conversation I can’t cite it and show you an article. But at the turn of the last century enough medical advances had been made to improve the lives of average people, food supplies were plentiful and there was variety, and general physical activity levels were higher. Not too shabby.
Education is another important aspect adding to the quality of life of women. Statistics show that, in America at least, 60% of students enrolled in higher education are women. In the west women have access to education more than ever before. Um, wait, EVER before? Are you sure about that?
Actually, in the Middle Ages men and women pretty much had equal access to education. Granted, by “equal” I mean that not a lot of people across the board had access. The centers of education in the Medieval world, for the most part, were religious institutions. Women were part of the religious life just as much as men. Some of the greatest minds of the era were women, such as Hildegard of Bingen, Héloïse d’Argenteuil, and Saint Catherine of Siena. These women were writers and leaders within their religious orders. Their opinions were sought by even the heads of state at the time.
Speaking of the Middle Ages, depending on the kingdom or country in which they lived, in the High Middle Ages women could actually own and inherit property, run a business, and be a member of the all-powerful guilds. All that 20th century talk about the glass ceiling and the importance of women breaking through it? They already broke through it a thousand years ago.
Alright, the modern person says, what about sexual equality? Historically women have been confined to the home, the bearers of children, subject to the will of their husbands. Wife-beating was legal in the past, wasn’t it? Women had no legal recourse, right?
Well, not exactly. I was just reading some fantastic stuff the other day in one of my favorite history books, 1215: The Year of Magna Carta by Danny Danziger and John Gillingham. In it the authors talk about one Medieval author, Daniel of Beccles, who stated that it was virtually impossible for women to resist their sexual appetites, especially when presented with a particularly well-endowed male. He advised husbands to look the other way when it came to their wives’ inevitable affairs because the pleasure that the women would receive would make them happier people in the long run.
Is it just me or does that sound like a complete gender reverse of the prevailing attitude of the 19th and 20th centuries? Furthermore, Danziger and Gillingham also point out from several Medieval sources that the undisputed scientific opinion of the time was that a woman could only conceive if she experienced pleasure in the sexual act. Definitely not Victorian! And finally county court records of the time show time and time again in the Middle Ages that women frequently sued men for canoodling with them then refusing to marry them. The courts ruled in favor of the women and forced the man to marry them. This would have had significant socio-economic implications, by the way. And frankly, I don’t think that the modern world provides women with as much protection from being taken for a ride by a man. Just sayin’.
I could go on and on with examples from history about how life wasn’t really all that bad for women at various other times. It all boils down to who you were, where exactly you lived, and what you considered to be most important. If you wanted to work and excel in your profession, then the High Middle Ages was a good place for you. If you didn’t want to work and wanted to live a more leisurely life, being born into money in the 19th century might have been more your thing. I personally would have avoided the entire 14th century, and if I had to be lower class I wouldn’t have wanted to live during the early Industrial Revolution. Although if I had to live in the 17th or 18th century I think it might have been interesting and still reasonably viable as a woman to live in Colonial America. My point is that there are so many options throughout history for a woman to live a safe, satisfying, and comfortable life.
But if you take away anything from this blog post, let it be this! Remember, women have had extensive rights and powers at various points in history. In the High Middle Ages they could own property, participate in business, and become highly educated just like any man could. Fast-forward 500 or so years and suddenly women were little more than the property of their husbands or fathers, unable to inherit or vote, called whores if they exhibited any sexual appetite, with little recourse under the law if they were threatened. Women lost what they once had! Think about it. Who’s to say it couldn’t happen again? Life might be pretty good for women now, but what will our lives and rights look like in another 500 years? In another 50 years? Never take any right for granted.