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While some might consider this a question of opinion, in fact specific times in European history have proven themselves to be particularly disadvantageous to women, while other time periods have shown women to be able to enjoy opportunities and freedom that at one time were guaranteed only to men.
It is interesting to note that the role of women in European history has followed the track of a pendulum's sweep, from one extreme to the other and back again. Consider the Anglo Saxon period, which is generally recognized to have lasted 600 years, from 410-1066. Often considered primitive, this society was quite advanced by today's standards.
Based on Christine Fell’s study entitled Women in Anglo-Saxon England, published in 1984, women were…
…near equal companions to the males in their lives, such as husbands and brothers, much more than in any other era before modern time.
One area where women were given equal opportunities was in the Christian Church—even though men were providing these opportunities. Woman often wielded significant power as religious leaders of convents.
While later in European history, a dowry was offered to a woman's family upon her marriage, in the Anglo-Saxon period, women received this money along with the freedom to use it as they saw fit.
The gifts given by the groom were sometimes viewed as a sale of the bride, when, in actuality, it was to safeguard her interests and add security.
Also during this time, within the household a woman (once she married) retained ownership of her own property. (In the years to follow, women would not be allowed to own property or even enter into a legal contract.) Women could leave the marriage, take the children and be entitled to a half of the property held by her husband. The law protected women (free or slave) from rape. Women received recognition within society as "oath worthy." And while accountable for their actions in breaking the law, they were also protected by the law as were men.
A woman could also own goods (livestock, jewelry, books, etc.), and deed them in her will as she chose.
An important role some women took on, that would have been especially difficult, was being a "peace-weaver." This was a woman who would marry someone in an enemy tribe, in order to bring about peace by bridging the gap between the two warring families/groups.
In other cultures of the time, (specifically Saxon and Viking), women would fight along side the men. Among several examples, Thyra, Queen of Denmark, led her husband's army into battle around 890 AD.
By the medieval period (after the Norman invasion of Great Britain in 1066), the pendulum swing altered, and the role of women changed greatly. They were "unrecognized and unvalued," belonging to their husbands on whom they were totally dependent. Women worked hard in the home and even with the livestock. They bore children and cared for them. It is easy to understand where this trend gained momentum: medieval art points to Eve's responsibility in the transition of mankind into sin, by eating of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. This supported the overall sense of women's inferiority. Women had no say in who they married (depending upon the part of Europe the woman was from); all they had when single belonged to their husband once they married.
By comparison, women today enjoy things that the medieval woman could never have dreamed about…and so the pendulum swings back in favor of the fairer sex.
While the medieval and Victorian periods were probably the most difficult eras in which women could live, modern-day women have much more control over their choices, and a great many more opportunities for autonomy and personal success.
Unheard of during the medieval period, women are educated not only when they are young, but also in college. For hundreds of years, doctors and lawyers (barristers) were jobs never open to women, and women were unable to own property or enter into a contract. Such is not the case today. While upper class women used to move from their father's household (and control) into the household (and control) of a husband (lower class women were often forced into domestic servant or farm laborer employment to survive), today all women are free to live alone, own businesses, expect equal pay for equal work, and have most of the same benefits as men (based on the letter of the law). Where men had exercised the law since the Anglo-Saxon period, women can now be judges and police officers, and run for public office. The ability to vote is a relatively new right for women. In Europe, women in Denmark were granted this right in 1908; in England and Germany, 1918; in France, 1944, and in Italy, 1945. In Monaco, women could not vote until 1962!
Many of the rights women enjoy today were the direct result of war. For example, when the men of England went to war, the better paying jobs reserved for them needed to be carried out by women while the men were away. And while a woman might not keep a job at the end of the war, doors began to open as women demonstrated a capacity to handle more challenging work than had been afforded to them before.
Socially, women over the last 100 years have adopted hair styles, clothing and behaviors originally dictated by a male-dominated society. Smoking and drinking were things women did not do in public (in general) for many years; in more modern times, restrictions have changed. Women are finally able to have lives outside the home, working in competitive careers rather than being forced to stay home. Now women have a choice: they can be mothers and have careers.
Overall, modern-day women (in Europe and many places all over the world) have better lives today than during any other period of history to-date.
Textbook for reference is: Lives and Voices: Sources in European Women's History written by Lisa DiCaprio and Merry E. Wiesner.
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