In simple words, the women of the 20th and 21st century have had the brilliant opportunity to expand their philosophical, psychological, physical, and professional potential by obtaining their God-given right to become educated. An educated woman who has absorbed the many different perspective of life and society has all the possible things she would need to succeed. A woman who understands and appreciates her history, her health, her mind, and her body will not accept any form of abuse whether psychological or physical. A woman who analyzes things would never allow herself to deceit or defeat herself. Therefore, it is because we are now educated and free to learn as much as we want that you do not see the nonsense that used to happen back in the day when we were nothing but items on a married man's checklist.
"How things used to be" versus "Today" is quite broad -- The major difference between women of today (meaning anytime in the last 150 years) and women from any other time is that death during childbirth in most countries has been eliminated. Because of advances in the understanding of germ theory in the 1800's, sanitary conditions improved, infant mortality rates dropped and women began to not routinely die giving birth. Throughout all of human history up to this point, women were confined, with very rare exceptions, to being baby-makers out of necessity -- the survival rate was just slightly ahead of the death rate. World population had finally reached one billion by 1850. It was not uncommon for a man to have had several wives during his lifetime, as many times both mother and child were lost in the process of creating the next generation. All other advances in the cause of womankind stem from improvements in hygene.
The first person who comes to my mind is Margaret Sanger and the campaign for safe and effective birth control. It wasn’t until I had my own children that I realized the magnitude of how children change women’s lives. I can’t imagine going through annual pregnancies simply because of lack of access to birth control. Once women were able to control their own childbearing, they became able to look at life outside of the home and consider careers and outside interests.
I will run with the second half of the question and use it to address the first half. There are many women whose voice played a powerful rule in defining how women today view themselves in contrast with images of the past. Betty Friedan is one such voice who was able to just that. In her book, The Feminine Mystique, she challenges the social and traditional depiction of women as one that denies the social and personal sense of voice. Her critique on multiple conceptions and established "roles" which women are driven to portray helped awaken the consciousness of women in understanding the need for self definition and advocacy of self in both the social and personal domains, transforming how women were able to use and absorb the notion of personal voice. This idea was expanded with Gloria Steinem's ideas broughout out in her work in the 1970s and 1980s, and through her writings, such as Revolution from Within. Steinem argued that in order to challenge both the need for freedom and the battling of social constructs, individuals need to have a strong sense of self esteem and worth. This need to reclaim a psychological sense of self appealed to many women who had inherited the leadership of the Feminist movement, but failed to understand the true power and voice requires a sense of self that better understands these notions. This element of psychology allowed individuals to understand that freedom is complicated and battling the fight to reclaim voice and social stigma can exert a toll on how a person views themselves. Steinem is instrumental in articulating freedom for women on social, individual, and the psychological levels. The complex and bifurcating nature of voice is something explored in the work of Anne Moody. Born in the South as a poor, African- American, woman, Moody's work speaks to women who find themselves battling more than one element of social constriction. Women who felt that the feminist movement was being fought for middle class, white women found an ally in the work of Moody who stressed that the fight for equality in America happens on many levels. In the modern setting, this premise is accepted truth. Articulating the need for freedom is a dialogue that envelopes different experiences and articulations. The need to understand specific contexts is critical, for freedom cannot speak to one person while silencing another. These three women were critical in allowing modern women of today to see themselves in different lights from those in the past.
Well most women in the good old days were certainly a lot nicer and much easier to meet, and the women of today are very high maintenance, independent, selfish, spoiled, and very greedy, which is a very excellent reason why many of us good single men can't find a good one these days which it is no fault of ours.
Women in were not very much in the limelight in the past because the nature of technology and economy, and its impact on division of work between men and women, which confined women mostly to the domestic scene. This does not mean that women were less enterprising or less capable in the past.
Two example of great women of the past that come immediately to my mind are Saint Joan and Florence Nightingale. One of the most admired historical character in India is Queen Laxmibai who ruled Jhansi in mid nineteenth century. Madam Curie is the only person to have receives Nobel Price twice. Ancient books of India, written thousands of years back write about a lady named Gargi, who was a great scholar.
These great women of the past were highly respected then and continued to be respected now. I am sure women to today will perform equally well. They will do so not because they have some special help or encouragement not available in past, but because they have the native capability to do so.
I am sure women are not dependent on any special support not available to men. It is just that women today have better opportunity that had been denied to them in past, and with this they will perform well relying on their own capabilities.
When we look at the progression of women's freedom over the years, aside from the specific women such as Margaret Sanger who fought for women to have a choice in the size of their families with the education of birth control, or Susan B. Anthony who fought for the passing of the 19th amendment that gave women the right to vote, but I believe it is the progression of society and inventions that allowed women greater freedom and liberties. The industrial revolution during the mid 19th century gave single women an opporotunity to work in the factories making clothing. The beginning of the 20th century and the invention of the telephone and typewriter was brought into businesses creating the position of "telephone girls" or our first secretaries. America's enterance into WWII was the biggest push women made to enter the work force with so many men overseas. It is the creation of jobs for women that gave the freedom to earn money and societal acceptance to enter the work force that is the foundation of freedom of women.