"Woman's chief discontent
is not with her political, but with her social, and particularly her
- Laura Bullard in The Revolution, suffrage journal, United States,
the family has been the primary sphere within which most women have lived
their lives. It is often regarded as the most important unit in society
with women usually regarded as the "glue" that holds the family together.
In the modern world, however, the family has also been identified as the
location for women's greatest oppression. News items describe disturbing
realities: families who sell daughters for sex or servitude, honor killings,
female genital mutilation, female dowry burning, forced or prevented abortions,
and alarming worldwide domestic violence.
reason such problems continue is the perception that regulation and government
intervention are inappropriate within the private sector of the home and
family. Another is the reality that the family is the area in which assumptions
about gender difference are most solidly entrenched and can be most powerfully
enforced. International and local agencies have a hard time trying to
implement uniform human rights standards or finding equitable answers
to questions such as: Should a woman have the right to choose whether
to marry or not? Choose whom she wants to marry? Choose to live in plural
or monogamous marriages? Choose whether or not to have children, and to
decide how many? Should wives have equal rights with husbands to divorce?
Have access to their children after divorce? Have the right to remarry?
Share equally in inheritance? Own businesses and property in their own
name? Be protected from physical and psychological abuse by family members?
recently have laws regulating the status of women in the family incorporated
the modern norm of equality between the sexes found in such documents
as the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination
against Women (CEDAW, 1979), and the Declaration on Elimination
of Violence Against Women (1993).1
Such documents are seen by some as threats to cultural standards or national
sovereignty. Opposition along these lines prevented the ratification of
CEDAW in the United States (making it the only developed country not to
do so). Fierce debates continue between those who contend that human rights
standards should differ from one group to another and those who advocate
the equal application of international human rights standards to all human
current debates and the prevalence of sensational reports about human
rights abuses offer a unique opening to explore historical attitudes about
women in the family. Taking time to investigate mandated roles in the
family in the past helps uncover what might be considered human rights
way to open such discussions is to use primary sources. Described here
are some from commonly taught world history periods. Any one of them will
make clear the extent to which the position of women in the family was
an integral part of the large patriarchal structures in society, and also
will indicate how deep beliefs about inherent male/female difference resulted
in the assignment of gender roles. What is described in these sources
did not necessarily reflect the reality of people's lives. Restrictive
laws and teachings did not apply to women in all social classes, were
followed unevenly, or were sometimes simply ignored. Sometimes family
control was harsh, sometimes not.
sources could be used in a variety of ways. They could be used to analyze
differences and similarities among civilizations, or changes and continuities
over time. Students could be asked to think about what the source suggests
a good wife should do in order to achieve power within her family, or
what the possible effects family restrictions might have had on the lives
of women in the period. The sources can also be read to note areas where
women were held in some esteem or were protected. After examining the
sources, students might find out what the larger situation for women in
that particular culture was. (All the source readings mentioned here are
found on the Internet with their web addresses listed in the endnotes.)
and codes often establish the extent to which gender difference was embedded
in concerns about marriage. "Marriage is the basis of all disputes," proclaims
the first sentence of the chapter "Concerning Marriage and Women" in the
Indian Arthashastra by Kautilya (c. 250 BCE).2 Most codes illustrate the truth of this comment.
Prevalent are concerns about property rights. They also provide details
of wifely duties, inheritance, sexual intercourse, and punishments for
- The Code of Hammurabi,
(c.1780 BCE).3 This code is too often taught with no reference
to its significant amount of information on women and marriage. The
Internet Ancient History Sourcebook site includes a full scholarly comment
along with laws dealing with marriage.
- The Code of the Assura
Assyrians (c.1075 BCE) 4 is a much harsher set of laws that refers to
physical abuse and the oft-noted stipulation regarding the veiling of
women in public. It might be compared to both the Hammurabi and other
Assyrian codes to demonstrate variety between laws in similar regions
- Selections from Middle
Assyrian Codes give further insights into the power accorded to
fathers.5 All marriage arrangements apparently did not go smoothly prompting
the need for this law: "If a man either has poured oil on the head of
the daughter of a man or brought dishes for the banquet, and then the
son to whom he assigned the wife either died or fled, he shall give
her to whichever of his remaining sons he wishes from the oldest to
the youngest aged (at least) ten."
- The Roman Twelve Tablets
(c. 450 BCE) introduces that civilization's ancestral harsh patriarchal
- The Augustus Period
(27 BCE-14 CE), on the other hand, produced a series of laws that
eased the granting of divorce, choice of partner, and punishments regarding
adultery.7 Emperor Augustus, desirous of increasing the Rome's population,
also made marriage a duty for Roman patricians.
- A site dedicated to The
Code of Justinian (533 CE) can be explored to see the impact of
law on the lives of women in Byzantium.8 There are short descriptions rather than a listing
of the laws. Of interest are comments about betrothal requirements,
the reasons given for a husband and a wife to divorce, stipulations
regarding concubinage, and the economics of marriage.
- The Laws of Manu, a
Hindu code compiled sometime during the first to fourth century, is
arguably the most restrictive of Indian laws regarding women.9
The Laws of Manu became the standard source of Brahman elite authority
in later orthodox Hindu tradition. They appear to have restricted women
from activities they had undertaken in early Vedic India. Women's participation
in religious rites was forbidden, and their legal independence sharply
limited. The concept that women are married for eternity to one man
was affirmed, and widow remarriage was forbidden. Indian women today
often refer to the dictates of the Manu Laws with disdain, particularly
the law that states: "A wife, a son, and a slave, these three are declared
to have no property; the wealth which they earn is (acquired) to him
to whom they belong."
- In medieval Europe, The
Magdeburg Law of 1261 sheds light on marriage and property rights
among wealthy and middle-class families in the growing urban center.10 The laws, developed in the German
city of Magdeburg, were used as a model in other cities in today's Germany
and elsewhere in central Europe. In most places, they remained in force
up to the nineteenth century. Basically, the legislation gave the man
the sole powers of property disposal and right of guardianship. "When
a man takes a woman, he takes into his possession and acquires disposal
right over all her property."
Prose sources are a particularly
engaging way to learn about women's marriage duties.
- A selection from Xenophon's
"Oeconomicus" (c. 430-355 BCE) brings life to the Athenian habit
of marriage between older men and younger women.11
In the piece, the gentleman farmer Ischomachus explains to Socrates
how he educated his young wife for her duties. His long list of her
responsibilities reveals details of a woman's household tasks ending
with his caution that she "bide tranquilly at home rather than roam
abroad," a situation, he says, that for a man would be a contrary to
his nature and "a thing discreditable."
- Nujie (Lesson for a
Woman), by Ban Zhao (c.48-120 CE), is another type of instructional
thesis, this time written by the author for her daughters who were on
the verge of marriage.12 Ban Zhao was a renowned Han
dynasty historian whose work is full of Confucian principles regarding
gender. For example, she describes the female function of the Yin as
a way to support the correct harmonious relationship between husband
- It is useful to compare
Ban Zhoa's work with the much harsher view of women in the legend of
Written by the orthodox Confucian scholar Mencius in the Warring
States Period (475 BCE-221 CE), NeoConfucian scholars of the Song dynasty
(960-1279 CE) used the story as part of their efforts to reassert stricter
controls on women. The phrase most often repeated is the admonition
the mother gives her son about what he should expect from the wife of
a "superior man." "A woman is subject to the rule of the three obediences.
When young, she has to obey her parents; when married, her husband;
when a widow, her son."
- The Greater Learning
for Women (1762, Japan) is another vigorous promotion of NeoConfucian
values about the proper roles for women.14
Widely influential in the later Edo Period, at least among the Samurai
class, the treatise's doctrine of female submission and support for
a rigid physical separation of the sexes was never applied to peasants
since the labor of both female and male peasants was essential.
- For medieval Europe, a
concise, short reading is the letter from Peter of Boise sent
to Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1173.15 In it he chastises her for her part in the revolt of her sons
against her husband, King Henry II. "The woman is at fault who leaves
her husband and fails to keep the trust of this social bond," wrote
Peter whose patron, the Archbishop of Rouen, was in turn a patron of
- The works of Christine
de Pizan (1364-1430) present a woman's perspective on many issues. De
Pizan was a learned and successful writer who valiantly defended women
against some contemporary misogynistic writers. She was, nonetheless,
influenced by traditional views on marriage. Her practical and moral
advice in "The Mirror of Honor" reminds women of their duties
toward their "lord and master."16 A lady above all should avoid dishonor, she
cautions. A wife should exhibit humility in deed, word, and attitude
and obey her husband without complaint.
- Elizabeth I's Marriage
Homily, while not written by the famous queen herself, presents
views of marriage that were probably accepted by Elizabeth as it was
issued under her authority as governor of the church in 1562.17
Late sixteenth century marriage homilies, read in place of sermons by
Anglican ministers, became a common way to advocate the authority of
the husband, who was to be both the spiritual and actual head of the
family. This lengthy homily includes phrases such as "Man is as the
king in his own house," and "Man is to his wife in the place of Christ
to his church." Women also should be obedient, silent, and keep their
heads covered in public as a sign of their subjugation. This reading
might gainfully be compared to India's Laws of Manu and Japan's
"Greater Learning for Women."
- William Gouge's Of Domesticall
Duties (1622), and selections from other writers of this period,
bring attention to the proliferation of popular marriage advice or good
conduct guides directed at the growing middle-class readership in Tudor
and Stuart England.18
The reading might encourage student research into the works of seventeenth-century
female writers, some of whom created angry responses to the period's
and Natural Rights
Europe, the eighteenth century saw continued discussions of women's subjugation
and challenges to male supremacy. Both men and women used concepts of
reason and natural rights to mount their arguments. Questions were raised.
Were women equal to men? Could they be emancipated from familial control?
What about the transmission of property, and love and sexual liberty?
- Mary Astell in "Reflections
Upon Marriage" (1700, England) begins the period by lamenting women's
lack of choice in marriage and their required submission.19 "If all men are born free, how is it that all women are born
- Mary Wollstonecraft, author
of "Vindication of the Rights of Women" (1792), wrote a sharp
response to the famous French writer Jean-Jacque Rousseau, who glorified
a woman as wife and mother but thought that nature had made her "to
submit to man and to endure even injustice at his hands."20
Wollstonecraft acknowledged women's important role as mother, but she
also urged an education that would allow them to become "rational creatures
and free citizens; and they will quickly become good wives and mothers,
that is - if men do not neglect the duties of husbands."
- The French Revolution put
women's claims to citizenship and desire for public participation to
the test. As the Women's Petition to the National Assembly in 1789
boldly states, "All privileges of the male sex are irrevocably abolished
throughout France."21 And, "In the household, both parties should
enjoy the same authority."
- Olympe de Gouges' "Declaration
of the Rights of Woman and (Female) Citizenship" (1791) should be
read for the extent of those rights she considered to be women's natural
due.22 In her list
of rights, she calls for recognition of illegitimate children and in
a rather odd postscript writes a "Form for a Social Contract Between
Man and Woman."
- The 1803 French Civil
Code, (the Napoleonic Code) is a classic example of reaction to
women's push for public involvement.23 The revolution had spurred the
creation of women's organizations with many using the concept of patriotic
motherhood to justify their political activities. Men, suspicious of
the clubs, claimed that women's public involvement distracted them from
their domestic duties. By 1793, the clubs were banned and government
leaders insisted that women should be content in the heart of their
families. Napoleon's code ended women's hopes by stating in no uncertain
terms that the wife owed her husband obedience. Wives also were forbidden
from selling, mortgaging, or buying property. Within France and its
colonies, the Code survived virtually unaltered for more than 150 years,
for women perhaps the most enduring legacy of the French Revolution.
the nineteenth century, there were calls in many nations for reforms to
benefit women. Questions regarding suffrage were of course raised, but
the idea of more equitable marriage rights took pride of place. The United
States managed the first successful campaign to undermine common law principles
concerning the dependence of married women.
- America's Declaration
of Sentiments and Resolutions (1848), passed at the first Women's
Rights Convention, included concerns about the deprivation of married
"In the covenant of marriage, she is compelled to promise obedience
to her husband, he becoming, to all intents and purposes, her master--the
law giving him power to deprive her of her liberty and to administer
- Ernestine Rose's Speech
at the 1850 National Woman's Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts,
is another statement of American concerns.25 Rose, a Polish born Jew, petitioned
the state of New York as early as 1836 to let married women hold their
own property. In her dramatic and widely circulated 1850 speech, Rose
noted that in marriage a husband "keeps her, and so he does a favorite
horse; by law they are both considered his property." She also referred
to the international nature of reform, saying, "We are not crusading
for the rights of the women of New England, or of old England, but of
- In England, well known
writer Caroline Norton, in her "English Laws for Women in the
Nineteenth Century" (1854) and her "Letter to the Queen" (1855)
wrote confessional accounts of her struggles with her husband.26
In 1824, she was pressured into marrying an older abusive husband. She
left him but failed in her efforts to secure a divorce and gain access
to her children whom her husband had handed to his mistress to raise.
This ignited her writing and lobbying efforts for reform. Partly as
a result of her very public voice, Parliament passed the Custody of
Children Act in 1839 and in 1857 the Marriage and Divorce Act. It was
not until 1882, however, that a comprehensive marriage property act
was passed; not until 1923 that women could divorce on the same ground
as men; and not until 1925 that mothers were given equal rights with
fathers over their children.
- John Stuart Mill's "The
Subjection of Women" (1869) lends a strong male voice to the call
for reform.27 In it he proclaims his renunciation of the "odious powers" given
him as a male upon marriage. Mill also acknowledged that much of the
source of his intellectual development came from his long association
with Harriet Hardy Taylor, whom he later married.
colonized countries and those engaged in efforts to compete with the industrialized
West, calls for women's rights were complex and varied widely from place
to place. Egypt and Japan offer two case studies. In both regions by the
later nineteenth century, middle class and elite women were emerging from
household restrictions. The argument that women should be educated not
necessarily for their own sake but for their capacity to improve the nation
became a major rational for these new freedoms. Often this was in response
to attitudes of the colonizers who considered non-western cultural practices
regarding women as "barbaric," while ignoring women's demands for reform
- In Egypt, Qasim Amin's
"The Liberation of Woman" (1899) is thought by some to be that country's
first work to address the question of women's new roles in society.28 Although he believed the proper
role of women to be wife and mother, Amin wrote against polygamy, the
harem, veiling in public, and for women's education.
- Some came to see Amin as
too influenced by European ideas, and many Egyptians preferred Malik
Hefni Nassef's (pen name Bahithat al-Badiyya) more accommodating
approach for women's rights.29 In 1909, she began a series of public lectures delivered to
women-only clubs. Her strong views on the rights for women within marriage
reflected her own experience; she had been married by her family to
a man who was already a husband and father though she did not know this
at the time of the wedding. She argued that Islam guaranteed rights
to women though customs and traditions stood in the way. She said that
women could regain their basic rights with a "middle way between two
extremes" that did not violate what Islam prescribes. In 1911, she presented
ten modest demands to the Egyptian Legislative Assembly, which were
rejected by the all male Assembly. Nassef's stance presents a useful
parallel with the ideas of those in the Muslim world today who support
changes for women within the context of their religion and culture.
- In Japan, Kishida Toshiko
(1861-1901) was an exciting and talented public speaker who was heard
by thousands of women.30 During the early Meiji Restoration, nationalists
were arguing that improving the status of women was essential if other
technologically advanced nations were to accept Japan as an equal. This
gave women a chance to introduce ideas for change. When Toshiko was
a teenager she served the Empress at court, but left, describing the
court as a symbol of the concubine system which "was an outrage to women."
She also felt that the present family system turned girls into "maidens
in boxes" and that the only appropriate box should be one "as large
and as free as the world itself." Toshiko was among women, now labeled
Japan's "first feminists," who saw their views as logical responses
to rapid change in their country. They organized women's groups, made
public speeches, and created, at least for a while, a journal.
- Japanese Civil Codes
of 1898. 31By the end of the century,
however, the ruling elite in Japan reacted negatively to women's pressure.
Even the male supporters of women's rights were reluctant to back changes
in the traditional family structure. Like the French under Napoleon,
they reinstated the most conservative and oppressive model of the family.
Men were enshrined as head of the family with absolute authority over
family members; married women lost some of the rights they had gained.
One provision stated: "Cripples and disabled persons and wives cannot
undertake any legal action." The Codes also attacked traditional means
of birth control in order to promote high birth rates especially after
the losses in the 1905 war with Russia. The patriarchal family thus
became a part of state policy, and NeoConfucian principles were extended
to all women, not just to the upper class.
Russia and China, old beliefs had enshrined practices in which wives were
sharply controlled. The communist revolutions in these countries attempted
measures to radically alter the old family structure. Such changes were
deemed necessary ways to support women's abilities to work in their new
society. Some fundamental changes were accomplished, but over time reaction
and sometimes outright rejection limited their effectiveness.
- In Russia, in her writing
Communism and the Family, Alexandra Kollontai called for improvements
in conditions for women after the revolution of 1905.32 The only woman to hold a cabinet
post in the new Bolshevik government, Kollontai said that the revolution
had to first start with the family and establish a new idea of sex and
gender. She envisioned the "proletarian family of the future" as one
which would liberate women from "domestic slavery," making life richer
and happier. Under the workers' state, society as a whole would take
on all the tasks that before the revolution fell to individual parents.
She received a certain amount of support for her measures, but by the
1920s Party support weakened. Kollentai's push to free women not only
to work but also to have access to all levels of political and economic
power, plus her moral views about sexuality and a free union between
partners, were bitterly contested. By Stalin's era only a few of her
longed for reforms had gained solid ground.
China, the Communist party also made a conscious effort to free women
from age-old family restraints. Peasant women, considered to be at the
bottom of the social heap, were targeted as early as the 1930s. Women's
groups were created to give poor women a place where they could gain confidence
and express their grievances against, the Party hoped, their bad treatment
by local landlords. In these "speak bitterness" sessions, however, many
of the women aimed their attacks at husbands and in-laws who had physically
- The Marriage Law of
1950 was passed soon after the establishment of the Communist government
in China in 1949.33 It gave women full legal equality with men inside the family.
Polygamy, the sale of women as wives, arranged marriages, and all forms
of child marriage were prohibited. The provision for divorce simply
said, "when one part is determined to claim a divorce, it shall have
immediate effect." Opposition to the new law developed rapidly when
it came into conflict with the realities of the lives of the peasants.
The surge in divorces created the most attention. Since the code had
also given women equal rights to the land as part of the requirement
for their emancipation upon divorce, the woman kept her land allotment
and equal share of any property gained during marriage. Men complained
that they stood to lose both their wives and their property. Women,
who returned to their families after finding it hard to live independently,
often faced incredible abuse. In the face of this disruption, the Party
hesitated. By 1953, divorce became more difficult to get and many cadres
simply neglected all applications for divorce by poor women. Traditional
practices persisted and were supported by many women, including older
women who felt the new law threatened their relationship with their
sons and lessened their expected privileges as mothers-in-law.
- In Jan Myrdal's book,
Report from a Chinese Village, Li Kuei-ying, an official in a village
commune, tells of her efforts to educate families who still practiced
By 1958, the government needed women's labor as it tried to increase
industrial production during the Great Leap Forward. In rural areas,
farmers were mobilized into communes, and Li Kuei-ying was charged with
bringing families in line with the expectations of the changing society.
Following the reading, research could be done on recent circumstances
in China, including revisions in the 1950s Marriage Code, the recent
surge in divorces caused by China's rapid economic growth, and a relaxation
of the one child policy.
sources not only provide information about the history of women and men
in families but also raise questions about the struggle for women's rights
today: To what extent have beliefs about gender differences in many societies
changed? How have they remained the same? What obstacles have women around
the world identified as the hardest to overcome? The multiple international
and local women's rights organizations with Internet sites provide places
to locate current concerns.35 For example, there is a discussion
on the Human Rights Watch site on inheritance customs in Kenya
where, in some areas, the equal rights of widows to their property are
the importance that groups like Human Rights Watch give to the
status of women will help students understand why the position of women
within their families remains an important contemporary as well as historical
Lyn Reese founded and directs Women in World History Curriculum.
She also consults for the International Museum of Women in San Francisco.