In early societies, women bore children, cared for the home, and helped maintain the family's economic production. Men hunted, made war, and, in settled societies, assumed primary responsibility for field crop production.
Male dominance, however, was important from the time of the earliest written historical records, probably as a result of men's discovery of their role in development of hunting and warfare as status activities. The belief that women were naturally weaker and inferior to men was also certified by god- centered religions. In the bible, god placed Eve under Adam's authority, and St. Paul urged women to be obedient of their husbands. In Hinduism the reward of a proper woman is rebirth as a man. Therefore, in most traditional societies, women generally were at a disadvantage. Their education was limited to learning domestic skills, and they had no access to positions of power.
Some exceptions to women's dependence on men did exist. In ancient Babylonia and Egypt women had property rights, and in medieval Europe the could join craft guilds.
Men of the lower classes also lacked rights, but they could console themselves by feeling superior to women.
The Enlightenment, with it's egalitarian political importance, and the Industrial Revolution, which caused economic and social changes, provided a favorable climate for the rise of feminism, along with other reform movements in the late 18th and the 19th centuries.
Of deeper significance for women was the Industrial Revolution. The transformation of handicrafts, which women had always carried on at home, without pay, into machine-powered mass production meant that lower-class women could become wage earners in factories. This was the beginning of their independence, although factory conditions were hazardous and their pay, lower than men's, was legally controlled by their husbands. At the same time middle and upper-class women were expected to stay at home as idle, decorative symbols of their husbands' economic success. Such conditions encouraged the feminist movement.
Rapidly industrializing Great Britain and the U.S., feminism was more successful. The leaders were primarily educated, leisured, reform-minded women of the middle class. In 1848 more than 100 persons held the first women's rights convention, at Seneca Falls, New York. Led by the abolitionist Lucretia Mott and the feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, they demanded equal rights, including the vote and an end to the double standard.
In the U.S. progress was slower. The number of working women increased virtually after the two world wars, but they generally had low paid, female- dominated occupations, such as school teachers and clerical work.
In the 1960's however, changing demographic, economic and social patterns encouraged a resurgence of feminism. As working women encountered discrimination in many forms, the women's movement in the U.S. gained momentum. The women's movement also questioned social institutions and moral values, basing many of it's arguments on scientific studies suggesting that most supposed differences between men and women result not from biology, but from culture.
In the early 70's active feminists organized women's rights groups, ranging from the moderate National Organization for Women, founded in 1966 and claiming about 250,000 members to smaller, more radical groups. Private and governmental efforts covered in November 1977, when the largest convention of women ever held in the U.S. met in Houston, Texas, under government sponsorship. It certified the feminist report drawn up by the presidential commission, which was intended to serve as an official guide to governmental action.
The objectives of the women's movements included equal pay for equal work, federal support for day-care centers, recognition of lesbian rights, continued legislation of abortion, and the focus of serious attention on the problems of rape, wife and child beating, and discrimination against older and minority women.
American women have made many gains in the last decade, perhaps best exemplified by the 1984 nomination of Geraldine Ferraro as the Democratic candidate for vice-president of the U.S. During the administration of President Ronald Reagen, however, women lost ground on issues such as affirmative action and pay equality with men