If you listen to the modern women’s movement, the history of women goes something like this: golden age of matriarchy, oppression (may or may not pre-date Christianity and/or Judaism), heroic struggle, oppression, repression, partial victory, ongoing struggle. Women were confined to the kitchen, the bedroom and nursery, and on rare occasions permitted a few strictly limited places within their religious traditions. And then along came Second Wave Feminism and there was Light! Except like so much in history, it never quite worked like that, or happend that simply. You see, the (in)famous Kinder, Küche, und Kirche of tradition only applied after 1800, and then only to a very limited group of women in Western Europe and the US. Oops.
As long as human and animal muscle remained the prime sources of motive power in society, women had a disadvantage in war and farming (and later in industry). We females, on average, are weaker than the average male. Especially in terms of upper body strength, which is what you need to steer a plow, use a sword or halberd, shift heavy cargo, or do a great deal of other things. Women are also out of business in certain ways during pregnancy and while nursing and tending small children. Men don’t have this complication, and can drop everything to go take care of the fields/animals/bad guys. So when survival depends on human muscle, the male will in the majority of the cases end up in positions of social and political power.
This does not mean that women were confined to the four walls (or one wall in the case of a round dwelling) or four walls and a garden, ignored except for meal time and procreation. Oh no, not at all. Women have always contributed to the survival of the household, family, society by working outside the home, or doing business in an extension of the home. Even in the most repressive of societies, such as Russia during certain periods, Imperial China, ancient Greece and Rome . . . Women in the lower classes worked and worked hard, and contributed greatly to the household. Pampered women were the ones confined to the women’s quarters, and even then they had tasks and roles that added more than they withdrew from the household “bank.”
And let’s face it, politics and pillow talk probably go back to King Solomon, if not farther. The queen or royal mother had a great role in many reigns, and noble women were expected to be useful as well as decorative. Most did not end up leading the defense of their husband/father’s lands, or directing men in war, but they had to be aware of what was required and how to conduct diplomacy as well as producing heirs and not bankrupting the estate. Medieval and Early Modern women might have been locked out of the guilds, but they certainly worked beside their husbands and conducted business, especially in those areas not controlled by the guilds, such as trade. We have ample records of women who managed businesses for extended periods after their spouses left on a trading mission, or as widows with minor children, or in conjunction with grown sons. They could not participate in civic government, but I suspect the Patricians of Nuremberg, for example, did not entirely ignore the experience and opinions of the distaff members of their class.
It wasn’t until the Enlightenment and the Romantic period (and the Industrial Revolution and the economic surges that came with it) that women as domestic goddess really became a popular idea, and that only with the middle and upper classes. Although . . . one of the great frustrations of the German Social Democrats in the late 19th century were the workers who wanted better wages and hours so they could have their women stay at home. According to the Social Democratic theoreticians, the women were supposed to keep working and to be good Socialists, proud of not being middle class. Oops. No, the lure of women having a separate (domestic) sphere became very strong. From this, and in part because of the down sides of the Industrial Revolution and the new urban society of the 19th century, the ideal of women remaining in the home, overseeing the gentle arts and providing a haven for the men in her life, developed. This was the world of Kinder, Küche, und Kirche—children, kitchen, and church—that Ibsen railed against in The Dollhouse and some women found entrapping and unpleasant. And it certainly could be, especially when a man was proud enough to keep his women at home even in the face of starvation (Karl Marx, according to some traditions). Domesticity was a mark of social class and economic success.
Now, granted, women did not have the same legal rights as men. Again, looking back, they could not engage in politics or war (physical limits), so those in government extrapolated that they did not need legal rights of contract. (For that matter many men did not “merit” full legal rights either, and that was before the French Revolution emerged with the classes of “active” and “passive” citizens.) And custom often bound men in ways similar to women. When custom broke down in the 1800s, then legal rights for women became a matter of contention and concern, although not always for the “right” reason. For example, Mississippi had the first Married Women’s Property law in the US. Because fathers got tired of seeing their daughters and grandchildren left destitute by wastrel sons-in-law. Women gained the vote first in school board elections (because children were a woman’s proper concern), and then because the new Territories needed bodies in order to meed the Constitutional minima for statehood. And because machinery was starting to lessen the need for pure muscle.
Women’s History specialists often point out that women held more economic power before the Industrial Revolution, because if the household is the center of production, then women must play a role in the prosperity of the family. Once that shifted and income came from outside (a “competence” was no longer necessary), women lost status again, then slowly regained it.
Non-Western societies followed a different path, in part because of female mortality. Any society where women are scarce, women are low status because they are commodities to be exchanged rather than individuals who participate in the household economy. As we know, this remains true today, where parents in India abort female babies because three hundred Rupees for an abortion is far less damaging to the family than thirty thousand Rupees for a dowry. When some men have multiple wives, and childbirth is dangerous, a shortage of women ensues. Not a good situation for society, as China, India, and other places are starting to re-discover.
Did women in the past have fewer legal rights? Yes. Did most men in the past have fewer legal rights? Yes. Were women in the past confined to a tiny domestic sphere, ignored by the men in their lives? Not if the men wanted to succeed. Oppression existed, but so did opportunity and success. The mythical past of women living solely in the kitchen or on a pedestal, and those by the grace of their men, is far more mythical than meaningful when we want to study women and society in history.