Ancient Laws and Women’s Rights: The 6000-Year-Old World War Continues
The term ‘legal rights of women’ refers to the social and human rights of women. There has never been a time in history where this subject has been more at the fore of politics. Social justice movements create waves for much required balance around the world, highlighting modern-day examples of injustice against girls and women. But after reading the horrors of ancient laws regarding women’s rights (or the lack thereof), you might agree that there has never been a better time to be a woman.
This mediaeval illustration from the AD 1310 translation of Euclid's Elements shows a woman teaching geometry to male students. (Public Domain)
Treatment of Women in Egypt (Good), Greece and Rome (Not Good)
In ancient Egypt, women shared similar legal rights and status as a men. For example, they were entitled to have money and their own private property - which might include land, livestock, and slaves. A woman could represent herself in legal and judicial affairs and, if required, she could divorce her husband. What is more, women held important positions in government - Hatshepsut and Cleopatra even became pharaohs.
Conversely, in ancient Athens “women were excluded from appearing in law courts or participating in the assembly” and in Dr. M. Schaps’ 1998 book What Was Free about a Free Athenian Woman, we learn that women were “legally prohibited from engaging in contracts worth any significant amount of money.” Furthermore, ‘respectable’ women were expected never to appear in public.
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Ancient Roman law was also heavily weighted towards men, and the ‘pater familias’ (male head of the household) exercised supreme authority over his wife, children, and servants. According to scholar Bonnie Smith in her 2008 edition of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History, “Women had no public voice, could not vote, hold public office or serve in the military.” And the enclosed, wealthy Roman women sent guardians called “tutors” to attend to their external functions.
A 4th century sarcophagus depicting a Roman couple in the ceremonial joining of hands; the bride's knotted belt symbolized that her husband was “belted and bound” to her. Marble, latter part of 4th century. Musée de l'Arles et de la Provence antiques. (Ad Meskens/CC BY SA 3.0)
Byzantine, Islamic and Russian Rights of Women (All Not Good)
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History also informs that Byzantine law was “greatly based on Roman law” and restricted women from “all public life”, insisting if they were “not prostitutes, slaves or entertainers they must be entirely veiled.”
The Quran clearly allows polygamy with up to four wives, and under Islamic law marriage was seen as a “contract” in which the dowry, previously regarded as a “bride-price" paid to the father, became a “nuptial gift” retained by the wife as part of her personal property. Efforts to improve the status of women in Islamic countries in the early Middle Ages brought better rights in marriage, divorce, and inheritance, and The Oxford Dictionary of Islam states, “the general improvement of the status of Arab women included prohibition of female infanticide and recognizing women's full personhood.”
Fifteenth-century Persian miniature depicting the Battle of the Camel, where the fourth caliph 'Alī, defeated Muḥammad's wife, Āʿisha who subsequently withdrew from politics. Traditionalist Islamists use this art work to assert women shouldn’t play active roles in government and politics, while others regard Āʿisha's legacy as a flag for gender equity in Islam. (Public Domain)
Muscovite Russia was another patriarchal society in which women were subordinate to men and a decree of 1722 AD gave men the ability to end their marriages by forcing their wives into nunneries. And while an adulterous wife could be sentenced to forced labor, if a man murdered one of his wives the maximum penalty was a mere flogging.
Ancient Laws and Women’s Rights in Europe And Scandinavia (Not Good, but Relatively Okay)
Throughout Europe, women's legal rights generally revolved around their marital status. By 1500 AD ‘customary laws’ favoring men were practiced in northern France, England, and Scandinavia; while written ‘Roman law’ was adhered to in southern France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal, which was a much better system for women. For example, in customary law, men held power over their wives’ lives, property, and bodies, whereas in areas governed by Roman-based written laws women were protected under male guardianship, in which fathers oversaw daughters, husbands oversaw wives, and uncles oversaw widows.
In the northern parts of Europe, the Icelandic Grágás and the Norwegian Frostatinglaws and Gulating laws tell historians that during the Viking Age in the Nordic countries of Sweden, Denmark and Norway, before Christianity arrived circa 800 AD, women had relatively free lives. Eve Borgström’s 2002 book Marvelous women: gender benders in myth and reality explains that “widows enjoyed the same independent status as unmarried women and held religious authority as priestesses ( gydja) and oracles ( sejdkvinna) and they were active within art as poets, rune masters and as merchants and medicine women.”
Hervör was a brave shieldmaiden featured in the story of the magic sword Tyrfing, presented in̪ the Hervarar saga in the Poetic Edda. She died a legend after trying to resist the Huns in an inheritance conflict between her brothers (Hlöd and Angantýr). (Public Domain)
The Story for Ancient English, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh Women (Generally Okay, but Not Good by a Long Shot)
In England, about 60 AD, the Celtic Queen Boudicca fought, and lost, against the Romans "seeking to preserve her daughters' rights to inherit.” Records of formal women's rights occurred after the Norman conquest of England in 1066 AD, and it was this country that became the first to grant voting rights to women in the early 20th century.
Engraving by William Sharp published in 1793, based on Boadicea Haranguing the Britons (called Boudicca, or Boadicea) by John Opie (died 1807). (Public Domain)
Ancient Irish patriarchal societies insisted that every woman had to have a male guardian and women were not entitled to own land under the Brehon law (early Irish law). After the introduction of Christianity, in the 8th century, females could be “heiresses” but could not hold political offices. The church preferred marriage between social equals, yet a woman had “half his honor price,” and while sons gained rights under the new Christian laws, daughters continued to have no legal independence, although forced marriages were abolished in the 8th century.
In ancient Wales and Scotland, women were treated pretty fairly, most of the time. However, in the 14th century, Scottish legal text Regiam Majestatem declared “a married woman committing a trespass without her husband's knowledge might be chastised like an under-age child” and “female brewsters making bad ale were to forfeit eightpence and be put on the cucking-stool, and were to set an ale-wand outside their houses under a penalty of fourpence.”
The Plight of Women in Ancient Asia (Brutal)
Throughout ancient China, based on ‘Confucian law’ women were treated as inferior humans with subordinate legal status’; forbidden the inheritances of businesses or any financial wealth. A wife could be ‘thrown out’ if she failed to have a son, committed adultery, stole, was jealous, suffered “from an incurable or loathsome disease or disorder” and even for speaking excessively.
According to author Bonnie Smith “Women's legal status in historical Japan was relatively better, especially compared to China, until the fall of the Kamakura Shuganate in AD 1333” when women lost the right to inherit land, and their legal and customary condition worsened after 1890, as Japan modernized its legal codes aligning with French and German legal systems, and improved slightly after post-war 1947.
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’Dancing’ by Kusakabe Kimbei (1841-1934). (Public Domain)
Hindu religious texts known as dharmasatras included legal codes which were the basis for ancient Indian women’s rights, but it is also insisted that women were “placed under a male guardianship at all times.“ The problem here is, interpretation and judgement of the code was executed by local councils called the panchayats, which were composed of male village elders. The devil is in the details.
Of all the inspirational women in history who fought for women’s rights, Abigail Adams (1744-1818), mother of John Quincy Adams and closest advisor to her husband John Adams. Rightfully, Abigail is considered to have been a Founder of the United States, and her life is one of the most documented of the First Ladies. One thing this sentinel of woman’s rights said will ring forever in the halls of liberation:
“If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
Top Image: Ary Scheffer (French, 1795-1858): ‘The Souliot Women’, 1827, Oil on canvas, Paris, Musée du Louvre. Around the world, ancient laws tended to favor men over women, often with dire consequences. Unfortunately, many would argue the problem still exists. Source: Public Domain
By Ashley Cowie
Borgström, E. (in Swedish) (2002) Makalösa kvinnor: könsöverskridare i myt och verklighet (Marvelous women : gender benders in myth and reality) Alfabeta/Anamma, Stockholm.
Charles-Edwards, T, & Kelly, F., eds. (1983) Bechbretha: an Old Irish law-tract on bee-keeping. Early Irish law. Vol.1. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies
Flood, G. (1996) An Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Kempin, F.G. Jr. (1963) Legal History: Law and Social Change. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall
Klimczak, N. (2016) Feminism and the Battle for Women’s Rights in Ancient Egypt. Available at: https://www.ancient-origins.net/history-famous-people/feminism-and-battle-women-s-rights-ancient-egypt-005895
Schaps, D.M. (1998) What Was Free about a Free Athenian Woman?” Transactions of the American Philological Society, 1974.
Shatzmiller, M. (1994) Labour in the Medieval Islamic World. Brill
Smith, B.G. (2008) The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History: 4 Volume Se. London, UK: Oxford University Press. pp. 422–425