European Women - History of Women
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European Women

Queen Elizabeth
Queen Elizabeth

As in the Middle Ages, European women held a lot of political power in the 1500s and 1600s AD. In France, first Catherine de' Medici, then Marie de' Medici, then Anne of Austria held power. In England, it was Queen Mary, then Queen Elizabeth. In Spain, Mariana of Austria. But ordinary women weren't doing so well: their fathers, brothers, and husbands often hit them. Women couldn't go to college. They didn't inherit as much from their parents as their brothers did. And the government often made laws to stop women from running their own businesses.

Mary Astell
Mary Astell

Some women tried to change these laws. In the late 1600s, the English philosophers Damaris Masham and Mary Astell both published books arguing that women should get better educations, and be able to work in science and in other careers.

In the 1700s and 1800s AD, the power of kings and queens slowly gave way to democratic governments in Europe. Slowly men got the vote - first richer men, then poorer ones, then all men. These democracies of men didn't elect women to power, so there were not as many women in power in Europe anymore.

Husband beats a woman
A man beating his wife (1840)

Women ruled only in places democracy had not yet reached: in Spain, Elizabeth Farnese, Barbara of Portugal, Maria Luisa, Maria Christina, and Isabella II, and another Maria Christina. In Austria, Maria Theresa and Sophie held power. But starting with the French Revolution, women began to demand the vote too.

Pankhurst
Pankhurst arrested while protesting for the right to vote (about 1908)

It took a long time, but after the end of World War II, in 1944, women could vote everywhere in Europe (except Switzerland, which waited until 1971). In the course of the 1900s AD, women used their votes to end laws that gave their inheritance to their brothers, laws that prevented women from starting businesses and borrowing money and signing contracts and testifying in court. Slowly women convinced lawmakers that hitting your wife or daughter should be just as illegal as hitting another man.

Merkel
Angela Merkel

Slowly women also began to be elected to power again, though still not as many as before democracy. In the 1970s, Margaret Thatcher was the first woman elected Prime Minister of England. In 2005, Angela Merkel was the first woman elected Chancellor of Germany. But even with legal equality and the same education as men, women are still poorer than men, all over Europe.

More about Mary Astell

Modern Europe
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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