European Women - History of Women
Welcome to Study Guides!

European Women

Queen Elizabeth
Queen Elizabeth

April 2017 - 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 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.

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 Anne of Austria
More about Mary Astell
More about Mary Wollstonecraft

Bibliography and further reading about European women:

Ancient Greek Women
Ancient Roman Women
Ancient Chinese Women
Modern Europe home

LIMITED TIME OFFER FOR TEACHERS: Using this article with your class? Show us your class page where you're using this article, and we'll send you a free subscription so all your students can use Study Guides with no distractions! (Not a teacher? Paid subscriptions are also available for just $16/year!)
Please help other teachers and students find us: link to this page from your class page.
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.
Cite this page
  • Author: K.E. Carr
  • Title:
  • Site Name: Study Guides
  • Publisher:
  • Date Published:
Did you find what you needed? Ask your teacher to link to this page so other people can use it too! Send it in and win a "Great Page!" award!
Sign up for more free articles and special offers in' weekly newsletter:
We will never share your e-mail address unless you allow us to do so. View our privacy policy. Easy unsubscribe links are provided in every email.
Comment on This Article

Does your class page honor diversity, celebrate feminism, and support people of color, LBGTQ people, and people with disabilities? Let us know, and we'll send you a Diversity Banner you can proudly display!
Looking for more? is loading comments...
(Comments will appear after moderation, if they are kind and helpful. Feel free to ask questions, and we'll try to answer them.)
Cite this page
  • Carr, K.E. . Study Guides, . Web. 23 April, 2017