European Women - History of Women answers questions

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 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 Mary Astell

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Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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With the Presidential inauguration this weekend, it's a good time to review the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and all the Constitutional amendments since the Bill of Rights. Also check out our articles on people who have been excluded from power in the United States - Native Americans, people of color, Mormons, Quakers, women...