For millennia, female inferiority was presumed, and mandated, in virtually every human culture. Through most of history, the brawn of heavier males gave them dominance, leaving women in lesser status -- often mere possessions of men, confined to the home, rarely educated, with few rights.
Many were forced to wear veils or shrouds when outdoors, and they couldn't go outside without a male relative escort. Fathers kept their daughters restricted, then chose husbands who became their new masters.
Sometimes the husbands also had several other wives. In a few cultures, unwanted baby girls were left on trash dumps to die.
In Ancient Greece, women were kept indoors, rarely seen, while men performed all public functions. Women couldn't attend schools or own property. A wife couldn't attend male social events, even when her husband staged one at home. Aristotle believed in "natural slaves" and wrote that females are lesser creatures who must be cared for, as a farmer tends his livestock.
Up through medieval times, daughters were secondary, and inheritances went to firstborn sons. Male rule prevailed. Anthropologists have searched for exceptions, with little success -- except possibly some Iroquois tribes in Canada, where women reportedly had some rights.
In the 1930s, the famed Margaret Mead thought she found a female-led group in New Guinea, but she later reversed her conclusion and wrote: "All the claims so glibly made about societies ruled by women are nonsense. We have no reason to believe that they ever existed". Men everywhere have been in charge of running the show."
As The Enlightenment blossomed in the 1700s, calls for women's rights emerged. France's Talleyrand wrote that only men required serious education -- "Men are destined to live on the stage of the world" -- and women should learn just to manage "the paternal home." This infuriated England's rebellious Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, contending that females have potential for full public life. (Her daughter married poet Percy Shelley and wrote Frankenstein.)
Reformer John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) wrote The Subjugation of Women in 1869, after his wife Harriet had written The Enfranchisement of Women, calling for a female right to vote. The husband protested: "There remain no legal slaves, save the mistress of every house." As a member of England's Parliament, Mill sought voting by women and became president of the National Society for Women's Suffrage.
"The legal subordination of one sex to another is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement," Mill wrote.
The western world wrestled nearly a century before women finally won the right to vote.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) was the bright daughter of a New York state judge. Few schools admitted girls, so her father arranged for her to attend male-only Johnstown Academy.
The daughter grew outraged by laws forbidding women to own property or control their lives. She married an abolitionist lawyer and accompanied him to London for a world conference against slavery. Women weren't allowed to talk; they sat silent behind a curtain while men spoke.
Back in America, she joined Quakers to organize an 1848 assembly at Seneca Falls, New York, that launched the modern women's equality movement. Frederick Douglass urged delegates to demand female suffrage. Stanton later joined Unitarians Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone and Ralph Waldo Emerson in a lifelong struggle for female rights.
Like many reformers, Stanton saw that Christianity helped subjugate women. She wrote many sneers at religion, including this comment to Free Thought magazine in September 1896:
"The Bible and church have been the greatest stumbling blocks in the way of women's emancipation". The whole tone of church teaching in regard to women is, to the last degree, contemptuous and degrading."