Since the early days of the Industrial Revolution, women in Europe and North America have made considerable progress towards equality with men, although much remains still to be done. Of course, the industrialization of Western countries at first had not improved the status of women, but had degraded them even further by exploiting them and their children in factories as cheap labor.
In the preceding relatively prosperous agrarian culture women had worked on an almost equal footing with men and had been skilled in many occupations. Families were still “producing units“, and women received recognition for contributing their substantial share. The factory system changed all that by breaking up the traditional extended family with its large household and by giving people specialized monotonous tasks behind perpetually moving machines.
Women and children were, however, paid much less for such work than men, and thus their economic “value” declined. It took many decades of struggle before unionization and legal reform ended the crassest form of this discrimination.
At the same time, middle and upper class women were increasingly confined to the home with little to do except to take care of their children.
Their husbands no longer worked inside the house, but were absent during most of the day. These idle women often played the role of frail, sensitive creatures who had “the vapors” and fainted in any “indelicate” situation.
On the other hand, many of them also became critical of their position in society. They found time to devote themselves to various religious and moral causes and even to become interested in abolition and the women’s rights movement.
Eventually, both working-class and bourgeois women insisted on change and contributed to the success of feminism.
This success still is not total, and, as we all know, even in the industrialized countries women continue to fight for equal rights.
Today, however, in addition to economic issues, problems of sexual self-determination have come to the foreground. It must be remembered, of course, that the relatively ‘liberated and affluent women of Europe and North America‘ are only a small minority of women in the world today.
Women in many non-Western countries, and especially in the so-called Third World generally live in a state of subjection and misery. Most of their energy is consumed by a hard and unrelenting struggle for sheer survival.
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