Cartoon from 1915 about a female surgeon/suffragette and a male patient who was a police constable

Women’s rights

A historical look at sexual equality

Sexual equality is enshrined in UK law, but it took hundreds of years of struggle for women to achieve equal status.

The emergence of women’s rights was one strand of the Enlightenment, a period in history when reason and rational explanation began to take precedence over superstition and unquestioning acceptance of authority figures.

With a renewed emphasis on learning and knowledge, influential thinkers such as Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689–1762) in England and the Marquis de Condorcet (1743–1794) in France championed women’s education.

One of the first to argue for women’s rights was Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797), best known for her work ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’. Despite her early death shortly after giving birth, she had a big influence on the struggle for women’s rights. Her second daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley, was Percy Bysshe Shelley’s second wife and the author of ‘Frankenstein’.

Through the 19th century various pioneering women struggled to gain entrance to fields traditionally the reserve of men, such as medicine. For example, Elizabeth Blackwell (1821–1930) in the USA and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836–1917) in the UK had to fight hard to be allowed to take medical courses and to train and practise as doctors.

In 1863 male doctors at Middlesex Hospital issued a statement on the subject of women doctors: “The presence of a young female in the operating theatre is an outrage to our natural instincts and is calculated to destroy the respect and admiration with which the opposite sex is regarded.”

The vote

Meanwhile, supporters of women’s suffrage (the right to vote) organised themselves and campaigned tirelessly for equal voting rights. A minority resorted to extreme measures – most famously Emily Davison, who died after diving under the hooves of King George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby of 1913. A much larger number of women pressed for change in more conventional ways and, although not so well-remembered, may actually have been more effective.

New Zealand was the first country to allow women to vote, in 1893. British women got the vote in 1918 – but only those over 30 (men could vote at 21). Equal voting rights in the UK were only achieved in 1928. Swiss women had to wait until 1971.

Women and the law

In the home women were also disadvantaged. Upon marriage they effectively became ‘owned’ by their husbands. Until the 1882 Married Property Act, a woman’s wealth automatically passed to her husband upon marriage, and if she earned money from a job, that too became her husband’s.

The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 gave men the right to divorce their wives on the grounds of adultery – but women had no such right. After a divorce any children became the man’s property and the mother could be prevented from seeing them.

Even in 1910 there were still some remarkable inequalities in the law. For example, if someone died without making a will, a female heir would not inherit anything unless there were no male heirs. And a husband could continue to obtain a divorce on the grounds of his wife’s adultery, but for a wife adultery was still not sufficient: she also had to provide further evidence, such as cruelty or desertion.

Things gradually changed. In particular, women’s active participation in many areas of public life during World War I did much to demonstrate their capabilities. In 1919 Parliament passed the Sex Disqualification Removal Act, which made it illegal to exclude women from jobs because of their sex. Women could now become solicitors, barristers and magistrates.

A second surge of activism in the late 1960s and 1970s saw the birth of the ‘women’s lib’ movement and further campaigning for full equality. Barbara Castle, then Secretary of State for Employment, introduced the Equal Pay Bill, which became law with the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975.

Women may now have equal legal rights to men, but in reality inequalities still exist. The continued battle for women’s rights has today become a complex ideological battleground. No one speaks of ‘women’s lib’ any more, and its successor, feminism, has become a political minefield, with many different subcategories.

Some argue that the battle has been essentially won, or that we have moved beyond a need for exclusively women-focused activism. Others group the campaign for women’s equality with the promotion of other neglected interests, for example those of ethnic minorities or other disadvantaged groups.

In addition, a much greater focus is now on the rights of women in non-Western countries, many of which are more strongly patriarchal than is now the norm in Europe or North America. Greater empowerment of women is seen not just as being important in terms of natural justice, but also as being crucial to women’s health – good examples being providing greater control of fertility and helping to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections such as HIV/AIDS.

Lead image:

A cartoon from 1915 about a female surgeon/suffragette and a male patient who was a police constable.

Wellcome Library, London CC BY

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Sex and Gender’ in October 2014 and reviewed and updated in October 2014.

Genetics and genomics, History
Sex and Gender
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development