Legal rights of women in history

This illustration, from a medieval translation (c. 1310) of Euclid's Elements, is noteworthy in showing a woman teaching geometry to male students.

The legal rights of women refers to the social and human rights of women. One of the first women's rights declarations was the Declaration of Sentiments.[1] The dependent position of women in early law is proved by the evidence of most ancient systems.

Mosaic law

In the Mosaic law, for monetary matters, women's and men's rights were almost exactly equal. A woman was entitled to her own private property, including land, livestock, slaves, and servants. A woman had the right to inherit whatever anyone bequeathed to her as a death gift, and in the absence of sons would inherit everything. A woman could likewise bequeath her belongings to others as a death gift. Upon dying intestate, a woman's property would be inherited by her children if she had them, her husband if she was married, or her father if she were single. A woman could sue in court and did not need a male to represent her.

In some situations, women actually had more rights than men. For example, captive women had to be ransomed prior to any male captives. Even though sons inherited property, they had a responsibility to support their mother and sisters from the estate, and had to ensure that both mother and sisters were taken care of prior to their being able to benefit from the inheritance, and if that wiped out the estate, the boys had to supplement their income from elsewhere.

When it came to specific religious or sacramental activities, women had fewer opportunities or privileges than men. For example, in monetary or capital cases women could not serve as witnesses. A woman could not serve as a kohen in the Temple. A woman could not serve as queen, the monarch had to be male. A divorce could only be granted by the husband, upon which time she would receive the Ketubah and the return of significant portions of her dowry. The vow of an unmarried girl between the ages of 12 years and 12 years and six months might be nullified by her father and the vow of a wife that affected marital obligations may be annulled by her husband; the guilt or innocence of a wife accused of adultery might tested through the Sotah process, although this only was successful if the husband was innocent of adultery, and daughters could inherit only in the absence of sons.

Egyptian law

In Ancient Egypt, legally, a woman shared the same rights and status as a man – at least, theoretically. An Egyptian woman was entitled to her own private property, which could include land, livestock, slaves and servants, etc.[2] She had the right to inherit whatever anyone bequeathed to her, as well as bequeathing her belongings to others. She could divorce her husband (upon which all possessions belonging to her – including the dowry – were reverted to her sole ownership), and sue in court. Most notably, a woman could do these legal matters without a male to represent her. However, on the whole, men vastly outnumbered women in most trades, including government administrators; the average woman still centered her time around the home and family. A few women became pharaohs, and women held important positions in government and trade.

Athenian law

For more details on this topic, see Women in Classical Athens.

In ancient Athenian law, women lacked many of the legal rights given to their male counterparts. They were excluded from appearing in law courts or participating in the assembly.[3] They were also legally prohibited from engaging in contracts worth any significant amount of money,[4][5]

There was an expectation that respectable women should not appear or even be talked about in public.[6][7] Historians doubt that this ideal could have been attained except by the richest women, however.[8]

Women in Classical Athens did have the right to divorce, though they lost all rights to any children they had by their husband upon divorce.[9]

Roman law

For more details on this topic, see Women in ancient Rome.
Bronze statuette of a young woman reading (latter 1st century)

Roman law similar to Athenian law, was created by men in favor of men.[10] Women had no public voice, and no public role which only improved after the 1st century to the 6th century BCE.[11] Freeborn women of ancient Rome were citizens had legal privileges and protections that did not extend to non-citizens or slaves. Roman society, however, was patriarchal, and women could not vote, hold public office, or serve in the military.[11]

The central core of the Roman society was the pater familias or the male head of the household who exercised his authority over all his children, servants,and wife.[10] Similar to Athenian women, Roman women had a guardian or as it was called "tutor" who managed and oversaw all her activity.[10] This tutelage had limited female activity but by first century to sixth century BCE, tutelage became very relaxed and women were accepted to participate in more public roles such as owning or managing property and or acting as municipal patrons for gladiator games and other entertainment activities[10]

By 27-14 BCE, new Julian law permitted women to be free from tutelage if she gave birth to 3 or more children.[10] But in other aspects of law, women were still disadvantaged like for instance not being able to make wills in inheritance without their tutor or poor justice for rape crimes.[10] Rape against women were considered an attack on her family and father's honour in which was later used as a mean to force the daughter to marry her rapist. Rape victims were also shamed for allowing the bad name in her father's honour.[10]

A child's citizen status was determined by that of its mother. Both daughters and sons were subject to patria potestas, the power wielded by their father as head of household (paterfamilias). At the height of the Roman Empire (1st–2nd centuries), the legal standing of daughters differs little if at all from that of sons.[12] Girls had equal inheritance rights with boys if their father died without leaving a will.[13]

In the earliest period of the Roman Republic, a bride passed from her father's control into the "hand" (manus) of her husband. She then became subject to her husband's potestas, though to a lesser degree than their children.[14] Thearc[10] haic form of manus marriage was largely abandoned by the time of Julius Caesar, when a woman remained under her father's authority by law even when she moved into her husband's home. Her husband had no legal power over her, and when her father died, she became legally emancipated (sui iuris).[15] A married woman retained ownership of any property she brought into the marriage.[12] There was little stigma attached to divorce, though it was a point of pride to have been married only once.[16]

A Roman mother's right to own property and to dispose of it as she saw fit, including setting the terms of her own will, enhanced her influence over her sons even when they were adults.[17] Because of their legal status as citizens and the degree to which they could become emancipated, women could own property, enter contracts, and engage in business.[18]

Roman women could appear in court and argue cases, though it was customary for them to be represented by a man.[19] An edict limited women to conducting cases on their own behalf instead of others',[20] but even after it went into effect, there are numerous examples of women taking informed actions in legal matters, including dictating legal strategy to their male advocates.[21]

As in the case of minors, an emancipated woman had a male guardian (tutor) appointed to her. She retained her powers of administration, however, and the guardian's main if not sole purpose was to give formal consent to actions.[22] The guardian had no say in her private life, and a woman sui iuris could marry as she pleased.[23] A woman also had certain avenues of recourse if she wished to replace an obstructive tutor.[24] The practice of guardianship gradually faded, and by the 2nd century the jurist Gaius said he saw no reason for it.[25]

The first Roman emperor, Augustus, attempted to regulate the conduct of women through moral legislation. Adultery, which had been a private family matter under the Republic, was criminalized,[26] and defined broadly as an illicit sex act (stuprum) that occurred between a male citizen and a married woman, or between a married woman and any man other than her husband. That is, a double standard was in place: a married woman could have sex only with her husband, but a married man did not commit adultery when he had sex with a prostitute, slave, or person of marginalized status (infamis).[27] Childbearing was encouraged by the state: the ius trium liberorum ("legal right of three children") granted symbolic honors and legal privileges to a woman who had given birth to three children, and freed her from any male guardianship.[28]

Roman law recognized rape as a crime in which the victim bore no guilt.[29] Rape was a capital crime.[30] As a matter of law, however, rape could be committed only against a citizen in good standing. The rape of a slave could be prosecuted only as damage to her owner's property.[31] Most prostitutes in ancient Rome were slaves, though some slaves were protected from forced prostitution by a clause in their sales contract.[32] A free woman who worked as a prostitute or entertainer lost her social standing and became infamis, "disreputable"; by making her body publicly available, she had in effect surrendered her right to be protected from sexual abuse or physical violence.[33]

Byzantine law

Since Byzantine law was essentially based on Roman law, the legal status of women did not change significantly from the practices of the 6th century. But the traditional restriction of women in the public life as well as the hostility against independent women still continued.[34] Greater influence of Greek culture contributed to strict attitudes about women'roles being domestic instead of being public.[34] There was also a growing tend of women who were not prostitutes, slaves or entertainers to be entirely veiled.[34] Like previous Roman law, women could not be legal witnesses, hold administrations or run banking but they could still inherit properties and own land.[34]

As a rule the influence of the church was exercised in favor of the abolition of the disabilities imposed by the older law upon celibacy and childlessness, of increased facilities for entering a professed religious life, and of due provision for the wife. The church also supported the political power of those who were friendly toward the clergy. The appointment of mothers and grandmothers as tutors was sanctioned by Justinian.

The restrictions on the marriage of senators and other men of high rank with women of low rank were extended by Constantine, but it was almost entirely removed by Justinian. Second marriages were discouraged, especially by making it legal to impose a condition that a widow's right to property should cease on remarriage, and the Leonine Constitutions at the end of the 9th century made third marriages punishable. The same constitutions made the benediction of a priest a necessary part of the ceremony of marriage.

The criminal law also changed its perspectives on women. Adultery was punished with death by Constantine, but the penalty was reduced by Justinian to banishment to a convent. A woman condemned for adultery could not remarry. A marriage between a Christian and a Jew rendered the parties guilty of adultery.

Severe laws were enacted against offences of unchastity, especially procurement and incest. It was a capital crime to carry off or offer violence to a nun. Women were subject to penalties for wearing dress or ornaments (except rings) imitating those reserved for the emperor and his family. Actresses and women of bad fame were not to wear the dress of virgins dedicated to Heaven. If a consul had a wife or mother living with him, he was allowed to incur greater expense than if he lived alone. The interests of working women were protected by enactments for the regulation of the gynoecia, or workshops for spinning, dyeing, etc.

The canon law, looking with disfavour on the female independence prevailing in the later Roman law, tended rather in the opposite direction. The Decretum Gratiani specially inculcated subjection of the wife to the husband, and obedience to his will in all things. The chief differences between canon and Roman law were in the law of marriage, especially in the introduction of publicity and of the formalities of the ring. The benediction of a priest was made a necessary part of the ceremony, as indeed it had been made by the civil power, as has been already stated, in the post-Justinian period of Roman law.

Islamic law

See also: Islamic feminism and Sharia

In the early Middle Ages, an early effort to improve the status of women occurred during the early reforms under Islam, when women were given greater rights in marriage, divorce and inheritance.[35] Women were not accorded with such legal status in other cultures, including the West, until centuries later.[36] The Oxford Dictionary of Islam states that the general improvement of the status of Arab women included prohibition of female infanticide and recognizing women's full personhood.[37] "The dowry, previously regarded as a bride-price paid to the father, became a nuptial gift retained by the wife as part of her personal property."[35][38] Under Islamic law, marriage was no longer viewed as a "status" but rather as a "contract", in which the woman's consent was imperative.[35][37][38] "Women were given inheritance rights in a patriarchal society that had previously restricted inheritance to male relatives."[35] Annemarie Schimmel states that "compared to the pre-Islamic position of women, Islamic legislation meant an enormous progress; the woman has the right, at least according to the letter of the law, to administer the wealth she has brought into the family or has earned by her own work."[39] English Common Law transferred property held by a wife at the time of a marriage to her husband, which contrasted with the Sura: "Unto men (of the family) belongs a share of that which Parents and near kindred leave, and unto women a share of that which parents and near kindred leave, whether it be a little or much – a determinate share" (Qur'an 4:7), albeit maintaining that husbands were solely responsible for the maintenance and leadership of his wife and family.[40]


See also: Madrasah

Women in Islam played an important role in the foundations of many Islamic educational institutions, such as Fatima al-Fihri's founding of the University of Al Karaouine in 859. This continued through to the Ayyubid dynasty in the 12th and 13th centuries, when 160 mosques and madrasahs were established in Damascus, 26 of which were funded by women through the Waqf (charitable trust or trust law) system. Half of all the royal patrons for these institutions were also women.[41] According to the Sunni scholar Ibn Asakir in the 12th century, there were opportunities for female education in the medieval Islamic world, writing that women could study, earn ijazahs (academic degrees), and qualify as scholars and teachers. This was especially the case for learned and scholarly families, who wanted to ensure the highest possible education for both their sons and daughters.[42] Ibn Asakir had himself studied under 80 different female teachers in his time. Female education in the Islamic world was inspired by Muhammad's wives: Khadijah, a successful businesswoman, and Aisha, a renowned hadith scholar and military leader. According to a hadith attributed to Muhammad, he praised the women of Medina because of their desire for religious knowledge:[43]

"How splendid were the women of the ansar; shame did not prevent them from becoming learned in the faith."

While it was not common for women to enroll as students in formal classes, it was common for women to attend informal lectures and study sessions at mosques, madrasahs and other public places. While there were no legal restrictions on female education, some men did not approve of this practice, such as Muhammad ibn al-Hajj (d. 1336) who was appalled at the behaviour of some women who informally audited lectures in his time:[44]

"[Consider] what some women do when people gather with a shaykh to hear [the recitation of] books. At that point women come, too, to hear the readings; the men sit in one place, the women facing them. It even happens at such times that some of the women are carried away by the situation; one will stand up, and sit down, and shout in a loud voice. [Moreover,] her 'awra will appear; in her house, their exposure would be forbidden – how can it be allowed in a mosque, in the presence of men?"


The labor force in the Caliphate were employed from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds, while both men and women were involved in diverse occupations and economic activities.[45] Women were employed in a wide range of commercial activities and diverse occupations[46] in the primary sector (as farmers for example), secondary sector (as construction workers, dyers, spinners, etc.) and tertiary sector (as investors, doctors, nurses, presidents of guilds, brokers, peddlers, lenders, scholars, etc.).[47] Muslim women also held a monopoly over certain branches of the textile industry,[46] the largest and most specialized and market-oriented industry at the time, in occupations such as spinning, dyeing, and embroidery. In comparison, female property rights and wage labour were relatively uncommon in Europe until the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries.[48]

Criminal Law

Female and male transgressors were treated mostly the same except some instance for example, diya or financial compensation for a crime against a female victim is half that of a male victim.[10] All sexual crimes include rape required four eyewitnesses which made it difficult to prosecute, women also could not serve as a witness in court while (according to the Maliki school) a free woman who was found to have sex with a free man outside marriage was punished while a free man having sex with a free woman was not.[10]

Divorce Law

In Islamic law, men only have to utter a religious word called "Talaq" three times in the presence of his wife to officially initiate divorce. However women did not have the same privilege and had to go to court through a judicial process based on legitimate grounds for separation.

Russian law

By law and custom, Muscovite Russia was a patriarchal society in which women were subordinate to men and youth to their elders. Peter the Great relaxed the custom of youth subordination, but not that of women.[49] A decree of 1722 explicitly forbade any forced marriages by requiring both bride and groom to consent while retaining the requirement of parental permission. Only men, however, had the ability to end a marriage, by forcing their wives into nunneries.[49]

Legally, there were double standards for women. An adulterous wife could be sentenced to force labour while men who murdered their wives were merely flogged.[49] After the death of Peter the Great, laws and customs pertaining to men’s marital authority over their wives increased.[49] In 1782, civil law reinforced women’s responsibility to obey her husband.[49] By 1832, the Digest of laws changed this obligation into “unlimited obedience”.[49]

During the eighteenth century, the Russian Orthodox Church obtained greater authority over marriage and banned priests from giving divorce, even for severely abused wives.[49] By 1818, the Russian Senate had also forbade separation of married couples.[49]

Russian women suffered restrictions upon their owning property until 1753, when there was a decree, which ensured that noble families could secure a daughter's inheritance by making it a part of her dowry. This decree also ensured that women had a separate economy from their husbands, although it should be noted that they could not inherit their property until they married. Women’s rights had improved after the rise of the Soviet Union under the Bolsheviks.[49]


By 1500, Europe was divided into two types of secular law.[50] One was customary law which was predominant in northern France, England and Scandinavia, and the other was Roman based written laws which was predominant in southern France, Italy,Spain and Portugal.[50]

Customary laws favoured men more than women.[50] For example, inheritance among the elites in Italy, England, Scandinavia and France was passed on to the eldest male heir. In all of the regions, the laws also gave men substantial powers over lives, property and bodies of their wives.[50] However, there were some improvements for women vis-à-vis ancient custom for example they could inherit in the absence of their brothers, do certain trades without their husbands and widows to receive dower.[50]

In areas governed by Roman-based written laws women were under male guardianship in matters involving property and law, fathers overseeing daughters, husbands overseeing wives and uncles or male relatives overseeing widows.[50]

Throughout Europe, women’s legal status centred around her marital status while marriage itself was the biggest factor in restricting women’s autonomy.[50] Custom, statue and practice not only reduced women’s rights and freedoms but prevented single or widowed women from holding public office on the justification that they might one day marry.[50]

Northern and Western European laws


The early law of the northern parts of Europe is interesting from the different ways in which it treated women. The position of women varied greatly. In Pagan Scandinavia prior to the introduction of Christianity, women in Scandinavia had a relatively free and independent position.[51] Christianity arrived with the first missionaries in circa 800 AC, but was not victorious until circa 1000, and did not affect women's position much until circa 1200.

During the Viking Age, women had a relatively free status in the Nordic countries of Sweden, Denmark and Norway, illustrated in the Icelandic Grágás and the Norwegian Frostating laws and Gulating laws.[52] The paternal aunt, paternal niece and paternal granddaughter, referred to as odalkvinna, all had the right to inherit property from a deceased man.[52] In the absence of male relatives, an unmarried woman with no son could, further more, inherit not only property, but also the position as head of the family from a deceased father or brother: a woman with such status was referred to as ringkvinna, and she exercised all the rights afforded to the head of a family clan, such as for example the right to demand and receive fines for the slaughter of a family member, unless she married, by which her rights were transferred to her husband.[52] After the age of 20, an unmarried woman, referred to as maer and mey, reached legal majority and had the right to decide of her place of residence and was regarded as her own person before the law.[52] An exception to her independence was the right to choose a marriage partner, as marriages was normally arranged by the clan.[53] Widows enjoyed the same independent status as unmarried women. Women had religious authority and were active as priestesses (gydja) and oracles (sejdkvinna);[54] they were active within art as poets (skalder)[54] and rune masters, and as merchants and medicine women.[54] A married woman could divorce her husband and remarry.[55] It was also socially acceptable for a free woman to cohabit with a man and have children with him without marrying him, even if that man was married: a woman in such a position was called frilla.[55] There was no distinction made between children born inside or outside of marriage: both had the right to inherit property after their parents, and there was no "legitimate" or "illegitimate" children.[55] These liberties gradually disappeared after the introductions of Christianity, and from the late 13th-century, they are no longer mentioned.[51] During the Christian Middle Ages, the Medieval Scandinavian law applied different laws depending of the local county law, signifying that the status of women could vary depending of which county she was living in.

Sweden was given its first attempt of a national code by the Magnus Erikssons landslag in 1350. In medieval Christian Sweden, properties owned by the wife was merged into her husband's household and transferred under his care. This was similar to other countries within Europe where property was female property forfeited to the male during their marriage.[56] So all the properties of the wife was managed by the husband and could be freely alienated unless it was her kinsman's inheritance which was an exception.[56] By law, both sons and daughters could inherit properties but the sons would get double the amount that of the daughter.[56] The Swedish law protected women from the authority of their husbands by transferring the authority to their male relatives. A wife's property and land also could not be taken by the husband without her family's consent but neither could the wife. This mean a woman could not transfer her property to her husband without her family or kinsman's consent either.[56]

Under the Civil Code of Christian V from 1683, the law of Denmark-Norway defined and unmarried female under the guardianship of her closest male relative regardless of her age, while a married woman was under the couverture of her husband. The same law terms was applied in Sweden-Finland in accordance with the Civil Code of 1734.[55] Both the Civil Code of 1683 in the case of Denmark-Norway, and the Civil Code of 1734 in the case of Sweden-Finland, remained in place more or less unaltered until the mid 19th-century.


Ancient Irish laws generally portray a patriarchal and patrilineal society in which the rules of inheritance were based on agnatic descent. The Brehon law excepted women from the ordinary course of the law. They could distrain or contract only in certain named cases, and distress upon their property was regulated by special rules. In general, every woman had to have a male guardian. Women seem not to have been entitled to the slightest possession of land under the Brehon law, but rather had assigned to them a certain number of their father's cattle as their marriage-portion.[57][58]

However, their legal status was not as low as in some other cultures; and it seems that the status of Irish women improved somewhat with time, especially after the introduction of Christianity. For instance, beginning in the eighth century, female heirs inherited real estate if they had no brothers. These women became known as "heiresses" and, while only a small minority of women living at this time, they could exercise a considerable amount of political and legal influence. If an heiress married a landless husband, she was seen as his legal guardian, leading to a very unusual case of complete gender role reversal. However, most women did not own land and remained more or less dependent on their husbands; under the ancient Brehon laws one could not be counted as a free citizen unless one owned land independently. The holding of political offices, similarly, seems to have been only suitable for men; nowhere in Irish historical tracts is any female High Queen or chieftain mentioned, and warfare and political affairs were generally all-male.

Even with these legal restrictions placed upon women, they retained some legal capacity. The arrival of St. Patrick and the introduction of Christian Roman law affected the medieval Irish view of marriage. By the eighth century, the preferred form of marriage was one between social equals, under which a woman was technically legally dependent on her husband and had half his honor price, but could exercise considerable authority in regard to the transfer of property. Such women were called "women of joint dominion". Adult sons appear to have gained rights under the new Christian laws as well, as surviving texts seem to indicate that sons could impugn bad contracts that would harm his inheritance. Daughters, however, continued to have little or no legal independence, although after the eighth century they could no longer be forced into marriage by their parents.


England has a complex history of legal rights for women. Significant documentations of women's rights occurred after the Norman conquest of England. These documentations reversed some laws the Conquest imposed in 1066, and caused divergence with Continental, Irish and other Holy Roman Empire laws. This divergence, where England gave more rights to women, became a factor in conflict with the French and other Holy Roman Empire monarchies for centuries, including the Hundred Years' War, the attempted invasion by the Spanish Armada and the War of Austrian succession.

These documentations included Magna Carta in 1215 and the 1689 Bill of Rights, which both gave rights to women that were prohibited in the Holy Roman Empire systems. Also, the reign of Elizabeth I from 1558-1603 was significant in its visible and successful assertion of rights of single women to inherit property, to earn money, to exercise agency, and otherwise function as legal actors equivalent to single or married men; these rights contrasted with Holy Roman Empire legal constraints on women and were a significant factor in The English Reformation and English Midlands Enlightenment. These rights continued to be suspended for many married women, however, who in many regions of England remained under legal disability during marriage under common laws of Coverture that traced from the Norman Conquest.

England was one of the first places in the world to grant voting rights to women citizens universally and regardless of marital status, which it did by passage of law in 1918 that went into effect in 1928. Several centuries earlier, some of its colonies in North America, including New Jersey Colony by its constitution, had granted voting rights to women who could meet the same property requirements men had to meet; common laws of Coverture requiring a married woman's property to be held by her husband meant married women typically could not qualify.

Prior to the Norman Conquest in 1066, the laws varied by the separate regions in England.

In about 60 AD, Boudica, a Celtic queen in East Anglia, led a nearly successful battle against the Roman Empire, seeking to preserve her daughters' rights to inherit, a right they held under pre-Roman systems, but which the Romans prohibited.

The laws of Athelstan contained a peculiarly brutal provision for the punishment of a female slave convicted of theft: She was to be burned alive by eighty other female slaves.[Is this different than the treatment a male slave would have received?] >Other laws were directed against the practice of witchcraft by women. Burning was the punishment specially appropriated to women convicted of treason or witchcraft. A case of sentence to execution by burning for treason occurred as late as 1789.[59] [Again, is this treatment different for women than for men convicted of treason?]

Monogamy was enforced both by the civil and ecclesiastical law [for women? for men? in what time period and region?]. Second and third marriages involved penance. A glimpse of cruelty in the household is afforded by the provision, occurring no less than three times in the ecclesiastical legislation, that if a woman scourged her female slave to death, she must do penance.

Traces of wife-purchase were still seen in the law of Æthelberht of Kent, which stated that if a man carried off a freeman's wife, he must, at his own expense, procure another wife for the husband. (See also bride kidnapping.) The codes contain few provisions as to the property of married women, but those few appear to prove that they were in a better position than at later dates.

The development of the bride price no doubt was in the same direction. It was the sum paid by the husband to the wife's family for the purchase of part of the family property, while the morning-gift was paid to the bride herself. In its English form, morning-gift occurs in the laws of Canute; in its Latinized form of morgangiva, it occurs in the Leges Henrici Primi.

The old common and statute law of England placed women in a special position. A woman was exempt from legal duties more particularly attaching to men and not performable by a deputy. She could not hold a proper feud, i.e., one of which the tenure was by military service. The same principle appears in the rule that she could not be endowed of a castle maintained for the defense of the realm and not for the private use of the owner. She could receive homage, but not render it in the form used by men.

She could be the constable, either of a castle or a vill, but not the sheriff, except in the one case of Westmorland, where an hereditary office was exercised in the 17th century by Anne, countess of Dorset, Pembroke and Montgomery.

In certain cases a woman could transmit rights that she could not enjoy. Edward III's claim to the crown of France rested on such a power of transmission. However, the claim was a breach of the French constitutional law, which rejected the claim of a woman.

By Magna Carta, widow's rights to property were protected, in sharp contrast to the Salic law, but a woman could not accuse a man of murder except of that of her husband. This disability no doubt arose from the fact that in trial by battle she naturally did not appear in person but through a champion.

In some old statutes, very curious sumptuary regulations as to women's dress occur. By the sumptuary laws of Edward III in 1363 (37 Edw. III, cc. 8–14), women were, in general, to be dressed according to the position of their fathers or husbands. At the times of passing these sumptuary laws, the trade interests of women were protected by the legislature.

In some cases, the wives and daughters of tradesmen were allowed to assist in the trades of their husbands and fathers. Some trading corporations, such as the East India Company, recognized no distinction of sex in their members.

At common law a woman could own both real and personal property.[60] However, in the case of a married woman the husband had a life interest in any real property: this continued even after the wife's death, and was known as tenancy "by the curtesy". Personal property passed into the ownership of the husband absolutely, with the exception of certain items of adornment or household use known as paraphernalia. Upon marriage, all of the wife's property becomes under the hands of her husband even if it was her family inheritance. Any money the wife earned through labour or trade also ended up in the hands of her husband whom she wad expected to obey in the custom of marriage at the time.[10]

Domestic violence was also tolerated in historical England as long as it did not disturb public peace.[10] A husband or master is legally entitled to beat and restrain his wife, child or servant as long as he did not kill them and disturb public peace.[10] Husbands were also entitled to unrestricted access to his wife's body until the late 20th century where the concept of marital rape was recognized and criminalized.[10]


In Scotland, as early as Regiam Majestatem (14th century), women were the object of special legal regulation. In that work, the mercheta mulieris (probably a tax paid to the lord on the marriage of his tenant's daughter) was fixed at a sum differing according to the rank of the woman. Numerous ancient laws dealt with trade and sumptuary matters. It still survives on the island of Ulva. By the Leges Quatuor Burgorum, female brewsters making bad ale were to forfeit eightpence and be put on the cucking-stool, and were to set an ale-wand outside their houses under a penalty of fourpence. The same laws also provided that a married woman committing a trespass without her husband's knowledge might be chastised like an under-age child.


The second part of the Welsh Law Codes begins with "the laws of women", such as the rules governing marriage and the division of property if a married couple should separate. The position of women under Welsh law differed significantly from that of their Norman-English contemporaries. A marriage could be established in two basic ways. The normal way was that the woman would be given to a man by her kindred; the abnormal way was that the woman could elope with a man without the consent of her kindred. In the latter case, her kindred could compel her to return if she was still a virgin, but if she was not, she could not be compelled to return. If the relationship lasted for seven years, she had the same entitlements as if she had been given by her kin.

A number of payments are connected with marriage. Amobr was a fee payable to the woman's lord on the loss of her virginity, whether on marriage or otherwise. Cowyll was a payment due to the woman from her husband on the morning after the marriage, marking her transition from virgin to married woman. Agweddi was the amount of the common pool of property owned by the couple that was due to the woman if the couple separated before the end of seven years. The total of the agweddi depended on the woman's status by birth, regardless of the actual size of the common pool of property. If the marriage broke up after the end of seven years, the woman was entitled to half the common pool.

If a woman found her husband with another woman, she was entitled to a payment of six score pence the first time and a pound the second time; on the third occasion she was entitled to divorce him. If the husband had a concubine, the wife was allowed to strike her without having to pay any compensation, even if it resulted in the concubine's death. A woman could only be beaten by her husband for three things: for giving away something that she was not entitled to give away, for being found with another man, or for wishing a blemish on her husband's beard. If he beat her for any other cause, she was entitled to the payment of sarhad. If the husband found her with another man and beat her, he was not entitled to any further compensation. Women were not allowed to inherit land, except under special circumstances, but the rule for the division of moveable property when one of a married couple died was the same for both sexes. The property was divided into two equal halves, with the surviving partner keeping one half and the dying partner being free to give bequests from the other half.

Edwardian Era laws

In 1911, under English law, the earliest age at which a girl could contract a valid marriage was 12; boys had to be 14. Under the lnfants Settlement Act 1855, a valid settlement could be made by a woman at 17 with the approval of the court, while the age for a man was 20; by the Married Women's Property Act 1907, any settlement by a husband of his wife's property was not valid unless executed by her if she was of full age, or confirmed by her after she attained full age.

An unmarried woman was liable for the support of illegitimate children till they attain the age of 16. She was generally assisted, in the absence of agreement, by an affiliation order granted by magistrates. A married woman having separate property was, under the Married Women's Property Acts 1882 and 1908, liable for the support of her parents, husband, children and grandchildren becoming chargeable to any union or parish.

In common law, the father, rather than the mother, was entitled to the custody of a legitimate child up to the age of 16, and could only forfeit such right by misconduct. But the Court of Chancery, wherever there was trust property and the infant could be made a ward of court, took a less rigid view of the paternal rights and looked more to the interest of the child, and consequently in some cases to the extension of the mother's rights in common law.

Legislation tended in the same direction. By the Custody of Infants Act 1873, the Court of Chancery was empowered to enforce a provision in a separation deed, giving up the custody or control of a child to the mother. The Judicature Act 1873 enacted that, in questions relating to the custody and education of infants, the rules of equity should prevail.

The most remarkable disabilities under which women were still placed in 1910 were the exclusion of female heirs from succession to real estate, except in the absence of a male heir; and the fact that a husband could obtain a divorce for the adultery of his wife, while a wife could obtain it only for her husband's adultery if coupled with some other cause, such as cruelty or desertion.

Almost all existing disabilities were lifted by the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919.

Spain and Aquitania

Until the imposition of the Salic Law in the 1500s, women in Spain and Southern France, those regions part of the Visigothic Kingdom (418–721) and its various successor states (Asturias, León, Castile, Navarra, Aragon, Aquitania (Occitania) and Languedoc) Visigothic Law and Roman Law combined to allow women some rights. Particularly with the Liber Judiciorum as codified 642/643 and expanded on in the Code of Recceswinth in 653, women could inherit land and title and manage it independently from their husbands or male relations, dispose of their property in legal wills if they had no heirs, and women could represent themselves and bear witness in court by age 14 and arrange for their own marriages by age 20.[61] In Spain these laws were further codified between 1252–1284 by Alfonso X of Castile with the Siete Partidas.

These laws would later be reversed by imposition of the Salic Law to prohibit women inheriting property. For example, Isabella I of Castile was the only Queen regnant Spain had as a unified country. The Salic law was imposed to prohibit her daughters from inheriting and Spain has had only Kings regnant since her death in 1504. Today the Spanish throne is inherited by Male-preference cognatic primogeniture.

Argentinian colonial law

Colonial Argentina in the 16th century was mixed with women from Spanish descent, indigenous descent or mixed.[10] As descendants of the colonizers, Spanish women had greater status than that of indigenous women at the time.[10] But women regardless of racial background had restrictions in her autonomy in society for example her main social role was confined to home and family while attending domestic duties such as taking care of children.[10] Colonial Argentina being catholic was heavily influenced by the Roman Catholic Church who promoted a patriarchal family structure.[10] Despite this, women had several positive rights such as equal inheritance as her siblings.[10]

Chinese law

Women throughout historical and ancient China were considered inferior and had subordinate legal status based on the Confucian law.[62] In Imperial China, the “Three Obediences” promoted daughters to obey their fathers, wives to obey their husbands and widows to obey their sons. Women could not inherit businesses or wealth and man had to adopt a son for such financial purposes.[62] Late imperial law also features seven different types of divorces.[62] A wife could be ousted if she failed to birth a son, committed adultery, disobeyed her parent’s in law, spoke excessively, stole, received bouts of jealousy or suffered from an incurable or loathsome disease or disorder.[62] Nevertheless, there were also limits for the husband like for example he could not divorce if she observed her parent‘s in law’s mourning sites, if she had no family to return to or if the husband's family used to be poor and since then have become richer.[62]

Japanese law

Women's legal status in historical Japan was relatively better especially compared to its neighbour China until the fall of the Kamakura Shuganate in 1333.[63] Women lost the right to inherit land, and centuries of violence by government and military class in post 1582, Japan became a normative patriarchy similar to the rest of its neighbouring civilizations.[63] Women's legal and customary condition worsened after 1890 as it modernized its legal codes based on French and German systems, but significantly improved after post-war 1947.[63]

Indian law

For the majority of history, Indians used their Hindu legal code as a basis for their rights and customs. Hindu legal code is based on the religious texts known as the dharmasatras.[64] The most orthodox form of the dharmasatras was the Manu Smriti which was used prevalently during the colonial period.[64] Mabu Smriti protected women's property rights as well as rights to inheritance.But it is also insisted that women is placed under a male guardianship at all times such as father from birth, husband in marriage and sons as a widow.[64] Aside from property rights, Hindu legal code did not grant women too many rights but fortunately interpretation of the code was very fluid depending on the local customs.[64] Judgement and interpretation of the code was executed by local councils called the panchayats which composed of mostly male village elders but women were not always excluded.[64] This local system fared women better than the normative Hindu code but this was reversed during colonial Anglo-Indian judiciary.[64]

The colonial takeover by the British during the 17th and 18th century had more negative than positive affects on women's rights in the Indian subcontinent.[64] Although they managed to outlaw widow burning, female infanticide and improve age of consent, scholars agree that overall women's legal rights and freedoms were restricted during this period.[64] The British abolished local custom laws in favor of separate religious codes for Hindus and Muslims which had harsher treatment of women.[64] These religious codes lead to women having poorer rights when it came to landholding, inheritance, divorce, marriage and maintenance.[64]

See also

Historical readings


  1. Gordon, Ann D. (1997). "Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions". Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Retrieved 2 November 2007.
  2. Janet H. Johnson. "Women's Legal Rights in Ancient Egypt". Digital collections. University of Chicago Library. Retrieved 3 November 2007.
  3. Schaps, D.M. (1998). "What Was Free about a Free Athenian Woman?". Transactions of the American Philological Society (1974). 128: 178.
  4. The limit was set at the value of a medimnos of barley, which was not enough to feed a family for a week.
  5. Pomeroy, Sarah (1994). Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. London: Pimlico. p. 73.
  6. Dover, K.J. (1973). "Classical Greek Attitudes to Sexual Behaviour". Arethusa. 6 (1): 61.
  7. Winkler, John J. (1990). The Constraints of Desire: the Anthropology of Sex and Gender in Ancient Greece. New York: Routledge. p. 5.
  8. Dover, K.J. (1973). "Classical Greek Attitudes to Sexual Behaviour". Arethusa. 6 (1): 69.
  9. Pomeroy, Sarah (1994). Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. London: Pimlico. pp. 62, 65.
  10. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 Smith, Bonnie G (2008). The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History: 4 Volume Se. London, UK: Oxford University Press. pp. 422–425. ISBN 978-0-19-514890-9.
  11. 1 2 A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Citizenship (Oxford University Press, 1979), pp. 211 and 268; Bruce W. Frier and Thomas A.J. McGinn, A Casebook on Roman Family Law (Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 31–32, 457, et passim.
  12. 1 2 Frier and McGinn, A Casebook on Roman Family Law, pp. 19–20.
  13. David Johnston, Roman Law in Context (Cambridge University Press, 1999), chapter 3.3; Frier and McGinn, A Casebook on Roman Family Law, Chapter IV; Yan Thomas, "The Division of the Sexes in Roman Law", in A History of Women from Ancient Goddesses to Christian Saints (Harvard University Press, 1991), p. 134.
  14. Frier and McGinn, A Casebook on Roman Family Law, p. 20.
  15. Frier and McGinn, A Casebook on Roman Family Law, pp. 19–20, 22.
  16. Susan Treggiari, Roman Marriage: Iusti Coniuges from the Time of Cicero to the Time of Ulpian (Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 258–259, 500–502 et passim.
  17. Beth Severy, Augustus and the Family at the Birth of the Empire (Routledge, 2002; Taylor & Francis, 2004), p. 12.
  18. Frier and McGinn, A Casebook on Roman Family Law, p. 461; W. V. Harris, "Trade", in The Cambridge Ancient History: The High Empire A.D. 70–192 (Cambridge University Press, 2000), vol. 11, p. 733.
  19. Richard A. Bauman, Women and Politics in Ancient Rome (Routledge, 1992, 1994), p. 50.
  20. Bauman, Women and Politics, pp. 50–51; Juvenal, Satire 6, on women busy in the courts.
  21. Bauman, Women and Politics, pp. 51–52.
  22. Alan Watson, The Spirit of Roman Law (University of Georgia Press, 1995), p. 13; Yan Thomas, "The Division of the Sexes in Roman Law", in A History of Women from Ancient Goddesses to Christian Saints (Harvard University Press, 1991), p. 135.
  23. Judith Evans Grubbs, Women and the Law in the Roman Empire: A Sourcebook on Marriage, Divorce and Law in the Roman Empire (Routledge, 2002) , p. 24.
  24. Watson, The Spirit of Roman Law, p. 13; Gaius, Inst. 1.173.
  25. Gaius, Institutes 1.190–1.191.
  26. Severy, Augustus and the Family, p. 4.
  27. Thomas McGinn, "Concubinage and the Lex Iulia on Adultery", Transactions of the American Philological Association 121 (1991), p. 342; Martha C. Nussbaum, "The Incomplete Feminism of Musonius Rufus, Platonist, Stoic, and Roman", in The Sleep of Reason: Erotic Experience and Sexual Ethics in Ancient Greece and Rome (University of Chicago Press, 2002), p. 305, noting that custom "allowed much latitude for personal negotiation and gradual social change"; Elaine Fantham, "Stuprum: Public Attitudes and Penalties for Sexual Offences in Republican Rome", in Roman Readings: Roman Response to Greek Literature from Plautus to Statius and Quintilian (Walter de Gruyter, 2011), p. 124, citing Papinian, De adulteriis I and Modestinus, Liber Regularum I. Eva Cantarella, Bisexuality in the Ancient World (Yale University Press, 1992, 2002, originally published 1988 in Italian), p. 104; Catherine Edwards, The Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome (Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 34–35.
  28. Thomas, "The Division of the Sexes", p. 133.
  29. Ariadne Staples, From Good Goddess to Vestal Virgins: Sex and Category in Roman Religion (Routledge, 1998), pp. 81–82; Jane F. Gardner, Women in Roman Law and Society (Indiana University Press, 1991), p.118ff. Roman law also recognized rape committed against males.
  30. Amy Richlin, "Not before Homosexuality: The Materiality of the cinaedus and the Roman Law against Love between Men", Journal of the History of Sexuality 3.4 (1993), pp. 562–563.
  31. Under the Lex Aquilia; Thomas A.J. McGinn, Prostitution, Sexuality and the Law in Ancient Rome (Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 314; Gardner, Women in Roman Law and Society, p. 119.
  32. McGinn, McGinn, Prostitution, Sexuality and the Law, p. 288ff.
  33. Gardner, Women in Roman Law and Society, p. 119; McGinn, Prostitution, Sexuality and the Law in Ancient Rome, p. 326.
  34. 1 2 3 4 Smith, Bonnie G (2008). The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History: 4 Volume Set. London,UK: Oxford University Press. pp. 440–442. ISBN 978-0-19-514890-9.
  35. 1 2 3 4 Esposito (2005) p. 79
  36. Lindsay Jones, p.6224
  37. 1 2 Esposito (2004), p. 339
  38. 1 2 Khadduri (1978)
  39. Schimmel (1992) p.65
  40. Dr. Badawi, Jamal A. (September 1971), "The Status of Women in Islam", Al-Ittihad Journal of Islamic Studies, 8 (2)
  41. Lindsay, James E. (2005), Daily Life in the Medieval Islamic World, Greenwood Publishing Group, p. 197, ISBN 0-313-32270-8
  42. Lindsay, James E. (2005), Daily Life in the Medieval Islamic World, Greenwood Publishing Group, pp. 196 & 198, ISBN 0-313-32270-8
  43. Lindsay, James E. (2005), Daily Life in the Medieval Islamic World, Greenwood Publishing Group, p. 196, ISBN 0-313-32270-8
  44. Lindsay, James E. (2005), Daily Life in the Medieval Islamic World, Greenwood Publishing Group, p. 198, ISBN 0-313-32270-8
  45. Maya Shatzmiller, pp. 6–7.
  46. 1 2 Maya Shatzmiller (1994), Labour in the Medieval Islamic World, Brill Publishers, ISBN 90-04-09896-8, pp. 400–1
  47. Maya Shatzmiller, pp. 350–62.
  48. Maya Shatzmiller (1997), "Women and Wage Labour in the Medieval Islamic West: Legal Issues in an Economic Context", Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 40 (2), pp. 174–206 [175–7].
  49. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Smith, Bonnie G (2008). The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History: 4 Volume Set. London, UK: Oxford University Press. pp. 443–444. ISBN 978-0-19-514890-9.
  50. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Smith, Bonnie G (2008). The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History: 4 Volume Set. London, UK: Oxford University Press. pp. 428–429. ISBN 978-0-19-514890-9.
  51. 1 2 Borgström Eva (Swedish): Makalösa kvinnor: könsöverskridare i myt och verklighet (Marvelous women : genderbenders in myth and reality) Alfabeta/Anamma, Stockholm 2002. ISBN 91-501-0191-9 (inb.). Libris 8707902.
  52. 1 2 3 4 Borgström Eva (Swedish): Makalösa kvinnor: könsöverskridare i myt och verklighet (Marvelous women : gender benders in myth and reality) Alfabeta/Anamma, Stockholm 2002. ISBN 91-501-0191-9 (inb.). Libris 8707902.
  53. Borgström Eva(Swedish): Makalösa kvinnor: könsöverskridare i myt och verklighet (Marvelous women : gender benders in myth and reality) Alfabeta/Anamma, Stockholm 2002. ISBN 91-501-0191-9 (inb.). Libris 8707902.
  54. 1 2 3 Ingelman-Sundberg, Catharina, Forntida kvinnor: jägare, vikingahustru, prästinna [Ancient women: hunters, viking wife, priestess], Prisma, Stockholm, 2004
  55. 1 2 3 4 Ohlander, Ann-Sofie & Strömberg, Ulla-Britt, Tusen svenska kvinnoår: svensk kvinnohistoria från vikingatid till nutid, 3. (A Thousand Swedish Women's Years: Swedish Women's History from the Viking Age until now), [omarb. och utök.] uppl., Norstedts akademiska förlag, Stockholm, 2008
  56. 1 2 3 4 Beattie, Cordelia; Stevens, Matthew Frank (2013-01-01). Married Women and the Law in Premodern Northwest Europe. Boydell Press. ISBN 9781843838333.
  57. Encyclopædia Britannica (10th ed.), 1902, p. 639
  58. Encyclopædia Britannica (6th ed.), 1823, p. 588
  59. Burning at the Stake - Capital Punishment UK
  60. Wroath, John (1998), Until They Are Seven, The Origins of Women's Legal Rights, Waterside Press, ISBN 1-872870-57-0
  61. Klapisch-Zuber, Christine; A History of Women: Book II Silences of the Middle Ages, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England. 1992, 2000 (5th printing). Chapter 6, "Women in the Fifth to the Tenth Century" by Suzanne Fonay Wemple, pg 74. According to Wemple, Visigothic women of Spain and the Aquitaine could inherit land and title and manage it independently of their husbands, and dispose of it as they saw fit if they had no heirs, and represent themselves in court, appear as witnesses (by the age of 14), and arrange their own marriages by the age of twenty
  62. 1 2 3 4 5 Smith, Bonnie G (2008). The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History: 4 Volume Set. London,UK: Oxford University Press. pp. 426–427. ISBN 978-0-19-514890-9.
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