“Boys and girls are equals,” we tell kids, and then we send them to school to learn about presidents and emperors and generals and religious leaders and explorers and astronauts and civil rights activists and revolutionaries and judges and scientists and inventors and philosophers and composers and painters and sculptors and poets and novelists–almost all of whom were men. Of course kids can’t help but wonder how it is that men achieved so much and women so little. Did women try to accomplish great things as much as men but weren’t smart enough, talented enough, driven enough, strong enough, good enough? Or perhaps women were perfectly content to be wives and mothers because women are meant to raise sons and support husbands who do great, important things instead of doing great, important things themselves?
If we don’t teach kids the truth about our history, those are the type of conclusions they’ll draw. The truth, of course, is that for thousands of years, women were chattel. A girl was her father’s property from birth. When she reached a certain age, she was given or sold to another man in an arrangement called marriage. Her purpose in life was to serve her family (first her father’s, then her husband’s) and bear her husband’s–preferably male–children. She had no choice in the matter, and her owner/husband was socially and legally empowered to beat and rape her if she disobeyed his orders or attempted to resist his sexual advances. Even murder was often permissible, particularly if her husband could argue convincingly that she was an adulteress.
Unlike boys, girls were not raised to be individuals with interests and aspirations of their own. The goals of a woman’s father or husband became her goals. The traits valued in men–intellect, creativity, curiosity, leadership, courage, ambition, self-determination, individuality, independence, and so on–weren’t valued in women. A woman’s life revolved around serving her family–particularly its male members–and her value was in her sexual attractiveness and reproductive capacity. The “good woman” was obedient, nurturing, chaste, and above all, selfless. Women had no access to political power (including voting rights), higher education (go back far enough and most women were deprived of even an elementary education), the marketplace (outside of prostitution and a few low status, low pay positions), or the world of ideas (not only were women considered incapable of all but the most rudimentary logical and analytical reasoning, but depending on the time period, women who dared to challenge the status quo ran the risk of being shunned, killed, or institutionalized and lobotomized). A woman wasn’t able to sign contracts or own property because she was property. A crime against her was literally considered a crime against the man who owned her–her father if she was unmarried or her husband if she was married.
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