emancipation of women

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  • Contemporary History (Post 1945)


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The achievement of complete (a) economic, (b) social, (c) political and (d) religious equality of women with men, an aspiration whose realization in the course of the twentieth century has been gradual, varied and incomplete. Perhaps the most crucial agent of women's emancipation has been the process of industrialization. In agricultural, pre‐industrial societies women are generally regarded as responsible for the preparation of food and the bearing of children with very few possibilities for an independent life outside the family. In industrializing countries women are increasingly compelled to join the industrial labour force out of sheer economic necessity. As the demand for labour increases with new areas of employment developing, women are more and more able to find employment in the service sector. They are able to join the ‘lower’ professions (primary school teaching and nursing) and ‘lower’ white‐collar clerical and administrative positions. As the process of industrialization matures with an increase of the service sector relative to the industrial sector (which is disproportionately dominated by male labour), the economic opportunities for women increase accordingly.

As the economic status and independence of women rises, women become less dependent on marriage and on a husband to provide for them, which leads to a corresponding increase in their social independence. As a consequence, there occur social changes such as a decline in the birth‐rate in industrialized countries and changes in marriage patterns, i.e marriage at later ages and higher divorce rates. This leads to the eventual introduction of the political equality of women to reflect their greater social and economic independence.

Apart from the interdependent (a) economic, (b) social, and (c) political factors promoting the equality of women, emancipation is inversely affected by (d) the strength of traditional religious sentiment in any society, which tends to emphasize the pre‐industrial image of the family and the importance of the woman as the bearer of children. These four factors are the most important elements that account for the differences in the position of women in different countries. In many African countries with few or no industries the role of women is still confined to the home in relative dependence on her husband, a situation exacerbated in some countries by the strong hold of conservative Christian, Hindu, and Muslim movements. By contrast, emancipation is relatively advanced (though by no means complete) in industrialized countries, even though this has not been an automatic process.

Contemporary history

Especially in the USA and the UK, women's political rights were brought into general political consciousness by the suffragettes. In fact, the two World Wars created conditions most favourable to social, political, and economic change in favour of women. As men were fighting on the front, women had to take up occupations hitherto dominated by men. Political emancipation was also accelerated in countries that experienced revolutions which emphasized their own universal popularity among both men and women, as happened in Soviet Russia after 1917, Eastern Europe and Communist China after 1945, Germany (1918/19), and in countries such as Turkey (1922/23). Among democratic countries, the first countries to introduce women's suffrage were New Zealand (1893) and Australia (1902), both immigrant countries with mobile societies where traditional family values were less pronounced. In the USA, women were enfranchised in 1920. In Europe, the political, social, and economic role of women changed more gradually. Women were enfranchised in the UK in 1918 and, on an equal level with men, in 1928. Switzerland was the last European country to give women the vote in 1971. Legal equality was not established in most Western democracies until the 1960s and 1970s, e.g. the facilitation and fairer treatment of women in divorce.


Subjects: Contemporary History (Post 1945).

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