A vast range of political treatises, books and essays on women's rights have been written throughout history. These cover topics such as traditional sexism, which supports gender roles and treats women worse than men, and neosexism, which justifies discrimination on the basis of competences.
Nearly all publics surveyed say it is very important that women have the same rights as men. This includes nine-in-ten in Sweden, the Netherlands, France and Germany.
The nineteenth century brought the first wave of women's rights activism. Early feminists focused on gaining basic legal rights that are taken for granted today. For example, they sought to gain access to education and the workforce. They also pushed the boundaries of what is considered an acceptable lifestyle for women. For instance, women began to ride bicycles and drive cars. Their pictures often adorned the covers of magazines.
Some groups such as Leon Richer's Ligue francaise pour le droit des femmes and Hubertine Auclert's militant Societe le suffrage des femmes fought for women's property rights and eventually their right to vote. These activists' efforts paved the way for legal changes in the twentieth century. However, as Carolyn Eichner points out in her book Surmounting the Barricades, not all feminists self-identified as anti-Imperialist. She writes that many were in fact Imperialists. This tangled debate of gender roles and women's rights continues to play out in the present day.
The French Revolution
During the Revolution, women became involved in political activism in unprecedented numbers. They wrote and published their ideals in newspapers and magazines and participated in Paris' salons. Some, such as Germaine de Stael and Olympe de Gouges, took the lead in organizing political clubs for women and in public activities such as rioting and marching.
Many men resisted calls for equal rights for women, especially if they seemed to threaten their idea of the appropriate role for women. Some, such as Louis-Marie Prudhomme, restated the view attributed to Rousseau that nature dictated different roles for men and women.
Others, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, argued that granting women more rights would improve society. Still, most male revolutionaries rejected the idea of female suffrage, arguing that women could not become good citizens unless they were passive wives and mothers. Women responded by writing their own pamphlets and taking to the streets, creating women-only political clubs and militias.
The Nineteenth Century
The nineteenth century saw a massive transformation of all spheres of life in Europe. This change was a result of steam-powered industrialization and the changing face of world power. These changes impacted all groups of people, women included.
The spread of literacy to many previously excluded classes created a new level of awareness among women. This allowed for women's rights advocates to become active in a variety of ways. Women's magazines and journals (known as the presse féminine) became increasingly popular with a diverse group of women across class lines.
Despite this new awareness, women were still denied most civil and social rights in European countries. They were able to make progress on these issues but this progress was not unmitigated. It was often difficult for women to juggle family and political activism, and many times their efforts were met with hindrances. Their struggle continued though.
The Twentieth Century
With the advent of industrialization and steam-powered technology, European societies began to evolve at a faster pace. Educational opportunities were expanded to include more girls and women, and job opportunities for middle-class females increased.
Nevertheless, the nonlinear political changes of the nineteenth century left many barriers to women's rights intact. The reforms that did occur tended to focus on middle- and upper-class women rather than lower-class ones. Expanding educational opportunities, for example, would primarily benefit young women whose families could afford to send them to school.
The revolutions and rebellions that punctuated the regime changes of the nineteenth century gave women the opportunity to physically protest and make their voices heard. Several feminist political associations emerged, including the L'Union ouvriere and the journal La Fronde (the latter founded in 1897 by Marguerite Durand). The nineteenth century also saw the birth of the newspaper boom that made it easier to spread ideas to a wider audience.