Women and Femininity

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Bonnie Smith

The social experience of European women over the past five hundred years has consisted of productive activity in agriculture, manufacturing and industry, and domestic work. Simultaneously, reproduction and sexuality have also shaped women's lives, complicating their work as producers. Although conditions increasingly differed from eastern to western Europe, growing most divergent in the nineteenth century as industrialization and urbanization accelerated to the west, the intersection of reproduction and production remained a constant determinant of social experience. Cultural values and political systems as expressed in legal codes and religious belief constructed community practices that also influenced social experience. Finally, the march of history included the development of colonization and imperialism, the quickening pace of globalization, and the rise of consumer culture—all affecting the lives of ordinary women in Europe. These developments often helped produce social differences of ethnicity, race, and class, which also served as determinants of women's lives and of their social practices of solidarity and institution-building.


Western religious belief and legal systems spelled out many of the social and cultural practices that communities and individuals followed. Although elements of Judeo-Christian doctrine proclaimed the dignity of women and femininity, religious leaders generally emphasized male superiority. As inheritors of Eve's sinfulness, women were pronounced disobedient, lustful, and physically foul. Institutionally they had no right to preach or to hold priestly or rabbinical office. The coming of Protestantism in the sixteenth century, while stressing the direct accessibility of God to all souls, nonetheless underscored women's wifely and maternal roles and simultaneously closed down religious orders that had heretofore offered women a realm for their exercise of spiritual and social power. Religious institutions deemed that women's bodily functions needed special purification and monitoring. Thus, both Christians and Jews set rules for sexual relations, menstruation, childbirth and post-parturition, most of them based on ideas of women's unique filthiness. From these ideas developed the social practices of femininity, many of which remained in effect through the twentieth century.

From 1500 on law codes increasingly privileged men by giving them the bulk of inheritance (especially in land) and by stripping women of all possessions and property upon marriage, transferring ownership (though sometimes just the administration of property) to the husband. Although in some regions married businesswomen had the right to conduct business as if unmarried, in most places there was a law of coverture that merged a wife's interests and property in her husband's. This was part of a general Western trend that systematically impoverished women from young adulthood through old age by transferring wealth to men. By the onset of industrialization early in the nineteenth century modern legal codes were mandating the confiscation of married women's property and extending it to include all wages and other earnings of women. The system was reinforced by laws forbidding women to bring lawsuits, to serve as witnesses in law courts, to exercise full guardianship of their children, or to hold business licenses in their own name. Late in the century reformers, mostly in western Europe, tried to alleviate some of the worst abuses of this legal reallocation of women's wealth in a series of married women's property acts that allowed women ownership of their wages and personal property.


Over the past five hundred years women's economic activity has changed dramatically, from a situation in which approximately 90 percent of women were peasants in a predominantly agrarian economy to the beginning of the twenty-first century when the majority held service-sector jobs in an advanced industrial and information society. Several factors remained relatively constant, however: Women received lower remuneration whether in food or wages, while their entry into virtually any job category lowered the status and pay for that work; they often had the greatest responsibility for household work and childcare while working for pay; their economic activity generally took place in the context of a gendered division of tasks, although the assignment of any particular job to one sex or the other might vary from country to country or region to region; and finally, many experienced sexual harassment on the job.

In the relatively self-sufficient peasant societies of early modern Europe women tended to household chores like cooking and cared for vegetable gardens, barnyard animals, and dairying. Around towns they sold eggs, cheese, and other produce. Women who were serfs (unfree laborers) owed household and field work to the aristocracy of their locale. At harvest women joined men in cutting, bundling, and gleaning grain. In winter spinning, weaving, and sewing garments replaced outdoor activity.

Townswomen in the early modern period grew more numerous as commercialization, urbanization, and state-formation progressed. Within towns their work included selling in markets (in some cities three-quarters of all market people were women), domestic service, and artisanal activity of many kinds. For the most part guilds banned women from becoming master artisans, but in some crafts such as printing and carpentry, they could take over their husband's business when widowed. Because household and artisanal work was little mechanized, urban homes demanded much arduous labor such as gathering water and fuel. Thus, in early modern France one urban person in twelve was a servant and two-thirds of them were women, as was also the case in early modern Florence. Service likewise provided important employment for young rural women, who constituted two-thirds of farm servants assisting hard-pressed farm families. There was movement back and forth between urban and rural work well into the twentieth century as factory workers returned to their families for the all-important harvest or as underemployed craft workers headed to the countryside in the summer to work in the fields. At the bottom of urban society were slave women, brought by traders to the ports of Spain and other countries where they served as domestics, spinners, and prostitutes. Rural families as well might sell young daughters into prostitution in the early modern period.

Improvements in agriculture, the rise of landlessness (for example with the enclosure system instituted in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England), urbanization, and the development of widespread trade in goods and agricultural products gradually increased demand for many items, notably textiles. Merchants in towns distributed raw materials for spinning to underemployed women in the countryside. From that time on productive work for pay at home accompanied the rise of manufacturing in a system called protoindustrialization. As domestic industry or outwork became a staple of advanced economies, women at home did an array of tasks from knitting stockings, making straw hats, and polishing buttons to late-twentieth-century outwork involving the production of leather goods and computer data entry. The most emblematic out- or pieceworker was the seamstress, especially prominent from the early nineteenth century on when the need for military uniforms in the Napoleonic wars led to the breakdown of clothing production into its component parts—collars, sleeves, buttonholes, etc.—which were then apportioned to individual outworkers. Because these workers were isolated at home, they were often exploited, with low rates per piece, long working hours in the event of high demand, and seasonal unemployment of up to six months per year. Outwork nonetheless allowed women to coordinate work for pay with childcare and permitted employers to profit from an elastic workforce while minimizing their investment in buildings and equipment.

From the mid-eighteenth century on the new factory system employed women workers. The mule jenny and water frame made practical the mechanization of spinning powered by a central source of energy—a cluster of innovations that brought entire families as well as individuals into the industrial workforce. Where industry hired families, a sexual division of labor held, in which women carded fiber and sometimes tended machines, while men repaired and also ran machines. Young single women worked in factories, their lower wages making them an attractive labor pool for what in its early days was an experimental and risky form of production. Sometimes these workers were housed and boarded (as in the traditional system of domestic service) and factory work could be seasonal, allowing women to return to rural areas for harvests. This was usual in pre–World War I Russia, for example. Unlike piecework, domestic service, or agricultural employment, factory work ran by the clock, paid regular wages, and followed a discipline partly shaped by the needs of the machine. Nonetheless, several traditional conditions remained: a sexual division of labor, lower wages for whatever work women did, and on-the-job sexual harassment. Paying higher wages than domestic service or the nascent service sector, factory work appealed to many women.

Overall, however, industrialization tended to reduce women's opportunities for formal work; this was the case for over a century. The displacement of rural production hit women harder than men. Even in the cities, domestic service outpaced factory work as a source of jobs for women. Developments like laws restricting women's (but not men's) hours of work further reduced demand for women. Most middle-class women did not work formally at all, while many working-class women labored only until marriage. There was some variation—larger numbers of women retained formal employment in France, for example, than in Britain—but the overall pattern was clear. Only in Russia did industrialization coexist with high levels of employment for women, both before and after the Revolution of 1917.

The service sector started to grow in the mid-nineteenth century, becoming the largest employer of women in the last third of the twentieth century. Consisting of retailing, office work, healthcare, librarianship, and other non-blue-collar work, the new sector reflected the growing complexities of management, the rising knowledge-based component of the industrial order, and the need to realize the economy's potential for consumerism. These jobs were said to appeal to women's desire for clean work, and many (such as secretary, bank clerk, and librarian) had been formerly held by men. As women took the rapidly expanding jobs, the positions lost status, pay declined, and the various categories of service work became female ghettos lacking any opportunity for advancement. Simultaneously, professionalization occurred in medicine, university teaching, and the law, and this entailed rigorous training from which women were generally excluded, and licensing, which also tended to disfavor women. These high-paying male service jobs or professions had their low-paying female counterparts—for example, male university professor and female primary school teacher or male physician and female nurse. Service jobs tended to go to young attractive women who lost their posts as they aged or married. Most service positions demanded literacy and numeracy, more accessible with the spread of secondary and university education late in the nineteenth century. The growth of the service sector was accompanied by the elimination of women from the top levels of business management. If some women had run extensive mercantile and industrial firms before the middle of the nineteenth century, thereafter men generally were able to keep women out of executive positions (and in secretarial or clerical ones) even until the early twenty-first century. Nonetheless, a few women gained wealth or distinction as writers, artists, musicians, poets, editors, and performers. Travel to the colonies and other distant places also brought renown, as athletic feats, wartime heroism, or flights into space did later.

During World Wars I and II some posts opened in the higher paying manufacturing jobs (notably munitions) and in government bureaucracies, expanded at the time to militarize economies. The socialist revolution in Russia in 1917 and eventually the Soviet Union announced an expanded work role for women, especially in the drive to industrialize the USSR after 1928. Although much was made of Soviet women as tractor drivers and factory workers, the same segmentation of the workforce existed as in the rest of Europe. Only the jobs assigned women differed: they served as doctors and sanitation workers, for example, both of these low status, badly paid, and onerous work. After 1945 the Soviet bloc had approximately 90 percent female employment, and the percentage of women in the paid workforce generally expanded across Europe in the twentieth century. There were notable exceptions: Hitler and Mussolini professed to want women out of the workforce, but their policies actually resulted in driving them from good jobs in the professions and civil service to menial and low-paid work such as domestic service. After World War II West Germany prided itself that its women still not hold important jobs in industry and commerce. Mediterranean countries such as Spain also had a lower percentage of employed women, as did the Netherlands, which noticeably kept women from prestigious work like university professorships. By the late twentieth century part-time work was 80 to 90 percent female. As the welfare state contracted to reduce benefits from the 1980s on and as the lower echelons of the entire workforce faced competition because of globalization, more of the European workforce was said to be feminized—that is characterized by lower benefits and pay and a lack of security. Outwork in the growing information technology sector, also lacking benefits, employed an increasing number of women at home.

After the mid-twentieth century the arrival of large numbers of people from the former colonies changed the composition and nature of the female workforce. Since the sixteenth century women had served colonizing societies as slave and forced laborers who performed domestic, agricultural, and sex work for their imperial rulers. Some had come to Europe long before the late twentieth century as servants, free artisans, performers, military aides, students, and travelers. With post–World War II decolonization, immigration swelled, and while not all immigrant women worked, many did. Most found that however skilled and well-educated they were, they could obtain only menial jobs, among them domestic service or low-level jobs such as janitors, nurses' aides, and sweatshop workers. Second- and third-generation women migrants were often similarly thwarted in finding decent employment, but many worked to ensure that anti-discriminatory legislation (some of it in the form of European Union regulations) helped to provide some kind of employment assistance, especially in reaching higher level service-sector jobs. Nonetheless cultural discrimination and the growing success of racist political leaders beginning in the 1980s often meant harassment at work.


The coordination of productive work with the reproductive, domestic, and sexual conduct of society shaped women's lives. Because of the pronounced, though varying, sexual division of labor in the context of a subsistence economy in the early modern period, the majority of the population lived in families and married, with marriage and reproduction coordinated to family and societal needs. Arranged marriages occurred as late as the early twentieth century made by parents determined to create agricultural, commercial, or political alliances, usually with economic and lineage interests foremost. In England and northwest and central Europe, women married relatively later than elsewhere with their age at marriage somewhere in their mid-twenties in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. In these areas married couples generally lived by themselves or in a household with parents, while in eastern and southeastern Europe family members congregated in large multigenerational families. Women in these households lived in a hierarchical organization of female kin, dominated by the senior woman, although ultimate power lay in the hands of the patriarch. By contrast, married women and their daughters in northwestern Europe enjoyed greater autonomy and opportunity to be enterprising. By the late nineteenth century, urbanization, changes in agriculture, and the development of consumer society allowed more people to live outside marital and extended family relations. These conditions also loosened the grip of the family on marital, sexual, and reproductive behavior. By the late twentieth century even a family of two parents and their children was no longer the norm, as there were more single-parent families, the vast majority headed by women.

From the sixteenth to the twenty-first century several distinct reproductive trends were evident. The span of fertile years increased dramatically because of two phenomena: the falling age of menarche (the onset of menstruation) from fifteen to eighteen years of age in the sixteenth century to thirteen or younger in the twenty-first century and the delay in menopause from around forty to fifty or a bit later. The biological expansion of fertility resulted from improved diet and health. To limit fertility in the early modern period in order to coordinate family size with available resources, late marriage was a common practice. In addition women used a variety of potions and cervical blocks to prevent conception; they also practiced abortion and infanticide when unwanted conception did occur. Nursing children also inhibited conception, as did the social custom of sexual abstinence after childbirth and during nursing. Coitus interruptus was also known. After the mid-nineteenth century condoms (made more practical by the vulcanization of rubber in the 1840s) and the diaphragm (invented and perfected in the second half of the century) contributed to the decline in fertility. The spread of literacy expanded knowledge of other birth control practices, notably the withdrawal method, while scientific understanding of the ovulatory cycle in women allowed for more effective practice of the rhythm method. Abortion nonetheless remained common. In the twentieth century surgical sterilization, the birth control pill, IUD, and morning-after pill became available to European women. In the Soviet bloc, where especially from 1945 to 1989 other forms of birth control were less available than in western Europe, abortion was a major form of birth control. The average woman in the sixteenth century might have raised only two or three children to adulthood because of late age at marriage, a limited number of fertile years, higher infant and child mortality rates, and certain birth control customs. In the twenty-first century women raised even fewer children almost exclusively because of mechanical and chemical forms of family limitation.

In the early modern period reproduction constituted an essential component of femininity, defining what it was to be a woman and encouraging women to try to adopt the social roles of such cultural icons as Mary and Old Testament heroines. Reproduction was also a major anchor of female solidarity, bringing women together around childbirth. Childbirth was attended by a midwife and occurred in the individual's living quarters with the women of the family or neighborhood playing a major role in the delivery. The midwife and other women were the main repositories of reproductive knowledge. Over the centuries the decline in fertility attenuated the equation of femininity with reproduction not only in the case of individual women but in terms of social knowledge, as professional medicine gradually brought pregnancy, childbirth, and childcare within its social orbit. Late in the nineteenth century 90 percent of births occurred at home; by the twenty-first century more than 90 percent occurred in hospitals and were attended by doctors. Knowledge and practices of childbirth were not necessarily better when controlled by women: midwives could deform or even kill infants in the birthing process, while they also were known to leave mothers permanently injured. Mothers themselves had many practices, such as a fear of cleanliness, considered wholly unwise today. These aspects of femininity and ties of group solidarity around reproduction deteriorated with urbanization, the rise of literacy and spread of public education, and the triumph of birth control. Childcare centers complemented public schools in diminishing the childrearing component of women's lives, while modern medicine and birth control lessened the bodily damage and pain associated with reproduction and femininity. One ingredient of reproductive femininity—breast-feeding—ran a more erratic course as it went in and out of fashion over the entire five-hundred-year period, with aristocratic and urban working women often putting their children out to wet nurses until the late nineteenth century. An ideological push for breast-feeding in the eighteenth century and scientific understandings of breast-feeding's health benefits in the second half of the twentieth were two elements that brought new, if not enduring, appeal to the practice.

Sexuality first shaped femininity in the religious production of feminine typologies—as either the sinful, voracious, or seductive biblical antiheroines or the biblical models of chaste virgins or reproductive exemplars. Because a subsistence economy demanded reproduction to be well coordinated with productivity, sexuality was sufficiently constrained to ensure replacement of the population within a well-regulated marital system. The legal translation of this exigency was to make women's sexual fidelity an important social norm with deviation punishable by death or imprisonment to the late nineteenth century. Sexual excess was a prerogative only of the nobility in this subsistence society, and noblewomen as well as men could exercise this prerogative. Sexual behaviors and norms were monitored by various community groups to deter premarital sex, sodomy, bestiality, old coupling with the young, and other practices that upset the reproductive system. Often non-heterosexual behavior was ignored so long as the individual functioned within the reproductive, heterosexual system—that is, so long as she married and had children.

With urbanization and the development of an economic surplus, illegitimacy became more common, constituting more than half of all births in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century in many European cities and becoming a widely accepted social practice by the twenty-first century. The breakdown of the heterosexuality-reproduction-marriage triad within the context of urbanization allowed for the public emergence of homosexual couples—for example, Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, known as the ladies of Llangollen, in the late eighteenth century. There are many indications of a variety of sexual practices and behaviors for the early modern period, and great discussion over whether those engaged in non-heterosexual behavior had a homosexual or lesbian identity. With the birth control revolution of the late nineteenth century, and the drop in European fertility by half, a group of "new women" emerged who often worked in the service sector, remained single, and set up domestic partnerships with other women. Sexual boundaries were permeable at this time, allowing movement between all-female and heterosexual relationships—the English writers Radclyffe Hall and Mary Renault described this fluidity along with its attendant heartbreak in their novels. Lesbians who lived their sexual identity shaped urban neighborhoods, organizing networks of sociability from at least the mid-nineteenth century. In addition, transvestism has long been an important sociosexual practice, sometimes providing access to male privilege and to partnerships outside social norms (though some maintained that these partnerships with their stereotypically heterosexual appearances were very much within those norms). Some observers believe that despite a greater variety of sexual identification, by the twentieth century there was actually less fluidity. Others disagree, citing the substantial majority of the population living in heterosexual marriages in the early modern period.


Patterns of sociability operated within a matrix of economic/class and reproductive/sexual concerns. Agricultural women in the early modern period came together around childbirth and childcare but simultaneously worked together in such activities as quilting or nightly spinning sessions during which social information was transmitted in the form of gossip, news, or storytelling. Marriages were also arranged, courtships begun, and transactions negotiated, as men and boys sometimes stood on the fringes of the nightly session. These also allowed sharing and thus saving light and heat. Because private interior space was limited and possessed few utilities, in villages and cities early modern sociability took place in the streets. Women gathered at water fountains, markets, and laundering spots such as riverbanks. By the beginning of the twentieth century solidarity continued to germinate in urban neighborhoods where women shared information on school policies, welfare programs, markets, and local affairs. Working women's solidarity matured in guilds, church organizations, mutual welfare clubs, and by the late nineteenth century in unions. A variety of unions existed including church-sponsored organizations and those attached to political organizations such as the Social Democratic and Labor parties. Mutual welfare groups and the earlier guilds had often tended to workers in sickness or provided death benefits. Unions sometimes played this role, but they also helped women organize around issues of pay and working conditions. The period before World War I saw strike activity, some organized by unions, among women workers: the work stoppages by London match-girls in the 1880s, or the Italian agricultural workers in the 1890s, or the protests by anarchist women in Barcelona early in the twentieth century. As the service sector grew, women telegraph operators and teachers also unionized, gaining some gender equity in pay after World War II.

Working women could not always afford the dues for union membership because their wages were lower than men's; nor could they take time from the double burden of home and factory work to attend union functions. So neighborhood bounds often brought activism in times of economic crisis, with working women joining women at home (whether working for pay in the outwork sector or not) in protest. In the eighteenth-century periods of scarcity working-class women launched food riots; market women marched on Versailles during the early months of the French Revolution and captured the royal family; in German cities in 1847 townswomen stormed bakeries and markets to protest the high cost of food; the protests of women everywhere during World War I kept the home front periodically in turmoil, ultimately playing a role in the Russian Revolution of 1917; under the Nazis women staged protests against scarcities, connecting one another through handwritten bulletins full of survival tips. On the whole, however, women's roles in the leading forms of protest declined in the nineteenth century. Men substantially dominated unions and strikes and led in protest voting. The rise of feminism in the late nineteenth century, though more vigorous in places like Britain and Scandinavia than elsewhere in Europe, responded to this context.

Aristocratic and upper-class women's solidarity revolved around different forms of social life. A small group of women participated in the social transformation of early modern European court life during which the certain refinements and rituals of etiquette replaced the crude and violent military style of royalty and the aristocracy. Early modern courts set patterns for behavior, including the establishment of rank and hierarchy, arrangement of marriages, maintenance of kin alliances, and institution of codes for dress and etiquette. As courts came to concentrate on state-building through political and economic mechanisms instead of through military control, women advanced cultural unification with their patronage of the arts and humanistic learning and participated in some of the religious struggles of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in which the social power of the state had a large stake. Using kin connections, notable aristocratic women like the Guise in France advanced the careers of chosen men in their families. Noblewomen outside the courts often lived on isolated estates in early modern Europe, sometimes taking responsibility for the well-being of their families through farm management while their husbands attended to their military, court, and other political activities. They would often have responsibility for the village dwellers' health, for supporting religious institutions, and for educating children. Unlike court women their opportunities for intraclass solidarity would be few. As urbanization and state-building occurred, the nobility came to inhabit towns and cities, though not necessarily central courts, participating more actively in intellectual and social life. Holding entertainments and intellectual discussions in their homes, wealthy women (both aristocratic and upper-class) shifted social and cultural power away from the court center when they ran their salons. Such salons continued to have social, cultural, and political force until World War I, but never so much as during the late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Enlightenment.

In the next centuries, middle- and upper-class women performed works of philanthropy, easing some of the real suffering caused by agricultural change, industrialization, and urbanization. They directed their work toward poor families, particularly in commercial and industrial centers, and made charitable work part of a feminine identity. Based on a new ideology of separate spheres, middle-and upper-class women spent most of their time in the home nurturing and providing a comforting atmosphere, while men forged the new capitalist order or engaged in politics and professional life outside the home. Some critics see the middle-class woman as primarily engaged in fostering adherence to new social rules for cleanliness, propriety, and consumption. The "angel in the house," however, quickly took her nurturing mission to the outside world as a distributor of charitable relief, womanly wisdom, or religious salvation. Although Judeo-Christianity had long mandated concern for the poor, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries witnessed the development of male and female benevolent organizations, sometimes tied to religion but also increasingly secular in focus. Women's organizations set up daycare centers and schools for poor children, distributed aid to poor mothers, helped wayward girls and orphans, and helped prostitutes, women inmates, and released female criminals.

These philanthropic organizations often had moral and religious foundations, but by the middle of the nineteenth century women reformers imbibed the secular message of the burgeoning social sciences. The sociological formulations of Auguste Comte, notably expressed in his ideas about "positivism," maintained that one could determine the laws by which society functions and then set policy to ameliorate social conditions. Positivism and other social science teachings led women to found schools of domestic science to teach poor women the "laws" of housekeeping, to do statistical surveys of various kinds of women's work, and to study the working-class household and at the same time try to make it better regulated and more cost-efficient. As factory legislation came to determine the conditions under which women worked, some women reformers started working for the government as inspectors of conditions in the workplace. And, as governments late in the century started national programs to improve the health of the working class, women reformers also moved from private philanthropy to government jobs. Increasingly women's role in this developing "welfare state" replaced their involvement in personal charity, although never entirely.

Education for these social roles occurred in a variety of places, in the early modern period especially in churches, in the public observance of rituals, and in the everyday productive and familial life of the household. Women taught their daughters the practical skills of a subsistence, agrarian society, while boys usually worked with their fathers. Both sexes learned family norms through observation coupled with additional religious lessons. With the growing importance of scientific, humanistic, social scientific, and technical knowledge, children came to learn not only these topics but sex and civic roles in school. Girls' education often lagged behind boys', but in many European countries, governments eager to inculcate civic and scientific values sponsored mandatory public education—often secular. The gap in home education and literacy closed in the nineteenth century, though school curricula did urge domestic duties and loyalties on women. Although wealthy women tutored at home could be intellectually accomplished, it was not until women were admitted to universities in the second half of the nineteenth century that higher education became readily available. By the late twentieth century the single-sex institutions of secondary and higher education had given way to predominantly coeducational high schools and universities. This expansion of education lay behind the emergance of the New Women who entered the service economy and eventually the professions. However, the media, including print media, radio, film, and television, also produced models of normative feminine roles that women could absorb or resist. By the late twentieth century both the media and the pervasive educational system were as influential as the family in the inculcation of feminine norms. Under fascism, Nazism, and communism an array of social clubs for children and youth also inculcated correct gender norms as part of political education.

Despite this array of institutions for instilling the rules of femininity, women's behaviors were often deviant or seen as such by communities, churches, and governments. In the early modern period some of the primary deviants were those practicing or said to practice witchcraft. Witches were those who by virtue of a sinful agreement with the Devil committed personal and social harm. Amid periodic outbursts of witchcraft hysteria, women were executed as witches out of proportion to their numbers, although some historians studying local outbreaks of witchcraft hysteria maintain that men and women were accused equally. Urbanization brought more secular crimes such as theft to the fore, much of it committed by poor women stealing anything from firewood to small items from the families for whom they worked. With the rise of department stores, kleptomania was a form of deviance attributed to women. Also in the nineteenth century some of the most spectacular crimes were those of women murderesses, whose acts were interpreted as stemming from a special female pathology originating in the reproductive organs. However, because the crimes of many murderesses involved close relatives, some historians interpret them as rooted in libidinal states—partly love stories—and in gender roles.

At the opposite extreme of femininity and women's sociability were those women who formed religious communities, whether conventual or informal, under Orthodox or Roman Catholic supervision. Many of these women come from wealthy or noble families. In the late medieval period, as abbesses or leaders of religious communities women held social and even political power. Women religious served social functions by engaging in health care, educational, or economic activities, or by providing spiritual services such as prayer. Some especially talented women religious, Teresa ofÁvila for example, wrote meditations on spiritual life and on the social roles of women, often questioning the denigration of their sex. Protestantism saw women's social role to be within the nuclear family rather than in all-female congregations. Socializing children, including teaching reading and religion, became a fundamental part of these women's identity. Almost from the beginning, however, Protestantism's emphasis on the direct relationship of the individual soul with God inspired many women to preach and prophesy even to the point of social and political persecution. Although Jewish women did not undertake this kind of preaching, they were responsible for much of the sociability and ritual in their religion. From this time to the twenty-first century, however, they experienced incredible persecution at the hands of Christians, peaking with the Nazi genocide but not ending even with the collapse of the Soviet Union, whose anti-Semitic policies continued in the successor and former client states. Historians judge that especially in the Holocaust more women than men experienced what has been called the "social death" inflicted on Jews under Hitler because they did not migrate, staying to care for aged parents, for example. And they were sent in larger numbers than men to the death camps and died there in larger numbers.

From the eighteenth century European society underwent secularization, during which a noticeable dimorphism occurred in religious practice. Women's participation in religion dramatically outstripped that of men, which is not to say that men stopped being religious. Whether in Protestant or Catholic countries men's social participation in religion diminished while that of women became strong. As examples the number of women in religious orders far surpassed the number of men, and spontaneous religious observances, such as pilgrimages and special devotions to new holy women, increased. Although this has led historians to judge that a "feminization of religion" occurred in the modern period, others note that religion remained a prime example of the gender hierarchy at work in social institutions; church hierarchies remained totally male until the late-twentieth century. Nonetheless, religious organizations provided a forum in which women could resist such norms, and in the twentieth century religion became a rallying point for resistance to Soviet rule, in the 1980s and 1990s drawing crowds of hundreds of thousands testifying to religious belief; many of these were women. Finally with the migration of women from foreign colonies, the social practice of religion such as wearing special clothing became a particular bone of contention. For secular leaders, headscarves and other apparel breached the secular social solidarity on which national unity depended.

The social experience of women in Europe over the past five centuries has revolved around certain constants: a gender division of labor; a primacy accorded women's reproductive activities; the development of social activism and solidarity; a constant practice of varying forms of resistance to norms, whether criminality or innovative styles of living or heterodox sexualities. Simultaneously individual aspects of these social practices have been immensely varied, often differing not only from country to country but from locality to locality. Changes occurred frequently, but the nineteenth century stands out as a period of particular change and tension. Restrictions on political rights tightened and work roles become increasingly circumscribed for women; at the same time more women had access to education, and birthrates declined. An ideology stressing women's domestic virtue served as an attempt to bring coherence to these contradictory elements. The expansion of political and legal rights and the opening-up of new work roles in the twentieth century relieved some of the tensions. A certain homogenization between men and women has occurred with the development of effective media for the transmission of social norms. Despite the rise of media and mandatory education, there has been a seemingly more rapid change in norms of femininity over the past century and even, some imagine, the development of a genderless society in the Western world and a turn to the disembodied sociability of the Internet in the communications revolution.

See alsoThe Population of Europe: Early Modern Demographic Patterns (volume 2);New Social Movements (volume 3);History of the Family (volume 4); and other articles in this section.


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Women and Femininity