History of women in European countries: Steps taken by women and men across Europe towards shaping women into rights holders. How do democracy, freedom, and fundamental European values in general influence women and their lives?


This module is about women’s past and present position in society and the slow development of women’s rights towards women becoming rights holders in modern European societies. Women’s rights are not guaranteed. On the contrary, efforts of empowered women to protect their rights are needed.


Module in a nutshell

The module consists of three units followed by Check Your Understanding and References.

  • Unit 1. Women’s social roles in the past and present
  • Unit 2. The long march towards women´s rights and gender equality in European Union
    • Member states
  • Unit 3. Women´s rights, gender equality and European values
  • Check your understanding. Are the following statements True or False?
  • References

Unit 1. Women’s social roles in the past and present


As women represent half of our planet´s population, we cannot simply ignore their part in forming the world´s history. From the beginning of humankind, women had to overcome many obstacles to change their condition of ‘the mother’ and be allowed to participate in society together with men.


From the prehistoric until the modern period, society expected them to be primarily housekeepers and mothers. Their main duties were to procreate, ensure that the family was well fed and taken care of, and see that their household was properly run.


The 1789 revolution in Europe gives rise to new technology that requires more hands in factories. Women start equally participating in industrial work though receiving lower wages than men do.

At the end of the 19th century, women started enrolling in university studies and working in certain sectors. Before that, it was frowned upon to be a working married woman. Taking care of her husband and children was her main duty.


The industrial revolution and war industries needed more hands. During the war, there was a deficit of male labour and women replaced men at work. Consequently, their new role in factories was socially accepted even if they were married.


Beginning in the 19th century, there was a change in values and a new era of rebellion towards tradition, family, and religion. In the 20th century, society recognized the equal rights of women as compared to men’s rights.  


Today, the roles of women have changed drastically. There is practically no profession that would not be accessible to both men and women. Both women and men can be a nurse, a prime minister or a president, a soldier, a teacher, an astronaut, an artist, an actor, a computer scientist, a doctor. Nevertheless, we also know that in some fields, women are underrepresented. Some professions are still male-dominated including certain fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine in some countries. Women are less represented in some fields of work, but they are also paid less for doing the same job and occupying the same position as their male counterparts.


Although women´s roles have changed during the last 100-300 years, some aspects of their lives have remained the same. For many women, working outside home means having two full time jobs — the one at work and the other at home. Generally, women are the ones who take care of their house and the rest of the family members. They run the errands and pay the bills, and plan school events and field trips.


When it comes to older women, their role can be reduced again to those of housekeeper, grandmother and emotional support to their husband. They may also care for other members of the family as well. Being old is often a challenge in many western and eastern EU countries as older people are looked down upon and considered a social burden to other generations.  


However, their old age does not prevent them from continuing to be our society’s solid and undeniable foundation. If we are willing to listen and learn, we will understand that their importance goes beyond their role of grandparents. Their bodies may be more fragile, but their experience can be an ocean of wisdom to guide younger generations. They are fundamental for transmitting cultural values to their descendants. They are guardians of cultural and social heritage.

Unit 2. The long march towards women´s rights and gender equality in European Union member states


Through centuries, women have struggled to have equal rights as men. Whether they considered themselves to be feminists or not, they were integral in feminist movements.


During the French Revolution, European women began to take up the banner of demands for social equality and marched on Versailles under the slogan "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity."


In those years, the first claims for women’s political rights to establish women as citizens were shaped. An important achievement was the Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Citizen written by Olympe de Gouges in 1791. This is one of the first historical documents defending equal rights or legal equality and the women’s right to vote.


Women wanted to participate in matters of state, in creating the laws to which they had previously only been subjected. Suffragist movements emerged with Flora Tristán at their head. Feminist groups in the labour movement were influenced by "The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State" written by Friedrich Engels in 1884. Some of them created associations and, soon thereafter, women’s suffrage movements on national and international levels. After creating a federation in the United States in 1890, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies was created in Great Britain in 1897, the Deutscher Verein für Frauenstimmrecht in Germany in 1902, and l’Union française pour le suffrage des femmes in France in 1909. These organizations were members of the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance, founded in Berlin in 1904, which was a self-proclaimed human rights movement.


After decades of struggle and lobbying, women achieved their right to vote in different European states in the 20th century.


While women had already been granted the right to vote in several US states since 1869, Finland was the first to take the step in 1906, through a reform that established a parliament elected by universal suffrage. Norway followed in 1907, and then Denmark and Iceland in 1915. The First World War created the conditions that allowed the introduction of the right to vote in various countries: Russia in 1917 (following the revolution), Latvia, Estonia, Poland, the United Kingdom (notably with age restrictions until 1928), Germany, and Austria (following the overthrow of monarchies and the establishment of republics) in 1918, followed by the Netherlands and Luxembourg in 1920. In Spain in 1931, the newly established Second Republic granted women the right to vote. In 1929, Romania granted limited suffrage to women. French women were granted this right in April 1944, per the wishes of General de Gaulle. Italian and Slovenian (Slovenia as part of former Yugoslav Federation) women obtained the right to vote in 1945. Greece had to wait for the establishment of a parliamentary monarchy for suffrage to become universal in the Constitution of 1952.


This post-war period was distinguished by the start of the so-called new feminism and marked by the names of Simone De Beauvoir and Betty Frieden. In those days, there was already some talk of patriarchy, the equality of men and women, and women’s rights regarding their bodies. Simone De Beauvoir published The Second Sex in 1949, where she outlined her maxim: One is not born a woman but becomes a woman.


Then in the 70s, Kate Millet would follow her. There is no intellectual and emotional disparity between the sexes. The American psychologist Betty Freidan said in The Feminine Mystique that the male stereotype imposed on women in the 50s led to self-destruction.


It is at this stage that Queer theory appears which rejects the classification of individuals into universal and fixed categories. Sexual identity is now the product of a cultural construction and not part of a biological determinism. It has become gender.


Today, many women's movements seek to break from the unique and unifying gender visions. They promote their work-based diversity. In fact, the joint work has already had some fruits and women from all continents have deployed different action strategies through the United Nations, non-governmental organizations or associations. In 1995, during the Fourth World Conference on Women, an unprecedented series of commitments were agreed, and women's rights were recognized as human rights. More than twenty years after adopting the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, no country has yet achieved gender equality, and discrimination against women persist. For this reason, feminist movements around the world continue to fight to improve the living and social conditions of women.

Unit 3. Women´s rights, gender equality and European values


Gender equality "does not mean that women and men will become the same, but that women’s and men’s rights, responsibilities, and opportunities will not depend on whether they are born male or female.” (UN Women, United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women).


According to Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), the EU´s founding values are “human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities”. Being part of the European Union means to share and defend its fundamental values.


The principle of equality between women and men underpins all European policies and is the basis for European integration. It applies to all areas. Although inequalities still exist, the EU has made significant progress:

  • Equal treatment legislation
  • Gender mainstreaming, integration of the gender perspective into all other policies
  • Specific measures for the advancement of women


The European Commission has developed the EU Gender Equality Strategy with policy objectives and actions to make significant progress towards a gender-equal Europe by 2025.


The key objectives are ending gender-based violence; challenging gender stereotypes; closing gender gaps in the labour market; achieving equal participation across different sectors of the economy; addressing the gender pay and pension gaps; closing the gender care gap and achieving gender balance in decision-making and politics.


Despite the challenges arising from the COVID-19 crisis, the Commission made significant efforts to implement the Gender Equality Strategy over the past year. It strengthened its fight against gender-based violence. In June 2020, it published its first-ever EU Victims’ Rights Strategy and in February 2021 launched an open public consultation on a new legislative initiative to better support victims and prosecute perpetrators of gender-based violence. The Commission adopted the Digital Services Act in December 2020, which clarifies the responsibilities of online platforms, thereby contributing to women’s safety on the Internet. With the adoption of the proposal for a directive strengthening the equal pay principle through pay transparency and enforcement mechanisms in early March 2021, the Commission has taken a major step to improve the respect of the right to equal pay and tackle pay discrimination. Also, in early March 2021, the Commission adopted an Action Plan to implement the European Pillar of Social Rights, which puts gender equality at its core and establishes, amongst others, ambitious targets for women’s participation in the labour market and the provision of early childhood education and care, which is very important in this context. In 2020, a range of actions was announced to ensure that girls and young women participate equally in ICT studies and develop their digital skills.


There is no doubt that a huge breakthrough has been made over the last centuries concerning women’s rights and equality. Nevertheless, the strategy by itself, along with its objectives, reminds us that a lot still needs to be done in order to achieve true gender equality.


To reduce the gender gap present in all societies, we need to start getting rid of gender typing from early childhood on.

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Briatte, A.L. (June 6, 2020). Women´s right to vote. [Article]. Retrieved from:


Curso Mujer y Medio Ambiente: conflictos, oportunidades y retos. CEDREAC. Abril, 2013. [PP course]. Available from:


Gamba Susana (2008). Feminismo: historia y corrientes. [Article]. Retrieved from:  


Joshua J. Mark (March 18, 2019). Women in the Middle Ages [Article]. Retrieved from:


McKeowen, M. (June 25, 2018). Women through History: Women's Experience Through the Ages [Article]. Retrieved from:


Rubio-Martín, R. (April 3, 2014). The achievement of female suffrage in Europe: on women’s citizenship. [Article]. Retrieved from: