Oppression and Women's History

Suffragettes march in New York City

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Oppression is the inequitable use of authority, law, or physical force to prevent others from being free or equal. Oppression is a type of injustice. The verb oppress can mean to keep someone down in a social sense, such as an authoritarian government might do in an oppressive society. It can also mean to mentally burden someone, such as with the psychological weight of an oppressive idea. 

Feminists fight against the oppression of women. Women have been unjustly held back from achieving full equality for much of human history in many societies around the world.

Feminist theorists of the 1960s and 1970s looked for new ways to analyze this oppression, often concluding that there were both overt and insidious forces in society that oppressed women.

These feminists also drew on the work of earlier authors who had analyzed the oppression of women, including Simone de Beauvoir in "The Second Sex" and Mary Wollstonecraft in "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman". Many common types of oppression are described as “isms” such as sexism, racism and so on.

The opposite of oppression would be liberation (to remove oppression) or equality (absence of oppression).

The Ubiquity of Women's Oppression

In much of the written literature of the ancient and medieval world, we have evidence of women's oppression by men in European, Middle Eastern, and African cultures. Women did not have the same legal and political rights as men and were under control of fathers and husbands in almost all societies.

In some societies in which women had few options for supporting their life if not supported by a husband, there was even a practice of ritual widow suicide or murder. (Asia continued this practice into the 20th century with some cases occurring in the present as well.)

In Greece, often held up as a model of democracy, women did not have basic rights, and could own no property nor could they participate directly in the political system. In both Rome and Greece, women's every movement in public was limited. There are cultures today where women rarely leave their own homes.

Sexual Violence

Use of force or coercion—physical or cultural—to impose unwanted sexual contact or rape is a physical expression of oppression, both a result of oppression and a means to maintain oppression.

Oppression is both a cause and an effect of sexual violence. Sexual violence and other forms of violence can create psychological trauma, and make it more difficult for the members of the group subjected to the violence to experience autonomy, choice, respect, and safety.

Religions and Cultures

Many cultures and religions justify the oppression of women by attributing sexual power to them, that men must then rigidly control to maintain their own purity and power.

Reproductive functions—including childbirth and menstruation, sometimes breastfeeding and pregnancy—are seen as disgusting. Thus, in these cultures, women are often required to cover their bodies and faces to keep men, assumed not to be in control of their own sexual actions, from being overpowered.

Women are also treated either like children or like property in many cultures and religions. For example, the punishment for rape in some cultures is that the rapist's wife is given over to the rape victim's husband or father to rape as he wishes, as revenge.

Or a woman who is involved in adultery or other sex acts outside monogamous marriage is punished more severely than the man who is involved, and a woman's word about rape is not taken as seriously as a man's word about being robbed would be. Women's status as somehow lesser than men is used to justify men's power over women.

Marxist (Engels) View of Women's Oppression

In Marxism, women's oppression is a key issue. Engels called the working woman "a slave of a slave," and his analysis, in particular, was that oppression of women rose with the rise of a class society, about 6,000 years ago.

Engels' discussion of the development of women's oppression is primarily in "The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State," and drew on anthropologist Lewis Morgan and German writer Bachofen. Engels writes of "the world historical defeat of the female sex" when Mother-right was overthrown by males to control inheritance of property. Thus, he argued, it was the concept of property that led to women's oppression.

Critics of this analysis point out that while there is much anthropological evidence for matrilineal descent in primal societies, that does not equate to matriarchy or women's equality. In the Marxist view, the oppression of women is a creation of culture.

Other Cultural Views

Cultural oppression of women can take many forms, including shaming and ridiculing women to reinforce their supposed inferior "nature," or physical abuse, as well as the more commonly acknowledged means of oppression including fewer political, social and economic rights.

Psychological View

In some psychological views, the oppression of women is an outcome of the more aggressive and competitive nature of males due to testosterone levels. Others attribute it to a self-reinforcing cycle where men compete for power and control.

Psychological views are used to justify views that women think differently or less well than men, though such studies don't hold up to scrutiny.


Other forms of oppression can interact with the oppression of women. Racism, classism, heterosexism, ableism, ageism, and other social forms of coercion mean that women who are experiencing other forms of oppression may not experience oppression as women in the same way other women with different "intersections" will experience it.

Additional contributions by Jone Johnson Lewis.

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Napikoski, Linda. "Oppression and Women's History." ThoughtCo, Aug. 7, 2021, thoughtco.com/oppression-womens-history-definition-3528977. Napikoski, Linda. (2021, August 7). Oppression and Women's History. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/oppression-womens-history-definition-3528977 Napikoski, Linda. "Oppression and Women's History." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/oppression-womens-history-definition-3528977 (accessed March 29, 2023).