The first set of written laws, Hammurabi’s code, states that a man can cheat on a woman but a woman should be punished severely for cheating on a man. This is one of the first documents that institutes a woman’s role as a man’s possession.
We no longer have these laws, but have maintained these ideals in almost every culture since. Time and time again, women are displayed as objects which provide sex but are also expected to be pure and virtuous. When a woman is sexually active, she is seen as having loose and flawed character, a stigma that does not exist with men. By implanting in a woman’s mind that she is only useful for sex and that her appearance is her only valuable trait, she is not only dehumanized but a sense of competition is created and women are isolated from one another.
Starting in the 10th century and dying out in the early 20th century, upper class women in China were encouraged to bind their feet in order to become more appealing. This is not only arbitrary, but also harmful to their health. But nonetheless, the practice persisted. Women’s appearances were valued over their well being for a millennium. This theme of mutilation would appear in most parts of the world in one way or another, such as corsets in Europe and Chinookan head flattening. These methods became popular because of the pressure put on woman to find and keep a husband. Eventually, they get ingrained into society and women lose hope in other options. Every gender has unreasonable and harmful expectations for appearances, but these have been used to systematically strip women of power for thousands of years.
During the 19th century, the cult of domesticity was created. This movement claimed a woman’s role was as a mother and a keeper of the house. This idea discouraged a woman’s independence and encouraged the idea that a woman exists to serve a man and have his children. Additionally, it solidified the idea that a woman is a source of emotional support. During World War II, men were drafted and women were needed to fill their jobs, and they did so; but as the men returned, women were forced to return to the kitchen.
In the late 1900s, a women’s rights movement formed and continues to this day. More and more women are refusing silence and seeking out societal reform. While they are still judged for sexual activity, they have begun the process of reclaiming their sexualities and refusing to apologize for it.
As female confidence grows in the modern era, so does its opposition. The rise of feminism and the #MeToo movement have been calling attention to damaging societal standards that had been simply been accepted. However, with advancement comes resistance. The definition of feminism according to Merriam-Webster is “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” Feminism is reaching for equality. And yet, there are those who claim that feminism is overpowering and unnecessary. These people oftentimes receive benefits from maintaining female oppression, or do not understand the ramifications of their beliefs as they have never been affected by female oppression.
Every advancement or stepback has a societal consequence. For example, restricting access to birth control perpetuates the ideas that there is shame in sex and that women are incapable of making choices about their own bodies. All of these effects are especially present for women of color, as they are especially marginalized. Hammurabi’s code established the belief that a woman is a piece of property. Every rapist not convicted, or convicted with a minimal sentence, shows that violating a woman’s safety is still accepted.