The era spanning 1750 CE and 1914 CE was the era of revolutions. These revolutions were political, economic, and cultural, and usually very drastic. Perhaps the most visible cultural change was that in working-class women’s rights and conditions, which improved significantly during the era of revolutions. The most visible improvements in women’s rights were seen in Western Europe and China, where women gained many rights but remained under patriarchal authority and could not vote.
Western Europe was the home of revolution. Social revolution grew out of Europe, and Renaissance men and women heralded human rights. Revolutions of the people were built upon the support of women, and in women used their dedication during wartime to garner support for peace-time rights. Women in Western Europe tried to harness the spirit of freedom, equality, and popular sovereignty. It was during the era of revolution that large women’s rights movements were established, providing women with their own unions. Enlightenment thinkers presented very convincing arguments for female rights, and in many cases persuaded governments to grant women rights such as free public education, inheritance, and legalized divorce. However, little in terms of actual rights were achieved.
In China, industrialization had become a part of life following the mid-eighteenth century. Unlike European industrializing power, China industrialized while relatively remote from other industrial nations, allowing it to develop its own strand of industrialization. Before industrialization, the humiliating practice of foot binding was very popular. Girls were often victims of infanticide, as boys could grow up to become government officials whereas girls would be married and become subservient to another family. Population growth in China caused by industrialization led to social change, and social revolution came in the form of the Taiping program, which decreed that men and women were equal. Though quickly put down, this showed that on the small scale, Chinese women were gaining more rights and independence, and a many people believed that they should no longer be treated as subservient individuals.
Throughout the era of revolution, women maintained a, to some degree, subservient position to men. Despite the many attempts by feminists to try and gain equal rights, little besides recognized was gained for the feminist cause. Indeed, it was not until after World War I that women gained suffrage. Up through 1914, women throughout both China and Western Europe maintained the same generally subservient role in the male household, despite gaining several token rights. It required large-scale social change in order to change the ingrown attitude towards women.
Overall, working-class women in Western Europe and China gained little between 1750 and 1914 CE. They built the ideas and foundation that they would need in order to gain rights such as suffrage and legal equality later in the twentieth century, but little more than symbolic rights were granted them.
Hosken, Fran P., ‘Towards a Definition of Women’s Rights’ in Human Rights Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 2. (May, 1981), pp. 1-10.
Lockwood, Bert B. (ed.), Women’s Rights: A “Human Rights Quarterly” Reader (John Hopkins University Press, 2006), ISBN 9780801883743Lafitau, Joseph François, cited by Campbell, Joseph in, Myth, religion, and mother-right: selected writings of JJ Bachofen. Manheim, R (trans.) Princeton, N.J. 1967 introduction xxxiii