Some of the most influential changes of recent times have still to reveal their full weight and implications; after all, the issue of contraception affects, potentially, the whole human race, although we usually think about it as part of the history of women. But the relations of men and women should be considered as a whole, even if it is traditional and convenient to approach the subject from one side only. Much that settles the fate of many women can nonetheless be roughly measured and measurement, even at its crudest, quickly makes it clear that great as the level of change has been, it still has a long way to go. Radical change has only taken place in a few places, and is measurable (if at all) only in the last couple of centuries even there. Our recognition of the changes has to be very carefully qualified; most western women now live lives dramatically unlike those of their great-grandmothers while the lives of women in some parts of the world have been little changed for millennia.
Advances in women’s political and legal equality with men are easy to trace. A majority of members of the United Nations now accepts some measure of female suffrage and in most western (and some other) countries, formal and legal inequalities between the sexes have now been under attack for a long time. Prolonged moral questioning of them has led at least to much compliance with the wishes of egalitarians. The range of legislation attempting to assure equity in the treatment of women has been steadily extended (for instance, into the recognition of disadvantages in employment which had long been ignored). Examples thus set have been noted and influential in non-western countries, even in the teeth of conservative oppositions. This has been a new operative force in changing perceptions and, of course, it has been all the more influential in a world where women’s labour has confronted growing opportunities thanks to technological and economic change. To the huge early opportunities of jobs they could take which were provided by textile mill and typewriter were later added literally hundreds of new roles which women could fill as they mastered other technical skills - and, indeed, as opportunities of education were increased to meet their needs.
Such matters continued to unroll in developing societies in the interconnected, interlocking ways in which they had done so since the industrialization wave began. Even the home was transformed as a place of work - piped water and gas were soon followed by electricity and the possibility of easier management of domestic processes, by detergents, synthetic fibres and prepared foods, while information became available to women as never before through radio, cinema, television and cheap print. It is tempting to speculate, though, that no such changes arising in more sophisticated societies had anything like the fundamental impact of the appearance in the 1960s of ‘the Pill’. Thanks to its convenience and the way in which it was used, it did more than any earlier advance in contraceptive knowledge or technique to transfer power over their own lives in these matters to women. It opened a new era in the history of sexual culture, even if that was obvious only in a few societies three or four decades later.
One concomitant, in the United States in particular, was a new feminism that broke away from the liberal tradition in which its predecessors had been rooted. Arguments for traditional feminism had always had a liberal flavour, saying that for women to live unencumbered by laws and customs which were not imposed on men but only on them was merely a logical extension of the truth that freedom and equality were good things unless specific cause otherwise were to be shown. The new feminism took a new tack. It embraced a wider spectrum of causes specific to women - the protection of lesbians, for example - laid particular stress on women’s sexual liberation, and above all strove to identify and uncover unrecognized instances of psychological, implicit and institutionalized forms of masculine oppression. Its impact has been varied, even within societies and cultures whose elites are susceptible to modernization and its ideas.
In some traditional societies any feminist advance at all has been fiercely contested. In only one respect has there been a widespread and striking change and it owes as much in specific places to colonialism, communism and Christianity as to feminism. This is the worldwide retreat of polygamy. Few governments now officially support it. Other institutional expressions of special cultural attitudes towards female emancipation nonetheless remain very striking. This is often remarked in western comments on Muslim ways. Yet this, too, is a topic formidably difficult to evaluate. It tempts the observer to subjective and emotional judgement on subjects best not abandoned to quick and generalized reaction. Specification, though, is almost as dangerous as generalization. Only too obviously, the Islamic world maintains restrictions and practices that protect an ultimate male dominance. Many attempts to change this have been thwarted or aborted. Yet not all Muslim societies impose the veil on their women and the wearing of the chador in the Iranian Islamic republic is not incompatible with successful support by Islamic scholars for defending certain rights for women. Whether such facts turn out to establish sensible compromise or uneasy equilibrium will differ from one Muslim society to another. It should not be forgotten that violent contrasts in what is thought appropriate behaviour for women have until recently existed in European societies, too. It is not easy to relate such paradoxes as they have sometimes presented to what are supposed to be uniformities of faith.