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With all the dramatic transformations that took place in the nineteenth century, this was actually a low point in terms of women’s rights. Education, real wages, and professional opportunities continued to be mostly inaccessible; however, the new intellectual and economic opportunities available to men did open doors for women, and movements began throughout the world to rally for women’s political and legal rights.

Although women continued to be heavily restricted with few freedoms, political and legal barriers for men based on class or racial categories were mostly eliminated. Yet women were not unaffected by the new Enlightenment ideals of freedom, equality and liberty and the earliest feminist writers emerged in western Europe during this period. Both middle- and working-class women joined reform movements, labor unions, and socialist parties. Most important to these women was access to education which was still denied to the majority of them due to ideas of mental inferiority based on social Darwinism.

Although most Western countries opened university education to women, literacy rates in China and India—countries with long histories of secluding women—remained shockingly low well into the twentieth century. However, male literacy in these regions was also low, and despite Christian missionary schools, it was not in the interest of the imperial powers to have a well-educated colonial populace.

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