10 Reasons Why It Has Sucked to Be a Woman Throughout History

10 Reasons Why It Has Sucked to Be a Woman Throughout History

Patrick Lynch - March 27, 2018

In Stand by Your Man, released in 1969, Tammy Wynette sang the following: “Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman.” While it is ostensibly a love song that was the subject of feminist ire, you could use the lyrics above to accurately describe the lot of females throughout human history. In truth, James Brown’s It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World would be the appropriate soundtrack for the majority of history because women have seemingly always had the rougher end of the stick.

Even today, when women are finally faring much better, the majority of sectors are male-dominated. For example, almost every CEO of Wall Street firms and Fortune 500 companies, mayors of big cities, heads of VC firms, members of Congress, and corporate executive officers, are men. Gender equality certainly has a long way to go to be attained but it is much closer than it has been at almost any other time in history. In this article, I look at ten awful things the female of the species has been forced to put up with in ancient and not-so-ancient times.

10 Reasons Why It Has Sucked to Be a Woman Throughout History
Lillian Gish as Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter movie in 1929 – Public Radio International

1 – Female Adulterers Were Brutally Tortured & Murdered

In Roman times, the whole ‘daddy’s girl’ thing was taken a bit too literally. Patria Potestas was basically lifelong subjugation of children to the will of their father. While it applied as much to sons as daughters, females were more likely to be forced to do as their daddy said. All fathers of legitimate children had the power of Patria Potestas and it was a practice that appalled other Mediterranean cultures. Children in this situation had to ask their father’s permission for marriage for example. In the Lex Julia, a Roman father was permitted to murder his daughter if she committed adultery, under certain circumstances.

Things got particularly grim for female adulterers during Medieval times. Not only did cuckolded husbands gain revenge through murder, they occasionally used a device called a Breast Ripper to mutilate and torture their unfortunate wives. The Ripper was metal and had several claws which were used hot or cold on the exposed breasts of the victim. The claws tore the woman’s breasts apart; in many cases victims died during the process. A variant called The Spider was attached to a wall while its claws hooked into the victim’s breasts. The woman was pulled away from the wall until her breasts were torn off.

The Puritan settlers who colonized America were also fond of meting out the worst possible punishments for adultery. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel, The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne is punished by having a scarlet ‘A’ imprinted on her dress so she had to bear the shame of her misdeed. In reality, Hester got off very lightly compared to the punishments suffered by adulteresses in Puritan colonies. Indeed, sex crimes were the most commonly prosecuted crimes in New England during that era.

In 1641, Anne Linceford was whipped on two separate occasions for adultery while Mary Mendame was also whipped. Mendame was whipped as a cart was drawn through town in 1639 in what was a painful and humiliating experience. In 1631, Mary Latham was executed for adultery. She confessed to having sex with a dozen men and reportedly went to her execution willingly in the belief that she deserved her fate. The men in these tales received lighter punishments because they were usually said to have been ‘enticed’ by ‘temptresses’.

10 Reasons Why It Has Sucked to Be a Woman Throughout History
Depiction of Sati – The Victorian Web

2 – Women Were Expected to Sacrifice Their Lives for the Sake of Men

In India, the practice of ‘Sati’ involved a widow either throwing herself on her husband’s funeral pyre or committing suicide soon after his death. ‘Widow burning’ was first practiced in 510 BC and probably began in India’s warrior aristocracy. It began to gain popularity in the 10th century AD and spread through other provinces within the country from the 12th century until the 18th century. Sati was especially prevalent in certain Hindu communities but was also popular amongst aristocratic Sikh families.

Sati even spread outside India to Vietnam, Indonesia and several other Southeast Asian countries. While the custom began to die out in the south of India, its popularity grew in the north where it often occurred in states such as Bengal and Rajasthan. There are few reliable sources with regards to determining the number of women who died from Sati up until the beginning of the 19th century. The British East India Company reported that there were over 8,000 cases of widow suicide between 1813 and 1828.

It is likely that these numbers drastically underestimate the number of deaths however. One estimate stated that 575 widows performed Sati in the state of Bengal alone in 1823. It is worth noting that widows were effectively shunned and the practice of Sati was believed to be the highest possible expression of devotion to a deceased husband. Also, Sati was supposed to purge the woman of all sins, release her from the birth/rebirth cycle, and guarantee salvation, not only for her husband, but also the next seven generations of the family.

For widows who did not engage in Sati, the outlook was exceedingly bleak. Hindu widows for example, had to renounce all social activities, shave their head, sleep on thin, rough matting and eat nothing but boiled rice. In such circumstances, many women preferred Sati to a life of loneliness where they were effective recluses. Younger women who were little more than girls were more likely to choose Sati. Advocates of the practice said that the widows were performing ‘voluntary’ acts of courage and devotion.

The thing is, Sati wasn’t always voluntary and from the very formation of the practice, the Sikh religion has prohibited it. The Islamic rulers of the Mogul period described it as ‘barbaric’ and the British barely tolerated it in the early 19th century. After Christian missionaries began campaigning against Sati in the 1820s, opposition to the practice rose and it was banned by the Bengali provincial government in 1829. In 1861, Queen Victoria issued a general ban on Sati and it was abolished in Nepal in 1920. In 1988, the Indian Sati Prevention Act was passed in an attempt to end widow burning once and for all.

10 Reasons Why It Has Sucked to Be a Woman Throughout History
Two women in the Double Fiddle – Stocks and Pillories

3 – Women Were Punished for Expressing Themselves

During the Medieval era, women who openly showed anger, argued in public, or were otherwise classified as ‘unruly’, were severely punished. In Denmark, Austria, and Germany, the torture device of choice was the Shrew’s Fiddle. It was a contraption that was a cross between a fiddle and the stocks in terms of design. Also known as the ‘neck violin’, the device consisted of three holes; a large one for the neck, and two small ones for the wrists which were fastened in front of the face.

Women who were caught fighting or arguing could be sentenced to a spell in the Shrew’s Fiddle. To enhance the humiliation level, a bell was sometimes attached so townspeople could hear the victim approaching while trapped in the contraption. They were marched through the streets where passers-by would mock and scold them. Another device, called the double fiddle, attached two women face-to-face. They were forced into the fiddle and had to resolve the argument if they wished to get free.

In England, the device of choice was the awful Scold’s Bridle. Once again, it was a torture device used to punish “rude, clamorous women” in Medieval times. It was a gruesomely designed metal mask which made it impossible for the wearer to speak. It was fitted with a bell on top to attract attention and increase humiliation. The custom of wearing the Scold’s Bridle developed in several European countries, including England, in the 16th century and continued until the 19th century when it was used as punishment in workhouses.

Things were only slightly better for women in ancient Greece and Rome. Even freeborn women in Rome, who were classified as citizens, were not allowed to vote, nor could they hold political office. As such, relatively little is known about high-achieving women of the age. To make matters worse, women were not allowed to leave home with a male by their side and when there were visitors to a home, they could not speak or sit down for dinner. Instead, they had to stay in their rooms and not bother the men.

10 Reasons Why It Has Sucked to Be a Woman Throughout History
Infant Skeleton found at Ashkelon – Ancient Origins

4 – Mothers Had to Murder Their Babies

Much has been written about the Spartan practice of killing deformed children, but it was also commonplace in ancient Rome. A study that was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science found that infanticide was actually a widely tolerated practice in various human societies throughout history. Before modern contraceptive methods, infanticide was considered to be a realistic method of limiting family size because it was effective, and safe for the mother.

In 1921, an expedition at Hambelden, a Roman villa in Britain, determined that the site was the location of 97 infant burials, more than in any other Roman location in Britain. One issue with the discovery was the difficulties in identifying a cause of death. A more recent excavation also showed evidence of mass infanticide. Almost 100 infants were found at Ashkelon in Israel which was once part of the Roman Empire. All of the babies died at around the same full-term age and were dumped in a sewer that ran beneath a brothel.

Other cases of infanticide are suspected around the globe with archaeological evidence for prehistoric sites in Serbia and Thailand pointing towards infanticide. Indeed, a 1973 study of human societies found that an incredible 80% of them practiced the intentional murder of babies at some time throughout history. Researchers have found a link between income inequality and cases of infant murder. In poorer societies, infanticide was used as a means of reducing economic strain on a family.

It is likely that a significant percentage of these babies weren’t even deformed although in impoverished families in ancient Rome for example, deformity was almost certainly a death sentence. If a child was born and had a disability, the mother had to either murder it or abandon it. Suffocation was the most common form of murder and one wonders how many more sites like Ashkelon lie undiscovered. We will never know how many babies were killed in this way but estimates suggest that in ancient Rome at least, 25% of babies didn’t reach their first birthday.

10 Reasons Why It Has Sucked to Be a Woman Throughout History
Example of bride kidnapping in action – The Clever

5 – Brides Were Routinely Kidnapped

Imagine if you were suddenly grabbed and kidnapped by strangers and forced to marry them? This was the fate of countless women in several countries around the world including China, Japan, and Ireland. While most societies rightly see bride kidnapping as a sex crime and not a legitimate form of marriage, it still occurs in certain locations such as amongst the Romani in Europe, the Tzeltal in Mexico, and several Central Asian nations such as Kyrgyzstan. It was practiced in dozens of countries around the world and even remained popular in China until the 1940s.

Bride kidnapping in China was occasionally seen as a groom’s last resort to avoid having to pay a bride price. Some scholars argue with this suggestion and believe bride kidnapping was an act of collusion between the bride’s parents and the groom to avoid having to get the consent of the woman herself. The practice of Qiangqin was common in rural China even though it was banned in Imperial China. Typically, the abductor would show up with up to 20 men. The group would grab the woman and the ‘groom’ would cut off the panties of the ‘bride’ with scissors. The victim would be carried to the man’s house for the marriage to get consummated.

There are patriarchal tribes in Central India that still practice bride kidnapping. In these cases, the groom will carry away the bride and get chased by villagers. If the couple isn’t found within a few hours, they are deemed to be married. While the Indian government strongly disapproves of the custom, it is powerless to prevent tribal communities from conducting such ‘ceremonies’. Bride Kidnapping is illegal in Japan and in 1959, a Japanese man was famously convicted of rape for carrying out the custom known as Ottoi-yomejo. He was sentenced to three years in prison.

Disturbingly, bride kidnapping is still widely practiced in Kyrgyzstan. The former Soviet republic is now an Islamic nation with around 5.5 million residents. An incredible 25% of all marriages in the country are believed to include an element of bride kidnapping. In some cases, it involves a man and his friends borrowing a car to abduct a young woman and force her to be his bride. The victim is dragged to the male’s house and his mother and sisters force the kidnapped woman to wear a headscarf which is a symbolic gesture. In Kyrgyzstan, a woman agrees to a marriage when she wears the headscarf.

10 Reasons Why It Has Sucked to Be a Woman Throughout History
Pliny The Elder – Famous People

6 – Women Were Isolated When Menstruating

The female ‘time of the month’ remained a mystery for thousands of years and this ignorance led to poor treatment of women during their period. Indeed, physicians had no idea that menstruation was linked to ovulation until the 19th century. Before then, it was assumed that women had to bleed in order to cool their hysterical natures. According to Pliny the Elder, the famous Roman philosopher, milk would become sour if you approached a woman in the menstruating state. He also wrote that women on their period could stop lightning and whirlwinds while killing bees just by looking at them.

In one sense, the ancient Egyptians were ahead of their time because they used papyrus as tampons. However, they also treated women poorly during their menstrual cycles and placed them in special buildings where men were not allowed entry. In Israel, women were not touched during their period nor would anyone touch anything that the unfortunate female had also touched. According to the Israelis, “everything on which she sits, shall be unclean.” In Hawaii, men who dared enter the special hut for menstruating women could receive the death penalty.

Most of us have heard about the ‘lusty Frenchman’ stereotype but their desires were stopped dead in their tracks by menstruating women. Back in Medieval France, if you had sex with a woman during her menstrual cycle, it was believed that they would give birth to something “puny, languid, and moribund, subject to an infinity of fetid maladies, foul and stinking.” In other words, sex during this time would result in the birth of a ‘period monster’. Just as well we live in more enlightened times.

It would be incorrect to suggest that the menstrual cycle was greeted with nothing but hostility. In Medieval Europe, some people believed period blood was a cure for leprosy. A nun named Hildegard von Bingen came up with this bright idea. Another school of thought suggested that sex with a woman during her period would corrode your penis. There are still some cultures around the world that believe period blood is an aphrodisiac. According to ‘Hoodoo’, a form of African folk magic, putting menstrual cycle blood in a man’s coffee will make him fall in love with you. On behalf of men around the world, I can assure you that it will not.

10 Reasons Why It Has Sucked to Be a Woman Throughout History
Samoan Tribe – iExplore

7 – Women Could Be Murdered for Losing Their Virginity

Priestesses of the Roman Goddess Vesta, also known as Vestal Virgins, were treated like celebrities in ancient Rome. If you ever travel to the city, you have to make your way to the Roman Forum and check out the Temple of Vesta. Unfortunately, it is not the same temple used by the Virgins because it has been burned at least twice. During the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD, it was destroyed along with much of the city. Another fire, this time in 1549, ruined it again but it was reconstructed in the 1930s.

The House of the Vestal Virgins was located nearby and the duty of the chosen women was to ensure the fire kept burning in the Temple. According to Roman tradition, the city would stand as long as the fire kept burning. These women were not chosen at random; they were handpicked by the High Priest who selected girls aged between 6 and 10. They were forced to remain virgins and could only get married after 30 years of chastity. Few of the Vestal Virgins got married later in life as they deemed it bad luck.

If a Virgin broke her 30-year vow, the punishment was terrible. After enduring a severe beating, the women would be buried alive and, in some cases, molten lead was poured down their throats. On the flipside, being a Vestal Virgin was arguably the greatest honor a woman in ancient Rome could achieve. Those who remained loyal received an incredible number of privileges by the standards of the time. For example, they were allowed to attend the gladiator games and political meetings, an impossibility for ‘regular’ Roman women.

Over in Samoa, a bride’s virginity was taken extremely seriously. Not only did they thoroughly check the women, but they also did so in public so that everyone knew! During Samoan weddings, the tribal chief would rupture the bride’s hymen with his fingers in front of a crowd to prove her ‘purity’. Meanwhile, women in ancient Israel suffered the same fate as Vestal Virgins if they lost their virginity before marriage. Unlike their Roman equivalent however, Israeli women received no special privileges.

10 Reasons Why It Has Sucked to Be a Woman Throughout History
Saint Augustine of Hippo

8 – In Ancient Rome, Men Were Not Just Allowed to Be Sexual Deviants, It Was Encouraged

The Romans were advanced in many ways but were positively barbaric in others. One of the biggest black marks against ancient Rome is not only the slavery aspect, but how they treated those in servitude. It is a sad fact that you don’t create and expand an empire without shedding rivers of blood, and the Roman Empire was no different. Ancient Rome was a dominating and aggressive society and produced some appalling emperors including Caligula, Nero, and Commodus.

Rome had an enormous slave trade which was a significant part of its economy. Slaves had zero rights and were completely at the mercy of their masters. As well as beating and sexually abusing slaves, masters could murder them and suffer zero consequences. If slaves ran away and were recaptured, crucifixion was the typical punishment. There were some laws implemented to protect slaves but were generally ignored. At the height of the empire’s power, up to 15% of the population were slaves.

Therefore, female slaves were regularly and brutally raped by their masters and could do nothing about it. In fact, the only way to get in trouble for raping a slave was if you didn’t own the slave. In that case, you may be charged for property damage but that’s about it. However, it wasn’t just slave women in Rome that were at risk. Women who worked as prostitutes, waitresses, or actresses also had no recourse if they were raped as it was considered part of their job.

In one case where a woman tried to get justice after being gang-raped, her complaint was dismissed because apparently, the men were only acting by well-established traditions at staged events. While it would be nice if attitudes to rape had improved over the years, it sadly didn’t. Saint Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 AD) was praised for his progressive attitude as he said raped women did not have to commit suicide. He also suggested that some women enjoyed the experience.

10 Reasons Why It Has Sucked to Be a Woman Throughout History
Tomb of Young woman and newborn baby from Danish Stone Age – Pinterest

9 – In Ancient Greece, Newborn Girls Were Left to Die

I already wrote about women being forced to give up deformed children but in Ancient Rome and Greece, it was even worse for some families. In Athens for example, it was normal for a couple to take a newborn girl and leave it to die in the wilderness; this despicable act was known as ‘exposing’ the baby. According to one Greek writer “Everybody raises a son even if he is poor but exposes a daughter even if he is rich.” The decision of whether to raise or kill the girl fell to the father. The rate of female infanticide increased in the Hellenic period where it was rare for a family to raise two daughters.

The reason why the child was exposed was to try and ease the guilty conscience of the parents. After all, if they left the baby outside alone, they wouldn’t have to kill it directly and there was always a small chance that someone would come, save the baby and raise it as their own child. Another reason for exposing baby girls was that in Ancient Greece, and many other cultures, it was standard to give women dowries when they got married and they were less likely to bring wealth and status to a family than a boy.

Archaeologists made a harrowing discovery in the Athenian Agora in the 1930s. As well as finding temples and statues close to the marketplace in the city’s ancient center, they found a well cut into the bedrock. They didn’t think much of this seemingly innocuous discovery until they looked inside and found the skeletons of hundreds of babies and dogs. A research team determined that there were 450 dead babies in the well along with over 150 puppies and dogs, and one adult with a physical deformity. The bodies were dated sometime between 165 and 150 BC.

The archaeologists believe that while a significant number of babies were dropped into the well, some died from diseases and were cast aside like garbage. Further research also showed signs of abuse on some of the unfortunate children. One 18-month old baby had several fractures, most notably one in the skull. It is arguably the oldest discovery of a physically abused child that has ever been found.

10 Reasons Why It Has Sucked to Be a Woman Throughout History
Ancient baby bones suggest that Romans practised infanticide – Daily Mail

10 – Women Have Suffered Since the Very Beginning

Archaeological excavations around the world suggest that women have been on the wrong of marriages and relationships since the prehistoric era. If you’re a strong independent woman, it is the height of frustration to be told you have to ‘know your place’ but we have lived in a patriarchal society since the very beginning. It was even the case in the prehistoric era when women were remarkably strong. According to Cambridge scientists, the upper body strength of women back then was superior to that of the Cambridge rowing team today.

Their research discovered that the arm bones of Neolithic women were around 16% stronger than the rowers and up to 30% stronger than the average Cambridge student. Even when you fast forward to the Bronze Age, women had arm bones 13% stronger than the rowers. One of the reasons for their immense arm strength was the monotonous process of grain grinding which involved sitting down and grinding back and forth with their arms for hours on end. It was a similar exercise to modern day rowing but not as much fun one assumes.

Yet even these strong women were subject to the whims of men. For example, when archaeologists analyzed prehistoric remains in Africa, they discovered that the men had stayed in one place for their entire life. In contrast, every single female was born elsewhere. Did they happen to travel to the location or were they kidnapped and brought there? The latter scenario seems infinitely more likely as research suggests that they belonged to different tribes and were snatched away.

It would be wonderful if the practice of denigrating women and treating them as inferior beings and sex objects died out but in some communities around the world, things are little better for females now then they were 2,000 years ago. There is a tiny community in the north of Norway in the Arctic Circle called Tysfjord where sexual abuse is the norm. Police have documented over 150 cases of sexual abuse between the 1950s and today.

If you don’t think that’s a huge amount, you will be shocked to learn that only 2,000 people live in the community. It would be the equivalent of around 600,000 cases of sexual abuse in New York City since the 1950s, or almost 10,000 a year. The actual rate of rapes in New York City is a little over 10% of that figure.


Where Do We Get Our Stuff? Here is a List of Our Sources

“What Exactly Does ‘It’s a Man’s World’ Mean?” Soraya Chemaly in The Huffington Post. December 2017.

“What Happened to the Puritan Women if Caught in Adultery?” Janet Mulroney Clark in Classroom. Accessed March 2018.

“The Practice of Sati (Widow Burning).” Linda Heaphy in Kashgar. May 2017.

“Scold’s Bridle: Medieval Punishment for Gossiping and Quarrelsome Women.” Alex Santoso in Neatorama. February 2011.

“Infanticide Common in Roman Empire.” Jen Viegas in Seeker. May 2011.

“Bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan: Crime and tradition overlap.” John Fleming in The Irish Times. December 2015.

“History period – a look at menstruation through the ages in 15 fascinating facts.” Yvette Caster in Metro UK. May 2015.

“Vesta, The Goddess of Family, And the Scared Virgins of Rome.” Roma Experience. May 2015.

“Violence, Rebellion And Sexual Exploitation: The Darker Side Of Ancient Rome.” History Extra. May 2018.

“450 Dead babies Found in Athenian Well Shed Light on Ancient Greeks.” Douglas Main in Newsweek. October 2015.

“The community of 2,000 people with 151 cases of sex crime.” Linda Pressly in BBC News. March 2018.

“Prehistoric women were stronger than modern rowers say Cambridge Scientists.” Josh Gabbatiss in The Independent. November 2017.