Throughout history, men have been the breadwinners, the slayers of dragons, the defenders of the cave. Naturally bigger and stronger, more able to wield an axe or a spear, women were traditionally the ones left to prepare the food the man brought home, bear and bring up the children.

The Origin of Women’s Rights

Only in the 18th century did women really start to take a stand for equality. Women's rights are the rights and entitlements claimed for women and girls worldwide, and they formed the basis for the women's rights movement in the 19th century and the feminist movements during the 20th and 21st centuries. In some countries, these rights are institutionalised or supported by law, local customs, and behaviour, whereas in others, they are still ignored and suppressed.

When we look for powerful women in ancient history, we find that some were already known to have had power. There are many matrilineal (or mother line) societies, organised through mothers rather than fathers, dotted all over the world, with name and property passed from mother to daughter. In some regions, matrilineal traditions are thought to date back thousands of years.

For decades western scholars have invented theories to explain why these societies exist. Some say it works best when men are away at war, leaving women in charge at home. Others argue that matriliny ended as soon as people started keeping cattle, because men wanted to control these resources—linking patriarchy to property and land.

Historical strong women

Cleopatra is probably one of the strongest women in history, who cleverly utilised Roman politicians to benefit both herself and Egypt. She skilfully manipulated Roman generals for her own triumphs, but also ultimately the downfall of Egypt. While Cleopatra skilfully used Caesar and Antony to rid her of enemies and threats to the throne it was also Roman politicians that effected the end of her reign.

Joan of Arc – another strong woman. It’s been almost 600 years since the trial and execution of Joan of Arc, and her memory hasn’t faded. From novels, plays and movies to books and endless theories about how she heard the voices that led her to lead an army, her story has been regularly re-explored by generations in France and elsewhere. She represents the fact that females could fight and had the strength of men, and this led to the beginning of women stepping out of traditional roles. From her example, women were allowed to fight in wars, play in dominantly male sports, be educated in traditionally male schools and universities, be employed as equals alongside men in the workforce, and become more than just the stereotypical housewife.

Equal Economic Opportunity

In March 2022, it was reported that around 2.4 billion women of working age are not afforded equal economic opportunity and 178 countries maintain legal barriers that prevent full economic participation, according to the World Bank’s ‘Women, Business and the Law 2022’ report. They say that in 86 countries, women face some form of job restriction and 95 countries do not guarantee equal pay for equal work.

In 1973 Steven Goldberg published ‘The Inevitability of Patriarchy’, a book arguing that fundamental biological differences between men and women run so deep that in every corner of human society, a patriarchal system would always win out. Whichever way the pie was cut, men, being more powerful and aggressive in his view, would end up with the bigger slice. Hmm. I beg to differ.

Women can be fearless, brave, adventurous and independent, and it’s time to change the ways in which the world’s women, girls and nonbinary people are treated. Domestic violence, the gender pay gap and moral standards should not exist.

Equality is a big subject and encompasses many areas, and we humans pride ourselves on being intelligent, social creatures. Maybe it's time that we got started on equality as a first step.


Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man. 

Marilyn Sheridan