Archaeological evidence from Europe and the Near East has suggested that palaeolithic civilizations practised goddess worship and were organized as matriarchies. However, from the time of the earliest written records, these civilizations had been overtaken by male-deity-worshipping, patriarchal cultures in which men were political, religious, and military leaders and women were kept in subordination. In Classical times and the early Christian era, women were excluded from public life and were made subordinate to men. For example, Aristotle, in Politics, argued that women were inferior to men and must be ruled by men. St Paul told Christian wives to obey their husbands and not to speak in church.
Throughout most of the second millennium, in most societies, women were deprived of property, education, and legal status. They were made the responsibility of their husbands if married, or of their fathers or other male relatives if not. However, there were examples of exceptional women who challenged patriarchal structures in their lives and writings. For example, a German abbess, Hildegard of Bingen defied the authority of male Church leaders; and an Italian writer and courtier Christine de Pisan defended women and wrote biblical commentaries which challenged the patriarchal ideas inherent in Christianity. By the end of the 17th century, a number of women writers, such as Mary Astell, were calling for improvements in women’s education.
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