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|Spectra and binaries|
A woman is a female adult Homo sapiens.[notes 1] The plural is women.
Historically, women have been considered second class citizens compared to men (alongside "sexual deviants", ethnic- and religious minorities and poor people).[notes 2] This remains true in many ways throughout the world to varying degrees, as a patriarchal society is very much the norm.
The level of oppression has naturally varied. Some societies treated women essentially as equals, although this was extraordinarily rare. More common was the granting of certain levels of rights, such as ownership of property and the right to inherit, such as was found in Sparta or Rome. But even these few rights were generally only given to patrician women of the upper class.
As the general level of education in the first world increased coming into the modern era, attitudes towards women shifted somewhat. Rather than regarding women as naturally inferior, as was typical in medieval Europe, the approach of the Victorian age lifted women from their knees to a pedestal. Still thought to be separate and cognitively inferior, women were lauded as the paragons of virtue or vice.
The late-18th century novel The Vicar of Wakefield recounts a typical attitude that came to be prevalent in European society:
The modest virgin, the prudent wife, and the careful matron, are much more serviceable in life than petticoated philosophers, blustering heroines, or virago queens. She who makes her husband and her children happy, who reclaims the one from vice and trains up the other to virtue, is a much greater character than ladies described in romances, whose whole occupation is to murder mankind with shafts from their quiver, or their eyes.
In this way, emerging sensibilities of fairness and growing recognition of female ability were assuaged by the praise of womankind, while at the same time women were successfully kept within the domestic niche.
Thanks to feminism and pre-feminist movements over the past century or two, attitudes towards women and sexual equality have improved considerably, at least in most of the industrialized nations -- although in many there is still a strong perception that women are inferior to men in certain specific ways.
Many social conservatives argue for the "traditional" view of women as being "naturally" (or even, "intelligently"!) designed for homemaking. The modern theory tends to be that being able to bear and nurse children, as well as being unable to gain as much muscle mass as a man, indicates that women are predisposed to stay in the home and raise children. This is often reinforced by prejudices or by traditional religious beliefs, which were created by a largely male ruling/priest class.
Scientific evidence tends to indicate that women are just as intelligent, creative, and adept as men in virtually every sphere of life. Some dispute this evidence, however, and usually reference their own 'studies' that indicate that women are less able to use mathematics or engage in spatial reasoning. Critics of such 'studies' argue that they are inherently biased towards men.
There is a popular belief that the term is a modification of the base word "man," and that accordingly by its very essence it is a misogynistic word. The natural assumption would be that in the linguistic view of the originators of the term, a woman was a modified or somehow "lesser" man. For this reason you will occasionally see feminists use the spelling womyn. This idea may be reinforced by a biblical passage:
“”And Adam said, This [is] now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.
|—Genesis 2:23, KJV|
While this belief is perhaps justified, given the long history of oppression of women, the real truth is more complex. The word descends from the Old English "wīf," which was often complemented with the neutral term for person, "mann." The treatment of the masculine word, "wer," was similar, with "wermann" being used in the same way. "Wer" was also used in a variety of other ways that reflected masculine roles at the time, such as in "wergild," the "man-money" paid as ransom to the family of an enemy one had murdered. (We still have words such as "werewolf", i.e., "man-wolf.") Women were not permitted to be warriors, and so, accordingly, it was the masculine term that was reflected in such words.
Male roles and traditions of the same sort dominated oral and written works of the time, and came to encompass a high prestige in Old English-speaking society. Eventually, as the language evolved, because of its much more dominant use, "man" became the gender-neutral term, while the more complex "wīfmann" came to indicate women. This resulted in the modern-day use of the terms, where "man" indicates both male and neutral gender, and "woman" indicates women.
Thus, while there is some element of misogyny within the use of the term, it is more of a result of the overlying social structure rather than specific anti-woman sentiment among the speakers of English.
- In fact, anyone who wasn't a socioeconomically well-off man of the predominant ethnic (and sometimes religious) group.