A woman is a female human being. The word woman is usually reserved for an adult; girl is the usual term for a female child or adolescent. The plural women is also sometimes used for female humans, regardless of age, as in phrases such as “women’s rights“.
Typically, a woman has two X chromosomes and is capable of pregnancy and giving birth from puberty until menopause. Female anatomy, as distinguished from male anatomy, includes the fallopian tubes, ovaries, uterus, vulva, breasts, Skene’s glands, and Bartholin’s glands. The female pelvis is wider than the male, the hips are generally broader, and women have significantly less facial and other body hair. On average, women are shorter and less muscular than men.
Throughout human history, traditional gender roles have often defined and limited women’s activities and opportunities; many religious doctrines stipulate certain rules for women that are obligatory. With restrictions loosening during the 20th century in many societies, women have gained access to careers beyond the traditional homemaker, and the ability to pursue higher education. Violence against women, whether within families or in communities, has a long history and is primarily committed by men. Some women are denied reproductive rights. The movements and ideologies of feminism have a shared goal of achieving gender equality.
Some women are trans (those who have a male sex assignment that does not align with their gender identity), or intersex (those born with sexual characteristics that do not fit typical notions of male or female).
The spelling of “woman” in English has progressed over the past millennium from wīfmann to wīmmann to wumman, and finally, the modern spelling woman. In Old English, wīfmann meant “female human”, whereas wēr meant “male human”. Mann or monn had a gender-neutral meaning of “human”, corresponding to Modern English “person” or “someone”; however, subsequent to the Norman Conquest, man began to be used more in reference to “male human”, and by the late 13th century had begun to eclipse usage of the older term wēr. The medial labial consonants f and m in wīfmann coalesced into the modern form “woman”, while the initial element wīf, which meant “female”, underwent semantic narrowing to the sense of a married woman (“wife”).
It is a popular misconception that the term “woman” is etymologically connected to “womb”. “Womb” derives from the Old English word wamb meaning “belly, bowels, heart, uterus” (modern German retains the colloquial term “wamme” from Old High German wamba for “belly, paunch, lap”).
The glyph (♀) for the planet and Roman goddess Venus, or Aphrodite in Greek, is the symbol used in biology for the female sex. In ancient alchemy, the Venus symbol stood for copper and was associated with femininity.
Further information: girl, virgin, mother, wife, goodwife, lady, maid, maiden, and widow
Womanhood is the period in a human female’s life after she has passed through childhood, puberty, and adolescence. Different countries have different laws, but age 18 is frequently considered the age of majority (the age at which a person is legally considered an adult).
The word woman can be used generally, to mean any female human, or specifically, to mean an adult female human as contrasted with girl. The word girl originally meant “young person of either sex” in English; it was only around the beginning of the 16th century that it came to mean specifically a female child. The term girl is sometimes used colloquially to refer to a young or unmarried woman; however, during the early 1970s, feminists challenged such use because the use of the word to refer to a fully grown woman may cause offence. In particular, previously common terms such as office girl are no longer widely used. Conversely, in certain cultures which link family honor with female virginity, the word girl (or its equivalent in other languages) is still used to refer to a never-married woman; in this sense it is used in a fashion roughly analogous to the more-or-less obsolete English maid or maiden.
There are various words used to refer to the quality of being a woman. The term “womanhood” merely means the state of being a woman, having passed the menarche; “femininity” is used to refer to a set of typical female qualities associated with a certain attitude to gender roles; “womanliness” is like “femininity”, but is usually associated with a different view of gender roles. “Distaff” is an archaic adjective derived from women’s conventional role as a spinner, now used only as a deliberate archaism.
Menarche, the onset of menstruation, occurs on average at age 12–13. Many cultures have rites of passage to symbolize a girl’s coming of age, such as confirmation in some branches of Christianity, bat mitzvah in Judaism, or a custom of a special celebration for a certain birthday (generally between 12 and 21), like the quinceañera of Latin America.
Trans women are those whose sex assignment at birth was male, while intersex women are those born with sexual characteristics that do not fit typical notions of male or female.
The earliest women whose names are known through archaeology include:
- Neithhotep (c. 3200 BCE), the wife of Narmer and the first queen of ancient Egypt.
- Merneith (c. 3000 BCE), consort and regent of ancient Egypt during the first dynasty. She may have been ruler of Egypt in her own right.
- Merit-Ptah (c. 2700 BCE), also lived in Egypt and is the earliest known female physician and scientist.
- Peseshet (c. 2600 BCE), a physician in Ancient Egypt.
- Puabi (c. 2600 BCE), or Shubad – queen of Ur whose tomb was discovered with many expensive artifacts. Other known pre-Sargonic queens of Ur (royal wives) include Ashusikildigir, Ninbanda, and Gansamannu.
- Kugbau (circa 2,500 BCE), a taverness from Kish chosen by the Nippur priesthood to become hegemonic ruler of Sumer, and in later ages deified as “Kubaba”.
- Tashlultum (c. 2400 BCE), Akkadian queen, wife of Sargon of Akkad and mother of Enheduanna.
- Baranamtarra (c. 2384 BCE), prominent and influential queen of Lugalanda of Lagash. Other known pre-Sargonic queens of the first Lagash dynasty include Menbara-abzu, Ashume’eren, Ninkhilisug, Dimtur, and Shagshag, and the names of several princesses are also known.
- Enheduanna (c. 2285 BCE), the high priestess of the temple of the Moon God in the Sumerian city-state of Ur and possibly the first known poet and first named author of either gender.
- Shibtu (c. 1775 BCE), king Zimrilim’s consort and queen of the Syrian city-state of Mari. During her husband’s absence, she ruled as regent of Mari and enjoyed extensive administrative powers as queen.
Biology and sex
In terms of biology, the female sex organs are involved in the reproductive system, whereas the secondary sex characteristics are involved in breastfeeding children and attracting a mate. The ovaries, in addition to their regulatory function of producing hormones, produce female gametes called eggs which, when fertilized by male gametes (sperm), form new genetic individuals. The uterus is an organ with tissue to protect and nurture the developing fetus and muscle to expel it when giving birth. The vagina is used in copulation and birthing, although the term vagina is often colloquially and incorrectly used in the English language for the vulva or external female genitalia, which consists of (in addition to the vagina) the labia, the clitoris, and the female urethra. The breasts evolved from the sweat glands to produce milk, a nutritious secretion that is the most distinctive characteristic of mammals, along with live birth. In mature women the breast is generally more prominent than in most other mammals; this prominence, not necessary for milk production, is thought to be at least partially the result of sexual selection.
Normally cells from females contain two X chromosomes, and cells from males contain an X and a Y chromosome. During early fetal development embryos of both sexes appear gender-neutral until about week 7. At that time if the fetus has received a Y chromosome from the father it usually develops into a male, an effect of being exposed to testosterone. If the fetus receives an X chromosome from the father it develops into a female, an effect of being exposed to estrogen. In about one in a thousand births, a female is born with three X chromosomes, a condition termed Triple X syndrome. Because humans inherit mitochondrial DNA only from the mother’s ovum, genealogical researchers can trace maternal lineage far back in time.
Whether or not a child is considered female does not always determine whether or not the child will later identify themselves that way (see gender identity). For instance, intersex individuals, who have mixed physical and/or genetic features, may use other criteria in determining their gender identities.
Although fewer females than males are born (the ratio is around 1:1.05), newborn girls are more likely to reach their first birthday than are boys and women typically have a longer life expectancy of six to eight years, although in some areas gender-based discrimination against women has lowered female life expectancy to lower or equal to that of males. Out of the total human population in 2015, there were 101.8 men for every 100 women. The life expectancy differences are partly due to inherent biological advantages, but they also reflect behavioral differences between men and women. The gap is narrowing to some extent in some developed countries, possibly due to increased smoking among women and declining rates of cardiovascular disease among men. The World Health Organization writes that it is “important to note that the extra years of life for women are not always lived in good health.”
Until the maturation of their reproductive capabilities, the pre-pubertal physical differences between boys and girls consists of the differences in their genitalia. Puberty is the process of physical changes by which a child’s body matures into an adult body capable of sexual reproduction to enable fertilization. It usually takes place between the ages 10 – 16. It is initiated by hormonal signals from the brain to the gonads – either the ovaries or the testes. In response to the signals, the gonads produce hormones that stimulate libido and the growth, function, and transformation of the brain, bones, muscle, blood, skin, hair, breasts, and sexual organs. Physical growth—height and weight—accelerates in the first half of puberty and is completed when the child has developed an adult body. The major landmark of girls’ puberty is menarche, the onset of menstruation, which occurs on average between ages 12–13.
Most girls go through menarche and are then able to become pregnant and bear children. This generally requires internal fertilization of her eggs with the sperm of a man through sexual intercourse, though artificial insemination or the surgical implantation of an existing embryo is also possible (see reproductive technology).
There are some diseases that primarily affect women, such as lupus. Also, there are some sex-related illnesses that are found more frequently or exclusively in women, e.g., breast cancer, cervical cancer, or ovarian cancer. Women and men may have different symptoms of an illness and may also respond to medical treatment differently. This area of medical research is studied by gender-based medicine. The study of female reproduction and reproductive organs is called gynaecology.
The issue of women’s health has been taken up by many feminists, especially where reproductive health is concerned. Women’s health is positioned within a wider body of knowledge cited by, amongst others, the World Health Organization, which places importance on gender as a social determinant of health.
Maternal mortality or maternal death is defined by WHO as “the death of a woman while pregnant or within 42 days of termination of pregnancy, irrespective of the duration and site of the pregnancy, from any cause related to or aggravated by the pregnancy or its management but not from accidental or incidental causes.” In 2008, noting that each year more than 100,000 women die of complications of pregnancy and childbirth and at least seven million experience serious health problems while 50 million more have adverse health consequences after childbirth, the World Health Organization urged midwife training to strengthen maternal and newborn health services. To support the upgrading of midwifery skills the WHO established a midwife training program, Action for Safe Motherhood.
About 99% of maternal deaths occur in developing countries. More than half of them occur in sub-Saharan Africa and almost one third in South Asia. The main causes of maternal mortality include pre-eclampsia and eclampsia, unsafe abortion, pregnancy complications from malaria and HIV/AIDS, and severe bleeding and infections following childbirth. Most European countries, Australia, Japan, and Singapore are very safe in regard to childbirth.
In 1990 the US ranked 12th of the 14 developed countries that were analyzed and since that time the death rates of every country have steadily improved while the US rate has spiked dramatically. While the others that were analyzed in 1990 show a 2017 death rate of less than 10 deaths per every 100,000 live births, the U.S. rate rose to 26.4. Furthermore, for every one of the 700 to 900 woman who die in the U.S. each year during pregnancy or childbirth, 70 experience significant complications, totaling more than one percent of all births.
Reproductive rights and freedom
- (…) the human rights of women include their right to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. Equal relationships between women and men in matters of sexual relations and reproduction, including full respect for the integrity of the person, require mutual respect, consent and shared responsibility for sexual behavior and its consequences.
The World Health Organization reports that based on data from 2010–2014, 56 million induced abortions occurred worldwide each year (25% of all pregnancies). Of those, about 25 million were considered as unsafe. The WHO reports that in developed regions about 30 women die for every 100 000 unsafe abortions and that number rises to 220 deaths per 100 000 unsafe abortions in developing regions and 520 deaths per 100 000 unsafe abortions in sub-Saharan Africa. The WHO ascribes these unnecessary deaths to
- restrictive laws
- poor availability of services
- high cost
- conscientious objection of health-care providers
- unnecessary requirements, such as mandatory waiting periods, mandatory counselling, provision of misleading information, third-party authorization, and medically unnecessary tests that delay care.
Culture and gender roles
Main article: Gender role
In more recent history, gender roles have changed greatly. Originally, starting at a young age, children’s occupational aspirations differed according to gender. Traditionally, middle class women were involved in domestic tasks emphasizing child care. For poorer women, especially working class women, although this often remained an ideal, economic necessity compelled them to seek employment outside the home. Many of the occupations that were available to them were lower in pay than those available to men.
As changes in the labor market for women came about, availability of employment changed from only “dirty”, long hour factory jobs to “cleaner”, more respectable office jobs where more education was demanded. Women’s participation in the U.S. labor force rose from 6% in 1900 to 23% in 1923. These shifts in the labor force led to changes in the attitudes of women at work, allowing for the revolution which resulted in women becoming career and education oriented.
n the 1970s, many female academics, including scientists, avoided having children. Throughout the 1980s, institutions tried to equalize conditions for men and women in the workplace. Even so, the inequalities at home hampered women’s opportunities: professional women were still generally considered responsible for domestic labor and child care, which limited the time and energy they could devote to their careers. Until the early 20th century, U.S. women’s colleges required their women faculty members to remain single, on the grounds that a woman could not carry on two full-time professions at once. According to Schiebinger, “Being a scientist and a wife and a mother is a burden in society that expects women more often than men to put family ahead of career.” (p. 93).
Movements advocate equality of opportunity for both sexes and equal rights irrespective of gender. Through a combination of economic changes and the efforts of the feminist movement, in recent decades women in many societies have gained access to careers beyond the traditional homemaker. Despite these advances, modern women in Western society still face challenges in the workplace as well as with the topics of education, violence, health care, politics, and motherhood, and others. Sexism can be a main concern and barrier for woman almost anywhere, though its forms, perception, and gravity varies between societies and social classes. There has been an increase in the endorsement of egalitarian gender roles in the home by both women and men.
Although a greater number of women are seeking higher education, their salaries are often less than those of men. CBS News said in 2005 that in the United States women who are ages 30 to 44 and hold a university degree make 62 percent of what similarly qualified men do, a lower rate than in all but three of the 19 countries for which numbers are available. Some Western nations with greater inequity in pay are Germany, New Zealand and Switzerland.
Violence against women
Main article: Violence against women
The UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women defines “violence against women” as:
any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.
and identifies three forms of such violence: that which occurs in the family, that which occurs within the general community, and that which is perpetrated or condoned by the State. It also states that “violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women“.
Violence against women remains a widespread problem, fueled, especially outside the West, by patriarchal social values, lack of adequate laws, and lack of enforcement of existing laws. Social norms that exist in many parts of the world hinder progress towards protecting women from violence. For example, according to surveys by UNICEF, the percentage of women aged 15–49 who think that a husband is justified in hitting or beating his wife under certain circumstances is as high as 90% in Afghanistan and Jordan, 87% in Mali, 86% in Guinea and Timor-Leste, 81% in Laos, and 80% in the Central African Republic. A 2010 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that stoning as a punishment for adultery was supported by 82% of respondents in Egypt and Pakistan, 70% in Jordan, 56% Nigeria, and 42% in Indonesia.
Specific forms of violence that affect women include female genital mutilation, sex trafficking, forced prostitution, forced marriage, rape, sexual harassment, honor killings, acid throwing, and dowry related violence. Governments can be complicit in violence against women, for instance through practices such as stoning (as punishment for adultery).
There have also been many forms of violence against women which have been prevalent historically, notably the burning of witches, the sacrifice of widows (such as sati) and foot binding. The prosecution of women accused of witchcraft has a long tradition; for example, during the early modern period (between the 15th and 18th centuries), witch trials were common in Europe and in the European colonies in North America. Today, there remain regions of the world (such as parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, rural North India, and Papua New Guinea) where belief in witchcraft is held by many people, and women accused of being witches are subjected to serious violence. In addition, there are also countries which have criminal legislation against the practice of witchcraft. In Saudi Arabia, witchcraft remains a crime punishable by death, and in 2011 the country beheaded a woman for ‘witchcraft and sorcery’.
It is also the case that certain forms of violence against women have been recognized as criminal offenses only during recent decades, and are not universally prohibited, in that many countries continue to allow them. This is especially the case with marital rape. In the Western World, there has been a trend towards ensuring gender equality within marriage and prosecuting domestic violence, but in many parts of the world women still lose significant legal rights when entering a marriage.
Sexual violence against women greatly increases during times of war and armed conflict, during military occupation, or ethnic conflicts; most often in the form of war rape and sexual slavery. Contemporary examples of sexual violence during war include rape during the Armenian Genocide, rape during the Bangladesh Liberation War, rape in the Bosnian War, rape during the Rwandan genocide, and rape during Second Congo War. In Colombia, the armed conflict has also resulted in increased sexual violence against women.The most recent case was the sexual jihad done by ISIL where 5000–7000 Yazidi and Christian girls and children were sold into sexual slavery during the genocide and rape of Yazidi and Christian women, some of which jumped to their death from Mount Sinjar, as described in a witness statement.
Laws and policies on violence against women vary by jurisdiction. In the European Union, sexual harassment and human trafficking are subject to directives.
Clothing, fashion and dress codes
Women in different parts of the world dress in different ways, with their choices of clothing being influenced by local culture, religious tenets, traditions, social norms, and fashion trends, amongst other factors. Different societies have different ideas about modesty. However, in many jurisdictions, women’s choices in regard to dress are not always free, with laws limiting what they may or may not wear. This is especially the case in regard to Islamic dress. While certain jurisdictions legally mandate such clothing (the wearing of the headscarf), other countries forbid or restrict the wearing of certain hijab attire (such as burqa/covering the face) in public places (one such country is France – see French ban on face covering). These laws are highly controversial.
Fertility and family life
Particular religious doctrines have specific stipulations relating to gender roles, social and private interaction between the sexes, appropriate dressing attire for women, and various other issues affecting women and their position in society. In many countries, these religious teachings influence the criminal law, or the family law of those jurisdictions (see Sharia law, for example). The relation between religion, law and gender equality has been discussed by international organizations.
Main article: Female education
Single-sex education has traditionally been dominant and is still highly relevant. Universal education, meaning state-provided primary and secondary education independent of gender, is not yet a global norm, even if it is assumed in most developed countries. In some Western countries, women have surpassed men at many levels of education. For example, in the United States in 2005/2006, women earned 62% of associate degrees, 58% of bachelor’s degrees, 60% of master’s degrees, and 50% of doctorates.
The educational gender gap in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries has been reduced over the last 30 years. Younger women today are far more likely to have completed a tertiary qualification: in 19 of the 30 OECD countries, more than twice as many women aged 25 to 34 have completed tertiary education than have women aged 55 to 64. In 21 of 27 OECD countries with comparable data, the number of women graduating from university-level programmes is equal to or exceeds that of men. 15-year-old girls tend to show much higher expectations for their careers than boys of the same age. While women account for more than half of university graduates in several OECD countries, they receive only 30% of tertiary degrees granted in science and engineering fields, and women account for only 25% to 35% of researchers in most OECD countries.
Research shows that while women are studying at prestigious universities at the same rate as men they are not being given the same chance to join the faculty. Sociologist Harriet Zuckerman has observed that the more prestigious an institute is, the more difficult and time-consuming it will be for women to obtain a faculty position there. In 1989, Harvard University tenured its first woman in chemistry, Cynthia Friend, and in 1992 its first woman in physics, Melissa Franklin. She also observed that women were more likely to hold their first professional positions as instructors and lecturers while men are more likely to work first in tenure positions. According to Smith and Tang, as of 1989, 65 percent of men and only 40 percent of women held tenured positions and only 29 percent of all scientists and engineers employed as assistant professors in four-year colleges and universities were women.
In 1992, women earned 9 percent of the PhDs awarded in engineering, but only one percent of those women became professors. In 1995, 11 percent of professors in science and engineering were women. In relation, only 311 deans of engineering schools were women, which is less than 1 percent of the total. Even in psychology, a degree in which women earn the majority of PhDs, they hold a significant amount of fewer tenured positions, roughly 19 percent in 1994.
- Chafe, William H., “The American Woman: Her Changing Social, Economic, And Political Roles, 1920–1970”, Oxford University Press, 1972. ISBN 0-19-501785-4
- Rosalie Maggio, ed. (1996). The New Beacon Book of Quotations by Women (1st ed.). Boston: Beacon Press. ISBN 0-8070-6783-0.
- Routledge international encyclopedia of women, 4 vls., ed. by Cheris Kramarae and Dale Spender, Routledge 2000
- Women in world history : a biographical encyclopedia, 17 vls., ed. by Anne Commire, Waterford, Conn. [etc.] : Yorkin Publ. [etc.], 1999–2002
- Woman In all ages and in all countries in 10 volumes. Illustrated edition deluxe limited to 1,000 numbered copies with an index by Rénald Lévesque
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia