I recently noticed an article in Science magazine that suggested people's feelings about equality were determined in part by how wealth was distributed. So if you were a male who lived in a place where males inherited and kept family wealth you would essentially grow up figuring that was normal. Like Nietzche and his Master/Slave idea - if you were on the master side - you may likely find a way to justify that (as he did) while those on the powerless side would more than likely find fault with the unequal set-up.
I have a set of 1911 Encyclopedia Britannicas (this volume has also been posted online). I was noticing the section on "Women". It discusses the rights and lack there-of of women. In 1910, mothers were responsible for support of any illegitimate children up to the age of 16, while fathers of legitimate children had custody rights unless the father's were guilty of some sort of misconduct. Women were prevented from inheriting real estate if there were any male heirs. Husbands could get divorced if their wives had sex outside of marriage, but women could not if their husbands did, unless the husband was also cruel or deserted them.
Being written in 1910, women's suffrage was a hot topic. A Quaker by the name of Anne Kent of Chelmsford is credited with starting up the "Sheffield Female Political Association" - getting the movement off the ground in England in the 1850s. Soon after, Lydia Ernestine Baker created the "Englishwoman's Journal". There was agitation to change laws relating to married women's property and earnings. Some also fought for the rights of unmarried working women. (In The USA, the first woman's suffrage convention was held in 1848 in Seneca Fall, NY with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Martha C. Wright and Lucretia Mott (Wright and Mott and many others in the group were "radical Quakers"). Here, again, property rights were part of the issue.)
John Stuart Mill was known for making Women's Suffrage an Election issue in England. He is also known for his book, "The Subjection of Women." He was a proponent of individual rights over state rights, including the rights of people who were then slaves, as well as the rights of women (while others were arguing that women and blacks were inferior). Mills idea of utilitarianism has been called the "greatest-happiness principle" - that people should act so as to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, within reason. Early in his career he was a free-market economist - but refined his ideas and became more socialist in outlook. Mills recognized the problem of the tyranny of the majority.
The Britannica article about women suggested as an example of the argument against women's suffrage A.V. Dicey's 1909 article ""Woman's Suffrage" in Quarterly Review (can be found online). Dicey argued that women getting the vote would be bad for Great Britain. He was afraid women would vote against the interests of the empire. He didn't think women had the education or judgement to vote. He was afraid it would lead to women having equal rights. Dicey was also worried that with women getting the vote, that all men would also get the vote. So instead of the vote being cast by male property owners (app. 7,000,000), it would be open to 20,000,000-24,000,000 people. The power of the then current voters would be drastically diminished.
Dicey also did not recognize that men and women might have different interests or concerns.
Dicey, of course, is a prime example of someone with disproportionate power who wanted to maintain the inequality that favored himself. John Stuart Mill would also have benefitted from inequality, but he is an example of someone who can see what is truly the best course of action to take, as opposed to that which is merely the best for himself and those with his education and status. He was also able to see and understand that there is value in the natural world and that unlimited growth of industry, etc. would result in the destruction of the environment and a reduced quality of life.
There were, of course, various anti-suffrage groups such as the Women's National Anti-Suffrage League which submitted a petition to the English Parliament in 1907 with 87,500 names against women's suffrage, but it was discovered to be fraudulent. The Catholic Encyclopedia c. 1912 recommended that Catholics support the anti-suffrage movement. As the 1911 Britannica states, "Though Christianity and a broadening of men's theories of life tended to raise the moral and social status of women, yet Paul definitely assigns subservience as the proper function of women, and many of the fathers looked upon them mainly as inheriting the temptress function of Eve."
It is no coincidence that Quakers who are non-hierarchical in their religious practices have been more likely to push for social changes addressing equal rights for all, as opposed to people of other denominations that maintain a rigid hierarchy and male dominance. Elizabeth Cady Stanton found organized Christianity to be too sexist and she would not participate. She was more radical than even the "radical Quakers."
The isolation of every human soul and the necessity of self-dependence must give each individual the right to choose his own surroundings. The strongest reason for giving woman all the opportunities for higher education, for the full development of her faculties, her forces of mind and body; for giving her the most enlarged freedom of thought and action; a complete emancipation from all forms of bondage, of custom, dependence, superstition; from all the crippling influences of fear — is the solitude and personal responsibility of her own individual life. The strongest reason why we ask for woman a voice in the government under which she lives; in the religion she is asked to believe; equality in social life, where she is the chief factor; a place in the trades and professions, where she may earn her bread, is because of her birthright to self-sovereignty; because, as an individual, she must rely on herself [...].
- Elizabeth Cady Stanton's final appearance before members of the United States Congress in 1892. She died in 1902.
In England, women over the age of 30 got the vote in 1918; providing they were householders, married to a householder or if they held a university degree. Universal suffrage for all adults over 21 years of age was not achieved until 1928. In the USA, women got the right to vote in 1920. This November's election marks a mere 90 years that women have the right to vote in the US.
Some contemporary women leaders include (from an article in Time): Julia Gillard, Prime Minister of Australia; Johanna Sigurdardottir, Prime Minister of Iceland; Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, President of Argentina; Dalia Grybauskaite, President of Lithuania; Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany; Sheik Hasina Wajed, Prime Minister of Bangladesh; Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia; Tarja Halonen, President of Finland; Kamla Persad-Bissessar, Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago; Laura Chinchilla, President of Costa Rica