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Suppose you were an "enlightened" (male) monarch in 18th century Russia (a very backward, "traditional," unequal society). You want to lift women out of subservience in your society. You can do this one in one of two ways (but they are mutually exclusive, because you have only "one bite.")

1) You can "dictate" (and try to pass) legislation to elevate the status of women. You fear that because you (and all your legislators) are a man, you might not be the best person for the job.

2) You can establish a line of succession that will allow your wife, your niece, your daughter, and your granddaughter in law to ascend the throne as women monarchs.

If you were living in a world like ours, which do you choose? That is, what is likely to have more lasting impact?

This question was inspired by this one on the History SE site.

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@Philipp: I said: 1) Women were "subservient," 2) "All my legislators are men" and 3) I was making reference to Russia in the 18th century under Peter the Great. – Tom Au Jan 6 at 18:18
    
I edited your question to say so. – Philipp Jan 6 at 18:29
    
@Philipp: OK, thanks for your help. – Tom Au Jan 6 at 18:37
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In 18th century Russia, the situation was not that men were all free and independent while women lived in bondage. 90% of the men were serfs, in bondage to a small number of rich nobles. To tell a woman that with this new law she will have all the same rights that her brother has would probably leave her asking, "So what?" – Jay Jan 6 at 21:24
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You can't legislate to make people think differently. And speaking specifically about 18th century Russia, your change could only be implemented by freeing all the serfs, and introducing universal suffrage and property rights, decent healthcare and mandatory education for everyone, and then encouraging industrialisation. I gather some Russian leaders wanted to do all this, having seen it successful in Europe, but the landowners prevented them, and then there was a revolution... – RedSonja Jan 7 at 9:08
up vote 21 down vote accepted

Property ownership & divorce rights.

Property ownership is fundamental, and will precipitate other important benchmarks of equality, like voting rights. A striking example is women's suffrage in 1790s New Jersey. Their state constitution (via absence/use of gender pronouns) implicitly, and later explicitly, allowed women the right to vote for about 2 decades overlapping the end of the century. Why were women there allowed to vote? To cover the eventuality that a widow, left in possession of her late husband's property, could have a say in the election of local property tax assessors. Keep in mind that the US did not give women the universal right to vote until 1920, over 100 years later.

Property rights would help prevent financial insolvency resulting from heirs taking property-based inheritance and leaving the widow destitute. Financial security could lead to further opportunities -- if nothing else, the possibility of an increase in time and resources, which could be dedicated to a furthering of the women's rights movement -- a snowball effect.

It would be hoped that the right to hold public office would inevitably follow -- probably first as a matter of necessity in smaller communities where the number of age- or social-class-eligible males was limited (perhaps as a result of depletion from war fatalities incurred via mandated military service).

Divorce rights are also crucial. Allowing women to unilaterally seek divorce can result in a whole bevy of implicit rights -- the right be safe from physical violence, the right to bodily autonomy, etc. Divorce rights would probably be an easier pill to swallow for the specified society's time period than full-fledged marriage rights (defined here as "the right to choose your own partner") -- but it's reasonable to envision them coming to pass as well, once divorce rights are on the books.

The right to re-marry would be crucial in a society where limited job prospects could mean financial dependence on a male spouse. Marriage rights could mean control over a woman's dowry, which would potentially give them financial independence. Acknowledgment by the state that a woman's basic needs must be provided for could either result in an acceptance of their employment at jobs they'd been previously barred from holding -- either that, or a provision in the divorce law that stipulates, say, continued financial support until re-marriage (which would still be a win).

My grasp of women's rights history is tenuous enough that I am unaware of a possible "chain of causality" that would lead from property or divorce rights to labor rights (defined here as "the right to work in a wide range of possible occupations") but my instinct tells me that a plausible one exists. It would be hoped that as technology improved, reproductive rights would likewise follow divorce & marriage rights.

In a social climate unfavorable to the outright equality of women, your political capital for enacting change will be minimal, so it's important to choose carefully which rights you grant. Go for the ones that are simultaneously the most justifiable & the most likely to result in an eventual domino effect of legislative change.

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This to me is an excellent answer and very foolproof. It beats up the idea many have of merely giving women title or office and stopping there, since leader decisions and job descriptions are typically gender-agnostic. – The Anathema Jan 6 at 20:08
    
Related to this is the idea of Catholic priests being "Married to god". It used to be that they would get married to women, but this caused problems for the church, who provided them with a house, and who then had the "old family" in the house when the priest dies. You can't move a new priest's family in with the old priest's family and you can't kick the old family out without looking ungodly. Solution? Priests can't marry. Religious justification was soon found, and persists today, but it was a purely pragmatic decision. – Max Williams Jan 7 at 15:40
    
In 1800's Russia, giving the opportunity for men to have some of these rights (public office, voting, property ownership) would help too. Most of them didn't. – corsiKa Jan 7 at 15:56

England had women monarchs for a while, and women still didn't have a right to vote or own property.

That's where I'd start.
Make a law saying that women have rights to own property, can inherit property, hold office, and if there is something to vote on let them do it.

Allowing for women monarchs wouldn't be a bad idea, just not enough in itself.

Edit:
This would be the minimal change to get everything started, and even in a heavily male dominated society, it should be an easy sell with minimal political capitol.
You sell it like this:
"Men, if you had no son, and you died, what would happen? Your lands and money would go to your closest male relative, and your family would have to rely on the kindness of others. I hope that they wouldn't throw them out into the snow.
Is this right? No! By allowing women to own property, I'm not taking anything away from you! Indeed, what I want is to give you more choices. You should be able to decide who gets your estates when you die, even if you decide it's your wife or daughter!"

He (or his political advisers) could personalize it for each person too.
"Ivan, your son is lazy and a drunk. Your daughter has a level head and is a good, hard working girl. Wouldn't you want to make sure that she could live a comfortable life, and hope that her brother doesn't drink it all away?"

Once women get the ability to inherit, then each following step gets easier and easier, as women get more involved and have more of a say in how things are done.

This is especially good if the monarch is worried he might goof it up because he's male and out of touch with female needs.
Get the women helping make decisions one step at a time, and they'll make sure things are done that help women out too.

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If you are a monarch, you are most likely somewhat detached from the average human existence. Just as a king does not usually know what it's like to work in the fields all day, a queen wouldn't know what it's like to cook or sew or raise children. So even if you have a queen in power, that doesn't mean they'll know how to enact laws for the benefit of womankind. Plus, if you don't change the society you're ruling, future female monarchs might have their gender blamed for anything they do wrong, eventually leading to a reversal of your decree. There is also the possibility that any male heirs who believe they have more right to the crown than the women will gain enough supporters to stage a coup, which again will foil your schemes.

On the other hand, if you force society to change, by the time you die the newest generation will be used to the idea of women in the places you put them, and equality among genders should continue naturally. That is, unless the laws you dictate are really bad, and cause a lot of harm to people, in which case the people may revolt, kill you, and crown a less feminist king. Either that, or everyone will harbor increasing amounts of hatred towards women, which could have unintended consequences.

So I would suggest trying the second option, but not going overboard with it. It also has the benefit of the changes taking place in your lifetime, so if things go wrong you will still be around to change them. Considering how much kingdoms have lost with inept heirs, I'd much rather handle something like this myself.

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"Did they think me less capable than a beggar? Sometimes I think that I am. The beggar knows much that the king can only guess. And yet who draws up the codes for begging ordinances? Often I wonder what my experience in life—my easy life following the Desolation, and my current level of comfort—has given me of any true experience to use in making laws. If we had to rely on what we knew, kings would only be of use in creating laws regarding the proper heating of tea and cushioning of thrones." -- The Way of Kings, Brandon Sanderson – Mason Wheeler Jan 6 at 20:19
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@MasonWheeler Yes. There's a common delusion among government officials that having a degree in political science makes you qualified to make decisions about literally EVERYTHING. Like if you want to know how to produce energy safely and efficiently, just obviously you should ask a lawyer who has spent his life managing political campaigns, and not do something crazy like ask an engineer who has spent his life producing energy. :-) – Jay Jan 6 at 21:30
    
@Jay: Heinlein's short story "Over the Rainbow" skewers this -- the newly elected president consults with experts in their respective fields for their recommended decisions, not politicians. – Wingman4l7 Jan 6 at 22:33
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@Wingman4l7: Seriously? Heinlein did that? Well, I suppose even a broken clock is right twice a day... – Mason Wheeler Jan 7 at 1:06

Interesting you mention Russia. 18th century there was literally dominated by female monarchs: Anna (reign 1730-1740), Elizabeth (reign 1741-1762), and Ekaterina the Great (reign 1762-1796). And women status was not lifted at all. So your second strategy just doesn't work.

The first one may work, in a way similar to how post-revolution Russia implemented it. Property rights, accessible (and enforced) education, equal opportunity employment, secularization are first steps to achieve equality. Other problems may pop up later.

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Divorce rights, definitively.

The others (voting and property ownership) might be quite anachronistic in a time with a different technology level and social/economic organization. Voting and property ownership (not only for widows, they had the right for ownership in that era and much sooner too) are rights which today would feel very painful and degrading if removed, but don't forget, that both the economy and the society back then were differently organized, and the extended family had a much more important role. Also due to the technological level, most women couldn't have much of a chance to survive on their own. Also, especially due to higher child mortality, a society where a lot of women can pursue careers independently, would soon go extinct on demographic grounds alone (even today, with much lower child mortality, the most developed nations can feel this effect quite painfully).

Why I'm writing this is that while women indeed by far had less overall rights, it was not the oppressive hellhole people now imagine it was. There were some well-respected women in that time period, it just was much harder to become one. The family as a unit was much more important not solely because of ideological grounds, but for survival. My goal is not to start a political debate, but just to help you avoid creating a society of strawmen in your story, where all men oppress women because mwhahahaha they are so evil or stupid and find it satisfying.

But returning back to divorce rights. That would be the most important (and probably only reasonable) change you could to to help women. The other, more modern concepts might even backfire as they might not be embraced by women as they are embraced by today's women, they might even find it a much too uncomfortable lifestyle change.

Why are divorce rights important? Because there were men who married young and naive women, and used the marriage to extort money out of the woman's family. Not sure how this particular law was in Russia, but the standard of the time in eastern Europe was, that (where divorce was allowed at all) a divorce could only happen if both parties said they wanted to divorce. This means that a man could seduce a woman and marry her, then start beating and otherwise abusing her, and telling his father-in-law that he will only agree in a divorce for a nice sum of money, otherwise he will tell before the jury that he still loves his wife. he could also legally force his wife to live with her, even if she didn't want it. Changing this would save a lot of women from horrible abuse, and could help in providing justice against those monsters who could do the above things without having to fear any legal repercussions. I'm not saying that all or most men regarded their wives to be property in that time period, but there were certainly a lot of men who did. By changing divorce law, you could significantly help reducing their numbers and making them less threatening to women's well-being.

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Legislate to create a female standing army.

The end goal is an overall army which is at least 50% women. Given the honour, chastity and similar issues this will require the women to be in all female battalions with female officers going up to the highest level. In general, it should be a duplication of the existing army, however, a complex maternity leave scheme may be required as being effectively forced to sign up to childlessness would make the prospect considerably less appealing to women.

The recruitment/conscription into the army should aim to be identical to that for men, with noble born women filling out the officer corps. Initially, however, common women may need to be trained up the ranks to high ranking roles as it may be impossible to get hold of competent, interested noblewomen. If so, common born generals must be treated with respect and given power, both to maintain the integrity of the army and to keep the role desirable. (If you can never get hold of the noblewomen then this could be a good place to start breaking down the class system :P) Equal weight should be given to the achievements of both the male and female parts of the army and their pay should be the same.

There are a number of advantages this will bring. Firstly it will educate noble born women and, to a considerably lesser extent, other women. It will also give them an independent source of income and prestige. The training will reduce the difference in physical strength between your men and women as well as giving women access to and experience with weapons. It will also give high ranking female officers considerable power which they may then expand into the political sphere. All of these things reduce the dependence of the female population on men and should pave the way to divorce and property rights (after all, you're probably going to want to keep all that hard earned cash, right?).

Armies are rarely more than 1% of the population so this should have a minimal impact on the birth rate.

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The problem in this idea is that you run headfirst into one of the very few places where women are objectively not equal to men: physical strength. There are outliers, of course--strong women and weak men--but averaged over a battalion's worth of soldiers, a battalion of women will be at a significant disadvantage against a battalion of men on the battlefield, particularly if we're talking about a period of time before the development of the internal combustion engine. – Mason Wheeler Jan 7 at 16:25
    
So I'd argue that the king doesn't care. His goal is to make a significant proportion of the army female, not to make it more efficient. In the worst case scenario it may be that he loses two female soldiers for every male one. In that case he's going to have to throw twice as many women at problems as he would men and hush up the losses. It's expensive but this plan was never going to be cheap. – emn Jan 7 at 17:13

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