Large differences in ever-smoking rates among women are found between countries and socio-economic groups. This study examined the socio-economic inequalities in female ever-smoking rates in 19 European countries, and explored the association between cross-national differences in these inequalities and economic development and women's emancipation. Data on smoking were derived from national health interview surveys from 19 European countries. For each country, age group (25-39, 40-59 and 60+ years), educational level (4 standard levels), and cumulative ever-smoking rates were calculated as the proportion of current and former smokers of the total survey population. A Relative Index of Inequality was estimated for women in the three age groups to measure the magnitude of educational differences. In regression analyses the association of ever-smoking rates of women age 25-39 years with the gross domestic product (GDP) and the Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM) was explored. Less educated women aged 25-39 years were more likely to have ever smoked than more educated women in all countries, except Portugal. In the age groups 40-59 years the educational pattern differed between countries. Women aged 60+ years who were less educated were less likely to have ever smoked in all countries, except Norway and England. The size of inequalities varied considerably between countries and reversed within three age groups. For women 25-39 years, the association of ever-smoking rates with GDP was positive, especially for more educated women. The association of ever-smoking rates with GEM was positive for less educated women, but negative for more educated women. The results are consistent with the idea that economic development and social-cultural processes related to gender empowerment have affected the diffusion of smoking in different ways for more and less educated women.