A thread for historical/cross-cul
tural discussions of women's position in society
Maybe this should go in feminism theory, but I'm not sure how many people read that. Anyway, this is for the good, the bad and the ugly - so long as it sheds light on women's rights.
So I'm going to start with the good - a nice article from the Washington Post on the political power of women in traditional Iroquois culture and the impact it had on the early US suffragists among the European settlers. (Hope it's not behind a paywall).
they were farmers then, and owned land- something I always assumed led to women being oppressed - so that property accumulated could be inherited by a 'legitimate heir'
Does anyone know any good books/sources about women in prehistoric culture? I was just having an argument with someone about it (their argument was men and women are different because caves and hunting); of course they couldn't cite any actual sources, and I was wondering what we actually knew, if anything, about any of the various prehistoric cultures and the roles of men and women.
Are cave paintings even clear enough to show which sex hunted, I wonder?!
there are still societies which traditionally hunt, as far as I know it's men that usually hunt (bringing in 10% of the calories but 80% of the status) whereas women gather
I have a friend who's an anthropologist who tells me the Iroquois were actually quite a complicated example - women had an okay deal, but only in virtue of the society being one which was seen as "separate but equal". So men were the chiefs, but could be "impeached" as it were by a committee of women elders, and (as the WP article notes) could veto wars. Gender roles were very strictly delineated - men were the warriors, women were the farmers. Incidentally, I think the society was matrilineal (agricultural land was inherited down the female line) - but in anthropological terms, matrilineal is very different from matriarchal - according to my friend there are no examples of matriarchal societies, in the form of women being the dominant political power. She sees the Iroquois as being one where the political power balanced out, but was still gendered in terms of who got to control which bits of society. (Incidentally she's using gender in the social scientists' meaning of "socially and culturally assigned roles given to people of different biological sexes", not in terms of "self identity").
so I should hope!!!!
otherwise, all is lost!!!
Shalli - "there are still societies which traditionally hunt, as far as I know it's men that usually hunt (bringing in 10% of the calories but 80% of the status) whereas women gather" - someone asked an anthropologist what difference it had made discovering that the "gathering" part of most hunter-gather societies was in fact fairly evenly spread between women and men (the "men hunted, women gathered" story is outdated, at least as regards the gathering part). He apparently replied, tongue in cheek, "well, we've had to re-draw the illustrations in the text books to show men bravely going out and gathering..." But according to my anthropologist friend, one of the drivers behind inequalities between men and women in most hunter-gatherer and early agricultural societies is what she calls the "calorie deficit" - women who are lactating (and we're talking extended lactation for several years per child) need more calories than they are capable of gathering, hence the fact that women then become dependent on men - it's the old "co-opting and controlling women's reproductive labour" thing again. I'll see if I can dig out some of the references she sent me.
The role of women is often unclear in Prehistoric culture.
One interesting archaeological find was in Uist, they uncovered the mummified bodies of 4 people in a peat bog... however upon closer analysis, they noted that they weren't the bodies of 4 people- but rather a 'jigsaw' of mummified parts put together from male and females to make one body. So about 20 people maybe all in all...
This is the first case that we've come across of mummification in Scotland, these people must have been important but obviously- these were men AND women... Perhaps the various body parts of each sex held sacred contexts when made into an entire mummy? (ie: female midsection for fertility or whatnot.) But yes, awfully interesting when you attempt to consider how important these people must have been.
Mortificado - re. hunting, at least in hunter gatherer communities - I believe it's always (certainly in terms of current hunter gatherers, and what little we know about historic societies) the men who do the big game hunting. Partly because men are on average stronger and faster, but more importantly because in the absence of contraception women will typically either be pregnant or tending to a small child - and you can't run after game with a toddler balanced on one hip. Interestingly, once a society makes the move to agriculture, it's not guaranteed which way it will go - it can go massively patriarchal, or (like the Iroquois) it can end up much more balanced. (I know that there's a strand of feminist theory which says "it all went tits up for women with the introduction of agriculture and land inheritance down the male line", but from what I'm told anthropology tells a more complicated and varied story).
Children were / are food producers and workers, too.
There was an interesting documentary on the emperoress of China the other day. They are discovering more and more about her. She was a very good leader for the country. But once she died her history was rewrote.
I think the celts had sort of balanced society. Women inherited and kept there land and could rule there tribes. The female body was and goddesses were revieded for the bringing life.
Also heard stuff about ancient religions in the middle east about goddesses and priestesses. Again written out of history shortly after. Also not sure whether having a female centric religion would change the lives of the every day women.
Would love hear from historians who have specialised in these things.
I've only learnt things from obscure history programs and books.
I think this is what I watched not long ago.
Viking women had it (for their day) pretty good - they could even divorce their husband, for example, and inherit property themselves. I guess a society where lots of the strongest menfolk are off overseas for large chunks of the year both requires and allows women to have a strong role
Anglo-Saxon society was similar - women had pretty good status for the time.
Some time ago I read Medieval Lives by Terry Jones and he devotes a chapter to women to counter some of the myths about this period of history. Women's sexual satisfaction in marriage was seen as important in medieval times and women could seek redress and divorce if their husband was impotent for example. They also had a lot more power than generally assumed and were able to manage estates. This does have to be countered by the reluctance to have a woman as overall head of state e.g. Matilda.
Just realised I didn't say much about the emperoress. So for those who don't click and watch nearly and hours worth stuff.
She was a concubine but helped rule, then when the emperor died she took over.
She gave rights to women to divorce and marry who they wanted. Encouraged women to start businesses, brought women in to politics and appointed a woman priminister. She made sure China was fed creating food stores, and soldiers looked after, and lots of other things. But she was ruthless and the men waiting to take power wanted to restore patriarchy.
A bit of the page
Amazon wearing trousers and carrying a shield with an attached patterned cloth and a quiver. Ancient Greek Attic white-ground alabastron, c.470 BC, British Museum, London
The legendary Amazons were thought to have lived in Pontus, which is part of modern-day Turkey near the southern shore of the Euxine Sea (the Black Sea). There they formed an independent kingdom under the government of a queen named Hippolyta or Hippolyte ("loose, unbridled mare"). This area is known to have been occupied in the Late Bronze Age by a transhumant group known to the Hittites as the Kaŝka; though they were not directly known to Greeks, modern archaeologists have determined that they finally defeated their enemies, the Hittites, about 1200 BC; they left no inscriptions. The Amazons were supposed to have founded many towns, amongst them Smyrna, Ephesus, Sinope, and Paphos. According to the dramatist Aeschylus, in the distant past they had lived in Scythia (modern Crimea), at the Palus Maeotis ("Lake Maeotis", the Sea of Azov)
According to Plutarch, the Amazons lived in and about the Don river, which the Greeks called the Tanais; but which was called by the Scythians the "Amazon". The Amazons later moved to Themiscyra (modern Terme) on the River Thermodon (the Terme river in northern Turkey). Herodotus called them Androktones ("killers of men"), and he stated that in the Scythian language they were called Oiorpata, which he asserted had this meaning
mystic that sounds a bit like what happened to Hatshepsut the female pharaoh.
It makes me wonder just how much of women's contributions to human history and culture has been consciously erased.
I've mentioned it on these threads before but Sarah Hrdy is an anthropologist who argues much of the theories of evolution of human behaviour and sexuality is constructed through the prism of male, predominantly Victorian, views of how women should behave.
I can believe that would also apply to archaeology and history. I don't know how you would ever test it but it's an interesting, if depressing, thought.
There have been some very influential medieval figures such as Eleanor of Aquitaine and Katherine de Roet (and arguably even Anne Boleyn) yet history likes to position them relative to their husbands.
I was so frustrated by Starkey's six wives of Henry vii because actually he barely studied the wives and instead talked about their relationships to the men e.g. Cromwell
Sorry, a bit of a rant and maybe off topic
Hrdy is fascinating - I've got her essay "The myth of the coy female" where she looks at animal behaviour and documents how the idea of the male primate choosing from among passively recipient females got totally turned on its head by women primatologists actually looking at what apes did rather than making assumptions about what they thought was the "natural" way for males to behave.
Found this and had to post it as a bit of a role call for the many women written out of the history books.
Not quite about an equal society, but a nod to brave warriors and leaders that unlike there male counterparts didn't make it to general history books.
devi I agree history is through a male lense.
There is evidence of priestesses in early christiananty. But all drawing of them and mention had been defaced and hidden.
Doesn't mention the Christian prestesses. But shows the spread of patriarchy through different countries, and how anything women lead was stamped on.
I often wonder why? Why are we so dangerous to men?
Sorry mOstly I seem to have flooded your thread with links. I'll stop now.
I just love history especially women in history
Join the discussion
Registering is free, easy, and means you can join in the discussion, get discounts, win prizes and lots more.Register now
Already registered with Mumsnet? Log in to leave your comment or alternatively, sign in with Facebook or Google.
Please login first.