The Rise of Women in the Pre-Modern World
- Adoption , Ancient Egypt , China , Civilization , Gender , Homosexuality , Sex
How it works
The importance of women in the realm of human existence is clearly essential by today’s standards. In the ancient world, societies regarded the social status of women as subordinate to men of the time. Although this is a common theme among most civilizations, the degree of treatment and regard for females varies from culture to culture. The analysis of how society treated women in ancient Egypt will reveal the prevailing affect females created on that society. Then, China’s impact during the era of the Han dynasty will be evaluated on how women were viewed legally as well as socially. Lastly, the reign of the Roman Empire and its treatment of females will be compared to the two previously mentioned cultures. To collectively understand how the pre-modern world characterized women, it is essential to look at the differences in how each civilization they treated them socially, and legally as well as, how women impacted both the economy and religion.
To start, Ancient Egypt played a critical role in how women were seen in the ancient world. Regarding government and legal rights, females were granted a surprising level of respect in that era compared to their neighboring civilizations. Often, “Egyptian women shared with men important legal rights that in many another nation [had] totally denied them: they were allowed to own land, operate businesses, not only testify in court but bring actions against men” (qtd. in Casson 32). This high legal status regarded women higher up on the ‘social chain’ than in Han China, or even the Roman Empire.
How it works
In addition, ancient leaders of Egypt in the pre-modern world reveal how the citizens at the time viewed women. Pharaohs and kings were usually men, but often had female successors such as Hatshepsut, and Nefertiti who were female leaders of this era with very specific events leading to their rule. The next ruler of Egypt was passed down to the current leader’s bloodline and given to his oldest son. If the ruler had only daughters, they did not take their father’s place. In some rare cases, Egyptian society preference a female with royal bloodline rather than a male with no royal blood. This is the case with Nefertiti who was the wife of Akhenaton and took leadership after his death. When Hatshepsut was in power, her image was often given masculine aspects and her “Her statues sometimes [portrayed] her as a man, decked out in male clothing and wearing the pharaoh’s traditional false beard, and sometimes [alluded] to her femininity by rendering her breasts” (qtd. in Casson 28). She was the most powerful leader in ancient Egypt at the time and the societal impact of male rulers before her altered her image in the public’s perception of a powerful ruler.
Not only did women take leadership and government roles in ancient Egypt they also played a significant part in the household and everyday life. Around the civilization there are evidence that can be found of “statues and reliefs and pictures that portray ‘togetherness’ of man and wife” and also “show the wife playing the important role of mistress of the household” (qtd. in Casson 32). The importance of how women were integrated in this society is also evident when found that the “husband and wife chatted together, played games together, [and] threw parties together.” There is even evidence that claims that wives “even went along on [their husband’s] hunting forays to keep him company” (qtd. in Casson 32). These statements reflect a positive attitude towards women in Egypt but that is not always the case.
There were evident stigmas and preconceived notions about the truthfulness and loyalty of women in pre-modern Egypt. In their hieroglyphs and art, Egyptians portray “men as upstanding, heroic, and true,” while at the same time, they would characterize they typical “woman as frivolous, spiteful and false” (qtd. in Casson 32). This led to females in this society to still be viewed as less than or subordinate to their male counterparts.
In the religious aspect, women were depicted as many of the Ancient Egyptian gods. Nut, who was the wife of Geb is a great example of a motherhood figure in religion. This led to another subconscious respect for women of this period. Hafsaas-Tsakos, describes how some Egyptian royal women “held the title ‘God’s Wife’, without reference to a particular god” (qtd. in Hafsaas-Tsakos 124). This exemplifies the connection of women with both a religious and legal standing point in society.
Next, if we examine Han China there will be similarities but also major differences in women’s status and role in society compared to New Kingdom Egypt. One way to look at societies notion of women is to look at adoption. For the most part men were adopted by rulers to have a passage of authority to their son, but in addition “women were also involved [in adoption], for they played an important role in the Han political arena. Like everyone else, eunuchs apparently sought to make alliances by adopting women, who could be given away in marriage to allies” (qtd. in De Crespigny 254). The way eunuchs abused the gender of women as pawn pieces to a ‘political strategy’ emphasized the shallow their ideology of the status of women was.
Furthermore, the examination of the status of women can also be explored through the perception of sexuality in males and females. Throughout the Han dynasty, homosexuality among females was suppressed and sometimes silenced as a taboo. Many political leaders, who were male, were publicly homosexual and it was not stigmatized at much as women were. Historian Shi claims that; “in pre-modern China, male and female same-sex relationships are perceived as representing human conducts of different natures and are, consequently, placed in separate social locales. Simply put, male homosexual behaviors are allowed in public, similar female behaviors are forbidden” (qtd. in Shi 19). The emphasis on banishing females’ sexual preference is astonishing and “one cannot help being struck by how severe the punishment is for the women, especially if one takes into consideration the fact that it is a time when male same-sex relationships are socially accepted” (qtd. in Shi 28). This suppression is much more negative than in other cultures of the time especially ancient Egypt.
To continue, the Roman Empire also subjected women to status places in society. Like Egypt, Roman females could in fact own land of their own, write their own wills for when they die and also be active in legal context and the court. Unlike New Kingdom Egypt, it was emphasized in roman culture that “at no time in Roman history could women themselves serve as senators or hold political magistracies on the imperial, provincial or local level” (qtd. in Grubbs 71). This was a notion that emphasized the lesser status of their male counterparts within Roman culture.
Additionally, the home life was also affected by their place in society. “While it was expected that women should only have sexual relations with their husbands, it was common for men to have many sexual partners throughout his life” (qtd. in Bauman 24). This is an unfair reality for those on the receiving end of this bias cultural norm. the largest emphasis is placed on Roman women and the role within the church during as well as after pagan religions were being modified into the predominantly Christian religion.
Surprisingly there was a great respect for the religious importance regarding women. In many cases only virgin women could enter temples for certain religious activities. Also, at most of the Roman festivals and cult observances, women were in attendance. Some of which rituals specifically required the presence of females to be authentic, but their role in the actual ritual was probably limited. This mostly being animal sacrifice, which women were not granted to do, as most of the Roman religious rituals revolved around this in their public ceremonies. Overall the inclusion of Roman females in religious events signified their importance and role in an advancing society.
Further, women in the pre-modern world were subconsciously subordinate compared to men of the time. Within each of the cultures of Ancient Egypt, China during the Han dynasty, and also the Roman empire, there were different degrees in which women and girls were suppressed or restricted in their classism. They were restricted in their legal rights, in regarding government roles, leadership roles and the rights protected to them under law. In addition to their legal rights, social norms prevented women from expressing their sexual preference, like men, and additionally their role with adoption in Han China. They also played a great role in each culture economically, in the jobs that they can hold. Lastly women were subjected to an agency of importance in religious sense while also prohibited from doing everything a man can do as well.
Specifically, Egypt and their treatment of women in “the second millennium B.C. did indeed enjoy a dimension of freedom greater than any of their sisters from other places in ancient times” (qtd. in Casson 32). They were a prime and exemplary status of how women were viewed in the pre-modern world, but without exceptions. There were still many cases even in Egypt where women were oppressed and held to lesser standards than men.
As a whole, each society can be combined to tell us that the status of women is far below how we view females today. With some cultures such as Egypt ahead with progressive views about their treatment of females, others were still objectively oppressive and controlling. This wide degree of difference across the board makes it hard to pinpoint the exact status of all women. What can be gathered from all of the societies is that the realm for improvement in social, economic, and legal aspects, allowed women to become full citizens in the future and participate. Each society contributed to the view of women as a whole, either being that of positive or negative nature, and each one paved the way for future women’s rights after the end of the pre-modern era in our planet’s history.