Introduction to Women in Ancient World History

Why a separate course or book on the history of women? All one has to do is check the
college textbooks on World or Western History, and realize there is a definite lacuna of
information on women's roles in history. People whom historians thought caused changes such as
“powerful rulers,” “successful generals,” and “religious leaders” were studied. When specific
women such as Cleopatra, Joan of Arc or Queen Elizabeth I of England entered the historical
stage, historians wrote about them, but women in general were omitted from the history books.
Now that formal historical disciplines include social, cultural, religious, intellectual, and
economic facets, more information on women is forthcoming, but the assumption has always
been that women played the same roles throughout time. Thus, why discuss their obvious roles as
wives and mothers? What change could women have possibly orchestrated in history? Many
scholars originally even stated that women did not even react to change. History is about change
and who has influenced this transformation. To be fair, through time both men and women were
excluded from recorded history because of their class, but no man was omitted from the
historical record because of his gender. Women were.
After the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960's, when the Black Americans looked to their
African roots, women started to investigate their historical background too. The feminist
movement was inaugurated, and in tandem, more scholars began delving into women's part in the
past. Ironically, the histories of women and the world fields developed at the same time.
According to Merry Wiesman, unfortunately too much World History just like Western History
does not include women and too much women’s history focuses on United States History. Now
nearly four decades have gone by, and each year more information is available to recapture
women's historical contributions.
Certain caveats must be cautiously calculated, however. Until fairly recently all
interpreters of history were male. Until about 1970 only 5% of Ph.D's in the fields of history were
earned by women. This rate slowly grew until the late 1980's when one-third of the history
doctorates received were by women. Subsequently this percentage has declined.
Another way of looking at women's history is raised in Gerda Lerner's impressive book
The Creation of Patriarchy. In this monograph she uses the metaphor of the stage to illustrate
what the roles of men and women have been and will undoubtedly continue, given the fact that
the same circumstances prevail. Men and women live on the stage of life where they act out their
assigned roles that are equal in importance. The play cannot continue to be without both
performers. Neither of them contributes more or less to the whole and neither is marginal nor
dispensable. However, the stage set is conceived, painted, and defined by men. Men have written
the play, directed the show, and interpreted the action, while assigning themselves the most
interesting and heroic parts. They give women the supporting roles. This metaphor can be
transferred to the movies and television equally. As women become aware of these
circumstances, they ask for more equality in the role assignments. Let’s say that women finally
win the right of access to equal role assignment, but first they must qualify. The terms of their
qualifications are set up by men. Men are the judges of how women measure up. Men give
preference to docile women, and those who fit their job description accurately. Men punish, by
ridicule, exclusion or ostracism any woman who assumes the right to interpret her own role. Or it
can be stated, that worst of all sins, the right of women to rewrite the scripts. It takes considerable
time for women to understand that getting equal parts will not make them equal as long as the
script, props, stage setting, and direction are held by men. Looking at recorded history of the
world is like looking at a play. We realize that the story of performances has been recorded only
by men and in their words. Their attention has been mostly on men like themselves. Not
surprisingly, they have not noticed all the actions women have taken. Finally, in the last several
decades, women have acquired the necessary training for writing scripts. As they wrote, they
began to pay more attention to what women were doing.
What forces in our society today influence us about how we regard women, young gals,
girls, widows? Possible answers: movies, MTV, music, famous people, and television. How
would you rate these sources as representative of women today? Would one of the sources have
more value than another? Where do you influences come from? Where did your parents and
grandparents obtain their ideas? As America is a young country, other areas of the world have
more historical antecedents that undoubtedly reflect their present-day views. As we study the
history of women, these influences will become readily apparent.
Keep in mine this caveat as you ponder the above remarks; “just as men cannot be studied
only in their context as a male, women’s circumstances cannot be defined solely by their sexual
While the study of history does not involve learning an entire new vocabulary, there are a
few terms that you need to know to facilitate your understanding of this course. Those terms are:
matriarch, matrilineal, matrilocal, misogyny, polyandry, polygyny or polygamy, and concubine.
Important questions that will be explored in the coming weeks are: Why do we have a
patriarchal system instead of a matriarchal one? Was there ever a time when women were
foremost? Was God originally a woman? Is God even a sexual being? If in earlier times women
and men were more equal, what caused the shift? And why did it persist?
Other areas that we will be exploring will be women’s legal rights regarding sexuality,
marriage, divorce, property, business, and religion. We will also be looking at the economic roles
women played in ancient times, and the contributions of women in the religious rituals in these
As you study and learn about the roles of women in ancient world history, there are
certain leitmotifs that can be stated as legitimate precursors to the course. Extant sources for
reconstructing women’s past are heavily weighted for the upper class. There has always been a
great divide in how the lower classes are regarded by the aristocracy or elite. It appears that for
the most part, women do not hold together as a gender, but they align themselves more with
males of their own social class than with other females.
Another common theme in women’s history is that a woman’s role in life was defined by
her lifecycle and her relationships to men. These various relationships could be a father, a
husband, a son or sons, a lover, a priest, a philosopher, a political, and a master. A female’s
marital position also determined her place and role in society as a young girl, wife, mother, and
widow. The lowest status historically until today was for a young unmarried maiden.
Widowhood usually conferred the highest status. Again, this is a volte-face to our present-day
culture. Marriage was society’s main expectation of women. Only slaves were exempt from this.
In both ancient Greek and Hebrew, the word for “woman” was also the word for “wife.” To be
fair, though, most all men were expected to marry. There has always been a double standard in
divorce generally throughout history. Barrenness and adultery were the two main reasons why
men divorced their wives. Adultery was generally a double standard too.
Further expansion on women’s general economic contributions will facilitate your
understanding of the various ancient cultures we will cover this quarter. Since Paleolithic times
women were responsible for gathering food. Consequently, women invented basket weaving,
pottery, and weaving to facilitate these endeavors. They would also probably tend the fire for
warmth, cooking, and protection against wild animals. So perhaps women were responsible for
major aspects of the economy of primitive societies.
As civilizations arose near rivers and other advantageous locations, women moved into
artisan and craftswomen positions like men. Women participated in the business of selling goods
and services in the market stalls, inns, and taverns. There were often restrictive covenants on
allowing married women in these realms. The one place where women enjoyed a virtual
monopoly was in the working of wool and flax into thread and cloth. From the earliest times the
distaff (the tool used in making thread), was a woman’s sign. One tradition that was passed down
through history that would affect women adversely was the lower pay they received compared to
men, even when they performed the same labor. As early as the 8th century b.c.e. the Greek
farmer and writer, Hesiod, advised farmers on how to save money: “In winter let go the hired
man; hire a childless girl.”
One of the most endemic and consequential view of women was misogyny. This word
means the fear or hatred of women. So much of history is interlaced with these misogynistic
threads. Where did this denigration and idea that men were superior to women come from?
Greek myths, literature, and drama give us the first written substantiation of this pervasive view
of women. Even the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament gives us information on this negative
view of women. Later on the Romans and then the Christians inherited these ideas, and they were
passed on to today. By the first century c.e. Jewish men in their morning prayers thanked God
“who has not made me a woman.” Not only Aristotle, but Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John
Calvin, and Sigmund Freud defined women as imperfect men. Calvin’s numerous misogynistic
remarks can be briefly summarized with his statement: “Let a woman be satisfied with her state
of subjection, and not take it ill that she is made inferior to the more distinguished sex.”
Italian Renaissance brought not rebirth but regression for many noblewomen. The French
Revolution of 1789 with their grand slogan of fraternity, equality, and liberty, granted neither
liberty nor equality to women. Napoleon’s lauded code of laws subjected women in new
discriminatory standards in marriage, sexual behavior, and education. Even our own American
Revolution, ushering in an era of the common men, women lost legal rights and professional
opportunities. Where colonial women enjoyed property rights and could engage in business
ventures or medical practices, their nineteenth century descendants were excluded. As one
noteworthy statement makes clear: “Milestones of advancement for men may mark gravestones
of opportunity for women.”
Let me give you an example of this misogyny, and much more will be related in the
coming lectures or chapters. Aristotle, the Greek philosopher of the 4th century b.c.e. stated: “The
male is by nature superior and the female inferior, and one rules and the other is ruled. This
inequality is permanent because the woman’s deliberative faculty is without authority, like a
child’s…the only time a girl was born, was because she was a deformed male…”
Eventually, women and wives will be catalogued as idle, vengeful, shrewish,
unscrupulous, and untrustworthy. As Hesiod said circa 700 b.c.e.: “Man couldn’t live with ‘em
and couldn’t live without ‘em.”
Thirty years ago there were not enough translated and available sources on women to
even produce a sourcebook of original writings. Researches are busy now transcribing and
investigating women’s historical past, using hieroglyphics, cuneiform, archaic Greek, and Latin.
During the last few years several anthologies have become available, and according to one
scholar women’s history has developed into a major part of the historical enterprise. Original
sources do help students develop their skills of interpretation and critical thinking. Fortunately
now we are beyond the idea that women’s history is an oxymoron.