Women's Life

Oct 2014
California, USA
Someone asked a question about which pre-modern cultures were best for women. I wanted to ask something similar (but that would sort of let us compare cultures in this regard, more than deciding which was best).

Whatever pre-modern civilization/culture/time period are most familiar with, please answer as many of these questions below as you can about it (just skip any you don't know off hand or don't feel like answering that). Feel free to just focus on one class section if you want (ruling class, common people)...but just be clear which you are talking about if things were very different for both. If you're pretty knowledgeable about several time periods, feel free to share them both, but if you don't mind, could you share in separate comments? Thanks!

1. Culture/Country/Civilization Name (whichever is most appropriate)
2. Approximate Time Period
3. Matrilineal or Patrilineal or Other?
4. Could women hold property (apart from husbands/father)?
5. Did women have a choice in who they married?
6. How young could a woman marry, and how young did women usually marry? Did women often marry much older men?
7. Was separation or divorce possible? Under what grounds? What were women's rights to property/children if they left their husband or he left her?
8. What opportunities were available outside marriage for women? (Jobs, positions, etc.)
9. Could a husband legally kill his wife? Beat his wife?
10. Were women kept inside (not allowed to go out without chaperone?)
11. What happened to widows?
12. Could women rule or be part of the political process? How common was this?
13. Could women be part of the judicial process (make legal claims, be judges, anything related to this)?
14. How much education did most women get (compared to men)? If the culture had writing, how common was it for women to be literate (compared to men)?
15. Other...anything interesting about women's status or role not covered above?
Jun 2017
4. Could women hold property (apart from husbands/father)?
Yes. It just happens that I am sorting out papers and I have a copy of an agreement between a brother and sister which divides their father's lands. Sometimes the land goes to a daughter and, in that case, her husband assumes her "land name".


Forum Staff
Aug 2016
1. Native Americans, especially Iroquois and possibly other eastern woodlands tribes
2. Aprx the time of first contact with Europeans
3. Matrilineal - it was incestuous for men and women of the same clan to marry. Children were born into the same clan as their mother. The father was therefore the outsider.
4. Indians did not recognize property rights beyond the personal - clothes, tools, weapons, etc. Even then, property was owned by the clan meaning that when a person died their property could only be inherited by another clansman. A daughter could inherit her mother's things, but a son was not of his father's clan and could not inherit his father's property. A man's property was usually inherited by a son of his sister. Because of the strict gender divide, sons had no desire to inherit their mother's things, nor did daughters care about their father's property
5. Fathers usually decided who their daughters would marry but usually knew who their daughters wanted to marry and agreed with the daughter's choice. Remaining unmarried was not really a viable choice. All Indians were incomplete and needed a spouse to function in society. Tasks were assigned by gender. Men and women were disinterested in doing tasks assigned to the other sex. Men did not do women's work nor did women do men's work. A man could therefore not cook for himself nor could a woman hunt for food. A suitor paid a bride price to the girl's father. If the father was opposed to the marriage he would say that the price was too small. If he accepted the bride price, after the wedding he gave a gift of equal value to the new couple so that the father did not profit by selling his daughter. The purpose of the bride price was to give the father a mechanism to deny the marriage. It also deterred poor boys from attempting to marry the daughters of wealthy men. (Wealth was measured more in prestige than in materialism). Fathers expected their prospective sons-in-law to keep their daughters in the lifestyle they were accustomed to. If the bride price was too small, it meant the young man was too poor for that girl.
6. My sense is that most people married in their late teens. If a person was still unmarried much past 20 years of age they would be thought strange. Adolescents lived with their parents until marriage. Parents were often eager to get the kids out of the teepee or wigwam.
7. Separation and divorce was possible and usually accompanied by immediate remarriage. Single people were frowned upon. If a wife ran off to be with another man, most Indian husbands would pretend they did not care. To show envy was a form of weakness.
8. Occasionally one hears mention of a medicine woman or priestess, but these women were also usually married. Most women found family life took up all of their time.
9. Indians were averse to any kind of violence within their own communities. Parents did not apply corporal punishment to their own children. A man who beat his wife would be censured by his community, perhaps eventually ostracized. A man who killed his wife would probably be banished from the community.
10. Women usually had free movement. One courtship ritual had the father tie his daughter's legs together just above the knees. Theoretically, if she couldn't spread her legs, her virginity would remain intact. This was usually done when a young man came to visit and just wanted to sit and talk with her. I don't recall any instances of dating where the young man and woman went off alone together. Sometimes they would sit on the ground outside of her home with a blanket over their heads for private conversations or possibly kissing, but everything from the neck down was visible to the public so that the young man could not take liberties with his hands.
11. Widows were sometimes abandoned, left to starve or freeze to death. This was perhaps the darkest part of Indian culture.
12 & 13. Iroquois women were the guardians of tradition. They did not participate in politics, but when the men made a political decision, they would submit it to the women. The women could veto the decision if it was not in accordance with tribal tradition.
14. Neither Indian boys nor girls received any formal education. Each was trained in their life skills by their same-sex parent.
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