BC to 1299 AD

10,000 BC – in ancient Africa women were often seen as powerful seers. Women played a central role in economic production, cooking, cleaning, tending children and weeding, harvesting fields and managing rice mills.

Tribes were sometimes led by men but often led by women (Balobedu, Asantema). Inheritance in some tribes was through the woman – matrilineal.

3,000 BC – Anthropologists believe that in many early primitive societies men were hunters and gatherers of food, protecting the tribe while women were around the campfire or hearth tending the young, sick, elderly, making food and harvesting small gardens. The roles were interdependent.

2,000 BC – early Egypt – women were unpaid workers, cooking, cleaning, rearing children, fetching water, making pottery, making textiles. They washed laundry in the Nile. Childlessness was looked down on  and women consulted goddesses to help with fertility. It was common to have 6-8 children. Many women died in childbirth and many babies died in infancy.

Ancient Egypt – Egypt had a cult of the goddess Isis, said to be the mother goddess, and goddess of wisdom, the sky and the universe.

1,500 BC – ancient India

In the Vedic period women had an honored position in the home and had wide freedom for choice of roles. They could be engaged in archery, horse riding, go to war, get an education, and select their own husbands.

Female goddesses represented the universe and motherhood and were worshipped. Boys and girls could equally study Vedic literature and women were often seen as sages and seers. They were writers of hymns and many earned money spinning and weaving.

It was legal for a man to have many wives or for a woman to have many husbands. Divorce was not permitted but widows were allowed to remarry. Women could not inherit property but could freely take part in debate at public assemblies.

1,200 BC – ancient Israelites

In ancient Jewish culture 90% of the population lived on farms and the farm was also the workplace, and the economic and social unit of society. Women contributed significantly to the economy and were valued for doing so – bearing children, tending them, and also preparing food to sustain the household.

The conversion of inedible raw harvest grains to edible flour was made only through hours of labor grinding it and hours of baking it in clay ovens, shared sometimes in community.      

Women had few official legal rights and their identities are rarely  recorded in the Jewish religious books. However their role in the community was seen as vital, including their social networking as they washed clothes by the river, ground grain or baked bread – to learn of the needs of others and create a support network.

The role of midwives was critical to the community to monitor the health and ensure the safety of those giving birth and women were often respected as prophets – Miriam, Deborah.

Women often had positions behind the power, such as mothers of kings. They had low official social status at religious festivals, were required to sit separately, appear less publicly. However their role in enabling the festivals preparing the food and entertainment was considered vital.

Women have been identified as having subservient roles in households but some had greater independence, could make intercession with kings, could make independent decisions to relocate the family in cases of drought.       

In one ancient text the virtuous woman is praised for producing textiles and buying land, preparing good for market and operating a successful business.

960 BC – in Africa women were sometimes heads of the tribe, and some in a tribe had the role of queen mother, owning land, levying tax, making laws and ensuring children were educated. The Queen of Sheba was powerful.

700 BC – ancient Greece – women were considered inferior, were given little formal education, had no legal identity. Women were assumed to have evil influence – eg. Pandora.

Women were valued for fertility and service only, often married at age 17, usually with arranged marriages with dowry. In Athens birth of boys was celebrated, children played games, boys learned to read and write on tablets, memorizing. Privileged few boys age16 studied philosophy, rhetoric, law. Sons were obliged by law to care for elderly parents. In Sparta boys attended boarding school from age 6 with barracks lodging, little food and harsh discipline.

Women traditionally prepared bodies for burial and mourned formally for weeks. The care role was taken for granted, considered a duty. Women were considered inferior, got little formal education, and had no legal identity.  On divorce, which was rare, the dowry had to be returned. On widowhood the woman was left with few financial resources but did have fewer social restrictions than did married women.

The culture did celebrate a few strong goddesses – Hera, Athena, Artemis, Aphrodite and in literature there were a few mythical strong women – Clytemnestra, Phaedra, Antigone.

Childhood was not considered important and children had few toys. Many women died in childbirth and rates of infant mortality were high. A father had the legal right to choose to raise child or expose it and let it die. Sons were preferred but not only if not physically flawed. Abandoned children were sometimes picked up by others.

Children in Athens were raised with more toys – spinning tops, toy horses, boats, carts and girls had toy dolls with moveable arms. There were no books for children but children did play ball games. The school teacher had low status, math was not studied and only a few children went on to higher education or law, philosophy.

In Sparta boys were sent to boarding school at age 6 and were harshly disciplined. Those who were considered misshapen, or of low intelligence were considered slaves by nature. Slavery was common and slaves had no legal rights and were treated as property. In some communities 80% of the population was slaves.

Domestic slaves cleaned, nursed, look after children. Even peasants hired seasonal slaves while landowners had full time slaves. A loyal slave was valued and when died was buried in the family grave. A slave however could legally be beaten, tortured to tell the truth or forced to have sex with the owner. If a slave got sick they were usually left to die. Some slaves worked in industry and mines, and some could buy their freedom.

A few people did live to 80s, 90s and 100 – Solon, Isocrates, Plato, Euripides,             Sophocles and the culture saw old age as a sign of wisdom. However very few lived past age  65. Women over 60 sometimes earned money as paid mourners at funerals and elderly unmarried women often became beggars.

420 BC – Socrates – spoke of educating children under age 6

360 BC Aristotle – believed in educating the young and noticing individual differences

300 BC Celts – Women did domestic roles and were spinners and weavers. Men were farmers, blacksmiths and soldiers. A dowry was given on marriage and it was equally given by men and women. A few female warriors were celebrated. Boadicea left troops in battles against Rome in 60 AD.

200 BC – India

Women lost many of the freedoms and rights they had enjoyed earlier. They were now treated as second class, could not take part in public prayers and were no longer permitted the right to an education. They were assigned the domestic role but no longer revered for it, just expected to do it as their duty.    

100 BC – Ancient Rome

The law officially referred to the infirmity of women and limited the amount of money they were allowed to possess. Women were legally controlled by the eldest male in the household – father, husband, older brother or oldest son.

Fathers chose who the daughters would marry. Often marriages were arranged for business or political interests. A man could legally kill a woman in the household who disobeyed him. There were some loving marriages – Pompey and Julia, Marcus Brutus and Portia but few women are recorded in ancient Roman history.

Lower class women were expected to do farm labor, be midwives, wet nurses, seamstresses, cooks and spinning was expected. Under the law women could be charged with offenses for which men were exempt. If a woman was raped she might be charged as the responsible party. Names girls were given were often variations of boys’ names – Claudius – Claudia, Julius, Julia.

Roman culture

Slavery was common. Slaves of both genders were sold based on their age, strength, gender and there was a guarantee of refund

Slaves were agricultural workers or  ran errands at the market, fetched water at the public fountain

Female slaves were nurses, cooks, cleaners, gardeners. The offspring of a slave was also considered the property of the landowner. Corporal punishment of slaves was legal and it was believed in court they would lie unless tortured

The master had life and death rights over slave and could crucify if slave was disloyal. If a slave ran off there was a reward to whomever caught him

Slaves could earn their freedom after saving wages for 7 years and paying for freedom but a freed slave still had to give gifts to former master

The law refers to the infirmity of the female sex and their fickle nature

The law limited the amount of gold a woman could posses to one half an ounce. She was not to ride in carriages

Spinning was expected of women and lower class women did farm labor, were             midwives, wet nurses, seamstresses and cooks

The model of a wife was for self-sacrifice

51 BC – Egypt

Status was based not on gender but on social class and women in poverty were treated poorly as were men. However women of high birth were able to have positions of power. Cleopatra, daughter of the ruler Ptolemy rose to lead her nation.

80 AD – Vikings

Women cooked, tended children, spun and wove, helped on the farm. Few had formal education

200 AD – China

Women were subordinate to their fathers, husbands or sons. They were believed to be the weaker yin to male yang , the softer, more submissive, darker half. To be born female was sometimes believed to be punishment for male misdeeds in an earlier life

Boys were valued for likelihood of bringing income to the household and continuing the family while girls were likely to leave the family on marriage so were less valued

The ideal woman was to be faithful, cautious in speech, gracious in manner and industrious. There were sometimes shrines built to virtuous widows after their death

The bride kept her birth family’s name but the marriage indicated her new role giving her fertility and future domestic service to the family of her husband

Footbinding was done so girls’ feet would remain small to help them be attractive to men

500 AD  -Father’s Day was celebrated on March 19th in Catholic Europe. The Coptic church observed it since the fifth century on July 20th. The March 19th tradition spread to Latin America as it got colonized.

600 – Anglo Saxons

Some Anglo Saxon laws gave women independent status in marriage. There were precise economic values of child-bearing and child-rearing . Slaves were common, were a trading commodity and child slaves were sold. Only 10% of women lived to be older than 45, few were educated of either gender.Only 10% of men were educated to read and write

630  – Muhammad and Islam

In the Qur’an men and women are considered spiritually equal. The man was the protector and maintainer of the family and responsible for supporting the family financially and arranging the education of the children. Women’s roles were not clearly outlined but in early years of Islam they were to rely on the protection of men. Motherhood and family were highly valued, polygamy was permitted to ensure that widows of fallen soldiers and their children were supported. Muhammad was against the then-current practice of infanticide and said women should have property rights, the right to reject the terms of a proposal and the right to initiate divorce. Women were required to dress modestly, could attend mosques but were in groups separated from men. They had domestic roles and the man was considered the head of the household. Some women entered professions outside the home.

1200-Britain -Men had power and were the ones allowed to hold land and inherit. Women were important only for the provision of legitimate heirs. Children were quickly absorbed into the adult world, apprenticed between ages 7 and 12 to learn a trade


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