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Women & Power of Pre-Colonial Latin America

Pre-Columbian America relates to the era before the arrival of the Europeans. It pertains to aboriginal civilizations of the Americas, with the likes of those in Mesoamerica and the Andes. Although the onset of “Pre-Columbian” era is considered to be from the time the human race set foot on the American soil in14, 000B.C, this article refers to the period just before the European impact started influencing the North American societies of Maya and Aztec people in Mesoamerica, and Inca civilization in Southern America. In these cultures like in many others, the role of women was centered on household actions like the upbringing of infants, cooking food to feed the family, and knitting materials. Nevertheless, the role of women varied in different societies, as they occupied eminent positions in the markets, religion, and politics (Chassen-Lopez, pp. 27-30).

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In the contemporaneous Maya guild of Zinacantan, Mexico, the man and woman are said to have a harmonizing relationship as their roles in societies complement each other. There is a saying prevalent there which states that the man is the producer of the staples and transforming them into a useful entity is the work of the woman. This saying is as true even for ancient Maya as it is for the contemporary. The duties of the ancient Maya women are deduced only from the intricate sepulture pieces of ground containing steles and other entombments. It appears that women in the Maya society had a daily role in household acts. They bore children and were responsible for the welfare and proper upbringing of their children. In the context of domestic works, “As among the Classic and Postclassic Maya, the labor of individual men and women within their houses provided a potential source of conflict” (Joyce, p. 175).

The Maya populace fed on deer meat. It was upon the women of the house to raise the livestock which was eventually killed by men for food. It is undecided if all women wove yarn but pieces of evidence have been found that it was their duty to produce textiles. Pieces of evidence from the inhumed city of Ceren – covered by volcanic ash in 600 C.E are proof enough to show that textile work by the women occupied an esteemed position in the market. Alongside that, they played a vital role in religion. As young girls, they were educated on how to preserve the household religious shrines. They related to the ceremonious observance of religion. There is even substantiation that few privileged women participated in politics. Researches originating in Guatemala claim the discovery of a limestone testament portraying a woman of power in ancient Maya civilization. This monument is inferred to be either of an empress or a mythological deity (Malina, pp. 437-449).

The Aztec culture was patriarchate and predominantly male-dominated. Thus, women in this society were deemed inferior to men. This fact lessened their opportunity or probability of participating in administrative and sacred acts. However, in everyday verve, there was an apparent distinction between duties of men and women in the society. A Man was expected to plow the fields and fight wars or inherit his father’s occupation to become trader while a woman was required to be domicile and perform domestic chores like bearing and raising the child of the man, knitting, and preparing food.

The women were taught to perform these activities skillfully from a young age. They usually started spinning yarn at the age of four and began cooking by twelve. However, women were not just engaged in domicile chores. Aztec females excelled in textile production and took the responsibility of the household welfare but also indulged in working as merchants, mongers, journalists, courtesans, therapists, and midwives. For example, researchers state that they used to arrange and supervise voyages for commercial profit, even though it is still undecided if they could be a part of the trip. However, “by celebrating their work in weaving, women in Aztec houses simultaneously asserted their sexuality against the social controls that surrounded it” (Joyce, p. 164).

Women of the Aztec society were also keen to capitalize on some openings concerning trade as they used to market their merchandise in the mart to visitors and make some profits as an outcome. They supplied foodstuff, fabric, and other merchandise to the marketplace. It is also said that some women of Aztec origin occupied positions as authorized adjudicators regarding disputes of the market and were responsible for resolving them. In addition to that, few of them used to be skilled medics and diviners as substantiated by a few documents from the Spanish reports which point out the fact that the skills of the feminine healers were held in higher esteem than contemporary Spanish doctors.

Dona Marina, a woman of the Aztec imperia of the 16th century was a lady of eminence and cannot go without a mention while preparing an account of the power of Aztec women. She played the role of an interpreter and counselor in the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Her active participation in the same is recorded in the reports of Francisco Lopez de Gomara. Though not as a literary “Pre-Columbian” woman, by reckoning the role Dona Marina played, a general conceptualization of the role of women in Pre-Columbian America can be attained.

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The role of the women in the Inca civilization was quite distinct from that of women of European origin during that period as European women mainly were used just for the benefit of the menfolk. In the Inca populace, the feminine role was distinguished, but complemented those of men and were essential elements of the society. Their primary objective was to look after the welfare of the offspring, but along with that assumed control of many household responsibilities, with the likes of food preparation, toiling in the fields, and spinning yarn. Before the colonization of America by the Europeans, the domestic family was a self-directed socio-economic element, signifying a degree of independence of the commons in the Inca society, with women included (Goldsmith, pp. 65-7).

The skeletal examination of this era indicates that females who lived during this period took food incomparable quality and amount to that of men. Thus, it can be inferred that women had an equal footing along with men in societal and familial existence. In addition, women in Inca civilization played a large role in religion, controlling the cults of goddesses. However, in the post-colonization period, the position of the women in the society fell in comparison to that of the men, as the administration instigated their exemption from its activities. Worth mentioning is the status of the “Chosen Women” in the Inca society, also called Acllacunas. They had a significant economic and cultural position. They were part of an esteemed class in the society and dwelt in temple convents sworn to preserve a vow of celibacy (Malina, pp. 437-449).

They were separated from families at an early age and held responsibilities for the preparation of ceremonial food, the preservation of a hallowed fire, and the weaving of textiles for royal and ceremonial use. They eventually went on to become courtesans of the Inca rulers, mamaconas – the temple attendants and trainers of young Acllacunas and wives of noblemen or military officials. Some of them who were considered as the epitome of perfection was even chosen to be sacrificed as a tribute to the sun (Geocities, p. 1).

An insightful study of all the Pre-Columbian American cultures reveals that there was a lot in common to all the women. The roles of housework, upbringing of children, cooking food for the family, and knitting cloth have been observed to be the job of the woman in all cultures. To add to these responsibilities, depending on the society they belonged to, some women contributed to political, economic, and religious affairs. A few of the North American civilizations were matrilineal with women often occupying an esteemed position in the society and had considerable influence on politics. Also, in cultures like Maya and Aztec, feminine participation in the market by weaving and supplying garments and textile was noted (Goldsmith, pp. 140-45).

The role of the women in the Inca culture was distinguished from that of the other communities. A female of the Inca population was obliged to supply the regime’s storehouse at least one piece of garment each year. Fractions of the women populace in the Inca culture were deemed as “Chosen Women” who played a significant economical and cultural role in the society. It is significantly noted that women of Pre-Columbian America had a reasonably imperative role to play in society as compared to their European or Korean counterparts. They had specifically distinguished positions within the society, but instead of being observed as subordinates of men, their duties were conceived to complement the actions of the opposite sex as a quintessential factor of their community.

Works Cited

  1. Chassen-Lopez, Francie R.; Heather Fowler-Salamini, Mary Kay Vaughan Cheaper Than Machines Women of the Mexican Countryside, The University of Arizona Press. pp. (1994)
  2. Geocities; Acllacunas: Sacred Women of the Inca Empire; geocities.com; 2008;
  3. Goldsmith, Raquel Rubio; Heather Fowler-Salamini and Mary Kay Vaughan Seasons, Seeds and Souls Women of the Mexican Countryside, The University of Arizona Press. (1994)
  4. Joyce, Rosemary A; Gender and Power in Prehispanic Mesoamerica; University of Texas Press, 2000
  5. Malina, Robert M, Henry A. Selby, Peter H. Buschang, Wendy L. Aronson, Richard G. Wilkinson; Adult stature and age at menarche in Zapotec-speaking communities in the Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico, in a secular perspective; American Journal of Physical Anthropology; 60, 4, 437-449; Department of Anthropology, University of Texas, Austin, Texas; 1983

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