The saga of women in human civilization has been rather complex. While the past century and a half have been rife with awakening and a struggle for parity, the ages prior are often witnessed as dark eras, despite humanity moving away from dogmatic beliefs in the period following the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment.
Though women were firmly under the oppressive constructs of patriarchal norms before the feminist awakenings following the French Revolution, the presence, success, and celebration of female independence and identity from the hoarier past are often forgotten or overlooked.
From high priestesses in Egypt to the erudite and scholarly Spartan women, the ancient world has a wealth of examples that exemplified both independent female identity and the role these powerful women played.
While there’s no mistaking that women were neither safe nor free from the clutches and reaches of oppressive stereotypes, many women and communities managed to carve out their own identities. Though such instances are not entirely lost to the dusty pages of history, they’re certainly neglected when one studies feminism and its origins.
This exploration aims to bring about a brief yet poignant overview of women who possessed grit and independent agency in the ancient and medieval periods. Whether it’s individuals who broke away from prevalent societal structures or entire communes that awarded women their due, this exercise shall delve into some refreshing examples from the ancient past.
The Evolving Role of Women in the Ancient World
To the modern mind, women being restricted to the roles of foragers and nurturers might seem stereotypical of old-world perspectives and values; however, in humanity’s paleolithic past, women stood by those roles and were limited to foraging and nursing the young in numerous nomadic communities.
As progress took its course, the world was catapulted into the Neolithic period. The change was a result of farming and the domestication of animals, both of which human society quickly mastered. It was in this period that women grew to support the economic activities of the time by indulging in both cultivation and rearing cattle.
Around the same time, the association of fertility, harvest, and nurture came to reside in the feminine principle, with goddess figurines bearing exaggerated characteristics being found across neolithic sites in the world. Though this was still typical of bare bones and limited understanding of feminine identity, it still indicates respect and reverence being awarded to women and the principle of the divine feminine—of whom human women were considered terrestrial representatives. These themes continued into the later polytheistic faiths in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, India, and Ancient Europe.
Among the first instances of women holding statures of power are noticed in the Sumerian societies of Mesopotamia, with ancient high priestesses wielding influence nearly as significant as that of the King. Priestesses were considered mediators between gods and men, often offering worship in temples on behalf of the citizens.
While these priestesses held religious significance, they were not limited to the spiritual realm - they also doubled up as skilled dentists and doctors who would treat patients in the temple infirmary. This indicates that these women were not only respected but were also highly erudite individuals who had mastered the complex study of medicine.
Even though there were still strict rules for these priestesses, such as celibacy, the highest levels of royalty were the only ones who could match their stature in larger Sumerian society, making them an important part of the ruling class.
Apart from Sumerian priestesses who wielded great influence, a queen in ancient Egypt from the Eighteenth Dynasty proved that women would make a great pharaoh, too. Hatshepsut, the second Queen Regnant in Egypt, succeeded her husband Thutmose II, and was temporarily the regent for her stepson Thutmose III. Soon enough, the Queen Regnant declared herself Pharaoh and reigned as Egypt’s undisputed ruler. Her era witnessed economic and military successes.
However, her troubled relationship with her stepson and successor—Thutmose III—and the prevailing patriarchal structures of ancient Egypt would lead to her monuments and edicts being defaced following her death, with the latter even having her name erased from the list of Egypt’s monarchs. Regardless, Hatshepsut’s story still reaches out from the deep crevices of history to remind society that gender norms and practices can always be challenged and mended.
As for Europe, women were often restricted only to their traditional roles, and breaking away from existing patriarchal norms was often trickier. Regardless, history tells us that several women broke away from these invisible shackles and explored their complete potential.
Ancient Greece tells the tale of scholarly poetesses and philosophers like Sappho and Aspasia, along with the considerable importance awarded to Spartan women in public life. The women of ancient Rome held the right to own property and manage business transactions. Though these facets might seem basic to the modern psyche, these developments were significant for the ancient world, where most women were restricted to the household and child-rearing.
The stories of Celtic and Germanic tribes also bear numerous examples of female leaders who even spearheaded rebellions against occupying forces. Well-known examples of such figures include Boudicca of the Iceni tribe, who led a revolt against the Romans in Britain, and Cartimandua, a tribal chief who came to rule the largest tribe of Britain—the Brigantes—in the 1st century AD.
Given that the world was a big place, the role of women in ancient society saw constant change, and women witnessed a variety of roles ranging from scholarly priestesses officiating in high temples to leading charges on the battlefield.
Women in the Middle Ages
As the Middle Ages rolled around, organized religion enhanced its hold on the populace, classical values and a few of the liberties associated with them began to wane. As puritanical institutions began extending their reach into citizens’ personal lives and also within the political echelons, the brunt of the fallout was mostly borne by women and extant oppressed classes.
While it could be argued that the ancient world offered no special benefits to women, the arrival of the Middle Ages restricted whatever liberties were accorded to them even further following the fall of the classical polities and the dawn of the Dark Ages.
The rise of Christianity made numerous women take to religion, with a considerable number of them becoming nuns and living in austere conditions as a sign of faith. The condition was no different in different parts of the world, given that the early Middle Ages was a rather tumultuous period rife with the collapse of several old-world empires as well as the rise of warring nomads carrying out repeated raids and incursions into extant polities, weakening state power across the board. Irrespective, there are numerous examples of women who aimed beyond the roles forced upon them despite the turbulent and shackled circumstances.
The medieval period brought about a greater number of female writers in Europe, some of whom broke away from the mold and chose to express themselves despite the suffocating impositions of society. Christine de Pizan, the French court poetess who found patrons among the Dukes of Orleans and Burgundy, is credited with having written some of the earliest forms of feminist literature. Her works, The Book of the City of Ladies and The Treasure of the City of Ladies argued for women’s rights, equality, and the need for education right back in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, making her a true pioneer.
Alongside literature and the scholarly domain, women were also involved in the pitched battlefields of the Crusades and fought beside their male counterparts. While this was not widely acceptable to the ecclesiarchy of the time, famed noblewomen, queens, and, though less documented, peasant women, too, participated in Europe’s bid to reclaim the Holy Land. Aristocratic women like Eleanor of Aquitaine, Florine of Burgundy, Margaret of Provence, and Ida of Formbach-Ratelnbert were some of the prominent noblewomen who fought in and also held negotiations during the Crusades.
Similar examples of the political and warlike woman are also found in the eastern reaches of Asia, where one finds tales of the “Onna-musha,” female warriors trained both militarily and in the art of strategy. They fought in the numerous battles pitched in feudal Japan alongside their male Samurai counterparts. Respected and held in high esteem, the Onna-Musha were also featured as enigmatic and influential figures in Japanese literature.
The significance of the Onna-musha and their presence on the battlefield was widely recorded in the Sengoku period; however, their presence diminished following the dawn of the Edo era in Japanese history.
As for communities, the Tuaregs of North-Western Africa have been famous for their enduring matrilineality, which has its roots in the medieval period. The older Tuareg beliefs and cultural icons were based on matriarchal concepts, including fertility spirits and the deification of female ancestors - a prominent feature in the community. Interestingly, Tuareg communities even featured queens and female tribal chiefs.
In the southern quarters of Asia, the deification of the feminine principle was another key element present in the Indian subcontinent, which continued to present the female force as primal divinity within specific sects in the Indic faiths. These frameworks continue to survive in the polytheistic beliefs of the region while still garnering popular appeal. Despite the numerous pitfalls of the medieval age and the persistent othering of women in the centuries gone by, several communities and individuals stood out as beacons of resilience.
Learnings from the Bygone Ages
While it could be argued that the majority of women who managed to carve out their niches and identities in the ancient and medieval worlds came from privileged classes and positions of influence, it is still important to acknowledge their attempts to break free from existing norms and gender roles.
The taboo surrounding independent women expressing their ambitions was at an extreme in the ancient and medieval eras; hence, the contributions of women who resisted must be given due attention. These individuals and communities provided much-needed inspiration and the courage to construct an independent identity for future women who would successfully cut through the artificial bondages placed by patriarchal conditioning.
In this regard, the women of the ancient past require their due place in modern studies of feminism and can provide insightful learnings for the progress that lies ahead.
Author Bio: Sophia is an online ESL/EFL instructor and a passionate educator. She found her true calling — teaching — while she was juggling writing and a 9-5 desk job. When she is not busy earning a living, she volunteers as a social worker. If you want to connect, you can find her on Facebook, Twitter, Medium, and her blog Essay Writing and More.
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