The assignment of writing of and about woman intrigued me to no end. The task of research on the subject of woman is monumental to say the least. The most difficult task of the entire project was a question that kept cropping up: "Where does one start?"
The introduction of this series of lessons will begin with our Oriental heritage and the establishment of civilization. Voltaire once said: "I want to know what were the steps by which man (woman) passed from barbarism to civilization."
Among the lower animals, there is no care of progeny. Consequently, eggs are spawned in great numbers. Some survive and develop while the great majority are eaten or destroyed. Most fish lay a million eggs per year. A few species of fish show a modest solicitude for their off-spring, and find half a hundred eggs per year sufficient for their purposes. Birds care better for their young, and hatch from five to twelve eggs yearly. Mammals, whose very name suggests parental care, master the earth with an average of three young per female per year. Throughout the animal world, fertility and destruction decreases as parental care increases.
Throughout the human world, the birth rate and death rate fall together as civilization rises. Better family care makes possible a longer adolescence in which the young receive fuller training and development before they are flung upon their own resources. Also, the lowered birth rate releases human energy for other activities than reproduction.
Since it was the women who fulfilled most of the paternal functions, the family was, at first (so far as one can pierce the mists of history), organized on the assumption that the man in the family was superficial and incidental while that of the woman was fundamental and supreme. The simplest form of the family then was the woman and her children living with her mother or her brother in the clan. Such an arrangement was a natural outgrowth of the animal family of the mother and her litter, and of the biological ignorance of primitive man.
An alternative early form was "matrilocal marriage." The husband left his clan and went to live with the clan and family of his wife, laboring for her or with her in the service of her parents. Descent, in such cases, was traced through the female line. Inheritance was through the mother. Sometimes, even the kingship passed down through her rather than through the male. This "mother-right" was not a "matriarchate" -- it did not imply the rule of women over men.
It is true that there have been, occasionally, women rulers among some early South African tribes; that in the Peleia Islands, the chief did nothing of consequence without the advice of a council of elder women; that among the Iroquois, the women (squaws) had the equal right with the men of speaking and voting in the tribal council; and that among the Seneca Indians, women held great power, even to the selection of the chief. But these, indeed, are rare and exceptional cases.
All in all, the position of woman in early societies was one of subjection verging upon slavery. Woman's periodic disability, her unfamiliarity with weapons, the biological absorption of her strength in carrying, nursing, and rearing children, handicapped her in the war of the sexes, and doomed her to a subordinate status in all but the very lowest and the very highest societies. Nor was her position necessarily to rise with the development of civilization. It was destined to be lower in Periclean Greece than among the North American Indians. It was to rise and fall with her strategic importance rather than with the culture and morals of men.
The favorite object of primitive taboo was woman. A thousand superstitions made her, every now and then, untouchable, perilous, and "unclean." The molders of the world's myths were unsuccessful husbands for they agreed that woman was the root of all evil. This was a view sacred not only in Hebraic and Christian tradition, but to a hundred pagan mythologies as well.
The most strict primitive taboo was laid upon the menstruating woman. Any man or thing that touched her at such times lost virtue or usefulness. The Macusi of British Guiana forbade women to bathe at their periods lest they should poison the waters, and they forbade them to go into the forests on these occasions lest they be bitten by enamored snakes.
Every childbirth was unclean; and after it, the mother was to purify herself with laborious religious rites. Out of such taboos came modesty, the sense of sin, the view of sex as unclean, asceticism, priestly celibacy, and the subjection of woman.
To what nobility of spirit and to utterance the first of the historic religions could rise to shine out in the prayer of King Gudea to the goddess Bau, the patron deity of Lagesh:
"Oh my Queen, the Mother who
Women were attached to every temple--some as domestics, some as concubines--for the gods or their duly constituted representatives on earth. To serve the temples in this way did not seem any disgrace to a Sumerian girl. Her father was proud to devote her charms to the alleviation of divine monotony, and celebrated the admission of his daughter to these sacred functions with ceremonial sacrifice, and the presentation of the girl's marriage dowry to the temple.
The woman held control over the dowry though she held it jointly with the husband (but only she could determine its bequest.) The woman exercised equal rights with her husband. In the absence of her husband and a grown-up son, she administered the estate as well as the home. She could engage in business independently of her husband, and could keep or dispose of her own slaves. The double standard was already in force as in corollary of property and inheritance. Adultery in the man was a forgivable whim, but in the woman, it was punishable by death.
Divorce was rare until the decadent dynasties. The husband could dismiss his wife without compensation if he detected her in adultery. If, however, he divorced her for other reasons, he was required to turn over to her a substantial share of the family property. The fidelity of the husband (as far as one can fathom such arcana) was a painstaking as in any later culture.
The position of women was more advanced than in most countries today. No people, ancient or modern, has given women so high a legal status as did the inhabitants of the Nile Valley. Women held and bequeathed property in their own names. One of the most ancient documents in history is the Third Dynasty Will in which the Lady Neb-sent transmitted her lands to her children. Hatshepsut and Cleopatra rose to be queens and ruled and ruined like kings.
Ptah-hotep wrote a tribute, so to speak, on woman to his son:
"If thou are successful, and has furnished thy house, and lovest the wife of thy bosom, then fill her stomach and clothe her back. Make glad her heart during the time thou hast her; for she is a field profitable to its owner. If thou oppose her, it will mean thy ruin."
It is likely that this high status of women rose from the mildly matriarchal character of Egyptian society. Not only was a woman full mistress in the house, but all estates descended in the female line. Even in later periods, the husband made over all his property and future earnings to his wife in his marriage settlement.
The powers of the wife underwent a slow diminution in the course of time, perhaps through contact with the patriarchal customs of the Hyksos, and through transit of Egypt from agricultural isolation and peace to imperialism and war. Under the Ptolemies, the influence of the Greeks was so great that freedom of divorce, claimed in earlier times by the wife, became the exclusive privilege of the husband. Women of Egypt truly were masters of their affairs.
It was a profound myth; for history, like Oriental religion, is dualistic--a record of the conflict between creation and destruction, fertility and desiccation, rejuvenation and exhaustion, good and evil, life and death. Profound, too, was the myth of Isis--the Great Mother. She was not only the loyal sister and wife of Osiris, but in a sense, she was greater than he; for, like women in general, she had conquered death through love. Nor was she merely the black soil of the Delta fertilized by the touch of Osiris-Nile, and making all Egypt rich with fecundity. She was, above all, the symbol of that mysterious creative power which had produced the earth and every living thing, and of that maternal tenderness whereby, at whatever cost to the mother, the young new life is nurtured to maturity.
She represented in Egypt (as Kali, Ishtar, and Cybele represented in Asia, Demeter in Greece, Ceres in Rome) the original priority and independence of the female principle in creation and in inheritance, and the originative leadership of woman tilling the earth. For it was Isis (said the myth) who had discovered wheat and barley growing wild in Egypt and had revealed them to Osiris (man). The Egyptians worshipped her with special fondness and piety. They raised up jeweled images to her as the Mother of God. Her tonsured priests praised her in sonorous matins and vespers; and in mid-winter of each year, coincident with the annual rebirth of the sun towards the end of our December (Solstice), the temples of her divine child, Horus (god of the sun) showed her, in holy effigy, nursing in a stable the babe that she had miraculously conceived. These poetic philosophical legends and symbols profoundly affected Christian ritual and theology. Early Christians sometimes worshipped before the statues of Isis suckling the infant Horus, seeing in them another form of the ancient and noble myth by which woman (i.e. the female principle) creating all things, becomes at last the Mother of God.
From the 26th dynasty of Egypt, the powerful Master Teacher Ikhnaton and his Queen Nefretiti often recited the praises of their god, Aton. I feel it is germane to quote an important paragraph to end this chapter on Egyptian women.
"Creator of the germ of woman
In general, the position of woman in Babylonia was lower than that in Egypt or Rome, and yet, not worse than that in classical Greece or medieval Europe. To carry out her many functions--begetting and rearing children, fetching water from the river or the public well, grinding corn, cooking, spinning, weaving, and cleaning--she had to be free to go about in public very much like a man. She could own property, enjoy its income, sell and buy, inherit and bequeath. Some women kept shops and carried on commerce. Some even became scribes indicating that girls as well as boys might receive an education; but the Semitic practice of giving almost limitless power to the oldest male of the family won out against any matriarchal tendencies that may have existed in prehistoric Mesopotamia. Among the upper classes (by a custom that led to the purdah of Islam and India) the women were confined to certain quarters of the house. When they went out, they were chaperoned by eunuchs and pages.
The worship of Ishtar suggests a certain reverence for woman and motherhood like the worship of Mary in the Middle Ages. There was no chivalry in Herodotus' report that the Babylonian men, when besieged, strangled their wives to prevent the consumption of their provisions. The Egyptians, who respected their women as equals, looked down upon the Babylonians for the utter disregard toward the right of woman.
Very little has been written of women during the Assyrian era. Though women rose to considerable power through marriage and intrigue, their position was many degrees lower than in Babylon. Severe penalties were laid upon them for striking their husbands. Wives were not allowed to go out in public unveiled. And, a very strict fidelity on the part of the woman was exacted of her though the husband might have all the concubines he desired.
Though technically subject, the woman was often a person of high authority and dignity. The history of the Jews shines with such names as Sarah, Rachel, Miriam, and Esther. Deborah was one of the judges of Israel, and it was the prophetess Huldah who Josiah consulted about the book which the priests had found the Temple (The Book of the Law.)
The last chapter of Proverbs states the male ideal of woman completely:
"Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies. The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her so that he shall have no need of spoil. She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life. She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands.
"She is like the merchant's ships; she bringeth her food from afar. She riseth also while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens.
"She considereth a field, and buyeth it; with the fruit of her hands, she planteth a vineyard. She girdeth her loins with strength, and strengtheneth her arms. She perceiveth that her merchandise is good. The candle goeth not out by night.
"She layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff. She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy.
"She maketh herself coverings of tapestry; her clothing is silk and purple. Her husband is known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land.
"She maketh fine linen, and selleth it, and delivereth girdles unto the merchant. Strength and honor are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come.
"She openeth her mouth with wisdom, and in her tongue is the law of kindness. She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness. Her children arise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her. Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates."
This, of course, was the man's ideal. If we may believe Isaiah (III, 16-23), the real women of Jerusalem were very much of this world, loving fine raiment and ornament, and leading the men a merry chase.
The Tenth Commandment reveals how clearly woman was conceived under the rubric of property; "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house; thou shalt not covet they neighbor's wife, nor his manservant, not his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor's" Nevertheless, it was an admirable precept. Could men follow it, half the fever and anxiety of our life would be removed.
Strange to say, the greatest of the commandments is not listed among the Ten though it is part of the Law. It occurs in Leviticus XIX, 18, lost amid "a repetition of sundry laws", and reads simply: "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself."
During the time of the Prophet Zarathustra, the position of woman in Persia was high as ancient manners went: she moved in public freely and unveiled. She owned and managed property and could, like most modern women, direct the affairs of her husband in his name or through his pen.
After King Darius I, woman's status declined especially among the rich. the poorer women retained their freedom of movement because they had to work. Upper-class women could not venture out except in curtained litters and were not permitted to mingle publicly with men. Married women were forbidden to see even their nearest male relatives such as their fathers or brothers. Women are never mentioned or represented in the public inscriptions and monuments of ancient Persia.
The birth of girls in Persia were regretted; for they had to be brought up for some other man's profit. The Persians said: "Men will not pray for daughters, and angels do not reckon them among their gifts to mankind."
Women enjoyed far greater freedom in the Vedic period than in later India. She had more to say in the choice of her mate than the forms of marriage might suggest. She appeared freely at feasts and dances, and joined men in religious sacrifice. She could study and engage in philosophic disputation.
In the Heroic Age, woman seems to have lost something of this liberty. She was discouraged from mental pursuits on the grounds that "for a woman to study the Vedas indicates confusion in the realm." The remarriage of widows became uncommon. Purdah, the seclusion of women, began. The practices of suttel, almost unknown in Vedic times, increased.
The ideal woman was now typified in the heroine of the Ramayana--that faithful Sita who followed and obeyed her husband humbly through every test of fidelity and courage until her death. Woman was a lovely, but inferior being; but in the beginning, says Hindu legend, when Twashtri, the Divine Artificer, came to the creation of woman, he found that he had exhausted his materials in the making of man, and had no solid elements left. In his dilemma, he fashioned her eclectically out of the odds and ends of creation.
As late as the 3rd century of our era, women held high administrative and executive positions in China--even to ruling the state. The Dowager Empress merely followed in the steps of that Empress Lu who ruled China so severely from 195 - 180 BC. In a celebrated treatise, the Lady Pan Ho-pan, from the same elevation of aristocracy, wrote with edifying humility of the proper condition of women:
"We occupy the last place in the human species. We are the weaker part of humanity. The basest functions are, and should be, our portion."
Rightly and justly does the Book of the Laws of the sexes make use of these words: "If a woman has a husband after her own heart, it is for her whole life. If a woman has a husband against her heart, it is also for life." The subjective women of the same dynasty sang the Poem of Fu Hsiian:
"How sad it is to be a woman!
Quotations such as this certainly do great injustice to the Chinese home; yet, this servitude of slavery did exist. The man could sell his wife and daughters into slavery, and more often as not, did. Especially, if his wife gave birth to girls instead of boys.
The women of early Japan were dedicated to the "Three Obediences": to father, husband and son. Education, except in etiquette, was rarely wasted upon women.
The philosopher Ekken advised the Japanese husband to divorce his wife if she talked too loudly or too long, but if the husband happened to be dissolute and frugal, the wife should treat him with double kindness and gentleness. Under this rigorous and long-continued training, the Japanese women became the most industrious, faithful and obedient of wives, and harassed travelers began to wonder whether a system that had produced such gracious results should be adopted in the West.
The best-educated of the courtesans were the geisha girls whose very name indicates that they were persons capable of an artistic performance. These customs, however startling, do not differ essentially from the habits and institutions of the Occident except perhaps in candor, refinement and grace. The vast majority of Japanese girls, we are assured, remained as chaste as the virgins of the West.
Despite such frank arrangements, the Japanese managed to live lives of comparative order and decency, and though they did not often allow love to determine marriage for life, they were capable of the tenderest affection for the objects of their desire.