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"Envisioning Women in World History" by Catherine Clay

A Review and Reflection

By Benjamin ReesePublished about a year ago 6 min read

I had the opportunity to read Envisioning Women in World History by Catherine Clay. It reflects historical patriarchal suppression upon women across the globe. While I am not one to preach about the need for the “fall of the patriarchy” this book did illuminate several issues that I never really did consider before I read it. I want to try my best now to define and dissect some of the terminology and historical accounts focused on by Clay that I found to be the most prevalent of the information she provided.

The patriarchy is defined as a family, group, or government body controlled by a man or group of men; thus, making the term “patriarchal society” self-explanatory. With this in mind, it is then inevitable that we mention the disproportions blatantly woven into the web of the patriarch that face women. Historically there have been margins of society where women have faced difficulties that they alone could only incur. From voting rights to the politicization of life altering bodily decisions, historically women have struggled. Thankfully today we see those gaps in society closing at drastic rates.

The socio-economic life of women in the global spectrum varies from country to country. Opportunities are not the same as one cross’s borders on this planet. For women, geography is everything. For example, if we take one of the more shocking examples globally for women being that in the United States women have every freedom a man does, whereas in Iran per say, women are just now, in the 21st century being permitted to drive a vehicle and go to school. Cultures all across the globe have held and do hold women to a different standard then men. The level of standard, however, varies from country to country. What we do not mention enough regarding the history of women is the early ages of civilization, i.e., 300-1500 CE. These are the years of primitivity that developed the ideals we as human beings utilized later on in our development of society. Whether morally right or wrong, these times were the catalysts.

Envisioning Women in World History takes aim at several early civilizations that went on to thrive into developed nations as examples for societal inequities towards women. From Western Europe to Southeast Asian and Meso-American civilizations, we see lasting contradictions and disproportions concerning women in the early ages of existence. Just the mere thought of the idea that concepts towards a certain group of people can last and develop over such a length time to adhere to generational change all to keep the same narrative of that group the norm is impressively depressing. These examples of women’s standing in societies over time are confusing and upsetting at times, but the development and progression of women in global society is necessary to analyze.

If we look all the way to Eurasia in 1000 BCE, gender roles were not a concern for individuals at that time. Then, hunter-gatherer societies had one main focus, to hunt and gather. The control of women’s sexual conduct or societal worth were not a thought. These people were nomadic by nature. They had no time concern themselves with social tiers. “The hunter-gatherers of ancient Eurasia show no evidence of patriarchy-that is, the institutional domination of men over women.” (Clay, Paul, Senecal) Women tended to enjoy a much higher status amongst the hunter-gatherer community due to the crucial role they played in the community’s survival.

There is evidence of societies just before the hunter-gatherers that while were not led by men predominantly, but mother centered. These communities prioritized the span of life. This is early evidence of women at the peak of societal perception and social regard. It is not until Eurasia’s development after 3500 BCE where we see the roles of women in society begin to change. Urban developments began to erect at that time and this is where we see the value of the woman change for individuals socially. Village communities encouraged women’s fertility to assist the needed workforce. This forced women inside and left with housework and lighter tasks for mundane time consumption. Inevitably this led to the gradual decline of women’s social power later on in society.

China from 618 to 1279 CE saw two eras of manipulation upon women. The Tang and Song eras would define Chinese women’s rights and individualism. Without getting into the politics of the different dynasty’s, the standard of women between each was black and white.

The Tang dynasty very conservative, “a typical southern wife (submissive and sacrificing for her husband’s displays of wealth.)” (Clay, Paul, Senecal) then the Song dynasty which was progressively optimistic, “a northern wife (demanding, extravagant, and sometimes critical of her husband.)” (Clay, Paul, Senecal). Retrospectively speaking we still see these two disparities in present China today with Hong Kong leaning towards the Song style dynasty versus the rest of the Chinese region. Daoism’s impact across the country religiously however disassociates with both ideals from both dynasties. Daoism, the countries prominent religion teaches the yin/yang between the man and woman. Daoism explains how the differences between the man and woman complement each other and are necessary. Still, the country at large was developed by two social ideals that have permeated the perception of women in their society that will lead to further contradictions later on in history.

The Meso-American civilization from 200-1500 CE were a culture of people that made no contradictions towards their regard for their women in society. The Mayan people understood the importance of the relationship between man and woman. Women were even held in higher regard religiously then men at times. Meso-America was arguably the best place to be as a woman in early CE civilization. Daughters could inherit property, textile work gave women important positions in society, women were needed and were recognized for it. We even saw the progression of educated women in this time. “Some aristocratic women became matchmakers, artists, craftspeople, or scribes (keeper of the books)” (Clay, Paul, Senecal). This is the earliest example of women in positions of prominence amongst society.

Meso-America saw the development of Mayan culture through women. It was aristocratic women who played crucial roles in state-politics through marriage alliances. While women would not directly rule, their influence amongst Mayan and Meso-American culture was one that held weight. Meso-America saw a steady diet of conflict between tribes across the regions. Tribes’ women were critical in the preservation of their societies through these marriage alliances. These marriages brought political and military support to the conjoining tribes.

An interesting loophole for women in the Meso-American society saw the idea of regents. A woman could gain political power as a royal widow and rule as a regent for their sons or king. Women in ruling families also had the high honor of performing the staple of Meso-American society, the human sacrifice. “Women of the ruling families played important roles in court rituals of the Maya city-states, especially blood rituals, which served to unify their state and maintain their royal power.” (Clay, Paul, Senecal) Spirituality was the core of Mayan society. Women were the essential goddesses of that time period, worshiped for their sacred powers of fertility. They were appreciated and revered to a degree not found in most early civilizations.

These examples of early societies treatment and perception of women are all vastly different. The one thing they do have in common however, is their contribution towards the development of the patriarchy. Ideals are everchanging across the world. Ideals are developed by perception. Women have been perceived in several contradictory and inconsistent ways in every developed nation on this planet. It does beg concern as to what can be done to address the concept of the current patriarchy or version of, we are living in. We can take what we’ve learned from books like Envisioning Women in World History and recognize the inequalities produced by the patriarchy and address them as needed. Early civilizations gave us the blueprint for patriarchal development, and now here we are analyzing its lasting impact.

Clay, Catherine, et al. Envisioning Women in World History: Prehistory - 1500. McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2009.

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About the Creator

Benjamin Reese

A journeyman.

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