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The Role of Women in Pre-Columbian America

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Oh, Yena
Term Paper, AP European History Class, October 2008

Table of Contents

I. Introduction
II. Women's role in North America
II.1 General
II.2 Women's Role in Society
II.3 Pocahontas
III. Women's role in Maya Civilization
III.1 General
III.2 Woman's Role in Society
IV. Women's role in Aztec Civilization
IV.1 General
IV.2 Women's Role in Society
IV.3 Dona Marina
V. Women's role in Inca Civilization
V.1 General
V.2 Women's Role in Society
V.3 The Chosen Women
VI. Navigation Acts after 1663
VII. Conclusion

I. Introduction
            Pre-Columbian America refers to the regions in American continent before the influence of the Europeans. It refers to indigenous civilization of the Americas, such as those of Mesoamerica and the Andes. In that the "Pre-Columbian" indicates the time from the arrival of humans on the American continent (14,000B.C). to 1492 C.E.(1), I will mainly focus on societies right before the arrival of the Europeans. Along with this, for the region that has to be covered is too large for a single paper, I will focus on women's role in North America in general, Maya and Aztec civilization from Mesoamerica, and Inca civilization from South America..
            In these societies, like in any other society, women play important roles domestic activities. They take care of their children, prepare food for the family, and weave textiles. However, women's roles differ from region to region, some having a position in the market and others maintaining essential position in religion and politics.
            The paper is composed of six chapters, arranged from region to region (from north to south of the American continent), North America, Aztec, Maya, and Inca. In each chapter, I will cover women in general and continue on by giving information about women in the workforce.

II. Women's role in North America

II.1 General
            Native American women traditionally belonged to a culture that gave them respect and where they had power, autonomy and equality. Native societies in the past were not based on a hierarchical system and there were few important divisions between men and women. The work of the two genders often differed but there was no value of one over the other. Native women of the past were respected and valued for their contribution to the survival of their families. Their knowledge of plants, their ability to cure and preserve food and their opinion in political matters was all valued.(2) Native American women in general had an important role in the society, as they gave birth to children, educated the children, and provided food for the family. Also, there were some matrilineal societies in this region, such as the Iroquois. In such societies, women had a position in the governmental, civil, and religious offices. (3)

II.2 Women's Role in Society
            Some common duties that women in North America had were cleaning and maintaining the living quarters, nursing children, gathering plants for food, pounding corn, extracting oil from acorns and nuts, cooking, sewing, packing, and unpacking camps. They were also responsible for producing certain crafts such as brewing dyes, making pottery, and weaving items (including cloth, baskets, and mats). (4)
            In some areas, women were influential in tribal councils and cast the deciding vote for war or peace. For instance, in the Cherokee society, were women were considered equal to men, women could become "Beloved Women", who voiced and voted in General Council, lead the Woman's Council, prepared and served the ceremonial Black Drink, the duty of ambassador of peace negotiator, and sometimes saved the life of a prisoner already condemned to execution.(5) Also, the Cheyenne women had an important role in the deciding to go to war or not.(6)

II.3 Pocahontas
            In short, Pocahontas is a Native American woman that lived in the late 16th, and early 17th century, who married an Englishmen, John Rolfe, and became a celebrity in London in the last years of her life. She was a daughter of Powhatan, who ruled a large area in Virginia. Because of the Disney animated movie, Pocahontas (1995 film), people often think of Pocahontas as a peacemaking hero that stopped war between the Native Americans and the Europeans, and a powerful women that had a great role in the society. However, this image of Pocahontas is partly a ¡®made-up¡¯ image from the movies and John Smith's books. It is true that she was a daughter of Powhatan, a chief, but it is not certain if her society regarded her to have a high social rank. While women could inherit power in Powhatan society, Pocahontas could not have done so, because the inheritance of power was matrilineal, and Pocahontas¡¯ mother was of low class. Pocahontas shows that women in some North American societies could have political roles, but at the same time shows that there were some restrictions as well.

III. Women's Role in Mayan Civilization

III.1 General
            In the contemporary Maya society of Zinacantan, Mexico, it is said that "man produces the raw materials, and women transforms them into objects of use and consumption." This complementary gender role may be equally applied to the gender role in ancient Maya. (7) Most of the roles women of ancient Maya society are inferred only from the elaborate burial sites containing steles, vases, and other burials. (8) It seems that women in the Maya society, like any other civilization, had every day role in taking care of the household. They raised animals within the household, prepared food for the family, and weaved to make cloths.
            Along with the roles in every day activities, women played an important part in religion. As girls, they were trained and taught how to keep the domestic religious shrines. They associated in ritual practice of religion. In addition, there is evidence that some elite women took part in politics. (9)

III.2 Women's Role in Society
            In everyday life, within the household, women played an essential role. Firstly, they were mothers, raising children. Also, it was their job to prepare food for the family. In fact, in that Maya society depended on deer meat, it was the women's job to make sure that there was abundant supply of deer. Sometimes, these deer lived in the household, raised by women for men to kill. Not only that, women weaved textiles, which was an important aspect in Maya society. It is not known whether all women wove textiles, but all the textiles made were produced by them. (10)
            Craft and fiber evidence from the buried city of Ceren - buried by volcanic ash in 600 C.E.- show that women¡¯s textile work was not only a mundane task that had specific household purposes, but had its position in the market. Women in the Maya society had a role in creating something valuable for someone outside of their homes.(12)
            Also, some women in the Maya society seem to have participated in politics and religion. Researchers working in Guatemala have discovered a 2 meter high limestone monument that depicts a woman of authority in ancient Maya culture. This portrait could be either a ruler or a mythical goddess. Reese-Taylor, from La Trobe University in Australia states that, "The stele may date from the late 4th century AD, making it as much as 200 years older than previously discovered monuments depicting powerful Mayan women. We have images of queens, who ruled singly and with their husbands and sons, depicted on stelae later in Maya history beginning in the early 6th century AD. But this stele is completely unique in style and likely dates to the 4th century AD. It's unique in that it shows a woman in a really early period in Maya history, a period when the city states were being founded and dynasties were being instituted." (13) This shows that women played important roles in the phase when Maya states were established.

IV. Women's Role in Aztec Civilization

IV.1 General
            The Aztec society was a patriarchy, a male dominated society. Thus, women in this society were considered subordinate of men. As a result, women had little chance to take part in government and religious activities. (14) However, in daily life, people had clear division of roles between men and women. While men worked in the fields and fought in wars or took the job of his father and became traders, women stayed at home and put their efforts in domestic duties like childbearing, weaving, and cooking.(15) In fact, the women in this society were educated for these activities from young ages. Aztec girls were taught at home the skills necessary for marriage; they began spinning at four and cooking at twelve.
            However, housework was not the only role of the women. Aztec women not only helped in weaving textiles and taking care of the home but also included themselves in the work force, working as merchants, traders, scribes, courtesans, healers, and midwives.

IV.2 Women's Role in Society
            As mentioned before, women in the Aztec society played an essential role in maintaining the household. They learned the skill to be a good house keeper; acquiring abilities concerning childbearing, weaving and cooking. However, they also had a place apart from the everyday house work. For instance, they could be merchants that organize and administer expedition for trade, although it is not known whether they could themselves go on the trip.(16) Also, women of the common people in this society were open to some opportunities regarding trade: they could sell what they made in the marketplace to strangers, and gain some advantages as a result. They provided food, cloth, and other items for the market. It is said that women in the Aztec society even held places as official referees to resolve disputes that arose in the marketplace. Not only that, some women were skilled healers and diviners. Documents from the Spanish accounts indicate that the women healers were more highly skilled than contemporary Spanish doctors. (17)

IV.3 Dona Marina (Malinche)
            Dona Marina was a woman of the Aztec Empire in the 16th century who played an active and powerful role in the Spanish conquest of Mexico as an interpreter and an advisor. Most of what is reported about her early life comes through the reports of Cort?s' "official" biographer, Francisco Lopez de Gomara, seems far too romantic to be entirely credible, but there is no evidence to the contrary. Although she was not a literary "Pre-Columbian" woman, in that the cultural division before and the after the conquest of the Europeans is not discrete, by looking at the role of Dona Marina, one can get an idea of the role of women in Pre-Columbian America.
            Marina was born into a noble family. However, when Marina's father died, her mother gave her away or sold her into slavery. Marina traveled in captivity from her native Nahuatl-speaking region to the Maya-speaking areas of Yucat?n, where she learned different languages. When Hernan Cortes came to this region, people decided not to fight them and instead give food, cloth, gold, and slaves, including 20 women. Marina was one of these women slaves. With her ability to interpret with great efficiency, she earned Cortes' confidence, became his secretary, and then his mistress, bearing him a son. She facilitated communication between Cortes and various Native American leaders, often actively encouraging negotiations over bloodshed. In other words, Marina saved thousands of lives by enabling negotiations.
            Dona Marina had an important role as an interpreter, secretary, mistress, and mother of the first "Mexican." By looking at how much a woman could do in this society, we can conclude that women's position in these societies were quiet high, compared to other areas. In a way, Marina's case implies that if a woman had the ability needed in the society, there was a way for her to play an important role in it.

V. Women's Role in Inca Civilization

V.1 General
            Women's role in the Inca differed from that of European women at the time in that European women existed only for the benefit of men. (18) In the Inca society, women had much different roles from men, but these roles were considered as complementary to those of men and a necessary part of the society. In fact, women played an essential role in the Inca society. Their primary role was to raise and take care of children, but also took charge of many household duties, including cooking, weaving cloth, working in the fields, and spinning. (19)
            Before the conquest, the household was an autonomous socio-economic unit, indicating that there was much freedom for the people, including women. One evidence is the skeletal analysis of this period, which shows that women in this period consumed food in similar quality and quantity as men. This can be interpreted as women having equal participation in community and domestic life.(20) In addition, women in Inca civilization played a large role in religion, controlling the cults of goddesses. However, after the conquest, women¡¯s social position was lower than that of men¡¯s, for the state began to exclude women from its rituals.

V.2 Women's Role in Society
            Women in Inca society was not expected to work for government projects, or perform mit'a, which was a requirement for every man in the society. However, this does not mean that women did not play a role in working for the government. In fact, women were to weave one piece of clothing every year to put in the government storehouses.(21) Also, in some cases, they followed their husband on his mit'a, where they cooked, carried heavy burdens, and helped him with many other things.
            In everyday life, women's main job included taking care of the children, cooking, housekeeping, and weaving cloth. But along with these tasks, women participated in the filed work together with men, especially during the sowing and the harvest season. When planting man punched holes into which women scatters corn seeds, for these people believed that women ensured successful crop. And during the harvest, women carried bundles of stalks, cut by men, to be stacked to dry.(22) Furthermore, women made flour through grounding corn and potatoes, and cloth by spinning and weaving cotton or wool. (23)

V.3 The Chosen Women
            Chosen Women in the Inca society, otherwise called Acllacunas, were identified as the Virgin of the Sun, and had important economic and cultural roles. They formed a special class in the society and lived in temple convents under a vow of chastity. They lived apart from their families and communities, and their duties included the preparation of ritual food, the maintenance of a sacred fire, and the weaving of garments for the emperor and for ritual use.(25)
            Inca officials selected girls of 10-years of age with great talent and physical beauty to become Acllacunas. They were kept in the temples, which they were not allowed to leave for six or seven years. During these years, these girls received formal education from mamaconas, who are chosen women themselves. The girls learned not only to weave skillfully the clothing worn by the nobles as well as the beautiful robes and elaborate hangings used on state occasions, they were also taught the preparation of special foods and chichi, a beverage used in religious ceremonials.
            When the girls completed the training and reached about 16 years of age, they were divided in to classes based on their degree of beauty and served the state in different ways. The most beautiful and highly born became concubines of the Inca Emperor. Some of the girls that suited the most approximated the Inca ideal of perfection were selected to be sacrificed in honor of the sun, while some interned for life in one of the convents where they acted as temple attendants and became mamaconas. (26) Others became wives of nobles or military captains.
            However, majority of Chosen Women served as weavers and food producers in Inca provincial centers, as they were thought to do so. They provided the textiles of llama and alpaca cloth, which was an essential part of Inca life. Because the Incas used these textiles as payment of the army or as gifts for nobles and local leaders in conquered areas, Chosen Women¡¯s roles in the society were crucial. Additionally, the Chosen Women prepared food and chichi for people performing mit'a.
            The social status of the Chosen women was great, and they enjoyed some advantages in the society. For instance, they did not to perform hard labor in the fields, and enjoyed a steady supply of food and clothing, with whole estates dedicated to their needs. However, they were denied the support of their families as well as the opportunity to participate in daily social life. Those who married could not select their spouse and those who did not marry lived secluded from the rest of society, in a state of perpetual chastity. The Incas posted guards at the most important of the separate compounds, and did not permit entry to outsiders. The Inca state guarded and trained the Chosen Women so carefully because they played an essential part in maintaining the cohesiveness of the society. (27)

VI. Conclusion
            Women's common roles in all the societies within Pre-Columbian America include housekeeping, raising children, preparing food for the family, and weaving textiles. In addition to these duties, depending on the region, some women participated in political, economic and religious activities. Some of the North American cultures were matrilineal, where women often had power in politics. Also, in societies such as Maya and Aztec, women participated in the market by manufacturing cloth. Women's role in Inca was somewhat different from that of other societies, for women in Inca society had a duty of providing the government storehouse one piece of clothing every year. Few selected women in the Inca, called "Chosen Women" had important economical and cultural role within the society.
            What is significant is that women in Pre-Columbian America had comparatively important role in their society than that of other regions in the same period, such as Korea and Europe. They had distinctly separate role from men, but rather than being viewed as inferior to men, their roles were considered as complementary to the role of men and a necessary component of their society.

IX. Notes

(1)      Article: Pre-Columbian, from Wikipedia
(2)      Native American Women, Past, Present and Future, by Jacqui Popick 2006
(3)      Article: Native American Women, from
(4)      ibid.
(5)      Cherokee Women, from First People
(6)      Article: Cheyenne Women Warriors: A Marginalized History, from Sunshine Skyways
(7)      Article: Gender in Maya Society, from Wikipedia
(8)      ibid.
(9)      Maya Gender System, from MATRIX
(10)      Article: Gender in Maya Society, from Wikipedia
(12)      ibid.
(13)      Article: Early Mayan women were a powerful force, from ABC News in Science
(14)      The Mexica/Aztecs, Civilization in America, from World Civilizations
(15)      Gender roles and family, The Aztecs, from University of Texas
(16)      Women's Lives in Aztec Culture, from Illinois Valley Community College
(17)      ibid.
(18)      Inca and Spanish Women, from Truman State University
(19)      Women of the Inca, from Think Quest NYU
(20)      Inca Women, from Illinois Valley Community College
(21)      Women of the Inca, from Think Quest NYU
(22)      Assessing women's past through art, from Women in World History
(23)      Article : Inca Empire, from MSN Encyclopedia
(25)      Article: Chosen Women, from Encyclopaedia Britannica
(26)      The Inca, from
(27)      Chosen Women from the Inca Empire, by Colin Forsyth

X. Bibliography

Note : websites quoted below were visited in October 2008.
1.      Article : Pre-Columbian, from Wikipedia,
2.      Jacqui Popick, Native American Women, Past, Present and Future, abstract, from Lethbridge Undergraduate Research Journal, 2006,
3.      Article: Native American Women, from,
4.      Cherokee Women, from First People,
5.      Article: Cheyenne Women Warriors: A Marginalized History, from Sunshine Skyways,
6.      Article: Gender in Maya Society, from Wikipedia,
7.      Rosemary Joyce, Images of Gender and Labor Organization in Classic Maya Society, from
8.      Maya Gender System, from MATRIX (Making Archaeology Teaching Relevant in the XXIth Century,
9.      Article: Early Mayan women were a powerful force, from ABC News in Science
10.      The Mexica/Aztecs, Civilization in America, from World Civilizations by R. Hooker,
11.      Chiefdom and State Societies : Gender roles and family, The Aztecs, from University of Texas,
12.      Women's Lives in Aztec Culture, from Illinois Valley Community College,
13.      Spanish Conquest : Inca and Spanish Women, from Truman State University,
14.      Women of the Inca, from Think Quest NYU,
15.      Inca Women, from Illinois Valley Community College,
16.      Assessing women¡¯s past through art, from Women in World History,
17.      Article : Inca Empire, from MSN Encyclopedia,
18.      Article: Chosen Women, from Encyclopaedia Britannica Online,
19.      Techniques, from University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology,
20.      The Inca, from,
21.      Colin Forsyth, Chosen Women from the Inca Empire,
22.      Baquedano, Elizabeth, Aztec, Inca & Maya, New York :Dorling Kindersley, 2000
23.      Hamnett, Brian, A Concise History of Mexico, Cambridge, United Kingdom, Cambridge University Press, 1999

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