What was it like to be a woman in any single part of the globe at the dawn of the modern world? How did she develop an identity in these heavily agricultural societies? As one example, a baby girl is born in central Mexico in the early 1500s. The midwife attending that birth surrounds the newborn with spinning and weaving equipment and perhaps a female garment. She utters the words, “Only inside the house was she to dwell, only inside the house was her home; it would not be necessary for her to go anywhere else. And that is to say that her duty was [preparing] drink and food. She was to prepare beverages, to make food, to grind maize, to spin, and to weave.”1
Eventually the infant receives a new, auspicious birthdate that will also shape her development. With that date and the incantation of duties and the eventual use of her household tools, this infant will become a woman. A cursory look at her genitals gives but a superficial marker, for as French thinker Simone de Beauvoir put it, “One is not born a woman but rather becomes a woman.” In the case of this central Mexican infant, operating domestic instruments, wearing correct clothing, and adhering to community rules as announced by the midwife will establish her as a gendered human.
Given an existence produced by and even bound to a community, how did women live and experience themselves in a time when individual, family, and community formed an almost inseparable cluster? How did that experience change as the world’s inhabitants became increasingly more connected and more urbanized? Whether in the Aztec Empire in southernmost North America or in the Ming Empire of China in the late fifteenth century two main duties dominated the lives of most women no matter how distant from one another. They were to give birth to the next generation of humans and to provide the goods needed for themselves and their families to survive. These were baseline functions that we might see as biologically determined but that were actually staged in a powerful, community setting.
Women participated in the day-to-day activities of a community of other humans, sometimes consisting of a neighborhood in a city but mostly in a tiny village or small town surrounded by fields, farms, and woods. They were thus partially products of community life
, being formed not as individuals but as a fragment of a community. Among nomadic peoples, women’s community was mobile, causing them to travel with portable housing and goods though nonetheless operating in line with their community. Women at the very top of an established social ladder might see a wider world, moving with a royal court from palace to palace and coming in contact with city and countryside alike. Alternatively, secluded in special quarters of wealthy homes or in convents, they might move outside infrequently. Feasts, holidays, and initiation rituals
drew many into the broader community, although others regularly socialized at wells for water, at rivers for laundering, or at markets where they supplied their households or took produce to sell. Conditions
for enslaved women could differ from any of these, and it was sometimes the case that the difference between slave and free individuals was more important than the difference between men and women. Vast numbers of women were enslaved worldwide in these early modern centuries.
Around the duties of giving birth and providing sustenance, women’s lives were as varied from one region to another as they are today. Some would say that these diverse and multifaceted cultures differed from one another more than those of the present. They followed distinct sets of social, religious, and political rules around the notion of correct or healthy behavior that were not yet shared by societies thousands of miles distant from one another as is often the case today. For long it was believed that women could have no history because they were so tied to the uniform rhythms of their bodies. In contrast, men were uniquely free from bodily restraints and complications, including those of menstruation, pregnancy, menopause, and old age, and thus differed from one another and performed as unique individuals. Men were usually more attuned to the expansive world of important events; women to the world of their individual bodies.
Still, societies in fact drew a range of distinctions between male and female centuries ago and saw men’s bodies as also important, albeit filled with exceptions to any strict male-female division. Humans fashioned a range of gendered roles and gendered tasks and saw these ideas of gendered behavior as fundamental to good order. Gods and goddesses
had gendered roles as well, while aspects of nature were similarly gendered. Humans claimed, however, that these variously constructed roles were divinely-given or “natural” or foundational in some other sense. In 1500, gender operated as a differentiating idea of opposites or complementarity
—a binary some call it. Gender paired power with powerlessness, cleanliness with pollution, superiority with inferiority, and so on. In their female embodiment, girls and women lived out these distinctions, definitions, expectations, and rules by adhering to them, by disobeying or modifying them, and by creatively turning them to their advantage when possible.
Humans some 500 years ago had a shorter life expectancy than people enjoy today, but the lifespan looks especially short when infant deaths are taken into account. Because the years from birth to late adolescence were perilous and the death rate of children under five enormous, the average lifespan was around forty. However, for those who reached the age of ten, life expectancy grew to between fifty-five and seventy, depending on the region of the world. Today the average, without subtracting child mortality, is generally into the seventies and eighties, again depending on region. Besides the decline of child mortality thanks to vaccines preventing deadly childhood diseases and to improved sanitary conditions
, another change is the improvement in maternal mortality, again due to improved medical knowledge and technology. Five hundred years ago the idea of death in childbirth haunted the experience of many women.
Enmeshed in the reproductive expectation according to which women gave birth to the next generation of workers, tax and tribute payers, and soldiers lay rituals and rhythms of the female body. Girls reached menarche, or the onset of puberty including menstruation, at between fourteen and sixteen years of age at this time, somewhat later than in Roman times a millennium and a half earlier and again, differentiated by region. Communities marked this development in particular with a range of observances. For example, in Africa cohorts of girls or teens went through initiations together and formed an important unit of the society—an age-grade that constituted a life-shaping cohort and provided a group identity until they died. They also participated in body piercing, tattooing, and scarification, all of these giving them a chance to develop bravery in the face of pain as part of their womanhood. Initiations could also include religious confirmation as part of Christian ceremonies, while reaching puberty could also indicate the right time for a girl to leave her parents for the household of her husband’s family as in South Asia. Even before that, a girl of eight or ten might leave her parents to enter the home of her future husband, moving an identity from one family to another as part of femaleness.
The greatest test for girls and young women in Africa and a few other parts of the world was the ritual of genital cutting, in which the clitoris alone or the clitoris and parts or all of the labia were excised, most often as the centerpiece of a collective ceremony of similarly aged girls or young women. Some girls had their genitals cut while eight or nine years old whereas others were not ritually cut until in their late teens or twenties. The latter group could be sexually active and even become pregnant, but the fetus would be aborted or the newborn killed. Practiced since ancient times, the ritual announced womanly sexual maturity and child-bearing but it also embedded that stage of life in community ritual not in an individual self. Among the various ideas behind genital cutting were that it prevented the
birth of deformed babies or monsters or that it permitted better pregnancies and childbirth overall to benefit the family and community
. Some believed that excision was a spiritual condition connecting generations past with those in the future. Although an intensely personal, bodily experience to modern eyes, genital cutting as a group ritual mobilized forces beyond an individual self—the community or region or even the kingdom. The intimate condition and sexuality of women’s bodies were integrated into a greater social body. The act of excision showed the power of communities or states to form any individual girl or woman and her sexuality according to longstanding norms.
Community structures and belief systems thus revolved around ensuring the reproduction of families and society more generally, and achieving this goal required women’s group part
icipation. The development of bodies and gender were in part a social production making for stability in a very uncertain world. Reproductive activities involved pregnancy and childbirth but additionally included feeding, clothing, and sheltering children—usually in the context of the wider family, clan, or community. Reproduction also entailed shaping children into workers and responsible adults—then as now hardly an easy task. Additionally, some control of fertility was necessary so that there would not be too many children. Too many children would lead to starvation when there were more mouths than the harvest could feed; too few people meant not enough hands to staff agriculture and animal husbandry, with the same consequences. There were thus many traditions and practices that aimed to make the number of people in a community coincide with the collective resources, especially because economic subsistence—not plenty—was the norm. Subsistence was a concern in part because of the warrior mentality that destroyed crops and lives in a flash. The balance was also maintained because women often died in childbirth during their fertile years. Demographers attribute late onset of puberty to famine conditions, poor nutrition, and other causes. The same is true of menopause, again coming earlier than today and for the same reasons.
In this abbreviated span of bodily fertility and given the perils to infants and the threat to mothers’ lives, societies saw the importance of ensuring that women reproduced in an orderly way and one that brought just the right number of replacements to the population and labor. To that end, the arrival of puberty for both boys and girls was announced with an array of ceremonies that included markings on the body. Boys and girls alike were often tattooed and scarred on reaching adolescence, in addition to any genital procedures, widely indicating that they were now approved for sexual intercourse and parenthood. Across the globe, male death in warfare was common, leading some societies to encourage an individual man to have more than one wife to make up for those adult men who died before fathering a replacement number of children. In some regions boys and girls were allowed to engage in sexual relations at an early age and only commit to marriage once the fertility of both partners was ensured by a successful
pregnancy. Communities used many means of ensuring conformity to sex
ual and reproductive rules; the lives of individuals unfolded within the context of such commands, both enforced by elders and even by their own age group.
Reproductive systems varied across civilizations, but they were still scripted by custom, law, and community and family needs. In the Aztec militaristic society the reproductive work of women was part of gender complementarity wherein women’s struggle in childbirth was parallel to men’s struggle in battle. In China a newborn girl was put on the floor, while a newborn boy was placed on the table, showing hierarchy, while at the same time they came to be seen as part of a complementary yin and yang system of different qualities that needed to be balanced to produce harmony not just in an individual but in society overall. In China and other societies these harmonies were connected not to medicine as we know it today but to cosmic forces, including the appearance of the planets, stars, sun and moon, and other astrological signs. From the moment of conception and birth, gendered traditions, cultural norms, and the arrangement of the heavens regulated the production of men and women alike.
Where necessary, contraception
, abortion, and infanticide
were practiced; women themselves had medical knowledge and knew healing practices. Across the globe they used an array of abortifacients from ergot to rue and nutmeg. Reproductive systems varied by region, social strata, and religious affiliation: some societies employed infanticide of girls almost exclusively to control population, valuing them less where dowries were customary, for example. The idea was that girls needing dowries took resources out of the family. In South
Asia, girls were valued less because at an early age they moved into the home of a boy to whom they were engaged, so the expense of raising them was not compensated. In hard times infants of either sex might be abandoned and left to die; elsewhere children were sold into slavery to preserve others in the family.
Sexuality and Sexual Identity
Sexual life proceeded according to local and regional customs
that included slave and other sex workers—both male and female—such as concubines and courtesans. Unlike in Europe, in advanced regions such as China and Japan, sex workers were highly skilled in the arts because of their training in music, poetry, and dance. Both kingdoms were becoming more urbanized and literate in the early modern period; because of thriving commerce Chinese and Japanese urban people moved around more. Officials were often highly educated, so to entertain these more cosmopolitan clients, courtesans learned to converse and to provide amusing pastimes in addition to offering sexual relations. In Japan, the “floating world” of pleasure houses became legendary in art and poetry and grew in popularity because a rising middle class of merchants, officials, and professionals patronized the
lented women who lived in these spots. The Japanese geisha became well known for her wide-ranging allure and often walked into public with a host of attendants. Concubines in wealthy families and royal courts also received training in singing, calligraphy, and other displays of talent. Like male slaves who rose to high positions among imperial officials, a trained intelligence was crucial to achieving influence. However, the process by which young girls (and sometimes boys) were seized from their families, often beaten into submission through rape and other abuse (and in the case of boys castrated) in order to enter a monarchical or upper-class household, remained a violent one across the Eurasian world. The world of the sex worker/slave was most often precarious and even cruel.
In this commercializing and mobile society, men and boys became eunuchs as a way of advancement that complicated gender identities. Notably, Ming
China’s rapid population growth and increasing number of young men competing for government jobs through the tough examination system literally blocked tens of thousands from obtaining even the lowest positions in the bureauc...