Saturday, January 14, 2012

The World of Pre-Columbian Women

By Tim Mc Guinness Phd

Rarely do Pre-Columbian studies or texts focus much attention or detail on the role of Women in Ancient America: their role in society; their labors; their place in family; their health; and the frequent abuses they suffered in Pre-Columbian Cultures. The purpose of this site, is not to be a comprehensive document on the subject, but rather to provide an introduction to the subject, and a guide to select writings and other websites, that can provide more in-depth focus.

For those new to the subject, Pre-Columbian America refers to the regions in the American continents, and the Isthmus between, before the influence of the Europeans (prior to 1500 CE/AD). It refers to the indigenous civilizations of the Americas, such as those of Mesoamerica, North America, and the Andes regions. The term "Pre-Columbian" can indicate the time from the arrival of humans on the American continent (before 14,000 BCE/BC) to approximately 1500 CE/AD. However, it is commonly used for the cultural periods from about 4000 BCE to Conquest.

This site will mainly focus on societies right before the arrival of the Europeans - Aztec, Mayan, Andean (Inka and others), and briefly North America. It will focus on women's role in the Maya and Aztec civilizations of Mesoamerica, the Inca culture from South America, and North American in general.

In these societies, like in any other society, women play important roles. From domestic activities to political power. 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. However, in some cultures women held a role as object, trade good, slave, and subject of horrific ritual brutality.
Women's Role in the Mayan Civilization

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 is applicable to the gender role of the ancient Maya. Most of the roles women of ancient Maya society are inferred only from the elaborate burial and ceremonial sites of the Maya - from their glyphs, elaborate murals, steles, vases, and other burial offerings. Women in the Maya society, like any other civilization, had everyday roles in the care of the household, and their families. They raised animals within the household, prepared food for the family, and made clothing & textiles.

Daily village life for Mayan Women

Along with the roles in everyday activities, women played an important part in religion. As girls, they were trained and taught how to serve religious shrines, and participate in ritual practices of their religion. In addition, there is evidence that some elite women took part in politics.


In everyday life, in the household, women played an essential role. Firstly, they were mothers, raising children. Also, it was their role to prepare and cook food for the family. In fact, as Maya society depended on deer meat, it was typically the women's responsibility to manage the supply of deer. There is evidence that deer were domesticated by the Mayan household, raised by women for men to kill and butcher. Not only that, women wove textiles, which was important not only for domestic use, but as a trade good - an essential aspect in Maya society. It is not known whether all women wove textiles, but it appears that all textiles made were produced by women.

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 normal part of domestic life for specific household purposes, but had its position in the marketplace as well. Women in Maya society had a critical role in crafts, producing valuable commodities for outside consumption.

Also in Maya society, women seemed to have participated in both politics and religion. This is confirmed by the discovery in Guatemala of a 2 meter high limestone monument that depicts a woman of authority in that ancient Maya city. This portrait could be either a ruler or a mythical goddess. Archaeologists from La Trobe University in Australia state that, "This 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." This shows that women played important roles in the phase when the Maya states were being established.

While there are few actual writings on the subject, it is clear that slavery was practiced. Slaves were gathered, as was as captured as a result of conquest. What is not well known is the role and treatment of female slaves. If they were treated similarly to male captives, then that treatment would have been far from ideal. However, it was likely that female slaves were used in large part as domestic servants, as was done in more modern times.

Women's Role in the Aztec Civilization

The Aztec society was a patriarchy, a male dominated society, ruled by kings and noble loads. Thus, women in this society were considered subordinate of men, possibly even property. As a result, women had little chance to take part in government and religious activities. 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 tradesmen, women stayed at home and put their efforts into domestic duties like childbearing, weaving, and cooking.

Women 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.


Women in the Aztec society played an essential role in maintaining the household. They learned the skills to be a good housekeeper; 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 aids that organized and administered expeditions for trade (it is not known whether they could themselves go on the trade expeditions). Also, common women of this society were also offered opportunities in trade goods: they could sell what they made in the marketplace and gain some wealth for their families as a result.

They provided raw and prepared food, cloth, and other items in the market. It is said that women in the Aztec society even held places as official arbiters to resolve disputes that arose in the marketplace. In addition, women became skilled healers and diviners. Documents from the time of the Conquest indicate that the women healers were more highly skilled than contemporary Spanish doctors.

In general, Aztec marriages were monogamous, however, there is ample evidence that marriages of multiple wives occurred as well (see below). However, the Aztec culture did not place the same value on individuals as our modern culture, and in many cases (it appears) women (wives and daughters) were offered to visiting guests, as well as for sacrifice. The worst of the voluntary offerings of women for sacrifice was the ritual of Xipe Totec - where a young girl or woman would be offered by her family to the Aztec priests - raped by the Aztec priests, then skinned alive - after which the priest would wear the woman's skin in a ritual of transformation.


Dona Marina was originally a woman of the Aztec Nahuat culture, encountered by Cortez. She may have been a servant, slave, or outcast in some way, liberated by Cortez. As his companion, she became a Catholic, and 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 Cortez's' "official" biographer, Francisco Lopez de Gomara, which seems far too romantic to be entirely credible, but there is no evidence to the contrary. Although she was not a literate "Pre-Columbian" woman (as most women appeared not to be), by exploring at the role of Dona Marina, one can get an idea of the role of women in Pre-Columbian America at that time.

Malinche 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 Yucatan, where she learned the different Maya languages. When Hernan Cortes came to this region, the local people offered he and his men hospitality, food, clothing, gold, and slaves, including 20 women.

Marina was one of these women slaves. Cortez noticed her difference, and with her intelligence, and ability to interpret with great efficiency, she earned Cortes' confidence, became his secretary, and then his mistress, eventually bearing him a son. She facilitated communication between Cortes and various Mesoamerican leaders, often actively encouraging negotiations instead bloodshed. Marina was the principal player in building a coalition of city-states that eventually lead to the fall of Tenochtitlan. It is no understatement to believe that without her, Cortez could not have conquered the Aztecs.

Dona Marina had an important role as an interpreter, secretary, mistress, and mother of the first "modern Mexican." However, she was far from a typical woman of her time. Empowered by Cortez, she demonstrated her worth and ability in a way few or no other contemporary woman could have.


Originally, women wove and worked only for their families, but as chiefdoms and small kingdoms developed, the local rulers began to demand tribute (taxes), largely demanded in the form of cloth, which was manufactured almost exclusively by women. Then, as the Aztec culture and empire spread, people were forced to pay more and more in tribute to the Aztec leaders, which could be paid in labor or military service by men and in cloth and other goods by women.

The women's cloth was typically made from agave fibers and was in high demand as commoners were allowed nothing else to wear. As the politics of Aztec culture became more complex, the demand for tribute increased, and men began taking additional wives so that more cloth could be produced by more hands.

Documentation suggests that this led to strained and poor relationships within the family compound. Female slavery also increases as a result.

The Aztecs waged war for gain, as they needed sacrificial victims, tribute, and slaves. Women slaves performed household tasks, especially weaving, freeing the Aztec women for other tasks. Female slaves were also used as concubines and mothered children who also became slaves.

Eventually the demand for cloth tribute became so high that men also began to spin--the most female-identified task in ancient Mexico. Women and men continued to make cloth until the colonial period when the Spanish built textile mills, forcing the men and not the women, because of the Spanish gender roles, to work in cloth production.

Studies of artifacts of weaving and cooking in and near the Aztec capital and has lead to the conclusion that women adapted their weaving as the demand for more and more tribute increased; they changed spindle size and shapes and changed what and how they cooked in order to feed their families, who were in need of increasingly portable food, as they might labor away from home.


Apart from domestic roles, women in the Aztec empire could be merchants, and trades people in the marketplace.

Women also worked as prostitutes and courtesans, but they do not seem to have been social outcasts as a result. It has been shown that the Florentine Codex, it depicts the prostitutes negatively, from the perspective of the European mindset. In fact, the Aztec courtesans served young noble warriors and danced with them at ritual celebrations, suggesting that they had an elevated status in their own society.

The Europeans criticized these women for bathing, painting their faces, and wearing brightly colored clothing, signs of a fallen European woman, rather than as behavior executed by all the Aztec women, whether prostitute or not.

Aztec women might also be healers or midwives. Although the Spanish tried to quell the religious parts of the midwives' practices, believing it at best distracted from the one true Christian God and at worst that it was witchcraft, they were still impressed by the midwives' skill.

Documents from the Spanish accounts indicate that the women healers were more highly skilled than European doctors; however, as most accounts are written by elite Spanish men, they gloss over or do not describe at all the techniques that the women used. Thus, much of the cultural knowledge of these women was lost, especially as the Spanish began to repress the religion of the Aztecs and prosecute and persecute women healers as witches.

Aztec medicines, made from native plants, are documented to have been able to bring on menstruation or to hasten labor. Aztec women may also have pioneered in prenatal care, as records indicate they began ministering to pregnant women in their seventh month.

There is even evidence that at least one Aztec woman, likely a daughter of a noble family, was a scribe for an emperor. It is likely, too, that the noble Aztec women would have needed scribes and would have thus used females to act as their secretaries and bookkeepers.

Women's Role in the Andean Inca Civilization

Women's roles in the Inca Culture differed from that of both European women and those in the Aztec culture at the time, in that those women existed for the benefit of men. In 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, as always, was to raise and take care of children, take charge of household duties, including: cooking, weaving cloth, working in the fields, and spinning. But they also worked right beside men in other activities for which they were suited, from agriculture to public works.

Before the conquest, the Inca household was an autonomous socio-economic unit, indicating that there was much freedom for the individual family, including women. An example is the evidence of 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. In addition, women in the Inca civilization played a large role in religion, controlling the cults of the goddesses (unlike Aztec culture where men controlled religion). However, after the conquest, women's social position was lower than that of men's (typical of Spanish culture of the time), and began to exclude women from its rituals and government.


Women in Inca society were not required to work for government public works 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 or on such projects. In fact, women were to weave one piece of clothing every year to put in the government storehouses (this was not so much a tax, and a community contribution for the community benefit - these storehouses were public resources for the benefit of all). Also, in some cases, they followed their husband on his mit'a, where they cooked, carried heavy burdens, and helped him with many of his tasks as possible.

In everyday life, a women's main role 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 harvesting season. When the men plowing punched holes into which women sows (plants) corn seeds - in fact, this was a normal ritual, believing that women (the life bringer) ensured a successful crop. During the harvest, women performed heavy labor alongside their men - carrying bundles of stalks, cut by men, to be stacked to dry. Furthermore, women produced flour by grinding corn and sweet potatoes, and wove cloth by spinning and weaving cotton or wool.


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.

The Inca's officials selected girls of 10-years of age with great talent and physical beauty to become Acllacunas. Once selected, they were kept in their temples, not allowed to leave for six or seven years. During these years, these girls received formal education from "Mamaconas", who were chosen women themselves. The girls learned not only to weave and skillfully make clothing worn by the nobles, as well as the robes and elaborate hangings used on state occasions. They were also taught the preparation of special foods and "chicha" (a beverage used in religious ceremonials).

When these girls completed their training, and reached 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 most matched the Inca ideal of perfection were selected to be sacrificed in honor of the sun. While others were interned for life in one of the convents, where they acted as temple attendants and became Mamaconas themselves in time. Others became wives of nobles or military commanders.

However, majority of Chosen Women served as weavers and food producers in Inca provincial centers, as they were taught to do. 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 to the army, or as gifts for nobles and local leaders in conquered areas, Chosen Women's produce were crucial. Additionally, the Chosen Women also contributed food and chichi for citizens performing mit'a.

The level of social status for the Chosen women was generally great, and they enjoyed many advantages in their society. They did not to perform hard labor, even though voluntary for women, in the fields, and enjoyed a lifetime supply of food and clothing, with whole estates dedicated to their needs.

However, they were denied the support and contact 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 these most important separate compounds, and did not permit entry to outsiders. The Inca state guarded and trained the Chosen Women because they played an essential part in maintaining the cohesiveness of the society.
Women were an integral part of every aspect of society during the Inca reign. Their role in that society was very different from that of women in most European societies at that time, and because of this, much of the evidence regarding the role Incan women played is distorted by the views and prejudices of the Spanish conquering men who wrote about the Inca Empire, or Tahuantinsuyu (Four Kingdoms).

However it is possible to reconstruct the world of women in Incan society because of the large variety of sources about the Incas written by Spanish chroniclers during or immediately after the conquest. It appears women in Incan society had a distinctly separate role from men, and that this role was viewed as complementary to the role of men and a necessary component of their society.

This was true in all facets of Incan life including religion, politics, family, and economics. It also appears that women in Incan society had more autonomy and power than most of their Spanish & Pre-Columbian counterparts. Because of this the Spaniards had a hard time relating Incan society accurately in their chronicles. The Spanish didn’t understand one of the most important aspects of Incan society, their true gender roles.

Women had a dual or complementary role in Incan society because of their religion. The Incas, like many of their Andean predecessors, viewed the cosmos in a way that emphasized what they saw as the duality of nature. The Incan people believed that the god Viracocha was the creator of all things.

Viracocha was hermaphroditic in nature, being first male and then female. Stemming from Viracocha were the Sun, or the male, and the Moon, the female. These two were siblings as well as spouses and gave life to the other gods and goddesses as well as to man and woman. From the Sun extended Venus Morning, Lord Earth, and Man. From the Moon extended Venus Evening, Mother Sea, and Woman. Venus Morning was equated with the Sapa Inca himself (the ruler of Tahuantinsuyu), Lord Earth symbolized the male nobility and headmen, and Man symbolized the male commoners.

A parallel chain of authority for women stemmed from the Moon goddess. Venus Evening was the Coya, or queen of the Inca, Mother Sea was the female Incan nobility, and Woman the female commoners. Stemming from each of these chains were also parallel kinship chains of men and women, in which some men and some women (with the Sapa Inca and Coya coming first) had authority over other men and women, and so on.

Because of this dual role within the cosmos and the parallel chains of authority, men controlled the cults to the male gods and women controlled the cults of the goddesses. The Coya, who was believed to be the daughter of the Moon, headed the cult of the Moon. The Sapa Inca headed the cult of the Sun, and was believed to be his son. Women priestesses stemmed down from the Coya in the same way that male priests extended from the Sapa Inca. Women priestesses wielded power as the heads of these cults.

This is because the goddesses of Incan cosmology controlled earthly fertility and human procreation, both of which were integral to Incan agricultural society. Women also had their own royal ancestral cults. Coyas were mummified just like the male Incan rulers and were worshipped, and attended in the same way, meaning they were also treated as though still alive and they retained their estates even in death. (Similar to the way Egyptian kings were honored in death.)

The duality of Incan religion was so complete that even the temples of the Incan goddesses paralleled those of the Incan gods. Statues, as well as the mummies of Incan Coyas, were made of the Incan queens and placed in the temple of the Moon in the same way that mummies of male Incan rulers were placed in the temple of the Sun.

The Moon Temple was decorated in a fashion similar to that of the Sun Temple. It was paneled entirely in silver, as opposed to the Temple of the Sun which was covered with gold. It contained a likeness of the Moon with a woman’s face, while the Temple of the Sun contained a likeness of the Sun with a man’s face. It was served exclusively by female priestesses, or mamaconas, who were chosen either because they had unusual births or who were selected from the acllas, which were religious and secular institutions and education centers. Mamaconas also had their own houses of residence where they prepared garments for the Sapa Inca and idols, made food and drink for religious festivals, and were waited on by other high ranking girls of Incan society.

Unlike other Pre-Columbian cultures, Chosen Women had schools in Cuzco like those of the men where non-Cuzcan girls were sent to learn the trades of womanhood, and Incan lore, as well as the appropriate skills and tasks of government service. These schools were called acllawasi, or house of the chosen women.

Spanish chroniclers thought of these institutions as an Incan version of a nunnery. Acllawasi were an exclusively female institution in Incan society. Once a year an Incan agent inspected villages of the empire to choose the girls who would be sent to the acllawasi or who would become immediate human sacrifices.

The girls chosen for the latter duty were part of crucial state rituals and ensured the power of their fathers, most of whom were headmen, because with the sacrifice of his daughter the father gained the right to pass his title down to his son as well as the special favor of the Sapa Inca. Most of the girls selected for immediate sacrifice or to become acllas were ten to fourteen years of age (similar to the Aztec Xipe Totec ritual).

The virginity of these girls was closely guarded in the acllawasi until their future was decided by the empire’s ruling elite. If one of the girls were found to have lost her virginity, “she would be given the death penalty, and it would be carried out by burying the girl alive or by some equally cruel death”. If they were to become an aclla, which was a strictly secular occupation, they were separated from their communities of origin and housed in acllawasi in the capital of each province. By doing this, the aclla women were turned into full subjects of Cuzco because they were no longer thought of as members of their original communities.

Once in an acllawasi the girls were taught women’s tasks such as spinning, weaving, and chicha making. The cloth made in these institutions was highly valued because of its bright colors and fine weave. The chicha produced was also highly sought after because it was said to be some of the best in Tahuantinsuyu. The girls were also thoroughly indoctrinated into Incan ideology so that when sent to their various destinies, would serve the interests of the Inca whether consciously or unconsciously.

The acllas were organized hierarchically, with the basis for this organization being physical perfection, as the Incas visualized it, and the rank of the girl’s family of origin. Thus there were several different types of acllas who would serve the Inca realm within their various destinies.

It was based on this system that prestigious girls were chosen to be chaste priestesses of the solar or imperial cults. These priestesses, the virginal wives of the Sun, called mamaconas, served in a religious capacity as well as educating newly arrived girls. The mamacona women were wed to the various gods they were to serve in solemn ceremonies and afterward were considered to be wives of those gods (similar to Catholic Nuns).

Occasionally the Sapa Inca would visit one of these institutions to indulge himself with the women. The guards, who were old men, would then confront the Sapa Inca who would confess that he had sinned and the matter would be at rest. These women were generally considered to be saints by the rest of the populace and wielded much power because of their proximity to Incan gods.

Despite this, some of these women had more importance than others within the various cults, especially in the cult to the Moon, the wife of the Sun. One woman, who was often one of the Sapa Inca’s sisters, headed that cult. She governed it in all matters whether religious, economical or other. Thus women had much influence over religious and other matters.

The rest of the girls selected each year were to perform other roles. Another role that the prestigious girls could be chosen for was to be secondary wives of the Sapa Inca. The lower ranking girls served less prestigious gods or goddesses. Some of the lower ranking girls were also given as rewards to men who had pleased the Sapa Inca. It was through the aclla system that the men of the empire were linked to the Sapa Inca by loyalty.

This was because the men would serve the interests of the Sapa Inca if their daughters were taken to an aclla, since it was an honor, or if they were given women as gifts, which was also an honor. In this way, women were a powerful tool for the Incan state.

The Inca Queen, and through her, women, had her own religious celebrations also. For one month out of every year, the entire empire deferred to the Incan queen and to the Moon goddess, or "Coya raymi". This was meant to symbolize the new agricultural cycle and the beginning of the rainy season. It was during this time that any and all female concerns within the realm were given voice, and Men were subordinated during this period.

The Coya was also an important political figure in Incan culture. The selection of an Incan Coya was very similar to that of the selection of the Sapa Inca himself. A potential queen had to show that she was capable of leadership and responsibility before marrying the Sapa Inca, to whom she was usually related.

If the candidate failed to do this, she was removed from consideration. Also, if a woman proved unfit to rule after she became queen, she could be removed from her position (usually by death). An example of this circumstance was the first Coya of Capac Yupanqui. Some time after their marriage she went insane, so Capac asked the Sun god for permission to marry, as his primary wife, another woman who would be capable of performing the duties of the queen. Once made Coya, the queen also received her own estates and her own palace, which was almost as large and sumptuous and the Sapa Inca’s.

The political power of women flowed down from the Coya in a chain parallel to the one extending from the Sapa Inca. It began with the Sapa Inca and Coya at the top, moved to the nobility of Cuzco, to the non-Incan Cuzco nobility, to several ranks of provincial nobility, to local ethnic leaders, and finally ending with any commoners who possessed positions of authority in an "ayllu", or community unit (village).

Moreover both women and men, according to Guaman Poma, were entitled to varying degrees of services, herds, and estates based on their ranking within this system with the Sapa Inca and the Coya at the top. This illustrates the link between the political power of women, and the Coya, to economic power.

However Coyas had power over all subjects at times. Queens ruled in the absence of the Sapa Inca. If the Sapa Inca went off to war, the queen served in his stead in every way. Another important aspect of the queen’s role related to the Inca’s privy council, which was composed of men from the four principal capitals of the Incan state. If the council could not come to agreement on an issue, it was turned over to the queen. After she made a decision it was final, and accepted by the Sapa Inca as such. Thus the Coyas could and did make important governmental decisions, which would have had very far reaching effects.

Three Coyas were known to be especially powerful in the history of the Incan people. These were Mama Huaco, Mama Ocllo, and Mama Anahuarque. All of these women wielded significant power as well as advising their sons and husbands about government. This is especially interesting in light of the fact that these women were married to three of the most prominent kings (Incas) in Incan social history, Manco Capac, Topa Inca, and Pachacuti.

From these examples it is evident that the Coya of the Incas had more power than most of her European equivalents, who were, in most cases, merely a means for a king to produce an heir.
However the majority of the Incan queen’s authority centered on other women.

All women paid obeisance to the queen in the same way that men paid obeisance to the Sapa Inca, even kissing her hand in the same way that men kissed the king's. During festivals the queen of the Incas would give and receive reciprocity from provincial leaders and lower-ranking members of the Cuzco nobility.

She was expected to be very generous on such occasions, and these reciprocity ties were completely separate from those of the Sapa Inca. She “was able to bind others into a web of obligation through which power relations were articulated.” Therefore the Coya had her own power base in the Incan realm based on these ties in the same way that the Sapa Inca himself.

The Coya also had authority over women’s marriage rights. It was her responsibility to marry the female subjects of the empire to the male subjects. She had two hundred ladies in waiting whom she often married to men who either the Sapa Inca or herself wanted to reward or tie to their dynasty. The Coya was also responsible for seeing to the education of the young Cuzcan female nobility and the daughters of local leaders. This helped cement the bonds between the Coya and the varying ranks of Incan nobility as well as the women of the provinces, who by state design, would be Incan educated.

As illustrated by the importance of marriage to the queen’s power, marriage ceremonies and the relationships themselves were extremely important to the foundation of the Incan state. When an Incan couple married, certain ceremonies had to be observed, including asking the permission of the Sapa Inca’s agent.

These marriage rites, whether performed for a rich, noble couple or for a poor, peasant couple, “celebrated the formation of a new unity made up of equals.” The rites were accompanied with gift giving, which was supposed to be done on an equal basis to show that one partner was not above the other or that the kinship group of one was not above the kinship group of the other partner. Typically these gifts consisted of clothing, with the amount being determined by the couple’s wealth.

Within their marriage, an Incan couple would view their contributions to the relationship and the household as complementary but equal, which is what the ceremonial gifts illustrated. Andean culture already determined for a newly married couple what types of duties were appropriate for the man and the woman. “But in any case, the division of labor was never so strict as to prohibit one sex from doing the other’s task if the need arose.

Andean gender ideologies recognized that women’s work and men’s work complemented each other.” The indigenous peoples knew that in order for their culture to survive the work done by both sexes was essential, as was the interplay of that work between the two. Thus the contributions of women, from the Coya to the lowest peasant were recognized as essential to the survival of the society.

One of the duties of common women in Incan society was to weave. As already stated, this was an important task for women to learn when in the acllas.

However it was important outside of those institutions as well. A common adult woman was almost always spinning whether she was watching her children or talking with her husband or neighbors, or even while walking. It was the obligation of a woman to make sure that her entire family was clothed and this required a lot of work, especially once there were children to make clothing for. However this was not the sole duty of an Andean woman.

She was also entrusted with chicha making, cooking, helping her husband prepare fields for farming, planting seed, harvesting, weeding, hoeing, herding and carrying water. While in many societies these were the duties of women, in Incan society, unlike others, these tasks were not considered to be simply domestic tasks for the husband’s benefit only. The contributions of women were recognized by Incas for what they were, essential labor for the continuance of the household, community, and finally for the state.

Another area, other than goddess cults, in which Incan women had undisputed authority, was that of child rearing. Women were expected to take exclusive care of children in Incan families. A woman was also responsible for doing her share of the complementary work to that of her husband up until giving birth to the child and was expected to resume that work soon afterward. Children were considered to be the source of wealth for any Incan family and therefore were the primary responsibility of most women in Incan society. This ensured the future of that society.

Clearly, Incan Women had their own power networks in Incan society in politics and religion. They had their own cults, which they headed and which were worshipped by all members of society. The Coya had her own system of reciprocity, estates, and cult after her death. She had authority over marriage rights. Acllas, which were composed entirely of women, were important institutions in the Incan realm because they reinforced the loyalty of the subjects to the state. Mamaconas were important female power tools because they dictated religious observances and educated future acllas and mamaconas. Common women were responsible for some of the most important aspects of Incan life and survival, including weaving, agriculture, and child rearing.

Women's role in Pre-Columbian North America

Native American women in North America traditionally belonged to a culture that gave them respect and where they had power, autonomy and equality. North American Pre-Columbian societies were not so based on a hierarchical system and there were fewer divisions between men and women.

The work of the two genders often differed, but there was no value of one over the other. These women were respected and valued for their contribution to the survival of their families and communities. Their knowledge of plants, their ability to cure and preserve food, and their counsel in political matters was greatly valued.

Pre-Columbian North America women in general, had an important role in the society, as they were givers of life and gave birth to their culture's children, educated the children, and provided a substantial portion of the food for the family. Also, there were some matrilineal societies in Ancient North America, such as the Iroquois, where women provided leadership as well. In such societies, women held positions in societal governmental, civil, and religious offices.

The common duties of North American women were cleaning and maintaining the living quarters, nursing children, gathering plants for food, grinding corn / grain, extracting oil from acorns and nuts, cooking, sewing, packing and unpacking camps in the case of the nomadic peoples. They were also responsible for producing certain crafts such as: brewing dyes, making pottery, and woven items (cloth, baskets, and mats). They also made, or substantially aided in the making of the shelters that were their homes - either by making the Teepees, weaving the materials for stick or grass houses, or other shelters. They were also frequently the healers of their cultures.

In some areas, women were influential in tribal councils and cast the deciding vote for war or peace. For instance, in the Cherokee society, women were considered equal to men and women could become "Beloved Women", who spoke and voted in their society's General Council. Leading the Woman's Council, they prepared and served the ceremonial Black Drink; served the duty of ambassador of peace negotiations, and could save the life of a prisoner already condemned to execution. Likewise, the Cheyenne women had an important role in the deciding to wage war or not.


One of North America's iconic native women was Pocahontas, 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 the daughter of Powhatan, who ruled a large area in present-day Virginia.

Because of the modern Disney animated fantasy movie, Pocahontas (1995 film), the revisionist view of Pocahontas is as a peacemaking hero that stopped war between the Native Americans and the Europeans, and a powerful women that had a great role in her society. However, this image of Pocahontas is largely fabrication from the movies and John Smith's writings.

It is true that she was a daughter of Powhatan, a chief, but it is not certain if she held any 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 lower class. Pocahontas correctly shows that women in some North American societies could have political roles, but at the same time shows that there were restrictions as well.

The Pre-Columbian Woman's World

Women's common roles in all the societies within Pre-Columbian America included 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 and real power.

What is significant is that women in Pre-Columbian America had comparatively important roles in their society compared to other regions of the same period, such as China, Japan, Korea, and Europe. They had distinctly separate roles from men, but rather than being viewed as inferior to men (at least in the Inca culture), their roles were considered as complementary to the role of men and a necessary component of their society.

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