Have you been intrigued by the way and the why of a woman's life in different parts of the world in years gone by?
Roles for women have changed dramatically over time and in different ways for different cultures. Studying the history of women has many benefits like giving women of the past a voice, discovering the personal side to many of history's events, and learning about the challenges and dreams of families that are vitally impacted by the life-giving and nurturing way of women.
The Women Through History course is designed to educate students in grades 8-12 on the changes that have occurred over the years in regards to what women were allowed to do and what was expected of them. Along with the knowledge-rich text of the course, you'll find resources for further reading, links to explain concepts more clearly and world-wide descriptions about the lives and ways of women.
Your children will see how it differed in each culture and area of the world. They will also look at women that are featured in the Bible. This course will definitely be remembered well after they have finished all the work.
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Lesson Two: Women of the Far East in Ancient Societies
Although China has been the dominant culture in much of Asia for centuries, other cultures have maintained distinctive aspects of their own culture even while being strongly influenced by China. Unfortunately, the volume of women’s history in Asia that has been studied is still much smaller than what has been learned about Europe and North America so there are still many things that we do not know.
One characteristic of most families in cultures found in southeast Asia is that the family was often a wider group of relatives than we would usually have involved in our lives now and that the family played a larger role than we are used to in many life decisions. They had influence over who and when you would marry, your education, and if your behavior was acceptable (and if not, what your punishment would be). During this time, both age and gender were factors in how much influence a person had in their family. Age was respected, but women were not as respected as men. It was still possible that an older woman would have influence over the decisions of a younger man in her family.
At this time, many marriages were monogamous, but some men had more than one wife as a sign of their financial status and power in their community. The children of these marriages often took the status of their father, so even if they were born to a slave mother, they were still considered free although they had a lower social status than children of a mother from a wealthy and powerful family.
In early Korean culture, women dominated shamanic traditions, as they do in certain belief systems today. A Korean shamaness, or mudang, was believed to ward off dangerous influences. She was also responsible for promoting health and general welfare on behalf of both the community and individuals. These duties made her a significant local figure although her areas of leadership were in what were traditionally considered women’s roles such as cleaning-purifying households and villages, caring and comforting through exorcising ill-causing spirits, and helping to ease the passage of the deceased.
Tombs of women rulers have been found. Scholars believe that women were more accepted as rulers in Korean culture because their shamanic roles were such an important part of life. In one case, a woman appears to have been the spiritual leader with her husband perhaps in charge of military duties.
While much of Korean culture was influenced by China, there were some areas of contrast. Some historical texts show that men and women were freer to gather in groups together for singing and dancing. Both higher and lower classes also valued love matches.
Culture on the peninsula of Vietnam was influenced by both China and India because of the trade routes between the two that ran across it. Although there was more Chinese influence to the north, in general Vietnamese culture was more similar to that of India allowing women a higher status than they had in China. They also had rights to property and to inherit.
As a result of their economic dependence on water-rice agriculture, they worshipped many female nature deities, among other gods, prior to the introduction of Theravada Buddhism from India. After this time, there were some areas that worshipped female “Buddhas” despite the fact that the Theravada doctrine’s forbid this practice.
The known story of women in India begins with the Indus Valley civilization which existed from approximately 2500 to 1500 B.C. The Indus Valley people had at least two major urban centers, Mohenjo Daro and Harrapa, as well as smaller villages.
Both were walled cities with well laid out streets. Some of the artifacts of this civilization imply that they valued families and children. These include images of men and women holding children, bird-shaped whistles, small toy carts, and terra-cotta monkeys on a string. Some figurines found also suggest that women goddesses were worshiped in connection with fertility for vegetation and crops. Archaeological evidence shows that while the population was generally healthy, females had a higher rate of dental problems most likely due to dietary differences from males as well as more nutritional stress as they were growing than boys had.
The end of the Indus Valley civilization coincides with the arrival of nomadic people into the Indus Valley along with their religious texts called the Vedas. Their priests, the Brahmins, were in charge of carrying out the requirements of their religion as well as being the leading social class. Prior to SAMPLE the Vedic texts, religious texts (written about 1500 B.C.) describe the worship of goddesses as well as focusing on marriage and family issues for human women.
As time went on, the role of women in religion became more restricted, and the ideal woman in the texts became one who was submissive and focused on the home. Among the 1,028 hymns in the Veda, three appear to have been written by women. Although later Vedic traditions said that women should not read the Vedas or perform Vedic rituals, these early stories show that in the past women both read the Vedas and performed the rituals themselves.
One of the hymns of the Rig Veda refers to a woman’s “right to speak to the gathered people,” which some scholars interpret to mean that women were allowed to speak in public possibly in a political sense. Another hymn refers to a wife’s voice being supreme in her husband’s ears as well as saying how clever she is and how successful her children are.
In religious texts written in approximately 800-600 B.C. called the Upanishads, references are made to two learned women, Maitreyi and Gargi. These women engaged in public theological debates. The fact that this is not explained as being unusual suggests that women were doing this at that time. Although there are also legal texts that mention study of the Vedas as a alternative to marriage for women, some scholars dismiss this as unlikely because as time went on the ideology of Brahmin theology became more restrictive toward women, and men were taking more wives from outside cultures who were not allowed to study the Vedas.
Legal texts from around A.D. 150 called the Laws of Manu advised that fathers should have their daughters married as soon as possible. The laws also stated that women should be under the guardianship of her father, followed by her husband, and then her sons if she was widowed. Women were not thought to be worthy of being independent. According to the texts, women’s roles were to bear children and take care of their homes. Women were given as “gifts” to their husband’s family so that they could provide children to continue the family as well as take care of his home and make him an adult member of society, capable of fulfilling his religious obligations.
The legal texts did permit divorce under certain circumstances, for both men and women. Men were allowed to divorce a woman if she was barren (unable to have children) but only after eight years of marriage. He could also divorce her after eleven years if she had only daughters. If a man divorced a woman for these reasons, she was allowed to keep property given to her by her family which was often jewelry. Other causes for divorce were if she drank wine, if she was rebellious or dishonest, or if she wasted his money. Women could divorce their husbands if he did not return from a journey after five to eight years or if he left to become a religious beggar. Unlike in some cultures, widows were not encouraged to remarry, and adoption of sons to continue the family line was also discouraged although in some cases widows were made to marry their husband’s brother. This was because the bloodline was seen as very important so adopted children would not have been considered part of the bloodline. Widows were told that by living chaste and austere lives, they would join their husbands in the afterlife. In order to avoid attracting the attention of other men, widows were to give their jewelry to their daughters and dress in plain white clothes, as well as shaving their heads. Daughters were allowed to inherit some of their father’s property or all of it if there were no sons to pass down to their sons.
In contrast to the submissive women in the legal and religious texts, the stories told by the common people that were eventually written down as epics show a more capable, independent view of women. In the Mahabharata, Sulabha engages in a public debate over the superiority of life as an ascetic. Draupadi is not only one of multiple wives but also has multiple husbands herself. She also defends herself against an attacker and saves her husbands from slavery as a result of a gambling debt.
Around the 100 B.C. to A.D. 250, Indian women’s voices are first heard in history. Over 2,000 Tamil poems are collected in anthologies, and more than 150 of them were written by women. The Tamil region is in the southern tip of India. The experiences of upper class women in the poetry are centered around home and family, but those of the lower classes show a wider range of experiences. One poem, written by Peyanar, shows the bond between a foster mother and her child.
they lay together
like deer, mother-doe;
with their boy
between them, was very sweet:
neither in this world
hugged by the wide blue sea
nor in the one above
is such a thing easy to get.” 1
Another poem mourns the loss of their father by Pari’s daughters.
in that white moonlight
we had our father,
and no one
could take that hill.
in this white moonlight,
kings with drums
have taken over the hill,
and we have no father.” 2
These poems show the love families had for one another, despite living in a period of instability and warring kingdoms.
Women Writing in India: 600 B.C. to the Present, Volume 1: 600 B.C. to the Early Twentieth Century– Susie Tharu
Sources for Quotes
- A.K. Ramanujan, Poems of Love and War (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), p.84.
- Ibid., p.145
More About This Course
This homeschool course covers women’s history from ancient times through modern history. Until recently, women were not allowed to play a role in public life in many cultures so their history has been less visible. This course allows students to see the important role women have played throughout history both as powerful people and as peasants. The course also covers aspects of women’s history such as women’s work — whether in tasks in their households, or as rulers, authors, midwives, and many other professions. Through the use of historical art, maps, recipes, and writing from women, students discover what women’s lives were like in the past.
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