Nipissing University

History 2055 -- Ancient Civilizations

Women and Men in the Second Millenium B.C.

Steve Muhlberger

 In the last lecture I discussed at some length a relationship that has helped to shape politics through most of human history. This is the relationship between "civilized" people on one hand, and "barbarians" on the other, between citizens and nomads, between people who live in the urban and agricultural centers, and people who live in more marginal areas.

Today we will talk about another symbiotic relationship that has existed for a very long time: the one between men and women. In some senses this relationship has been around for as long as there have been people, and the division between male and female, the biological sexual division, is far older than human beings, primates, even vertebrates. But the division of work and power between men and women, specifically the subordination of women that has existed through most of history, even if it is old, is not eternal and unchangeable. If it was, there would be no debate today about women's role in society. We would have no way of thinking about the issue of gender roles at all.

Gender roles in civilized  societies are a product of historical development, and some of that development took place in the urban, agricultural societies of the second millenium B.C., in the years between 2000 and 1000 B.C. These developments have a continued effect on our society today.

In this discussion I am going to admit right off to a close dependence on Gerda Lerner's Origins of Patriarchy.   I am sure that specialists in prehistory have knocked holes in some of Lerner's specific arguments, but her analysis makes sense to me and I am sticking with it until I find a better one.

If we are to talk about the historical development of the subordination of women, we should be clear about what those words mean. It means that women's role in society is defined so that they have less access to wealth and power than men do. Subordination does not mean that all women are less powerful or poorer or less influential than all men. Obviously not. But it means that men rule the public sphere, while women, at least in principle are restricted to the private sphere -- in other words the home and family. There is men's work and women's work, and women's work is considered less important and pays less. This is a pattern that can be seen in our own society, and even statistically demonstrated. In many other societies of the past and present, such as strict Muslim societies in the Middle East, or English Victorian society, the pattern is far clearer.  Love it or hate it, the pattern is real. But once again, it is not natural.

Subordination of women is not the same thing as a sexual or gender division of labor. It is obvious that when human beings were all hunter- gatherers, there was a division of labor that was largely based on sex. Women bore the children, and at least in young adulthood had to spend most of their time caring for those children. Caring for children must have been the major work of most women throughout their lives. However, raising children was not the only women's work, even in the Old Stone Age. Everyone in a hunter-gatherer tribe had to work at collecting food, one way or another. With their responsibility for children, they concentrated on gathering foods close to the tribe's current home base. This led women eventually to invent agriculture. That women did invent agriculture is widely accepted today. That men's special work was hunting is equally clear. So in the early days of humanity, there was a fairly clear sexual division of work, one that only made sense.  The women of the tribe could not be risked, as a routine thing, on "men's work."

This sexual division of labor, however, did not constitute the subordination of women. Was the work and role of women considered less important and less valuable than the role of men?

What we know of early art and mythology leads us to believe that women, as women, were regarded with awe, specifically because of their reproductive powers. One scholar has found that in every culture she could investigate, women are considered closer to nature. In more recent times, this attitude has often been turned into a male put-down of women: women do what nature gave them to do, men do the thinking, building and exploring, the real creating. But in the Old Stone Age, when the marvellous creative feats of men were less impressive, it was recognized that it was women who were, like the earth itself, creators.

Now this does not mean that women were superior and men were subordinate in Old Stone Age, hunter-gatherer societies. It does not mean that these societies were matriarchies (though some scholars have argued this).

Far more likely -- because more recent hunter-gathers give us examples -- men and women were on a relatively equal plane. A practical reason for this is that women and men needed each other on a daily basis if either was to eat a sufficient and balanced diet.

With the growing sophistication of agriculture, the economics of daily life changed. When domesticated crops provided the vast bulk of food, the old sexual division of labor had to change.

Perhaps for a long time, women's importance actually increased. But when grain growing and plow agriculture became the center of the new economy, then men became gradually economically dominant.

The reasons for this are several. First, plow agriculture is hard work, even if you are driving a tractor. With a plow drawn by animal or even human muscle, with a plow made of wood instead of metal, it is backbreaking -- at least at some seasons of the year. It is also specialized work, work that demands full attention for long periods of time, though there are also times when you get a long break. Both because of their muscle and their traditional role of workers away from home, men were better suited than women to pursue the new plow agriculture.

Plowing societies, such as the societies of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and North China, were at the forefront of progress: more populous, more stable, more powerful than the societies around them. Farming men had power never before seen in the world.  Men now controlled the bulk of the food.

But even more important, farming made people think about reproduction in a different way.  Plow agriculture both required a larger labor force and made possible that labor force. It became necessary to produce an adequate workforce, and to keep it under control. It is at this stage that men began to try to control reproduction, which is to say, the reproductive capacities of women.

This must have emerged first at the household level. Plow agriculture made possible for the first time stable households, because the household members shared something very important: access to a specific piece of land. Within these households, men had the crucial economic role, which included the planning role. And one of the things they planned was whether they had enough women and children to supply labor.

Does this mean that marriage as we know it was invented at this time? No. Not even marriage as our great-grandparents knew it.  Many early households seem to have been multi-generational, in which women did not leave at adulthood. Rather, they stayed together, marrying men who were only temporary or permanent visitors in someone else's household. But this household was under the control of a man: the father of the brides. This was not the beginning of the kind of marriage known through most of history, yet it was the beginning of the subordination of women.

The subordination of women became much more marked when large-scale warfare became an important part of agricultural society.   One of the things that could be acquired in war was labor, r in the form of women and children. Most wars in history, have resulted in the enslaving of some of the losers.When social organization on a large scale was new, enslaving the grown men was impractical. The women and children were much weaker, and could be forced to work in the households of the winners. In this way, one of the most important resources of the losers, their productive and reproductive capacity, could be confiscated and put to work.

By this stage, by the 3rd millenium B.C. in Mesopotamia, men and women are in a much different situation than they were in the hunter-gatherer groups. The division of society into a man's world and a woman's world is much advanced by the advent of organized warfare. Men were the hunters and warriors in the far past -- now they were the soldiers and generals.

The earliest political records, including that story of the historical Gilgamesh, underlines this. The public institutions of Uruk were based on a war-leader king, his chief advisers in council, and a general assembly of the fighting manpower of the city. Women have no part in this. In fact, women are actually or potentially part of the loot of war. There is no doubt which of the two worlds, men's and women's, rules over the other.

Women as slaves helped make up the big concentrations of property, as a crucial part of the staff of the biggest institutions, palaces and temples.

Control of these slave women had its sexual element. Not only were their productive efforts at the disposal of their masters, but their reproduction as well. Owning a slave, for a man, meant having her at his sexual disposal (the same applied to men owning male slaves, for that matter). The idea that men controlled women's reproduction was very much enhanced.

This situation of female subordination, which came into existence in Mesopotamia in the third millenium B.C., between 3000 and 2000 B.C., did not mean, of course, that all men dominated over all women, or that all  women were miserable and all men were happy. Even if slavery is wrong, not all slaves are miserable.

Nor were all women slaves, not by any means. There were a good number of privileged and wealthy women. For instance, the great conqueror Sargon of Agade made his daughter Enkheduanna high- priestess of both the temple of the Moon-God at Ur and the temple of An, the father of the Gods, at Uruk. This made her a major religious and political figure at the time. Enkheduanna was also a poet, and her writings were read and admired for centuries after her death. Early in the second millenium, between 1790 and 1745 B.C., in the western city of Mari, we know from royal correspondence that the king's first wife was the administrator of his main palace, and his secondary wives managed more distant palaces. Thus these royal ladies were important parts of the royal power structure, the mistresses of many slaves.

Mesopotamian kings also married their daughters to their important vassals, as much to keep the vassals in line as to reward them. One such wife, Kirum, was married to the ruler of the city of Ilansu by her father, the King of Mari, who also appointed her mayor of Ilansura.

At the same time, being a man was not necessarily a bed of roses. There was tension between those who had many women and those who had few or none -- in other words, the rich and the poor. Men who had no households of their own were dependent on those who did, and men with small, poor households fell under the domination of larger households. Resentments grew up, resentments that were sometimes directed at the women.

The Sumerian king Urukagina, for instance, decreed that "women of former times married two men, but women of today have been made to give up this crime."  The penalty for this crime was stoning.

The conflict between men who want their own households and men who try to prevent them from having viable households is an important social conflict in many historical societies, especially where land is the main source of wealth. To be free, for many men, has meant to have their own households and be boss in them. Much of the historic resistance to aristocratic privilege has come from this type of male competition, a competition in independence -- for to have a household, to have a wife, rather than to be a member of someone else's household and be denied a wife, is to be a respectable male member of society. To be a bachelor, or a vagrant, or a servant is to be nothing, at best a dependent, at worst a pauper.

Which brings us back to our main point -- by the third millenium B.C., women were quite clearly subordinate in Mesopotamian society. Even the privileged and powerful women were subordinate. Enkehduanna was a double high priestess because her father was lord of Sumer and Akkad, and when he died, she was pitched out by one of her brothers and replaced. The queens of Mari were powers in the realm only as long as they kept the favor of their husbands. Kirum the queen and mayor of Ilansu, gained the resentment of her husband and -- here's the interesting part -- of her sister, who was also married to her husband, and eventually asked her father to get her a divorce. These women were subordinate because they owed their position to a man.

Between 2000 and 1000 B.C. (= the second millenium) , we see one further step in the subordination of women.

In the Mesopotamian law codes of this period, we see that the regulation of women and especially of their sexual conduct, something that had been around for a long time, became subject to formal legal codification, and was a subject that kings, who sought to impress their subjects and the gods with their justice, legislated on at great length.

The important aspect of the laws are these:

The measurement of respectability was one that is not exactly exotic: a  respectable woman was one who was attached sexually exclusively to one man. According to  the Middle Assyrian Laws, #40: "Neither wives of lords nor widows nor Assyrian women who go out on the street may have their heads uncovered. The daughters of a lord ... whether it is a shawl or a robe or a mantle, must veil themselves ... when they go out on the street alone, they must veil themselves. A concubine who goes out on the steet with her mistress must veil herself. A sacred prostitute whom a man married must veil herself on the street, but one whom a man did not marry must have her head uncovered on the street; she must not veil herself; her head must be uncovered. [Likewise a slave girl must not veil herself.]"

As Gerda Lerner says, the sorting is not between rich and poor or free or unfree -- a concubine, whose freedom was not great, wears the veil of respectability when with her respectable mistress. What are separated are the "domestic women, sexually serving one man and under his protection," from the public women, "not under one man's protection and sexual control." [p. 135]

The punishment for trying to pass as respectable when one was not was severe: a veiled harlot was flogged and had pitch poured on her head, and a veiled slave had here ears cut off. To top it all off, men associating with women trying to pass as respectable were also harshly punished. Again, these laws may never have been enforced. But the intent to control women and their sexuality, to define them in terms of their sexual relations with men, is clear. It is clear that part of the control is to divide women among themselves, and part is to make all men responsible for  policing women.

This is precisely the era where prostitution, which once may have been primarily a sacred service, becomes a routine part of the commercial life of the city.

These harsh attitudes towards women and their place in society are not simply exotic features of a remote society. The same attitudes were enshrined in European and North American laws until a very recent date. The continuity in attitudes is explained by two factors.

First, such developments were not restricted to the Middle East. In every place where agriculture has become the basis of life, in every civilized society, the power balance between men and women has tipped in the direction of men.  That this subordination seems to be loosening up in modern times has a lot to do, I think, with the change in the technological basis of society.

But there is a second connection between ancient Mesopotamia and our own cultural attitudes. That, simply, is the Bible, which is in part a Middle Eastern law book like the Code of Hammurabi or the Middle Assyrian Laws, and growing quite directly out of the same legal tradition. Islamic law is in the same position. It is no coincidence that the sign of female respectability in the Middle East is precisely the same now as it was in the 18th century B.C. If you ever doubt that Mesopotamian antiquity has any relevance to our own day, reflect on that fact. This was truly a founding era in human history.


Gerda Lerner,  Origins of Patriarchy


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Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.