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Patriarchy in Classical Societies

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Before the Classical era, women were living in an egalitarian dominant culture, especially in the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Stone Age artwork depicts symbols of women being respected as fertile beings, goddesses and in different social roles. Then during the Classical era as civilizations began to advance in their agriculture, the status of women began to decline especially in the upper classes. Stearns in his book notes that, “….as agricultural civilizations developed and became more prosperous and more elaborately organized, the status of women often deteriorated”.1 This led to the rise of the commanding theme of patriarchalism. Sterns also further notes that, “Its enforcement, through law and culture, was one means by which societies tried to achieve order”.2 Major civilizations such as China, India and Rome all had a system of patriarchy which had similarities and differences in their own forms.

In China, especially in the elite classes, marriages were arranged according to family alliances rather than romantic concerns. Young men had little say in their marriages as well as women. The wife would move into her in-laws and would possibly be subjected to the demands and criticisms of the mother in-law. Widowed women could remarry and all women participated in family ceremonies. However, women were tutored in writing, arts and music. Stearns states that “Despite these promising trends, women at all social levels remained subordinated to men”.3 Family households were run by men and male children inherited more property than females.4In the lower classes of China, women didn’t live in extended households commonly. They usually cooked, cleaned the houses and worked long hours in the fields. They had more social outlets and financial freedom but still were under their male relatives in the households such as their fathers or husbands.5Upper and lower class level women in China were subjected to one thing in common. This was that their vital function in society was to preferably bear male children.

In Classical India, there was a dominance of the Brahman caste system. Each person was born into their caste and they were obligated to follow their duty associated with their caste. Stearns mentions that the extended family household began to become an ideal way to live especially in the upper classes. He states, “At times, up to four generations, from great-grandparents to their great-grandsons and great-grand-daughters, lived together in the same dwelling of a family compound.”6 This led to less privacy and domestic quarrels amongst family members but also provided more support and stability. Only the elite could afford to live in such large households.

Lower caste groups such as peasants and artisans in India couldn’t afford to live in such a large household, thus they lived in nuclear families. Because the majority of the population was in the lower class group, most Indian families lived in single family households sometimes with an occupying widowed grandparent. 7Historical Indian epics depict women in positions that were subservient to men. They were expected to be attentive to their husbands every need and follow his every command. On the contrary, women were also depicted as being scholars, teachers, writers, poets and musicians and artists. 8Women in the Brahman dominant culture in all caste levels were subjected to even more inferiority and restriction in their career outlets. They were not allowed to read the sacred Vedas, declared minors under the control of their husbands and fathers, or sons (if widowed), tied to the duties of the home, had no say in marriage, not allowed to remarry if widowed, could not inherit property and looked down upon as economic liabilities.

This caused some people to kill their female infants because they were afraid they couldn’t afford her dowry as the time of marriage. Only courtesan women had some degree of independence only after becoming accomplished in all the arts. But, even they could not acquire social respect and raise their own families and they even had to depend on the tastes and whims of men.9In the upper class, child marriages were common. Men had little say and women none. Women enjoyed many pleasures of an elite lifestyle but were confined to the home. In the lower class, women were freer to go different places in town, buy and sell, attend temple festivals and watch dances. But this came with a very hard working lifestyle with minor comforts of life. 10Stearns states regarding how the emperor Augustus put an emphasis on child bearing for women in Classical Rome that, “He revised the law to strengthen family stability while encouraging people to have children by ruling that women with at least three children could gain new rights.”11 The family structure in Roman society was patriarchal.

The husband was deemed to be the judge of his wife and could punish or even kill her if she committed a transgression. However, Roman law changed this and enhanced the protection of the wife’s rights by the husband needing to get approval from family court before punishing her. Stearns further notes that, “If divorced because of adultery, a Roman woman lost one-third of her property and had to wear special garment that set her apart like a prostitute.” 12 This statement signifies that women in Rome could at least inherit property of their own while still being subject to harsh laws in comparison to men. Also, many aristocratic Roman women wielded political power, but only through their husbands. Women could appear freely in public and attended festivals. Some women were also educated but rarely as well as men in the same class.

In conclusion, it seems that the oppression of women in Roman society was less severe than that of the women in China and India during the Classical Era. Gender status became more complex and separated with the rise of agriculture, common culture of the society, religion and the need for a stable social hierarchy in the region.

Works Cited

1.Peter Stearns et al., World Civilizations, 5th ed. (New York: Pearson Education, 2008), 382.Peter Stearns et al., World Civilizations, 5th ed. (New York: Pearson Education, 2008), 393.Peter Stearns et al., World Civilizations, 5th ed. (New York: Pearson Education, 2008), 87-884.Peter Stearns et al., World Civilizations, 5th ed. (New York: Pearson Education, 2008), 885.Peter Stearns et al., World Civilizations, 5th ed. (New York: Pearson Education, 2008), 1246.Peter Stearns et al., World Civilizations, 5th ed. (New York: Pearson Education, 2008), 1247.Peter Stearns et al., World Civilizations, 5th ed. (New York: Pearson Education, 2008), 1248.Peter Stearns et al., World Civilizations, 5th ed. (New York: Pearson Education, 2008), 1349.Peter Stearns et al., World Civilizations, 5th ed. (New York: Pearson Education, 2008), 136,13710.Peter Stearns et al., World Civilizations, 5th ed. (New York: Pearson Education, 2008), 14911.Peter Stearns et al., World Civilizations, 5th ed. (New York: Pearson Education, 2008), 15012.Peter Stearns et al., World Civilizations, 5th ed. (New York:
Pearson Education, 2008), 150

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