Women in War and Society

The roles of and laws regarding women in Aztec society are well documented and discussed in some detail.

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Two Aztec women with a baby. From the Florentine Codex.

Most of what is known about women in the Aztec world comes from either eyewitness accounts or the works of Bernardino de Sahagun. Archaeological evidence is also used to substantiate the claims that are made.

Women in the Aztec world were generally given a fair amount of power in relation to men, although they might not have been considered “equal”. As with many societies at this time in world history, their primary role was to care for children and look after the household. Women were rarely, if ever, permitted to engage in warfare, although they apparently did do so when defending their homes. For example, women took to the rooftops to throw rocks and hurl insults at Spanish conquistadors and their native allies when they assaulted the city of Tenochtitlan.

Women not being allowed to participate in war is extremely common in many societies throughout the world. Exceptions certainly do exist; the Sarmatians and other Eurasian steppe tribes, for example, apparently had fighting women in their armies. Allowing women to fight in battle grants a significant advantage to a society by increasing the overall number of people who volunteer or are levied into an army. Moreover, the allowance gives women another avenue for social elevation in a society, freeing them from a gender-bound social constraint.

This strategy is, however, offset by the fact that if women could participate in combat, some number of them would certainly die in battle. In addition, if women had begun fighting in combat, then civilian women could be targeted for being potential combatants. By participating in war, the women of the society would set the precedent that they are potentially dangerous, and therefore a legitimate target for enemies of the state. From the perspective of a society that is actively concerned with its rate of population growth, women are often considered more valuable than men. If the number of women in a society declines significantly because they are being killed off during war, there will be a direct decline in the overall population of the next generation, unless the secondary generation is able to offset the female loss by increasing its birthrate; a difficult task for a pre-modern society. This same generational population offset can be seen when men are killed off as well, but it is far less pronounced, particularly in polygamous societies like the Aztec Empire where men could have multiple wives, allowing relatively few, typically elite males to father many children.

On average, men are taller than women, have a higher percentage of their body weight dedicated to muscle mass, and have a body shape that is more conducive to combat, long range running and marching, and maneuvering (i.e. lacking large breasts, narrower pelvis, wider figure, etc.). As such, women would have, on average, faced a more daunting challenge on the battlefield. No doubt many women had succeeded in the face of that challenge, whether they were defending their home or protecting themselves from an enemy soldier. When cities were sacked in the Aztec world, in some cases, the women were killed. Without a doubt, some number of those women died fighting.

Girl grinding Maize

A mother with her daughter while she grinds maize. From the Codex Mendoza.

 

From birth, a girl is raised to be a good wife and mother in the Aztec world. According to Aguilar-Moreno, girls attended the telpochcalli just as the boys did, but they were schooled in household affairs and received no martial or military education. Girls typically married between the ages of 15 to 18 years old.

Within the household, a wife was responsible for grinding maize into flour, weaving cotton into fabric, preparing food, watching over the household, and raising the children. Cotton textiles were extremely important in the Aztec world, and often functioned as de-facto currency alongside cacao beans. As such, women had considerable power in terms of making a living for their family.

Women could own their own property, they could own slaves (they were probably responsible for buying many of them, as slaves were often used to help around the house), and women could be priestesses. In addition, laws within Tenochtitlan protected women from abuse, and allowed for them to separate from their husbands if they could prove that they were being abused. Once separated, the sons would be raised by the father, and the girls would go to the mother.

For clothing, they wore long dresses which covered the entire body below the neck and above the shin. This was in stark contrast to commoner men, who could be punished with death if they wore anything that extended below the knee.

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