Engendering the Past by Elizabeth M. Brumfiel (1945-2012)



[00:00:00] I guess I have very strong feelings on that question. Engendering the past, if anything, is the opposite of a politically correct activity, in the sense that it, like all archaeological research, depends on inference from the material record, but to no greater extent than a lot of other questions that we ask about prehistory. And I think in the absence of conscious efforts to engender the past and to reconstruct gender roles and to test those reconstructions using archaeological data, we make presumptions about gender all the time. And these are unreflective, uncritical judgments that are usually based on our own experience and our own societies, and, therefore, are ethnocentric and distant from the societies that we have studied. Engendering the past is a way of moving away from presumptions and baseless statements and towards a critical, conscious awareness of gender roles in the past. And from looking at the past, we can critique our own roles and our own situations.

Aztec Women

[01:11:00] Among the Aztecs, archaeological research into the roles of women just wasn’t done before 1990. Women were presumed to work within the household, to carry out repetitive tasks that really concerned only their families, and whatever spectacular changes that occurred in prehistoric societies must be due to changes in organization and activities outside the household, and that therefore women’s work was pretty uninteresting and pretty repetitive and boring. And so [the category] “men” was where you wanted to look to explain culture change.

My own first effort to look at Aztec gender roles involved looking at household work, but [doing so while] presuming that there was a good deal of flexibility and even strategic thinking in the way that household tasks were organized and carried out and that these tasks would change as the household became embedded in different kinds of societies. So what I did was [to] look at the relationship between weaving and cooking.

Weaving was much more intensive under Aztec rule because the Aztecs required large amounts of cotton cloth from towns that they conquered as a form of tribute, and then they used this cloth to finance the political relationships that held the empire together. So right there I thought that was an important statement to make, that it was really household labor that was enabling these complex structures to form and then endure through the flow of tribute cloth.

Questioning Assumptions about Women

[02:50:00] Then I started to wonder, if women suddenly had to spend much more time weaving cloth in order to meet these tribute obligations, did that affect the other parts of the work that they had to do to support their families? Cooking, for instance. Cooking techniques are visible in various kinds of cooking pots. I looked to see if forms of cooking had changed. The answer was a little bit complex, but I guess the bottom line is that, yes, cooking did change, and weaving did change. What was interesting is that I saw two different patterns of change, in two different areas of the empire that I looked at, which said to me that housework was not always the same from place to place. And that it does change. Depending on conditions, women could figure out one thing to do or figure out another thing to do.

So I think that research questioned a lot of the assumptions that we had made about women’s role in the prehistoric past. We’ve made these assumptions without ever realizing them. There were plenty of artifacts like spinning tools and cooking pots that we could look at to actually test these assumptions, and that’s what I tried to do.

Labels Fail to Tell

[03:57:00] I’m not a keen fan of models of women’s status. I think women engage in various kinds of activities in various ways and there’s a temptation to say, “Well, there were egalitarian gender relations, or there was patriarchy.” I think those kinds of overall labels obscure the complexity of the relationships that women were involved in. I like to look at particular activities to see how women managed their lives. One example I can give you is the story about whether Aztec women had any ability to resist the extraction of tribute, and that’s a story that focuses on these spindle whorls that we collect at Aztec sites. The spindle whorls are clay disks, and they’re used on the spindles to actually twist the fibers into thread, before women started weaving. So under Aztec rule and under Spanish Colonial rule because the Spaniards continued to collect this cloth—and if anything they increased the level of tribute that they demanded so women had to weave even more cloth—we find great quantities of these spindle whorls.

It occurred to me that if women were trying to resist these demands that were being made on them, then they might get really careless and sloppy about the kind of weaving that they did. And so I gathered some samples of spindle whorls from my own sites and from other sites and weighed them. I tried to find out if the spindle whorls from before Aztec conquest and tribute demands were lighter than the spindle whorls from after these tribute demands. In other words, were women taking more care to weave the cloth that they were weaving for their own families and less care when they knew they were being exploited and forced to weave this tribute cloth?

It turned out that the spindle whorls were lighter [after the Conquest] rather than heavier, that the women were spinning finer cloths when they had to pay tribute, and I think this is because there were very careful methods of checking on the quality of the cloth that enabled them not to resist. But it’s that kind of question, with those kinds of pertinent data, that I like to ask.

And this engages a more general question, which is: Do women know when they’re being exploited? Are they totally brainwashed into accepting gender roles? How can we think about how women felt about their roles in the past? And when you think about trying to reconstruct a woman’s feelings about her roles, you think, “Well, that’s impossible, without writing there’s no way we can access this information.” But if we look for the quality of women’s work, I think we can actually access something as delicate as a woman’s feeling about her role in life.