Studying Women's (In)equality by Susan Kellogg



[00:00:00] There are those scholars, both North American and Mexican, who argue that Aztec women were dominated and their status was very low. There are other scholars who see them as more parallel. I have never argued in my work that I saw them as equal to men because I don’t see that as the case. What I have emphasized in my work is this idea that if you look at daily life and you look at the activities of women and you get away somewhat from visual images and sources that are elite-dominated and that are driven by a Mexica desire to promote their image of themselves in their world, you see another kind of picture.

As I started to work with central Mexican primary sources, there were documents about women all over the place. But scholarship did not seem to fully reflect the participation of women that I was beginning to see. One of the first clues that there might be some intriguing things to think about was in working with the Florentine Codex and seeing that the pictures, the visual images, did not always match up with the written text.

My interest in women really came from a time when a lot of anthropologists were influenced by feminism and there was a whole literature on the anthropology of women that was developing. Also, I became really attracted to [Michel] Foucault’s idea of multiple centers of power—that there isn’t a single system of power or domination within a society and that how power works within a society is very complex. I added to that the ideas of [Antonio] Gramsci and Raymond Williams—the ideas of both hegemony and resistance—and I brought all of those ideas back into the study of Aztec society and culture, Aztec women, and how that society and culture changed and was transformed in the colonial period.

The Aztecs: Patriarchal or Not?

[02:10:00] A lot of people argue that Aztec society had a kind of patrilineal bias, but the documents weren’t seeming to support that idea particularly well. If you actually look at early colonial testaments written by native people, more women were writing testaments than men (at least that have lasted in the historical record), and they sure seem to leave a lot of property to female relatives. That really interested me. How could I understand these kinship patterns? How could I understand household patterns? How could I understand inheritance patterns? Gender seemed to be central. As I thought about the colonial period and the late pre-Hispanic period, what I began to think about, and what I began to find evidence for, was a sort of parallel system or structure in inheritance and in power, in the organization of society and its institutions.

As I began to look at the documents more, I began to find more evidence of the ways in which women held positions of authority, that these were institutionally recognized, that they had access to resources that they could then pass along themselves.

Aztec society did not treat women as minors. When they married, they were not subsumed by their husbands’ social or legal personality or position in society. I saw a lot of evidence for parallelism in the institutions and in the structuring of society.

So then the question became: How could I explain this? I’ve argued in my writing, and I continue to believe it to be the case, that the roots of gender parallelism in Aztec society lie first in the kinship system, in which rights and inheritance can be traced through male or female links. There may be some bias towards tracing through men, but it’s not very strong.

War and Gender

[04:15:00] War is often associated in a lot of scholarly writing with male dominance, and there is no question that there is truth to that interpretation. War is thought of as a male activity, and it is thought of as an activity in which, as societies have become more warlike, they are thought to have become more male dominant. I think that there’s some evidence of that when you look at the ethnographic or the historical record worldwide.

War is clearly associated with male dominant behaviors in a variety of ways, but war also often opens up social space for women, and that’s because if men are warriors, they’re all fighting. Society has to keep on going. Economic activities have to keep on being carried out. Families have to keep on living, eating, having food, shelter, clothing to wear, tools to work with, etc., etc. The paradox of war therefore is that the ideology of war, the images of warfare, the glorification of male warriors, leads to a very male dominated picture of society, but that can be a one-sided picture.

The Aztecs glorified warfare and the male image of warfare, and Aztec art reflects that. At the same time warfare did open spaces for women in which they had power, had authority, had a lot of responsibility. So I think both things can be true at the same time. You can have a society in which the images are very male dominated, yet the everyday reality of life is more complicated. And I think that reflects itself in the historical record, especially in colonial records in which the absence of men has been exacerbated by the conditions of conquest and the spread of epidemic disease. The documents seem to indicate that women were often left as the heads of households, and that their power and authority were enhanced to some extent in the early colonial period because of that.

Political Correctness?

[06:34:00] For me it’s increasingly troubling, this idea that there’s politicized scholarship, and then there’s other scholarship that somehow is not politicized and is, therefore, more legitimate. The “unpoliticized” scholarship is just as political and has been influenced just as much by the current of ideas that that scholar swims around in. I think it is true in studies of Mesoamerica that people speak past each other rather than engage each other, and I think that that reflects the state of scholarship, and it reflects the state of academic life, at least in the United States, in 1999.

There are those people, some are male, some are female, who are increasingly impatient with work that focuses solely on women. Sometimes it comes from a of “political correctness,” but sometimes it comes from feminist and gender scholars who do not think that you can look at women in isolation. And I am sympathetic to that idea to some extent because I feel that gender is a relational aspect of the human experience. That is, you can’t experience one’s self as a woman unless there are men—there’s got to be that other thing. I think that’s true of sexuality. I think it’s true with gender. I think it is true with race and ethnicity. All these things are relational; we can only see them because there’s something else that helps define them.

I continue to believe that in the past, as well as in the present, in Mesoamerica, in Mexico, in North America, in whichever part of the world you want to talk about, women’s experience is often ignored. A really gendered understanding of Mesoamerican societies has yet to take place.

On the other hand, I think the scholarship on women has opened up many new and important questions. At the site of Teotihuacan, for example, there is an increasing amount of writing that talks about the goddess. Well, when I was in graduate school, nobody even wrote about this goddess. Twenty years later people began to think about women’s experience and gendered representations, which are everywhere in Mesoamerican visual images.