Another essay I wrote for class, this one using three given source documents (I have linked them in this essay) to read, then use as a basis to compare gender issues in Ancient times. I still think that looking at the past through a lens of modern sensibilities is a fallacy that leads to erroneous conclusions. But it can be very interesting to see just how little has changed, in a thousand years.
China, India, and Rome were all very different cultures, but the role of men and women in these foundational societies was in some ways the same as it was globally. The men were the public faces, the ones who wore the masks of leadership and war. The women were in the shadows, protected, sheltered, and expected to keep the home that the man could return to a sanctuary. From those similarities, when we look closer, we begin to see the differences in expectations and realities. Stereotypical roles can only be carried so far before they begin to fall apart under scrutiny.
In China, we read Ban Zhao’s Lessons for Women, written by an educated woman with a prestigious career, but her concerns are couched in terms for her daughters and sons to learn from. Be humble, she exhorts them. Be hard-working, and respect your elders. Husbands had to have the respect of their wives, she points out, or the wife will not be willing to do his bidding. Wives cannot fulfil their duties and give honor to the family if they are not worthy. Ban Zhao recommends that girls and boys receive the same educations, so they may understand their duties and respect one another on the same footing.
In India, the Psalms of the Sisters was written by Buddhist nuns who had left one life in search of moksha; the end of self in pursuit of nirvana. One who had been a lowly drudge, and now sat in the shade with no chores, happy in her gain of serenity. One who had been a predator, preying on men, now repented and hid her beauty to beg for food. Another who had been a beggar with no family for her support, and had found refuge in the company of the nuns. A woman who had shunned all her advantages to seek something beyond this world, when she had a religious experience. And finally a girl who had left her family when she decided to renounce her earthly personality for the teachings of the Buddha. All become equal in their membership of this Mendicant order. Unlike the Chinese women, the Indian women were more focused on their selves, their needs to seek piety, safety, or redemption than to serve family and seek duty and honor above all.
The Roman women, it seemed, were the same as the Chinese women in that they sought to care for their families, to be in the background influencing from afar rather than in the public eye. But under extraordinary circumstances Livy recorded that they were willing to stand up for themselves and the privileges they had voluntarily given up as a patriotic sacrifice, which had cruelly been extended far longer than necessary. Unwilling to be completely dependent on their husbands, they made a public protest to be able to wear the clothes they liked, and own as much money as they liked. Beseeching their husbands at home had been insufficient, they were not too proud to embarrass the men in the forum to make their cause known. They were being treated like slaves rather than valued, protected members of the family, and that they would not tolerate.
From the documents we see a brief snapshot, a single facet of the intricate relationship men and women had in the past. Perhaps we cannot gain a full understanding through the veil of time that has been drawn between now and then. But we can grasp at a feeling, an intuition, that the women of China valued education and duty above all. The women of India valued safety and their souls above all. And the women of Rome liked a good fight and would not allow themselves to become enslaved. We can be inspired to remember that in any circumstances, another has been there before us, and from them we can learn and better appreciate what is happening to us.