- As a general rule, women had less power than men in both Han China and Imperial Rome. Social and political structures were male dominated.
- Many women did not follow strict laws designed to govern their behavior; their lives were instead dictated by religious philosophies, political contexts, and socio-economic status.
During the classical period, between 600 BCE to 600 CE, many influential belief systems developed and evolved into more complex institutions, which are established laws, practices, or customs. These institutions affected social structures like family and marriage, which had a large impact on the lives of women and children.
During this period, women had comparatively less power than their male counterparts, but they still lived very diverse lives. Based on information gleaned from primary and secondary sources, we know that women exercised varying degrees of freedom and independence in the private and public world due to different belief systems, family relations, political contexts, and social classes.
Belief systems, philosophies, and religions may seem to exist simply in the world of ideas, but they have considerable effects on people’s daily lives. Over time, concepts become parts of institutions that include rules and expectations for how people relate to one another—particularly the way women live in relation to their male counterparts and to society in general.
For example, women in China experienced very different social roles under Confucianism and Daoism. Based on its written rules, Daoism gave more leeway for women to play active roles in religion and to make decisions about their lives. The written rules of Confucianism limited women’s power more severely, but it is unclear whether women actually abided by these rules in all cases. As with any religious or moral system, there is a difference between rules and how they are actually practiced.
Broadly speaking, what did Daoism offer to women that Confucianism did not?
What are some possible differences between the way women were supposed to behave in Confucian rules vs. how they actually behaved?
Family and marriage
In many societies, women’s primary roles revolved around motherhood and managing a household. While women in many different places and at different times had this in common, there were significant differences in how women performed these roles depending on kinship relations. Kinship is a broad concept which encompasses familial relationships, like those of common descent, blood relation, and marriage.
We can compare different kinship relations within one society. In Han China, a woman’s power in a particular household depended on how she related to the men in the family. This is exemplified in the Confucian principle of the three obediences. According to this principle, a woman’s first obedience is to her father before she is married, to her husband while she is married, and to her son after her husband dies. During the course of their lives, women were dependent on their male kin, but they had different levels of power depending on their age and influence over male family members. Mothers of influential older sons, for example, exercised far greater control over household affairs than a younger son’s new bride.
In this way, the Han dynasty understood the family as the core unit. Men were formally the heads of the family unit and exercised legal power over the women and children in the household. Imperial Rome was similar in that the pater familias—Latin for “the father of the family”—was legally responsible for the family unit.
Interestingly, in both societies, women exercised some legal power. For example, Roman women could own property and inherit after the deaths of their fathers. In Han China, the wills of women reveal that some older women held property, inherited assets, and managed businesses. Similarly, despite strict laws, both elite and ordinary women in Imperial Rome regularly bought and sold property with apparently very little constraint on their freedom. This suggests that formal roles for women were not always followed, and that women wielded informal power.
While the two societies share these similarities, they were different in other significant ways. For example, while women in Han China were mostly limited to separate women’s spaces, Roman homes were not formally segregated. Roman women were relegated to back rows of theatres and arenas, but they had more of a role in public life than their Han China counterparts, who were mostly limited to the private, domestic sphere. This can be seen in the fact that Roman women often dined with men and visited public baths, something women in Han China would not have been permitted to do.
What similarities did women in Han China and Imperial Rome have when it came to their economic power?
What is one way in which the lives of women in Han China were, broadly speaking, different from those of women in Imperial Rome?
Class and social hierarchy
Because the majority of primary sources about women’s lives come from wealthy people, scholars don’t always know how the lives of families living in poverty played out. However, we can deduce that there were differences between elite and common women. In Han China, the ability to keep a large household with lots of family members was highly valued, but this Confucian ideal was not possible for families with fewer economic resources who could only feed a limited number of people. Men with less money often sold their daughters as servants and kept their more valuable male children at home.
In Imperial Rome, women of different socioeconomic classes were distinguished by clothing style. Women with more socioeconomic power wore a long dress, or stola, and a loose coat, called a palla. They also wore ties in their hair. Prostitutes wore togas. If a woman of a higher socioeconomic class was found guilty of adultery, one of the punishments was to wear a toga. The distinction Imperial Roman society made between these two groups was not just a moral one; prostitutes and women of lower socioeconomic levels were also given fewer rights than women of a higher social status.
How might the life of a woman living in poverty in Han China have differed from the life of a woman with many economic resources in the same time and place?
Want to join the conversation?
- In those years, Did any women rebel and wanted to be worth the same as men?(11 votes)
- After some research, I can conclude that there are no records of such an event, or if there is, I missed. However, it is very possible that Roman women were content with their lifestyle, and had no reason to rebel against their limited freedom. After all, they had a lot more freedom than most Greek women, and definitely more freedom than the women from Han China.(6 votes)
- Were daughters allowed to be educated? How much freedom did they have in comparison to their mothers?(6 votes)
- I like the answer offered by baysim. It speaks to the idea of formal training in things like reading, philosophy, history and such. These areas were not open to daughters. BUT, you asked about "educated", which is a broader field than "sitting with a teacher for the purpose of being taught". If we include whenever someone told the stories of the constellations, or the myths about the gods, or the proper way to do a particular job as education, then daughters were certainly educated, just not in the same things as the sons, and not with the same "career tracks" open to them further on.(3 votes)
- How were male adulterers in Imperial Rome treated or punished?(5 votes)
- The adulterer had half his property taken away from him, and he was banished to some prison island. My source is: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/SMIGRA*/Adulterium.html(4 votes)
- In Rome, were only the elite women allowed to be in public spaces, or all women?(4 votes)
- All woman were able to go to public spaces, like public baths, but most of the elite woman would say have a bath in their home instead of going to the public baths.(2 votes)
- 1) Women in Han China are told to experience informal freedom like engaging in trade. So, does that mean that there weren't punishments for women who didn't abide by the social laws or they had to do a "bigger crime" than involving in trade?
2) From the article, I understand that in Rome there were no punishments for men found guilty of adultery. Correct?(2 votes)
- What a state doesn't punish, a family often does. What a state won't regulate, a family often will. Consider the kinds of things that happen to family members of any and all genders in the 21st century regarding sexual expression.(3 votes)
- how does this compare to other parts of the world, like Africa, Europe, or the middle east.(3 votes)
- Ok.. So, in section Family and marriage chapter 2. It says that a woman obeys her father, then her husband (when married), then her son (When husband dies). But what if she has no sons, her husband and father die. Who does she obey next?(3 votes)
- Are there sources about the religious roles women held in Daoist Han China?(2 votes)
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