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The spread of Islam, the openness of Christianity and Buddhism, the development of new empires based on wealth and acquisition of property, and the revitalization of neo-Confucianism impacted the status of women around the world. Continuing from the previous time period, restrictions on women’s freedoms depended on which caste or class they belonged to. At the upper-most levels, a woman could overcome the status of her gender and assume leadership roles if there was no male heir or if the male heir was very young. But generally, as societies became more urban and wealthy, women, especially those of the elite or upper classes had their freedoms further restricted even as their status in society rose. This can be seen in the increased veiling of women in the Islamic world, the custom of foot-binding in neo-Confucian China, and the young age of marriage in South Asia.

Trade and the arrival of new religions did not significantly change the role of women in African societies—as pastoral nomads many of the African societies were relatively egalitarian. Even when sedentary lifestyles developed, women had a great deal of freedom and societies were oftenmatrilineal and matriarchal. Women commanded a bride-price rather than having to give a dowry, and were considered a valuable source of wealth. “Mother of the King” was a political office in many African societies and women participated in specific religious rituals controlled solely by women. Although both Islam and Christianity found converts in Africa, women were less eager to convert than men and the practice of veiling was met with mixed reactions.

Changes in the status and role of women included access to more education as societies continued to prosper and interact. This is true of the Confucian cultures of China and Japan, where women were highly literate and expected to understand proper virtue and their role in the household. But overall, even when educated and wealthy, most women had far less power than their male counterparts and were subject to any number of cultural and legal restrictions.

Women’s Status in Ancient Societies





strict and patriarchal social divisions

equality in religion, but separate in mosque

strict patriarchal caste system

strict Confucian social order and guidelines for virtuous behavior

could inherit land and take oaths of vassalage, but property belonged to husband

received half inheritance of male children

child marriages

access to dowries and owned businesses

could bring a court case, but not participate in decision

testimony had less weight than male

practice of sati for widows

widow to remain with son; no property if remarried

division of labor; women in textiles


family textile labor

silk weaving as female occupation

Christian monogamy

concubines and seclusion in harems

marriage limited to caste members

concubines and seclusion in harems

education limited to upper class males

literate society

education limited

literate society, but state education limited to men

did not recognize illegitimate children

all children are seen as legitimate



veiling of upper class

veiling in public

purdah: veiling or seclusion


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