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READ: Women and Families in Classical Society

During the early period of the Song Dynasty, women had legal rights, property, and inheritance, though the rise of Neo-Confucianism resulted in the curtailing of women’s rights.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Fill out the Skimming for Gist section of the Three Close Reads Worksheet as you complete your first close read. As a reminder, this should be a quick process!

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

For this reading, you should be looking for unfamiliar vocabulary words, the major claim and key supporting details, and analysis and evidence. By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. Based on their written rules, which belief system gave more rights to women, Confucianism or Daoism? Give some examples.
  2. What do the authors mean when they say “kinship”?
  3. What factors determined differences between women’s lives within Chinese society?
  4. How were Imperial Rome and Han China similar in their treatment of women? How were they different?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

At the end of the third close read, respond to the following questions:
  1. Some historians argue that historically, paleolithic societies had high levels of gender equality. As societies became larger and more complex, that gender equality disappeared, women’s authority diminished, and their lives became worse. You’ve read a lot about empires, the largest form of complex society in this region. Do you agree that the evidence always, or predominantly, supports this assertion? Or, do you think that it doesn’t? Why or why not?
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Women and Families in Classical Society

By Eman M. Elshaikh and Rosie Friedland, revised by Eman M. Elshaikh
During the early period of the Song Dynasty, women had legal rights, property, and inheritance, though the rise of Neo-Confucianism resulted in the curtailing of women’s rights.
During the classical period, between 600 BCE and 600 CE, many influential belief systems developed and evolved into more complex institutions, which are established laws, practices, or customs. Institutions often influence how communities are organized. These institutions affected communities by altering 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 research from primary and secondary sources, we know that women exercised varying degrees of freedom and independence in the private and public worlds due to different belief systems, family relations, political contexts, and social classes.
The Chinese scholar Ban Zhao. By AKappa, public domain.

Belief systems

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. This is particularly true in 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.
Belief systemViews on womenPhilosophies
Confucianism in Han ChinaFilial piety required that people respect their elders and ancestors, especially male ones. The ideal role for women was to take care of a large household. Women typically didn’t have formal roles in Confucian life outside the home.Both Confucianism and Daoism have the concept of yin and yang, or duality. Women are seen as part of the yin: yielding, submissive, soft, etc. Men are seen as part of the yang: aggressive, powerful, etc.
Daoism in Han ChinaWomen were allowed to be priests and teachers in the Daoist tradition. In the classical Daoist text, the Daodejing, feminine characteristics such as fertility, softness, and submission are seen as positive and respected features.In Daoism, the female contribution as the yin is more respected than it is in Confucianism; it is seen as a part of nature. Daoism suggests that a softer, more yielding attitude may eventually lead to more favorable results.
Table 1: Table comparing views on women and philosophies in Confucianism and Daoism in Han China

Family and marriage

In many societies, women's primary roles revolved around motherhood and managing a household. While women in many historical contexts and different locations had this in common, there were significant differences in how women performed these roles depending on kinship relations. Kinship is a broad concept that 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 can be seen 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, Chinese thinkers of 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 paterfamilias—Latin for "the father of the family"—was legally responsible for the family unit.
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 few limits on their freedom. This suggests that formal roles for women were not always followed and that women often had 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 confined to the back rows of theaters and arenas, but they had more of a role in public life than their Han Chinese counterparts. Han women were mostly limited to the private, domestic sphere (the household). 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.
Formal legal statusEconomic powerRole in public life
Han ChinaFormally, women’s lives were controlled by male kin.Some women had wills and managed businesses.Women were mostly limited to private, segregated spaces
Imperial RomePaterfamilias was in charge of the women and children.Women could inherit and own property after a father’s death.Women could go out to dinner and visit public baths
Table 2: Table comparing the formal legal status, economic power, and roles in public life of women in Han China vs. 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.
Statue of Livia Drusilla, the wife of the Roman emperor Augustus, wearing a stola and palla. By Luis García, public domain.
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 more than just a moral one. Prostitutes and women of lower socioeconomic levels were also given fewer rights than women of a higher social status.
Author bios
Eman M. Elshaikh holds an MA in social sciences from and is pursuing a PhD at the University of Chicago, where she also teaches writing. She is a writer and researcher, and has taught K-12 and undergraduates in the US and in the Middle East. Eman was previously a World History Fellow at Khan Academy, where she worked closely with the College Board to develop curriculum for AP world history.
Rosie Friedland is a content contributor at Khan Academy. She has created materials for a variety of Khan Academy's test prep offerings, including free SAT prep in partnership with the College Board. Rosie has also worked on course materials for grammar, world history, US history, and early-grade English language arts.

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