Women in Aztec civilization shared some equal opportunities. Aztec civilization saw the rise of a military culture that was closed off to women and made their role complementary to men. The status of Aztec women lasted until the 15th century, when Spanish conquest forced European norms onto the culture. However, many pre-Columbian norms survived and their legacy still remains.
The status of Aztec women changed throughout the history of the civilization. As emphasis on warfare increased, notions of egalitarianism became less important.
Aztec marriage practices were similar to those of other Mesoamerican civilizations such as the Mayans. Aztecs married at a later age, during their late teens and early twenties, whereas in Mayan culture it was not unusual for marriages to be arranged by parents for a son and daughter who were still children. Aztec marriages were initiated by the parents of the potential groom. After consulting with the extended kinship group, the parents would approach a professional matchmaker (ah atanzah), who would approach the potential bride's family. The parents of the young woman would advise the matchmaker whether or not they accepted the proposal. Brides were expected to be virgins before marriage, although young people of both sex were advised to be celibate.
The marriage celebration was a four-day event, and the wedding ceremony took place on the first day. The bride would wear fine robes. Her kinswomen would decorate her arms and legs with red feathers, and paint her face with a paste containing small shimmering crystals. The ceremony would take place at the house of the groom's parents. A fire would be lit in the hearth, and incense would be burned as an offering to the gods. The groom's parents would give presents (robes and mantles) to the bride's parents. The ritual for finalizing the marriage involved the matchmaker tying the groom's cape to the bride's skirt, and then the groom's mother would give the bride and groom each four mouthfuls of tamales. Four days of feasting followed the ceremony.
For the purpose of political, military or economic alliances marriages among Aztec nobles were arranged. For example, when Cosijoeza married Ahuitzotl's daughter to seal the alliance between the Aztecs and the Zapotecs in 1496. Aztec kings reportedly had dozens of wives and many children. However, polygamy was only a practice among the nobles of Aztec civilization; the majority of the population were monogamous.
Pregnancy and childbirth
Pregnant women in Aztec society had to observe a number of taboos. One was that she could not view an eclipse, or her fetus may transform into a monster. Eclipses were also associated with miscarriages. Frightening sights, lifting heavy objects, and excessively hot sweat baths were also associated with damaging the fetus. Women were encouraged to continue sexual intercourse until the seventh month of pregnancy, to prevent the birth of a sickly child.
Women delivering a baby were attended by a midwife. The midwife would lead prayers during the woman's labour to the goddess of childbirth, Tlazolteotl. A sedative drink made of herbs and grasses would be prepared by the midwife and given to the woman in labour, and a warm stone would also be laid on the pregnant woman's belly to ease her pain. When the baby was born, the midwife would make a series of battle cries, praising the mother who had fought through her labour to deliver the baby. Women who died during childbirth were given the same honour as a soldier who was slain in battle, and were sometimes portrayed as spirits known as cihuatete who were believed to have attacked adults and abducted children.
Umbilical cords were preserved. When a son reached adulthood, he would carry his to a distant battlefield and bury it, whereas a daughter buried hers next to the family's hearth.
Women and labor
Women mainly worked inside the home, spinning and weaving thread from cotton, henepen, or maquey agave. They used a handheld drop spindle, then wove cloth using a loom that they strapped to their backs and held in their laps. They were responsible for tending turkeys and dogs that were raised for meat. Extra cloth, vegetables or other items were taken by women to the nearest market to be sold or bartered for a needed item.
One of the most important roles of Aztec women in the home was to grind maize into flour for making tortillas, an important tradition for Mexican families today. The dried maize would have to be soaked in lime water. As part of Aztec etiquette, men ate before women.
Images in Aztec codices, ceramics and sculptures display the elaborate and colorful designs of Aztec weavers. There were regional textile specialties, with associated graphic designs. Most designs were geometric, with some regions specializing in textiles with animal and plant images. Cotton was generally used, and dyes came from blue clays, yellow ochres, and red came from insects living in nopal cacti. Purple was derived from the sea snail Purpura patula, similar to how the Phoenicians also derived purple dye used for royal robes from snails.
However, Aztec women were not allowed a role in the military. They could not be admitted into the military training school. This meant that women were denied access to one of the largest sources of wealth and prestige within Aztec society.
Women and Aztec religion and mythology
Fertility was considered to be part of the realm of the Aztec earth goddesses, particularly the mother goddess Tonantzin. Another earth goddess was Cihuacoatl, as well as a supporter of women who died during childbirth. Rain and earth goddesses were considered responsible for droughts when they were not properly appeased.
The Spanish conquest of Aztec territories decreased much of the indigenous population, through warfare and by bringing new diseases, such as smallpox, for which the Aztecs had no immunities. The population that did survive these threats was confronted by other profound attacks upon their culture in the form of Spanish institutions such as the Roman Catholic religion.
As early as 1529, the Spanish began coercively converting Aztecs to Catholicism. They focused on the Aztec nobility initially, to create an example for the other Aztecs to follow. Nobles such as Quetzalmacatzin, King of Amaquemecan (Chalco), were forced to choose one wife and abandon the others, to comply with the current Christian institution of marriage, which meant monogamy. Aztec polygamous arrangements, with secondary wives and children, were not legally recognized by the Spanish, who considered such women and children illegitimate and disinherited from claims to ranks or property. This also tore apart the political and economic fabric of Aztec culture, since noble marriages were made with political and territorial claims in mind.
Working demands became harsh for women after the Spanish arrived and the encomiendas were created. Aztec communities had already lost many men to war and epidemics, and the encomiendas meant that more men worked outside of their villages for the encomenderos. Traditional gender-based divisions of labour became irrelevant. Women no longer had men to do plowing, and were left to do all the agricultural tasks themselves, which included the planting and harvesting, as well as growing enough produce to meet the tribute demands of the encomiendas. . Over several generations, many young women left the rural areas to work as domestic servants or as market vendors in the cities. By the 17th century, Andean women were the majority of the market vendors in colonial cities such as La Paz (Bolivia), Cuzco (Peru), and Quito (Ecuador).
The new Spanish culture prohibited women working outside of their home as their priority was to raise children. Their independence as workers with paid occupations was ended by the Spanish, particularly in textile work. When the Spanish eventually set up industrial textile mills, they had only men working in the mills.