In the very earliest Sumerian texts, particularly those from roughly 3000 to 2500 BC, women are everywhere. Early histories not only record the names of numerous female rulers, but make clear that women were well represented among the ranks of doctors, merchants, scribes, and public officials, and generally free to take part in all aspects of public life.
One cannot speak of full gender equality: men still outnumbered women in all these areas. Still, one gets the sense of a society not so different than that which prevails in much of the developed world today.
Over the course of the next thousand years or so, all this changes. The place of women in civic life erodes; gradually, the more familiar patriarchal pattern takes shape, with its emphasis on chastity and premarital virginity, a weakening and eventually wholesale disappearance of women’s role in government and the liberal professions, and the loss of women’s independent legal status, which renders them wards of their husbands.
By the end of the Bronze Age, around 1200 BC, we begin to see large numbers of women sequestered away in harems and (in some places, at least) subjected to obligatory veiling.
A similar gradual restriction on women’s freedoms can be observed in India and China.
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I occasionally add a personal note to them.
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