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Women's Lives in Aztec Culture

Originally, women wove and worked only for their families, but as chiefdoms and small kingdoms developed, the local rulers began to demand tribute (taxes), largely demanded in the form of cloth, which was manufactured almost exclusively by women. Then, as the Aztec culture and empire spread, people were forced to pay more and more in tribute to the Aztec leaders, which could be paid in labor or military service by men and in cloth and other goods by women. The women's cloth was made from agave fibers and was in high demand as commoners were allowed nothing else to wear. As the politics of Aztec culture became more complex, the demand for tribute increased, and men began taking additional wives so that more cloth could be produced by more hands. Documentation suggests that this led to strained and poor relationships within the family compound. Female slavery also increases as the Aztec culture grows. 

The Aztecs were always waging war, as they needed sacrificial victims, tribute, and slaves. Women slaves performed household tasks, especially weaving, freeing the Aztec women for other tasks. Female slaves were also used as concubines and mothered children who became slaves, too. Eventually the demand for cloth tribute became so high that men began to spin--the most female-identified task in ancient Mexico--as well. Women and men continued to make cloth until the colonial period when the Spanish built textile mills, forcing the men and not the women, because of their gender expectations, to work in cloth production.

Elizabeth Brumfield has studied the artifacts of weaving and cooking in and near the Aztec capital and has come to the conclusion that women adapted their weaving as the demand for more and more tribute increased; they changed spindle size and shapes and changed what and how they cooked in order to feed their families, who were in need of increasingly portable food, as they might labor away from home.

Women in the Workforce

Apart from religious jobs, women in the Aztec empire could be merchants, who might organize and administer expeditions for trade--profiting from them--although it is not known if the women themselves could go on the trips. Women might also be venders in the market, as many artifacts show them selling food, cloth, and other items in the market. Women even held positions as official referees to resolve and trade disputes that arose in the marketplace.

Women also had positions as prostitutes and courtesans, but they do not seem to have been social outcasts. Margaret Arvey has shown that the Florentine Codex, a treatise on the ancient Aztecs, depicts the prostitutes negatively, from the perspective of the European mindset. In fact, the Aztec courtesans served young noble warriors and danced with them at ritual celebrations, suggesting that they had an elevated status in their own society. The Europeans criticized these women for bathing, painting their faces, and wearing brightly colored clothing, signs of a fallen European woman, rather than as behavior executed by all the Aztec women, whether prostitute or not.

Aztec women might also be curers or midwives. Although the Spanish tried to quell the religious parts of the midwives' practices, believing it at best distracted from the one true Christian God and at worst that it was witchcraft, they were still impressed by the midwives' skill. Documents from the Spanish accounts indicate that the women healers were more highly skilled than European doctors; however, as most accounts are written by elite Spanish men, they gloss over or do not describe at all the techniques that the women used. Thus, much of the cultural knowledge of these women was lost, especially as the Spanish began to repress the religion of the Aztecs and prosecute and persecute women healers as witches. Aztec medicines, made from native plants, are documented to have been able to bring on menstruation or to hasten labor. Aztec women may also have pioneered in prenatal care, as records indicate they began ministering to pregnant women in their seven months. 

There is even evidence that at least one Aztec woman, likely a daughter of a noble family, was a scribe for an emperor. It is likely, too, that the noble Aztec women would have needed scribes and would have thus used females to act as their secretaries and bookkeepers.