VI. CHANGES AND CONTINUITIES IN THE ROLE OF WOMEN
A number of powerful women took charge of the most powerful empires of this time. These included Elizabeth I of England, Isabella of Spain, and Nur Jahan of Mughal, India. With the exception of Elizabeth, who chose never to marry, most of these women shared power with their husbands. And in spite of the great power and visibility of these few elite women, for the most part, the status and freedoms of women changed little from the previous period—legally they were often considered property of their husbands, inherited less than sons or brothers, and had few rights in legal or political spheres.
The biggest change in the lives of women came from the mixing of previously unknown cultures. The result of global exploration and colonization, these new relationships produced offspring considered mixed or mestizo. Racial categories began to be more widely used in determining status or class hierarchy, and restrictions developed regarding marriages and legal relationships between classes. Changes in trade and production also placed a greater premium on male labor and jobs that women had traditionally held, like textile weaving, were increasing dominated by men.
Some regions of the world served as exceptions to these general patterns, but were still impacted by the global interactions. The forced migration of males in African societies resulted in a disproportionate number of females left behind in what were already matrilineal societies. These numbers reinforced polygyny or multiple marriages. Although large numbers of men also migrated from Europe, the predominately Christian societies did not allow multiple marriages, and as the number of unmarried women increased this created a problem in societies that regarded marriage as the goal of all women.
The non-European areas of the world tended to regard older or widowed women with both respect and superstition. In both Africa and many Native American societies, councils of older women were part of the political decision making process. However, older women were also to be feared as they couldn’t necessarily be controlled. It was this need for control that led to a continuation of Neo-Confucianism values in eastern Asia. This social philosophy designated proper roles and virtues for women within the home with the understanding that if the home were stable so was the state.
In Europe, the revolutionary new ideas of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment included women at least nominally. Education was more widely available to all classes, but opportunities for girls lagged far behind those of boys, and the highest levels of education were only open to males. Even the less-hierarchical new Protestant religions limited the roles of women to wife and mother and did not have convents or monastic systems as alternatives to traditional roles. Eventually, the Protestant countries grew even more puritanical in their regulation of sex, marriage, and illegitimacy.