The Truth Behind the Gender Roles in Nahua and Mayan Civilizations

There is a great deal of mythology that surrounds the culture of the Nahua and Mayan peoples. Both cultures have been perceived as societies that do not value the worth of women because both Mayans and Nahuas (Aztecs) have illustrated evidence of sacrificing virgin girls, although most of the time the sacrifices were actually male. Under this myth there is a much more complex structure to the role of women in both Nahua and Yucatan Mayan society. Before the colonization of both societies by the Spanish conquistadors, there was a dualism in society and both men and women had nearly equal value in indigenous culture.

However, this structure of gender roles changes throughout the conquest. The Spanish affected the Mayans and Nahua people politically, economically, and socially. Ultimately, after the conquest the Maya women overall had a more positive outcome economically and socially from the Spanish Conquest and this allowed for the continued survival and preservation of Mayan culture.

To understand the impact of the Spanish conquest on gender roles in both Maya and Nahua societies, the role of women in each society must be understood from a pre-colonial perspective.

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A more specific time period to observe is the period right before the conquest from 1450 to 1519. During this time period Nahua women were powerful and considered essential in creating a “well-balanced and ordered society.” Nahua communities practiced a dual reciprocating society in which both men and women had nearly equal opportunities for economic and social advancement. In this pre-colonial society, women and men were equal contributors to the socioeconomic Nahua communities.

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Religiously, men and women had similar expectations for them—to not be promiscuous and live a balanced life. Nahua women had the ability to be socioeconomically mobile. The market activity around them opened up a portal to learning new trades.Women had the freedom and power to hold administrative positions in the marketplace, socially, and religiously. Friar Bernardino de Sahagún documented this advancement of women: “[Aztec women] would have surplus food for others to eat; she would invite others to feast…success would be her dealings around the marketplace [and] in the place[s] of business.” Additionally, Nahua women were allowed the rights to their family’s inheritances and the rights to regulate certain activities in their communities. Pre-colonial Nahua women were much more powerful than it might have appeared to Spanish conquistadors when they first appeared in Nahua Aztec communities.

Similar to the Nahua women, Mayan women held important positions in their communities. Joyce states in her ethnography that: “A more active, complementary female role in ritual is explicitly recorded...Women's role in ritual within the house was clearly important...and a complement to that of men.” In her writings, Joyce asserts that although the role of men and women vary in Mayan society, their positions are equally important to the success and organization of the community. Mayan men would fight, hunt and sacrifice for the community while women were in charge of taking care of the home, art, and the production of food and textiles. The women would turn the raw materials that men found into products that they traded, therefore making them essential to the economic survival of the Yucatan Mayan society in Mexico. Women played an important part in Mayan religion as they performed many spiritual rituals. Alfred Tozzer, a Maya translator documents one of these rituals: “…they anoint with the blue bitumen, which they made, all the appliances of their pursuits, from the priest to the spindles of the women.” This ritual was significant in Mayan communities because it insured that the children that went through the ceremony would be expert craftsmen. Before the Spanish conquest, both Mayan and Nahua women had similar roles in their communities with similar opportunities for socioeconomic advancement. However, gender roles slowly begin to change throughout and after the Spanish conquest.

Nahua women appeared to be in good standing politically during the Spanish conquest. In Nahua communities, men began to disappear in large numbers due to warfare and the spread of disease brought to Mexico by the Spanish. In the beginning of the conquest, Nahua women were able to hold powerful political positions and continue to preserve the customs and traditions of their ancestors. The laws that the Spanish implemented in the Nahuatl communities were not steadfast in the early 16th century, and there was still enough pliability that allowed for women to hold political positions in their communities. This political pliability allowed for Nahua women to affect the mentality around their communities because they controlled production in the beginning of the colonial era.

Comparatively, Mayan women were not allowed to run for political offices during and after the conquest. Restall explains in his ethnography that during the colonial period there is evidence of Yucatan Maya being a patriarchy. He emphasizes the fact that although women were known to be landowners and have similar roles to men, they were specifically excluded from cabildo politics. Women were not allowed to be involved in organizing society, writing laws or the religious hierarchy. Mayan women were somewhat forced to be illiterate during the colonial period by the Spanish because they were excluded from holding positions in the hierarchy of society.

Economically, both Nahua and Mayan women held similar positions during the colonial period. Both Mayan and Nahua women were responsible for work in the home, gardening, weaving and turning raw material into products. This process still left women dominant in the economic process although the documentation from the colonial period attempts to disregard the importance of women. In Restall’s writings, he explains that although many Mayan women were known to hold, sell, and buy land, it often went documented excluding their names. Women were never referred to as being the owners of a field or forest. The documents would reference their neighbor and the direction that the woman was to her neighbor. Despite Nahua women being responsible for production and previously reaping the profit from it, the Spanish attempted to take advantage of this production. In the latter 16th century, the law of the Spanish took more of a hold on Nahua society. However, this was not by choice. The personal labor service law created by the Spanish essentially created slavery within the Nahua people and they were forced to work and produce items for the Spanish with no payment. Mayan women were not faced with labor service laws as intensely as Nahua people as many Mayan communities tried to move away from the sphere of Spanish influence.

Although Nahua women appeared to be successful during the conquest, after the conquest the social fabric of Nahuatl communities began to change. The population of men in Nahuatl communities began to equalize with the amount of women. The more that men began to repopulate in these communities, the less social and religious significance women had. By the end of the 16th century the Spanish implemented a stricter regimen that made Nahua people become Christian or at least follow Christian rules. Women were expected to be subordinate to men and this decreased their previous high value in their societies. Contrary to the expectations of Nahua women, Yucatan Mayan women had less strict religious expectations. Women were expected to be virgins when they married, the expectation for them to be subordinate to men was not as prominent as it was in Nahua communities. Women in Mayan communities were also the link between the Spaniards and the leaders of their communities socially. This made them more valuable and they lived lives that were nearly parallel to those of Spanish women, although they were not completely equal socially. There was more freedom for Nahua women socially after the conquest, even though they were not allowed to run for political offices.

The Spanish conquest challenged the women of both Nahua and Mayan communities. Despite that many people group indigenous women together, the evolution of these separate groups of women through the Spanish conquest varied. Mayan women were more adamant about preserving their social status through and after the conquest and this was supported by the reciprocal duality that both men and women had in these Mayan communities. Once the population of men started to increase in Nahua communities after the Spanish conquest, women began to lose their power in religious and social hierarchies. Both groups of women were still capable of advancing economically, however, it was still difficult for both groups to be recognized as owners of land. The struggle for equality continues for many years past the conquest and in more contemporary times, the Spanish conquest seemed to have an opposite effect than it intended. Since the Spanish occupation, both Nahua and Maya communities have strived to be more adamant about preserving their native cultures and customs and the culture has grown stronger since the beginning of the 20th century. Despite its negative effects, the Spanish conquest in a way has made the women of both Mayan and Nahuatl communities become stronger. Through the conquest, the contemporary social fabric was defined for each community.

Updated: Feb 02, 2024
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The Truth Behind the Gender Roles in Nahua and Mayan Civilizations. (2024, Feb 04). Retrieved from

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