Classroom Lesson Series  

“Nature Made Two Divisions”
Traditional Beliefs in Global Perspective


Beliefs in fundamental differences in character and natural abilities between the sexes occurred throughout time in many cultures. The subordination of women was felt to be a natural state. When challenged, the position was often strongly defended. Read this sampling of laws, advice and beliefs from diverse eras and parts of the world. Most of these quotes illuminate the harshest attitudes about women, which might not have applied to women in every class, and which might simply have been ignored. They nonetheless help explain the limited contributions of women in some areas, and the types of attitudes women have had to overcome. After reading ask:
  • What are some of the major restrictions on women?

  • What were some of the major beliefs about women that led to these restrictions?

  • Consider how beliefs such as these might have influenced women’s lives. In which spheres of life might they have been limited? In which honored?

  • Do any of these old attitudes and restrictions regarding women remain? Have you heard something similar regarding how one should behave? (It can be either advice you agreed with, or advice you did not). Is the advice different depending on if it is given to a boy or a girl? If so, which ones? Why do you think this is so?

“Instructing a woman is like holding a sack of sand whose sides have split open.”
- Ankhsheshong, scribe. Late Period Ancient Egypt

“Neither wives of lords, nor widows, nor Assyrian women who go out on the street, may have their heads uncovered.....when they go out on the street alone, they must veil themselves.”
- Middle Assyrian Law, 1383-1000 B.C.E.

“The deadly female race and tribe of wives who live with mortal men bring them harm....women are bad for men, and they conspire in wrong, and Zeus the Thunderer made it so.”
- Hesoid, Greek poet, 8th century B.C.E.

“A proper wife should be as obedient as a slave...The female is a female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities - a natural defectiveness.”
- Aristotle

“A woman...cultivates the skills required in the women’s quarters and has no ambition to manage affairs outside the house...She must follow the ‘three submissions.’ When she is young, she must submit to her parents. After her marriage, she must submit to her husband. When she is widowed, she must submit to her son.”
- “The Mother of Mencius,” Waring States, 475-221 B.C.E, China

“Women, even though they are of full age, because of their levity of mind shall be under guardianship.”
- The Twelve Tables, Rome, 450 B.C.E.

“No free woman who lives according to the law of the permitted to live under her own legal control, that is, to be legally competent...But she ought to remain under the control of some man or her king.”
- Lombard Law- 7th century C.E.

“You must be like the heart in the body. You must not leave the home...You must be like embers in the hearth.”
- Advice given Aztec girls at ceremonies honoring their birth.

“A women’s piety and seclusion are favors from God..If [a strange man] knocks at the door, it is not proper for the woman to answer him softly and easily because men’s hearts can be drawn to [women] for the most trifling [reason]...Women should not come in contact with a man even if he is blind.”
- Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, theologian-philosopher, 1056-1111 C.E.

“Women are as different from men as earth from the heaven. She depends on the light of her husband to shine.” and “Woman’s virginity and chastity are more important than her life.”
- NeoConfucian Sayings, China.

“If you have a son, you can say you have a descendant. But you cannot say thus, even if you have ten daughters.”
- Vietnamese proverb

“Even though you sleep intimately on the same bed and under the same cover with him, you must treat your husband as if he were your king.”
- Upper Class Confucian marriage manual, Vietnam

“There are only two places for a woman, the house and the grave”
- Pakistani proverb

“Women have long hair and a short mind.”
- Swedish proverb

“The best way to keep a woman is barefoot in the winter and pregnant in the summer”
- American proverb

“Bringing up a daughter is like manuring an and watering a plant for someone else’s courtyard”
- Telugu proverb

“A man without brains and a woman without a man will never stand on their own legs.”
- Estonian Proverb

“A husband is to his wife as a superior being is to an inferior, as perfect is to imperfect, as giver is to receiver...The husband gives his wife the child, and she receives it from him.”
- John Buridanus, 13th century

“Woman should learn neither to read or write, unless she is interested in taking vows, because women’s reading and writing has brought about many evils.”
- Philip of Novara, 13th century

“Ye husbands, a woman must be spared and borne with, the rather that she is the weaker vessel, of a frail heart, inconstant, and with a word soon stirred to wrath....Ye wives, as for your husbands, them must you obey, and cease from commanding, and perform subjection.”
- The “Homily on Matrimony,” authorized by Queen Elizabeth I, England to be read at the marriage ceremony.

“Women should remain at home, sit still, keep house, and bear and bring up children...If a woman grows weary and, at last, dies from childbearing, it matters not. Let her die from bearing - she is there to do it.”
- Martin Luther

“The search for abstract and speculative truths, principles, axioms in the sciences, and everything that lends to generalized ideas is not within the compass of women...their job is to apply the principles that men discover.”
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Education,” France, 1762

“ simple in your dress; work hard in your household; never attend the popular assemblies with the idea of speaking up.”
- Jacobin message, French Revolution, 1793

“Women...the second sex, inferior in every respect to the show them great reverence is extremely ridiculous, and lowers us in their eyes. When Nature made two divisions of the human race, she did not draw the line exactly through the middle. These divisions are polar and opposed to each other...the number two of the human race in Europe [should be] relegated to her natural place.”
- Arthur Schopenhauer, “On Woman,” 1851

“Bear always in mind your true situation and have the words of the apostle perpetually engraven on your heart. Your duty is submission....Your husband is, by the laws of God and of man, your superior; do not ever give him cause to remind you of it.”
- Early 19th century American minister counsel for brides

“If I were to plan with malicious hate the greatest curse I could conceive for women, if I would estrange them from the protection of men, and make them as far as possible loathsome and disgusting to man, I would favor the so-called reform which proposed to make doctors of them.”
- Editor of Buffalo Medical Journal, U.S.A., 1871

“Woman’s proper sphere is the family. There she is a sovereign queen. If we eliminate woman from every realm of public life, we do not do it in order to dishonor her, but in order that her honor may be restored to her.”
- Dr. Josef Goebbles, Nazi minister of propaganda and public enlightenment. Germany, 1934

Resource: “Never Marry a Woman With Big Feet: Women in Proverbs from Around the World,” Mineke Schipper, Yale University Press, 2003.

Women Speak Back: Words from Many Eras
  • Analyze each quote below to determine what it means. What problems did the individual speak out against?

  • Read loud one quote that surprised you. Discuss why. You might write the quotes on posters or card stock, and place around room, one per week

  • Research the historic context of the quote. Who was this woman? Does the quote tell us anything about the woman's personality? When and where did she (or they) live? What circumstances might have encouraged her to say these words? Does it tell us anything about the period she lived in?

  • For each quote, or selected quotes, ask: Could a man have said this? Why or why not? A slave? A peasant? Give your reason why or why not.

  • Select the quotes which have relevance for women in the world today.

“Why should we pay taxes when we do not share in the office, honors, military commands, nor, in short, the government, for which you fight between yourselves with such harmful result? You say ‘because it is wartime.’ When have there not been war?”
- Hortensia, speech to the Roman Forum, 42 BCE., Rome

"If it is true that men are better than women because they are stronger, why aren't our sumo wrestlers in the government?"
- Kishida Toshiko - Feminist, 19th century Japan

"My wish is to ride the tempest, tame the waves, kill the sharks. I will not resign myself to the usual lot of women who bow their heads and become concubines."
- Trieu Thi Trinh, Peasant who led an insurrection against Chinese invaders, 240 A.D. Vietnam

"We deny the right of any portion of the species to decide for another portion what is and what is not their 'proper sphere.' The proper sphere for all human beings is the largest and highest which they are able to attain to."
- Harriet Taylor Mill, 1850, England

"Who has forbidden women to engage in private and individual studies? Have they not a rational soul as men do?...I have this inclination to study and if it is evil I am not the one who formed me thus - I was born with it and with it I shall die."
- Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, nun, intellectual, author, 1681, Mexico

"Women have the right to mount the scaffold; they should likewise have the right to mount the rostrum."
- Olympe de Gouges, author of Declaration of Rights of Women, 1791, France

"Make women rational creatures, and free citizens, and they will quickly become good wives; - that is if men do not neglect the duties of husbands and fathers!"
- Mary Wollstonecraft, author A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792, England

“For woman, history is a lie and the truth will only appear once feminine observation and intelligence enter into it and, specifically, link it to women’s interests. ..because of her unceasing need to believe and feel, woman will in turn throw herself into unexplored territory, her own domain, from which she had been banished.”
- Henriette Wild, revolutionary voice for women’s rights to their own history, 1848, France

"The history of all times, and of today especially, teaches that...women will be forgotten if they forget to think about themselves."
- Louise Otto, (Luise Otto-Peters), Feminist, 1849, Germany

"Because man and woman are the complement of one another, we need woman's thought in national affairs to make a safe and stable government...Wither is a nation tending when brains count for less than bullion, and clowns made laws for queens?”
- Elizabeth Cady Stanton , 1869 U.S.A.

“I would renounce and disown my sex if the mission of women were reduced only to procreation. The mission of women in the world is much more grandiose and sublime; it is the one of teaching humankind, and in order to teach it is necessary to know.”
- Maria Eugenia Echenique, writer and educator, 1876, Argentina

“No more domestic “servitude” for women! No more inequality within the family!”
- Alexandra Kollantai, politician and author, 1918, U.S.S.R.

“Millions of women are asserting their right to voluntary motherhood. ...This is the fundamental revolt. It is for women the key to the temple of liberty.”
- Margaret Sanger, birth control advocate, 1920, U.S.A.

"Men have singled out women of outstanding merit and put them on a pedestal to avoid recognizing the capabilities of all women."
- Huda Shaarawi, writer and women's rights organizer, 1924, Egypt

"Women have always struggled with their men-folk for the abolition of slavery, the liberation of countries from colonialism, the dismantling of apartheid and the attainment of peace. It is now the turn of men to join women in their struggle for equality."
- Gertrude Mongella of Tanzania, Secretary General of US Fourth Conference on the World's Women, 1995

Lyn Reese is the author of all the information on this website
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