Women in the Aztec Empire enjoyed a lot of rights and freedoms but since the Aztec Empire was a military empire, their role was nonetheless subordinate to men. Before the Aztec Empire emerged as a military empire, the relationship between men and women was mostly egalitarian but this kept changing as the emphasis increased on warfare. Women were not allowed any role in the military but they had doors of various other professions open to them. There were certain customs and traditions which they were expected to follow. But the women continued to play their part in the public life of the Aztec Empire and their role in religion also remained constant.
Marriage customs of the Aztec society were very different from modern times. In Aztec society, a man would ask for the hand of a woman through the city council instead of going directly to the woman’s family. The council determined if the man and women were suitable for each other. After determining the compatibility, the council would delegate the task of informing the woman’s family and other formalities would be the responsibility of a woman elder. Traditionally, Aztec men could only marry women from within their own clan. Although Aztec men could take multiple wives, the status of the first wife always remained higher in society and it was also she who had the right of a proper marriage ceremony. The family of the Aztec woman could take her back to their home if they discovered that her husband was not treating her well.
There were certain taboos and customs associated with pregnancy and child birth in Aztec society. For instance, it was forbidden for a pregnant Aztec woman to view the eclipse since it was thought that doing so could result in her giving birth to a monster. Further, eclipses were thought to cause miscarriages. Women were also forbidden from having excessive sexual intercourse during pregnancy as it could result in her giving birth to sickly baby. Other things that were forbidden to a pregnant woman included excessively hot sweat baths and the lifting heavy objects etc.
Childbirth was considered an honour for Aztec women and her status became similar to the status of ordinary men when they became warriors. Therefore if an Aztec woman died during the childbirth, her status was elevated to that of a goddess. During the childbirth, Aztec women would be nursed by a midwife. The midwife led the prayers during the childbirth to the goddess of childbirth called Tlazolteotl. Different mechanisms were used to ease the pain of a woman giving birth, this included placing a warm stone on her belly and giving her sedatives made of herbs. When the child was finally born, the midwife uttered battle chants praising the bravery of the mother who had been successful through the ordeal.
The main sphere of activity for an Aztec woman was her home and she was expected to take care of the household chores. This included various household activities such as spinning and weaving thread from cotton, taking care of the household pets, and cooking etc. An ordinary household loom strapped to the back and placed in the lap was used to weave cloth. Aztec women would sometimes pay a visit to the local market to sell the extra cloth, vegetables, or other goods from their home. One of the primary tasks for Aztec women was to grind maize into flour. This was the staple food of the Aztec people and was considered scared. Aztec women would also take care of the younger children at home and look after their initial education and upbringing.
While the main responsibility of Aztec women was to take care of the home, there was not any serious restriction on their taking part in public life, although they could not have any role in the military which was considered an exclusively male role. In the public sphere, Aztec women had opportunities to join various professions such as priesthood, doctor, sorceress, and others. In the profession of medicine, they had developed some ingenious ways of restoring health which many historians think were better than the European methods of that time. One of the most important professions for Aztec women was of midwife since this was an exclusive domain of the Aztec Women. Women also became professional weavers and worked as craftswomen, elaborate images of professional Aztec craftswomen have been found on Aztec codices. Additionally, Aztec women could also become prostitutes and courtesans since there were not any particular taboos attached with these professions.
Aztec women had an important role in Aztec religion and mythology. There were many goddesses in Aztec religion including one of the most important and powerful goddesses called Cihuacoatl. She was the goddess of earth as well as the supporter of women who died during childbirth. In Aztec mythology, Cihuacoatl gave birth to the sun everyday which sustained life on earth. On the other hand, she swallowed the sun every night, thus also giving birth to death. Other important goddesses in the Aztec religion included Chalchiuhtlicue who was the goddess of lakes and rivers, Chicomecoatl the goddess of maize, Mayahuel the goddess of Maguey (Aztec Plants), and Huixtocihuatl the goddess of salt. Aztec temples included both male and female priests and thus the role of women in Aztec religion remained important.
Women in Aztec society had a lot of rights and privileges during the initial stages of the kingdom but as Aztec society became more of a military empire, the status of women became subordinate to that of men. Nonetheless, women continued to enjoy certain rights such as taking part in various professions, even though their primary domain of activity remained as a home-keeper. Women were not allowed to take part in the military but Aztec women from the nobility could hold high administrative positions within government. Traditionally, Aztec women had their marriages arranged by the city council and elders of the clan. In religion, Aztec women had a high standing and a variety of goddesses were highly revered by the Aztec people.