Women’s work in the first civilisations

Issue: 172

Rosemarie Nünning

“Be sure to send me the equivalent of my cloth in silver so that I can buy barley.”

A woman in Assur to her husband in a distant trading colony, about 1900 BCE.

“You are perpetually pressing oil, grinding barley, baking big breads. Labourer, child of misery, offspring of paupers.”

From a fictional quarrel between ancient Babylonian women, about 1800 BCE.

The work performed by women, particularly work in the household and in the health sector, has received much attention in feminist and left-wing debate in recent years.1 Much of this has been subsumed under the concept of “reproductive labour”. With the coronavirus pandemic, the many women working in supermarkets, department stores and mail-order companies have also came to the fore; in addition, of course, there are millions of women in administration, industry and the skilled trades. The discussion about care work has often led to these latter women workers being forgotten. This conveys an image that women are mainly responsible for “reproductive” activities, both within and outside the family, and that this is the chief result of the oppression of women that arose many thousands of years ago.

If we look at the history of women’s work, a different picture emerges. The family, or rather the private household, was a place of production and reproduction from the very earliest civilisations until the advent of modern industrialisation. Almost all women were not only involved in caregiving, but also productive labour—and not just in the household. This article aims to show the diversity of women’s work in ancient Mesopotamia, an early civilisation about which we have written evidence.

In Marxist theory, the work of Friedrich Engels plays a crucial role in understanding the emergence of women’s oppression. His approach will therefore be briefly outlined here, and it will then be shown that his theory is essentially confirmed by the historical findings.

“The world-historic defeat of the female sex”

Engels was one of the first to grasp that the emergence of women’s oppression was inseparable from the emergence of class society. In “primitive communist societies”, as Engels and Karl Marx referred to classless societies, no surplus of food or other goods was yet being produced that could have been privately appropriated. There was no domination in these small roaming and foraging groups and also no separation between a public and a private sphere. Procurement of materials and food, and their utilisation, processing and consumption, were a “public and socially necessary industry”, Engels explained.2 Production and the reproduction of life coincided and were inseparable.

There was a limited division of labour between women and men in these societies. Women usually stayed closer to their small hunter-gatherer groups due to the breastfeeding, care and protection required by small children. However, this did not result in discrimination. Every activity was necessary. These societies were “egalitarian” and there was as yet no concept of “family”. The Marxist anthropologist Eleanor Burke Leacock, among others, was able to confirm this through field research in the 1950s and 1960s among the Montagnais-Naskapi, a Canadian indigenous people.3

It was only with the development of the means of production and the creation of a social surplus that the gendered division of labour took on a different character. The increase in social productivity occured above all in the expanded domain of men’s activities. This resulted in one-sided control of the surplus product generated by men. In societies based on soil cultivation and animal husbandry, the best known example of this is the ox plough, with its heavy harness, iron ploughshare and seeder. The introduction of this tool meant that agricultural production could be increased considerably, but it was primarily operated by men.4

With the development of private property, class society and male domination, the family finally emerged as a private sphere separate from the public domain. In it, the “patriarchal” power of a male head of the household—the father or husband—ruled over all members of the household, whether wives, daughters, sons, and male and female servants. Engels argued that, through a long historical process, women were subjected to the dictates of monogamy in order to produce a rightful heir “of undisputed paternity” who would be entitled to inherit privately accumulated wealth.5 “Patriarchy” thus had a material base; it was an institution that came into being at a certain time, during a certain phase of economic and social development. It was not, as it is usually understood today, an eternal opposition and perpetual power imbalance between men and women.

Engels described the “world-historic defeat of the female sex” as follows: “The man took command in the home as well; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude; she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children”.6 This polemical exaggeration is often quoted, but it also leads to the misunderstanding that production was now only public and the domain of men, while reproduction was private and the domain of women.

Whether this was the case shall be examined below. The question also arises as to what it means to speak of women’s oppression and patriarchy in a class society. After all, the family that emerged had to take on a very different character depending on the class to which it belonged. Although patriachal control had great significance for those who had inheritable wealth, it could only ever be of qualified significance for the poor in society, both men and women.

The household of the affluent

In Mesopotamia, a land situated between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is now Iraq and surrounding countries, a culture began to develop around 6,000 years ago that the Marxist anthropologist Vere Gordon Childe described as an “urban revolution”.7 On the economic foundation of animal husbandry and the cultivation of crops, city-states emerged with private property, dominated by the institutional property of a temple and palace. With burgeoning economic activity and a more complex social structure, an extensive written culture emerged. Hundreds of thousands of burnt clay tablets inscripted with the cuneiform script have come down to us. These include the bookkeeping of the temple and palace economies concerning labour and the allocation of materials and provisions, and later inventories and communications from private households were also found. Many of these artefacts date from around 4,000 years ago. Here we find references to life at that time, and to labour and the organisation of labour.

Let us start with the wealthier patriarchal household. This should be regarded as a socio-economic unit, in a similar vein to the “oikos” in Classical Greek society, which included domestic slaves, cattle and land. The house complex could have been well over 100 square metres, although the size of the house did not mean that there was proportionately more space available per person in comparison with smaller houses.8 This household was a place of consumption, reproduction and production. Although, roughly speaking, men were responsible for generating raw materials and possibly trading goods made from them, it was women’s responsibility to process these materials.9 In these societies, women were essentially allocated to the “household” within the framework of the social division of labour. Nonetheless, they were not only “reproductively” active; their work was not confined to cooking, cleaning, washing and raising children. Moroever, they did not only work inside the household.

As surplus product increased in the first civilisations of Mesopotamia, the productive role of women in the richer patriarchal household also expanded. For instance, if more barley was harvested, more goods could be produced in the household. Surplus barley made it possible for women to brew beer, which could both meet their own needs and allow them to run taverns as a household-related activity. With larger flocks of sheep and improved breeding, there was more wool to be spun and woven into yarn and cloth. This was primarily the work of women, perhaps involving the daughters and one or two slaves. In richer houses, where there might be as many as a couple of dozen weavers, the “woman of the house” was the director of this production. Surplus cloth was often taken by men on months-long trading expeditions, while the wives, who had knowledge of manufacturing techniques and the different quality of the fabrics produced, ran the business at home.

This is very well documented for the city-state of Assur in northern Mesopotamia, which maintained trade relations with Kanesh in Anatolia, a thousand kilometres away. Assyrian merchants stayed for weeks or months in this trading colony. In Kanesh, archaeologists have discovered more than 22,000 clay tablets that were originally kept in the households of the merchant quarter.

From such documents, historian Allison Thomason has listed 29 activities performed by 80 women who lived in Assur about 3,900 years ago.10 Among the activities of these wives left behind in Assur were writing letters, hiring scribes, buying wool, agreeing contracts with wool fullers and dyers, producing textiles, negotiating with merchants, and assembling donkey caravans. They occasionally even undertook journeys on their own, buying or selling property including slaves and houses. They also expected the husband to send a payment, usually in the form of silver, in exchange for their produce and to enable them to run the household. This is recorded on a clay tablet on which Lamassi, a woman in Assur, wrote to her husband in Kanesh: “Be sure to send me the equivalent of my cloth in silver so that I can buy barley!11 Only at the end of her list of these women’s activities does Thomason mention caring for children and the elderly.

Due to their long absences, Assyrian merchants in the trading colony of Kanesh were allowed to marry a second wife, though she would not be equal to the first. In addition to her activities in the house, there is evidence that this woman participated in her husband’s commercial business, agriculture and livestock breeding. Textile production was apparently not part of her duties; that remained the prerogative of the first wife in Assur. However, according to Assyriologist Cécile Michel, she was responsible for collecting debts, buying oxen and raising pigs.12 In light of these findings, Thomason also asks how meaningful the distinction between “private” and “public” really is when many women’s activities were clearly intertwined with the “public” sphere and women were very visible there.13

Housing and children

By their very nature, rich households are in the minority in a class society. On average, households in the Mesopotamian city-states of the time are estimated to have been small, with household units of 30 to 60 square metres.14 Here a family consisted of a man, a woman and a couple of children. About 4,000 years ago, during the last period of the Sumerian city of Ur (known as the “third dynasty” or “Ur-III” period), a family with three sons and two daughters is documented; another with two daughters and a son; and a widow with five children.15 On the basis of “ration lists”, it has been possible to identify some single-person units in the city of Nabada (now called Tell Beydar) in north eastern Syria, but it is estimated that on average four to five people belonged to a household.16 These small households can hardly be considered economic units. Those who lived in them, including the children old enough to work, were primarily in the service of the palace and temple.

In this context, it is worth pointing out a somewhat misleading argument put forward by Childe. He argued that the transition from foraging to arable farming removed the need to limit the number of children, because each child was also then seen as a future labourer, often deployable at a young age.17 However, although permanent settlement and improved means of production did lead to population growth, this was still necessarily limited. In the cramped living conditions of the early cities, a large number of children was not something to which to aspire. Moreover, richer households could always fall back on slaves, as Engels had already pointed out, and thus were not reliant on the labour of their children.18 Nevertheless, Bertrand Lafont suggests it was more likely that a larger number of children would be found in the families of the rulers.19 Marten Stol suggests three children as the average and six to eight in higher-ranking families.20

Indeed, the Assyriologist Claudia Wunsch writes that it was common for children to be abandoned on the street when the parents faced hardship. This also happened in cases when the child was not “legitimate”, that is, either not fathered by the husband or otherwise conceived outside marriage.21 In a period without effective birth control, abandonment was nothing less than a social institution. Those who could afford the expense entailed in raising a foundling could adopt it in order to have an heir, as a future source of labour or to materially care for them in their old age. In the presence of witnesses, it was acknowledged as one’s own child and described with the phrase “taken from the mouth of a dog”, meaning “picked up from the street”.22

Where wealth was to be inherited, children were of primary importance for succession, as Engels correctly recognised. The whole construction of the patriarchal household revolved around this issue. According to Masamichi Yamada, when there were no male heirs, sometimes daughters were even given the official legal status of “man and woman”, “woman and man”, “man” or “son” in order to be able to inherit their father’s estate.23 In the absence of any offspring, there was also the possibility of adopting children.

The historian Ilse Seibert also describes the occasional practice of “dedicating” a daughter to the temple with a dowry in order to secure family property. She had to remain childless and live in a separate temple quarter. She was able to run her own business, and what wealth she accumulated later reverted to her household of origin, as she had no heir.24

Only secondarily were children considered a source of labour, though they were used as such at an early stage. Their third important function was to provide material security to their parents when they became elderly.

Female millers and weavers

Where did women—and men and children—without significant households of their own work in these early cities? Both men and women were part of the permanent workforce of the temple, palace and governor’s household. These workforces also included prisoners of war, paupers and even entire families who found themselves in debt bondage. Large-scale economic units demanded services from the population in return for the allocation of food, wool, clothing and other things. They had workshops and other workspaces. In particular, they deployed women in the processing of grain and wool. Stol identifies 90 female millers in the palace of Ebla, in northern Syria, who had to grind flour.25 In Tell Gudeda, also in northern Syria, a room with 40 querns—a heavy handmill made up of two stones—was found.26 This was hard, physical work that women had to carry out in groups.

An even larger sphere of women’s work was weaving. Administrative records tell us over 4,000 women were employed in the weaving industry in the village of Guabba, belonging to the city-state of Lagash, in the south of modern Iraq. About 1,800 children, presumably those of the women, and a few men were also employed.27 In the weaving mill at Girsu, a city not far from Lagash, there were more than 1,000 women and about 600 children.28 This sector, dominated by women’s work, was the responsibility of the “Lady of Girsu”, the wife of the city’s ruler. This reflects a sexual division of labour at the highest levels of society, and similar social relations also pertained in other cities.29 Herds and cattle, on the other hand, belonged predominantly to the domain of the male rulers. This division of labour was also reflected in Babylonian mythology. Although the god Enki created the foundations of civilisation—water, irrigation, agriculture and livestock, brick-making and laws—the goddess Uttu was responsible for weaving. Within this mythological narrative, weaving was celebrated as an important step in making people into true human beings since the production of clothes allowed them to overcome nakedness.30

The workers in the weaving establishments were grouped together in larger units with male, or sometimes even female, overseers. Children worked from the age of five or six, and children’s rations were available from the temple for shepherds’ assistants and other young servants. In his seminal work on the Neo-Sumerian textile industry, Hartmut Waetzold estimates the length of the working day at about 12 hours. It is possible that accommodation was provided, since workers were sometimes transferred to other areas, and there may have also been direct provision of food.31 There is evidence of large bakeries such as that in Nabada from about 4,500 years ago. Right next to a temple there were three rooms; one was used for grinding grain, and the other two were equipped with large ovens.32 Remains of eleven bread ovens were found in one of the large rooms.33 There is some evidence that bread could also be purchased.

There was a variety of other activities carried out by women outside the home. Just like men, their tasks often varied. They pressed oil, hauled bricks, towed transport boats along the canals, loaded and unloaded ships, and guarded the gates. Women carried out field and dike work, as well as plucking and combing sheep to obtain wool, which was mainly women’s work. There were also a few women writers and doctors.

We do not know what “family life” was like for those who worked in the large economic units, or indeed if they had one at all. What happened with children when their parents were working outside the home, if the children were yet to start working themselves, remains unknown too. As dispossessed persons, they left no testimonies—as the Sumerian proverb went, “The poor are the silent ones in the country”.34

Women’s oppression and the class question

Women were oppressed in these societies, and they did not have equal access to economic and political institutions. This is proven by legal codes such as those of King Hammurabi, a Babylonian ruler around 3,800 years ago. This set of legal maxims, written in cuneiform on a stone pillar, bear witness to patriarchal law; women are mentioned primarily in terms of their dependence on men, and talked about as being at the side of the father, brother, husband and master.35

The ideology of the rulers assigned women to the private sphere of the home. One saying went: “The house where there is beer, it is her place. The house where there is food, she is the great cook.”36 Women who did not prepare the food themselves were seen as falling short of this archetype. One text, which portrays a quarrel between women, complains: “She’s always buying beer and bringing home ready-made food”.37 However, this ideological ideal of the Babylonian housewife was at odds with the reality for the many poor women who had to work for the temples, the palaces and the wealthy patriarchal households. Even in affluent families, where women were mainly confined to the household, they were nevertheless productively active there, processing the surplus product that was generated, frequently in order to produce a trade good.

So how much women were oppressed was a class issue. A “Lady of Girsu” might not have had control over the sphere of generating the surplus product such as grain and wool. However, she managed the sphere of processing this surplus product. In the richer households, there were usually wet nurses for breastfeeding and nannies for raising the children. For the housework, the lady of the house could buy maids. A destitute woman, on the other hand, may have had to abandon a child or go into debt service. Stol concludes:

The freedom of a woman was limited, and it was even more so if she or her parents were poor. Daughters of rich families…on the other hand, could be involved in big business and have responsible duties.38

So there was a world of difference between a “Lady of Girsu” and a palace weaver; one organised the exploitation and the other was the exploited.

The work of poor women in “public industry”, where a large proportion of the means of consumption was produced, was also ridiculed. One saying was, “You are perpetually pressing oil, grinding barley, baking big breads… Labourer, child of misery, offspring of paupers”.39 This reflected a condescending attitude towards the poor in general, much like we see today. Another example is the proverb, “As a poor man’s daughter, no man appreciates her vulva”.40 This expressed the idea that a daughter from a poor household, who could not bring any wealth into a marriage, was not even suitable for childbearing.

The world historic defeat of the female sex combined with the emergence of class societies also meant that a class of exploited and poor people emerged. Both men and women belonged to this class. For this reason, a Code of Hammurabi not only reflected patriarchal law, but also represented a class law governing both female and male members of society.

To return to the beginning, women’s work was already diverse in the first civilisations—and, indeed, throughout the millennia down to the present day. It was not only “reproductive”, and it took place in a variety of different spheres. However, it was, and it continues to this day to be, moulded by class relations. This is also the reason why the struggle against women’s oppression is not just a women’s issue. It must be a common struggle, conducted on a class basis against all oppression and the entire system of exploitation.41

Rosemarie Nünning lives in Berlin and a supporter of the Marx21 network within Die Linke. She has translated, among other things, Chris Harman’s A People’s History of the World into German.


1 I would like to thank Einde O’Callaghan for translating the original manuscript of this article into English. In addition many thanks to Rick Kuhn, Sheila McGregor and Sascha Radl, who critically read and commented on the first drafts. Responsibility for the final outcome is, of course, mine.

2 Engels, 1988, p137.

3 See Leacock, 1981. This book also contains a very helpful assessment of Engels’s essay, the conclusions of which Leacock cross-checked with her research. The book also has a critical examination of the structuralist theorist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who unfortunately has had a strong influence on ethnology and anthropology. For another assessment of Engels, see Harman, 1994.

4 See Childe, 1962; Harman, 1999, p18. See also Engels, 1988, p92.

5 Engels, 1988, p125.

6 Engels, 1988, p120-121.

7 Childe, 1962; Childe, 2016. See also Maisels, 1993.

8 Postgate, 1994, p63. Postgate refers to excavations at Abu Salabikh, a city about 4,500 years old, and at Nippur. Both are in present-day Iraq.

9 Stol, 2016, p339.

10 Thomason, 2013; Michel, 2014.

11 See Michel, 2010; Michel, 2018, pp193-208.

12 Michel, 2008.

13 Thomason traces the image of the public sphere with male commercial and industrial activity and female activity in the private sphere back to the 18th century. It emerged as a reaction to the industrial revolution and the accompanying “cult of female domesticity that was part of the formation of a bourgeois identity”—Thomason, 2013, p107.

14 Postgate, 1994.

15 Lafont, 2013.

16 Sallaberger and Pruß, 2015, pp107, 109.

17 Childe, 1962, pp61-62. Childe based his argument on arable farming. It can also be found in Koch and Stolz, 2015, p21, where it is argued that both the “pressure on and, to some extent, the self-motivation” of women to have children increased because more children meant higher productivity. Probably following Childe, despite in general being in contradiction to his work’s line of argument, the argument is also found in Chris Harman’s A People History of the World: “The greater the number of children, the greater the area of land that could be cleared and cultivated in future. The premium was on larger families”—Harman, 1999, p13. Transferred to a later historical period, this train of thought can also be found in Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation. According to Federici, the industrial revolution had an almost insatiable demand for labour that could only be satisfied by subjugating women for the purpose of bearing lots of children. This astonishingly mechanical understanding of how productivity was raised stands in stark contrast to a reality of life throughout the millennia in which masses of poor people were ejected into a shadowy life as surplus population by their respective class societies. In truth, the increase in productivity with permanent settlements, agriculture and animal husbandry made a growing population possible, but a growing population could never by itself lead to an increase in productivity.

18 “The increase of production in all branches—cattle raising, agriculture, domestic handicrafts—gave human labour power the capacity to produce a larger product than was necessary for its maintenance… It was now desirable to bring in new labour forces. War provided them; prisoners of war were turned into slaves.”Engels, 1988, p182. Enslaved prisoners of war were joined by the destitute, who were forced into debt bondage.

19 Lafont, 2013.

20 Stol, 2016, pp152-154.

21 Wunsch, 2003.

22 Wunsch, 2003, 178.

23 Yamada, 2014.

24 Seibert, 1973, pp19-20. See also Jursa, 2015, pp69-70; Assante, 1999.

25 Stol, 2016, p350.

26 Rova, 2014, p146.

27 Vermaak, 2008, p465.

28 Steinkeller, 2018, p141, footnote 11.

29 Svärd and Luukko, 2009.

30 Stol, 2016, p344.

31 Waetzold, 1972; Waetzold, 1988, p36.

32 Paulette, 2015, p68.

33 Sallaberger and Pruß, 2015, p101.

34 Selz, 2010, p9.

35 Démare-Lafont, 2011, p240.

36 Stol, 2016, p339.

37 Matuszak, 2018, p238. The quarrel was very probably invented by Babylonian scribes.

38 Stol, 1995, p140.

39 Matuszak, 2018, p239.

40 Selz, 2010, p9.

41 See https://refema.hypotheses.org for a helpful platform on gender roles in Mesopotamia.


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