Ethnohistoric documents from sixteenth-century Mexico suggesting that weaving and cooking were the most common productive activities for Aztec women may lead modern historians to underestimate the value of women's contributions to Aztec society. Since weaving and cooking occurred mostly (but not entirely) in a domestic setting, modern historians are likely to apply to the Aztec culture the modern Western distinction between "private" and "public" production. Thus, the ethnohistoric record conspires with Western culture to foster the view that women's production was not central to the demographic, economic, and political structures in sixteenth-century Mexico.
A closer examination of Aztec culture indicates that treating Aztec women's production in Mexico in such a manner would be a mistake. Even if the products of women's labor did not circulate beyond the household, such products were essential to population growth. Researchers document a tenfold increase in the population of the valley of Mexico during the previous four centuries, an increase that was crucial to the developing Aztec political economy. Population growth--which could not have occurred in the absence of successful household economy, in which women's work was essential--made possible the large-scale development of labor-intensive chinampa (ridged-field) agriculture in the southern valley of Mexico which, in turn, supported urbanization and political centralization in the Aztec capital.
But the products of women's labor did in fact circulate beyond the household. Aztec women wove cloth, and cloth circulated through the market system, the tribute system, and the redistributive economy of the palaces. Cotton mantles served as a unit of currency in the regional market system. Quantities of woven mantles, loincloths, blouses, and skirts were paid as tribute to local lords and to imperial tax stewards and were distributed to ritual and administrative personnel, craft specialists, warriors, and other faithful servants of the state. In addition, woven articles of clothing served as markers of social status and clothing fulfilled a symbolic function in political negotiation. The cloth that was the product of women's work thus was crucial as a primary means of organizing the flow of goods and services that sustained the Aztec state.
The passage is primarily concerned with
using modern understanding of cultural bias to challenge ethnohistoric documents
evaluating competing descriptions of women's roles in Aztec society
comparing the influence of gender on women's roles in Aztec society and in modern society
remedying a potential misconception about the significance of women's roles in Aztec society
applying new evidence in a reevaluation of ethnohistoric documents