Click to view clip "Female Farmers"
excerpted from Women's Power dvd





























































































































Women’s Power

(transcript from the DVD by Max Dashu. [Additional notes appear in brackets].)

(Continued from Part Two)


San with digging sticks

From the earliest times, women worked to support life. In foraging societies, they gather most of the food supply, bringing in fruit, nuts, seeds, greens and roots.

Hanunóo woman planting with digging stick, Philippines

Their work ensures group survival, and they invented crucial technologies such as the digging stick, string, nets, and baskets for carrying, storage…           

Namibian fisherwoman
And for fishing, as this woman is doing in Namibia. To ensure a long-term food supply, women invented…

Kamchatka: drying fish
… techniques of food preservation, such as drying, salting, fermenting, and smoking. 
These east Siberians are smoking fish [on the Kamchatka peninsula].

Apache harvester

It was female gatherers who discovered that they could plant seeds for future harvests. This is why oral histories credit women with …

Egyptian winnowers

… inventing agriculture. So said the Omaha, the Shuar of Peru, and the Lunda of Angola. In Egypt it was Isis, while in Sumeria, the first farmer was “Ashnan the wise.”

Great Plains farmer, possibly Arapaho or Cheyenne

The Pawnee said Mother Corn gave seed to women, and taught them farming. Over most of North America, women raised corn, squash, and beans.

Thai rice farmers

For millennia women have worked in the rice fields, in Thailand, Vietnam, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, and they still produce much of the world’s food.

India rice farmers

Anyone who still believes females are weak needs to explain how they do the backbreaking labor of planting paddy in the midday heat of south India.

Mozambique rice farmers

African women farm many kinds of grain, especially sorghum and millet. In West Africa and here, in Mozambique, they are expert rice farmers.

Aymara corn grinding
After harvest the grain is husked, dried, and ground into flour, as this Aymara woman is doing on her stone metate.

Kyrgyz breadmaker, central Asia

Then women make bread, tortillas, injera, pasta, or, in the Kyrgyz style, flatbreads on a griddle. In many places women figured out how…

Yurok woman making acorn porridge

… to transform chemical poisons in plants by leaching or heating. In California, they make acorn porridge by first processing out the tannic acid with repeated rinsings…

Brazil: baking manioc flatcakes

as Brazilian women treat manioc, by grating, washing and squeezing the root in special baskets to remove the prussic acid, then making flatcakes from the flour. [This method is used in the Amazon basin; manioc is the same as cassava, and the source for tapioca.]

Ukrainian farmers

These 19th century Ukrainians are harvesting grain with an improvised cradle nearby. They were literally bread-winners, as well as breadmakers.

To market

Once the harvest was in and the year’s food supply stored, women took the surplus to market, often by boat in Burma…

Ecuadorian market

Women traded their produce, including guinea pigs in this Ecuadorian plaza, as well as chicha,  beer, cheese, butter, pots, baskets and other crafts…

Mexican market

The marketplace was also a social space where women interacted with other clans and villages and peoples—here in old Mexico.

Papua market

It was a place where they exchanged news, technologies, political information and spiritual ideas. These traders are in Papua New Guinea…

Cote d’Ivoire market

The market has long been a power base for west African women, with their own councils and leaders.

Igbo market

The Igbo Women’s War of 1929 started with women traders protesting a colonial tax. They rose up against British rule, marching in ritual fern headdresses and carrying wands. Local protests grew into large mass demonstrations of women who burned colonial offices, tore down telegraph lines, and freed prisoners. 





Wu Wei Gao (female clan head)
Female elders had formal authority in mother-right societies, like this Lahu clan head. When you read about “the elders,” most writers mean men–think of “church elders” or often “village elders” too.

South African elder blowing horn
Even in patrilineal cultures, female elders often exert authority, formal or informal. Here in South Africa, the context is ceremonial… [and this is often the case elsewhere, see the Aztec example below.]


or it may also operate in political arenas, as with chiefly women in the Pacific, who held power as lineage sisters. This old woman wears the female chin tattoo of Maori tradition.

Russian Babushka

Old women like this Russian babushka are guardians and transmitters of cultural wisdom—and female agency--through faery tales, animal stories and proverbs.

Turkic storyteller

Elders like this Turkic grandmother transmit knowledge, values, skills, and language itself—language, which originated in the life-sustaining cooperation of the motherhoods.

Carrier drummer, western Canada

Female elders carry songs and cultural wisdom, and often preside over major life passages: birth, initiation, and death. They are midwives, counselors, and wisewomen.

Aztec marriage

An old woman presided over Aztec weddings. First, she performed a ritual of tying the couple’s garments together.

Then she spoke benedictions over food offerings, including tamales, which represent flesh and blood.

Finally, accompanied by women carrying torches, she carried the bride on her back to her new home. Even in old age Aztec women were strong.

Australia child-blessing

For ages, birth rites were a women’s sacrament. These aboriginal Australian elders are performing a blessing and protection ceremony for a newborn, smudging the baby with konkerberry smoke.

Hopi child-blessing

Nearly everywhere women ritually bathe newborn babies. The Hopi carry out a 20-day cycle of benedictions with ears of sacred corn, the Corn Mother herself, and finally present the child to the rising sun.

Blackfeet child-blessing

Blackfeet mothers also show babies to the sun while calling out their names to introduce them to the world. Such ritual acts lead us to another important female sphere of power: invoking the sacred—the priestess.



Syrian priestess

Ancient priestesses sang invocations and played hand drums throughout Afroasia and the Mediterranean. This drummer is Syrian.

Cretan priestesses

The art of Crete is rich in scenes of women’s ceremony: invoking goddesses, making offerings at altars, and dancing with snakes.

Gaulish snake priestess

Celtic women are also shown dancing with serpents, here at Mavilly, France, and in Yorkshire. Roman writers remarked on the prophetic powers of Celtic and Germanic women. 

Etruscan priestess

Etruscan priestesses are shown presiding in rituals. Romans remember Tanaquil as a diviner who observed omens, and who also founded the matrilineal Tarquinian dynasty.

Roman priestess

In Rome, women were active in the temples of Diana, Bona Dea, and Ceres but, with a few exceptions like the Vestals, the state barred them from temple leadership. [And even barred women from attending certain rites: Roman priests started temple sacrifices with the cry, “Away with the foreigner, the prisoner in chains, the woman, the girl!”]

Greek hierissae (priestesses)

Over long centuries, a male hierarchy gradually encroached on the female sphere, pushing  priestesses down and sometimes out of the temples. [or from the holy inner sanctum, as came to be the case at the Temple of Artemis Ephesia, according to Artemidorus—even though this temple was said to have been founded by Amazons.]

Roman ivory of women at altar

Finally the Church banned women from officiating in Christian rites. But it took centuries to break this old tradition, in Sicily, Arabia, Bretagne [until women were forbidden to even approach the altar.]

Karaikkal Ammaiyar

In India, the Brahmin priesthood also barred women from becoming temple pujaris. Some holy women bypassed such institutions altogether, like the medieval mystic Karaikkal Ammaiyar, who threw off all social convention in her spiritual quest. [There are many such examples: another is Lallaa of Kashmir.]


In the Aztec world, men controlled all top temple posts, but women still held office as priestesses, including those who presided over healings in the Temezcal sweathouses.


In Korea, nearly all the mutang shamans are women. People come to their kut ceremonies for healing and help with their problems, but nevertheless the mutang suffer a strong social stigma, just because they are women of power in a patriarchal society.

Sakha priestess

Among the Sakha in Yakutia, a priestess leads the Ysakh ceremonies of spring, always an important occasion in cold Siberia, with a great circle dance.

Evenk shaman

It is here in northern Asia that the word shaman originated, as an Evenki name for ecstatic visionaries and healers. This is Olga, an Evenki shaman and also village chief, in ceremonial dress with amulet pendants, “snake” streamers and her sacred drum.

Snake Woman, Motokiks society pipeholder

In North America, there are medicine women and pipeholders, healers and dream-seers, and also medicine sisterhoods. This woman was an elder of the Motokiks society in Montana. [Blood Nation, kin to the Blackfeet]


The profession of sangoma or igqirha is predominantly female in South Africa. They are the ritual specialists, diviners, healers and ancestor-dreamers [but everyone participates in raising power, as shown by the women clapping and singing.]

Fon priestess
In Dahomey, Nigeria, Togo, women act as priestesses and shamans, as direct channels for spirit, pouring libation, calling in the sacred, keeping alive the African traditions of sacramental dance...


… which were carried into the African Diaspora, with the drum patterns and ancestral incantations of the orishas and loas. Priestesses like this Haitian mambo empowered people to survive the killing conditions of slavery—and to resist.

Kimpa Vita

The BaKongo prophetess Kimpa Vita led a successful movement to restore the old ways suppressed by Portuguese colonials. They burned her at the stake for it in 1706—but her Antoniados movement lived on, and spread to Brazil and Colombia.


The Apache medicine warrior Lozen guided her people as they fled for their lives from the US and Mexican armies. Her power made her hands tingle when she faced the direction of approaching troops, and she could tell how many there were and how far away. She was honored for her strength and courage in many battles.

Yeshe Tsogyel

In Tibet, Yeshe Tsogyel faced a different kind of struggle, as a woman of wisdom who faced down opposition to co-found Tibetan Buddhism. She was said to have great visionary and healing powers, even reviving the dead in some stories.



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