Inca and Spanish Women

    Finding information about Incan women before and during the conquest of the Andes isn't very easy!  However we have put together some information on this subject that is very reliable.  We have also researched how the role of indigenous women changed after the Spanish conquest.  This site also contains some information on Spanish women and their roles during this tumultuous period.
    Women were an integral part of every aspect of society during the Incan reign.  Their role in that society was very different from that of women in most European societies at that time, since most European women, including Spanish women, were looked at as existing solely to benefit their husbands.  Because of this much of the evidence regarding the role Incan women played is distorted by the views and prejudices of the Spanish men who wrote about the Inca Empire, or Tahuantinsuyu (Silversblatt 1987).   However it is possible to reconstruct the world of women in Incan society because of the large variety of sources about the Incas written by Spanish chroniclers during or immediately after the conquest.  It appears women in Incan society had a distinctly separate role from men, and that this role was viewed as complementary to the role of men and a necessary component of their society.  This was true in all facets of Incan life including religion, politics, family, and economics.  It also appears that women in Incan society had more autonomy and power than many of their Spanish counterparts.  Because of this the Spaniards had a hard time relating Incan society accurately in their chronicles.  The Spanish didn’t understand one of the most important aspects of Incan society, gender roles.

    Women had a dual or complementary role in Incan society because of their religion (Silversblatt 1987).   The Incas, like many of their Andean predecessors, viewed the cosmos in a way that emphasized what they saw as the duality of nature.  The Incan people believed that the god Viracocha was the creator of all things.  Viracocha was hermaphroditic in nature, being first male and then female.  Stemming from Viracocha were the Sun, or the male principle, and the Moon, the female principle.  These two were siblings as well as spouses and gave life to the other gods and goddesses as well as to man and woman (Cobo 1990).   From the Sun extended Venus Morning, Lord Earth, and Man.  From the Moon extended Venus Evening, Mother Sea, and Woman.  Venus Morning was equated with the Sapa Inca himself (the ruler of Tahuantinsuyu), Lord Earth symbolized the male nobility and headmen, and Man symbolized the male commoners.  A parallel chain of authority for women stemmed from the Moon goddess.  Venus Evening was the Coya, or queen of the Inca, Mother Sea was the female Incan nobility, and Woman the female commoners (Silversblatt 1987).   Stemming from each of these chains were also parallel kinship chains of men and women, in which some men and some women (with the Sapa Inca and Coya coming first) had authority over other men and women, and so on.

    Because of this dual role within the cosmos and the parallel chains of authority, men controlled the cults to the male gods and women controlled the cults of the goddesses.  The Coya, who was believed to be the daughter of the Moon, headed the cult of the Moon (Silversblatt 1987).   The Sapa Inca headed the cult of the Sun, and was believed to be his son.  Women priestesses stemmed down from the Coya in the same way that male priests extended from the Sapa Inca.  Women priestesses wielded a lot of power as the heads of these cults.   This is because the goddesses of Incan cosmology controlled earthly fertility and human procreation, both of which were integral to Incan society because it was agricultural.  Women also had their own royal ancestral cults.  Coyas were mummified just like the male Incan rulers and were worshipped and attended in the same way, meaning they were also treated as though still alive and they retained their estates even in death.  (This system was kind of similar to the way Egyptian kings were mummified.)

    The duality of Incan religion was so complete that even the temples of the Incan goddesses paralleled those of the Incan gods.  Statues, as well as the mummies of Incan Coyas, were made of the Incan queens and placed in the temple of the Moon in the same way that mummies of male Incan rulers were placed in the temple of the Sun (Silversblatt 1987).   The Moon Temple was decorated in a fashion similar to that of the Sun Temple.  It was paneled entirely in silver, as opposed to the Temple of the Sun which was covered with gold.  It contained a likeness of the Moon with a woman’s face, while the Temple of the Sun contained a likeness of the Sun with a man’s face.   It was served exclusively by female priestesses, or mamaconas, who were chosen either because they had unusual births or who were selected from the acllas, which were religious and secular institutions and education centers.   Mamaconas also had their own houses of residence where they prepared garments for the Sapa Inca and idols, made food and drink for religious festivals, and were waited on by other high ranking girls of Incan society (Baudin 1961).

    Women had schools in Cuzco like those of the men where non-Cuzcan girls were sent to learn the trades of womanhood and Incan lore as well as the appropriate skills and tasks of government (Silversblatt 1987).   These schools were called acllawasi, or house of the chosen women. Spanish chroniclers thought of these institutions as an Incan version of a nunnery.  Acllawasi were an exclusively female institution in Incan society.  Once a year an Incan agent inspected villages of the empire to choose the girls who would be sent to the acllawasi or who would become immediate human sacrifices (Baudin 1961).   The girls chosen for the latter duty were part of crucial state rituals and ensured the power of their fathers, most of whom were headmen, because with the sacrifice of his daughter the father gained the right to pass his title down to his son as well as the special favor of the Sapa Inca (Silversblatt 1987).   Most of the girls selected for immediate sacrifice or to become acllas were ten to fourteen years of age.  The virginity of these girls was closely guarded in the acllawasi until their future was decided by the empire’s ruling elite.  If one of the girls were found to have lost her virginity, “she would be given the death penalty, and it would be carried out by burying the girl alive or by some equally cruel death” (Cobo 1990).   If they were to become an aclla, which was a strictly secular occupation, they were separated from their communities of origin and house in acllawasi in the capital of each province.   By doing this, the aclla women were turned into fully conquered subjects of Cuzco because they were no longer thought of as members of their original communities (Silversblatt 1987).

    Once in an acllawasi the girls were taught women’s tasks such as spinning, weaving, and chicha making (Baudin 1961).   The cloth made in these institutions was highly valued because of its bright colors and fine weave.  The chicha produced was also highly sought after because it was said to be some of the best in Tahuantinsuyu.  The girls were also thoroughly indoctrinated into Incan ideology so that when sent to their various destinies, they would serve the interests of the Inca whether consciously or unconsciously (Silversblatt 1987).

    The acllas were organized hierarchically (Baudin 1961).   The basis for this organization was physical perfection, as the Incas visualized it, and the rank of the girl’s family of origin.  Thus there were several different types of acllas who would serve the Inca realm within their various destinies.

    It was based on this system that prestigious girls were chosen to be chaste priestesses of the solar or imperial cults.  These priestesses, the virginal wives of the Sun, were called mamaconas, who served in a religious capacity as well as educating newly arrived girls (Cobo 1990 and Silversblatt 1987).   The mamacona women were wed to the various gods they were to serve in solemn ceremonies and ever afterward were considered to be wives of those gods.  Occasionally the Sapa Inca would visit one of these institutions to indulge himself with the women.  The guards, who were old men, would then confront the Sapa Inca who would confess that he had sinned and the matter would be at rest (Cobo 1990).   These women were generally considered to be saints by the rest of the populace and wielded much power because of their proximity to Incan gods.   Despite this, some of these women had more importance than others within the various cults, especially in the cult to the Moon, the wife of the Sun.  One woman, who was often one of the Sapa Inca’s sisters, headed the cult.  She governed it in all matters whether religious, economical or other.   This institution clearly shows that women had much influence over religious matters.

    The rest of the girls selected each year were to perform less important roles.  Another role that the prestigious girls could be chosen for was to be secondary wives of the Sapa Inca.  The lower ranking girls served less prestigious gods or goddesses.  Some of the lower ranking girls were also given as rewards to men who had done something to please the Sapa Inca (Silversblatt 1987).   It was through the aclla system that the men of the empire were linked to the Sapa Inca by loyalty.  This was because the men would serve the interests of the Sapa Inca if their daughters were taken to an aclla, since it was an honor, or if they were given women as gifts, which was also an honor.   This shows that women were a powerful tool for the Incan state.
    The queen, and through her, women, had her own religious celebration also.  For one month out of every year, the entire empire deferred to the Incan queen and to the Moon goddess, or Coya raymi (Silversblatt 1987).   It was meant to symbolize the new agricultural cycle and the beginning of the rainy season.  It was during this time that any and all female concerns within the realm were given voice.  Men were subordinated during this period.  From this celebration it is apparent that the concerns of women were important to Incan society.

    The Coya was also an important political figure in Incan culture.  The selection of an Incan Coya was very similar to that of the selection of the Sapa Inca himself (Silversblatt 1987).   A potential queen had to show that she was capable of leadership and responsibility before marrying the Sapa Inca, to whom she was usually related.  If the candidate failed to do this, she was removed from therunning.  Also, if a woman proved unfit to rule after she became queen, she could be removed from her position.  An example of this circumstance was the first Coya of Capac Yupanqui.  Some time after their marriage she went insane.  So Capac asked the Sun god for permission to marry, as his primary wife, another woman who would be capable of performing the duties of the queen.   Once made Coya, the queen also received her own estates and her own palace, which was almost as large and sumptuous and the Sapa Inca’s.   It is apparent from the careful way in which a Coya was selected that she was a powerful force in Incan government.

    The political power of women stemmed down from the Coya in a chain parallel to the one extending from the Sapa Inca.  It began with the Sapa Inca and Coya at the top, moved to the nobility of Cuzco, to the non-Incan Cuzco nobility, to several ranks of provincial nobility, to local ethnic leaders, and finally ending with any commoners who possessed positions of authority in an ayllu, or community unit.  Moreover both women and men, according to Guaman Poma, were entitled to varying degrees of services, herds, and estates based on their ranking within this system with the Sapa Inca and the Coya at the top (Silversblatt 1987).   This illustrates the link between the political power of women, and the Coya, to economic power.

    However Coyas had power over all subjects at times.  Queens ruled in the absence of the Sapa Inca.  If the Sapa Inca went off to war, the queen served in his stead in every way (Silversblatt 1987).   Another important aspect of the queen’s role related to the Inca’s privy council, which was composed of men from the four principal capitals of the Incan state.  If the council could not come to agreement on an issue, it was turned over to the queen.  After she made a decision it was final, and accepted by the Sapa Inca as such.   This information clearly shows that Coyas could and did make important governmental decisions, which would have had very far reaching effects.

    Three Coyas were known to be especially powerful in the history of the Incan people.  These were Mama Huaco, Mama Ocllo, and Mama Anahuarque.  All of these women wielded a lot of power as well as advising their sons and husbands about government.  This is especially interesting in light of the fact that these women were married to three of the most prominent kings in Incan social history, Manco Capac, Topa Inca, and Pachacuti.   From these examples it is evident that the Coya of the Incas had more power than most of her European equivalents, who were merely a means for a king to produce an heir in most cases.

    However the majority of the Incan queen’s authority centered on other women.  All women paid obeisance to the queen in the same way that men paid obeisance to the Sapa Inca, even kissing her hand in the same way that men kissed the king's.  During festivals the queen of the Incas would give and receive reciprocity from provincial leaders and lower-ranking members of the Cuzco nobility.  She was expected to be very generous on such occasions.  These reciprocity ties were completely separate from those of the Sapa Inca.  She “was able to bind others into a web of obligation through which power relations were articulated.”   Therefore the Coya had her own power base in the Incan realm based on these ties in the same way that the Sapa Inca himself did which would have made her a powerful political force indeed.

    The Coya also had authority over women’s marriage rights.  It was her responsibility to marry the female subjects of the empire to the male subjects.  She had two hundred ladies in waiting whom she often married to men who either the Sapa Inca or herself wanted to reward or tie to their dynasty.   The Coya was also responsible for seeing to the education of the young Cuzcan female nobility and the daughters of local leaders.  This helped cement the bonds between the Coya and the varying ranks of Incan nobility as well as the women of the provinces, who by state design would then impose their Incan educated views on the peasants of their provinces.

    As illustrated by the importance of marriage to the queen’s power, marriage ceremonies and the relationships themselves were extremely important to the foundation of the Incan state.  When an Incan couple married, certain ceremonies had to be observed, including asking the permission of the Sapa Inca’s agent.  These marriage rites, whether performed for a rich, noble couple or for a poor, peasant couple, “celebrated the formation of a new unity made up of equals.”   The rites were accompanied with gift giving, which was supposed to be done on an equal basis to show that one partner was not above the other or that the kinship group of one was not above the kinship group of the other partner.  Typically these gifts consisted of clothing, with the amount being determined by the couple’s wealth.

    Within their marriage an Incan couple would view their contributions to the relationship and the household as complementary but equal, which is what the ceremonial gifts illustrated.  Andean culture already determined for a newly married couple what types of duties were appropriate for the man and the woman.  “But in any case, the division of labor was never so strict as to prohibit one sex from doing the other’s task if the need arose.  Andean gender ideologies recognized that women’s work and men’s work complemented each other.”   The indigenous peoples knew that in order for their culture to survive the work done by both sexes was essential, as was the interplay of that work between the two.  Thus the contributions of women, from the Coya to the lowest peasant were recognized as essential to the survival of the society.

One of the duties of common women in Incan society was to weave.  We have already seen that this was an important task for women to learn when examining the acllas.  However it was important outside of those institutions as well.  A common woman was almost always spinning whether she was watching her children or talking with her husband or neighbors, or even while walking.   It was the obligation of a woman to make sure that her entire family was clothed and this required a lot of work, especially once there were children to make clothing for.   However this was not the sole duty of an Andean woman.  She was also entrusted with chicha making, cooking, helping her husband prepare fields for farming, planting seed, harvesting, weeding, hoeing, herding and carrying water.   While in many societies these were the duties of women, in Incan society, unlike others, these tasks were not considered to be simply domestic tasks for the husband’s benefit only.  The contributions of women were recognized by Incas for what they were, essential labor for the continuance of the household, community, and finally for the state.

    One area, other than goddess cults, in which Incan women had undisputed authority, was that of child rearing.  Women were expected to take exclusive care of children in Incan families.   A woman was also responsible for doing her share of the complementary work to that of her husband up until giving birth to the child and was expected to resume that work soon afterward.  Children were considered to be the source of wealth for any Andean family and therefore this was the primary responsibility of most women in Incan society.  It was also extremely important because the young ensured the future of that society.

    After examining the various facets of Incan society it is apparent that women had a much more powerful and autonomous existence than was believed by many of the scholars, and even by many of the chroniclers themselves. Women had their own power networks in Incan society in politics and religion.  They had their own cults, which they headed and which were worshipped by all members of society.  The Coya had her own system of reciprocity, estates, and cult after her death.  She had authority over marriage rights.  Acllas, which were composed entirely of women, were important institutions in the Incan realm because they reinforced the loyalty of the subjects to the state.  Mamaconas were important female power tools because they dictated religious observances and educated future acllas and mamaconas.  Common women were responsible for some of the most important aspects of Incan life and survival, including weaving, agriculture, and child rearing.  Yet little study has been done on this subject.  It is apparent based on the importance of the roles of women in Incan society that this is an area in which more scholarship ought to focus for the future.

Additional Sources Used For This Subject Which Are Not Included In The Bibliography:

Baudin, Louis.  A Socialist Empire: The Incas of Peru.  trans. Katherine Woods, ed. Arthur Goddard.  Princeton, NJ: D. Van
    Nostrand Company, Inc., 1961.

Cobo, Bernabe.  1580-1657 Inca Religion and Customs, 1st ed.  Austin, TX: Univresity of Texas Press, 1990.

Starn, Orin, Carlos Ivan Degregori, and Robin Kirk.  The Peru Reader: History, Culture, Politics.  Durham: Duke University
    Press, 1995.