Official Documents

Official documents of all types can help locate women in world history. They include government reports, laws, press releases, diplomatic communication, policy statements, declarations of war, treaties, constitutions, pronouncements of organizations, committee hearings, speeches, and court records.

They show how societies viewed and treated women as a group, as well as expose women’s everyday lives. Often, piecing different official documents together can provide a clear picture of how different societies viewed women and women’s roles, and shed light on social structure as a whole.

Reading the entire document is an important place to start. Does the document have an author? If so, who? Are women among the authors?

Documents that are created by many people and do not list individual authors also can illuminate women’s roles and lives. Look at laws and constitutions from different societies. Do women have property rights? Are there laws about reproductive rights or childbirth? How are women treated in a country’s constitution? Are they mentioned explicitly? What assumptions can be made if they are not mentioned at all? How do these documents compare to those of other societies at the same time period, or the same society in a different time period?

The Laws of Manu, for example, written in India between 200 and 400 CE, restricted the legal independence of women, established the moral subordination of wives to husbands, socialized women in self-control, and reduced the property rights of women. When reading laws from other time periods, the Laws of Manu regarding women’s social status both show a transition in Hindu values over time and shed light on the way the Caste system operated.

Spanish Inquisition Document

Court records and commission hearings are also useful for locating women in world history, especially at times when women are absent from other types of available historical documents. Court records and commission hearings can provide valuable information about women’s everyday lives. For example, records of testimony from the Spanish Inquisition offer some insight into women's thoughts and words in the 1500s and 1600s. [See Analyzing Evidence: Official Documents]