Sei Shônagon, a lady-in-waiting to Empress Teishi (or Sadako), left a journal of anecdotes, impressions, and commentary called The Pillowbook (covering the years 986-1000 CE) that has become a valuable source for the court society and cultural life of the Heian Period. By the Heian period, the gender parity that is believed to have existed in ancient times was giving way to a system of male domination. Particularly with the adoption of the Chinese bureaucratic system, all offices and ranks were designated for males, with only a few exceptions for the Handmaids’ Office in the Palace. Ambitious women like Sei Shônagon decried the lack of offices women could aspire to and expressed envy of the honor and respect men garner when they are promoted through the hierarchy.

Source: Morris, Ivan, trans., The Pillowbook of Sei Shônagon. London: Penguin Books, 1971.

Women and High Office

At long last a man has received the governorship for which he has been waiting. He looks radiantly happy. In the past everyone treated him with rudeness and disdain; but, painful as it was, he bore it all patiently, realizing that he had no choice. Now even his superiors respect the man and play up to him with remarks like, “I am entirely at Your Excellency’s service.” He is attended by women and surrounded by elegant furnishings and clothing that he has never known before. Seeing all this, one wonders whether he can really be the same man whom even simple servants used to scorn. Then this fortunate governor is appointed Middle Captain in the Inner Palace Guards. Oh, what a triumphant look he has on his face! To be a captain of the Guards seems far grander to him than it would to a young nobleman who received the same appointment.

High office is, after all, a most splendid thing. A man who holds the Fifth Rank or who serves as Gentleman-in-Waiting is liable to be despised; but when this same man becomes a Major Counsellor, Great Minister, or the like, one is overawed by him and feels that nothing in the world could be as impressive. Of course even a provincial governor has a position that should impress one; for after serving in several provinces, he may be appointed Senior Assistant Governor-General and promoted to the Fourth Rank, and when this happens the High Court Nobles themselves appear to regard him with respect.

After all, women really have the worse time of it. There are, to be sure, cases where the nurse of an Emperor is appointed Assistant Attendant or given the Third Rank and thus acquires great dignity. Yet it does her little good since she is already an old woman. Besides, how many women ever attain such honours? Those who are reasonably well born consider themselves lucky if they can marry a governor and go down to the provinces. Of course it does sometimes happen that the daughter of a commoner becomes the principal consort of a High Court Noble and that the daughter of a High Court Noble becomes an Empress. Yet even this is not as splendid as when a man rises by means of promotions. How pleased such a man looks with himself!