As a Mexican feminist, Rodríguez belongs to a group of anthropologists who have been developing a critical view of preconquest Aztec society. Her book is a useful corrective to the incomplete, romanticized picture of Aztec women offered by earlier anthropologists, most prominently Miguel León-Portilla.
Rodríguez portrays a sexually brutal society in which women could be violated for refusing a man’s overtures and warriors frequently raped female captives and acquired them for economic and sexual services. Obedience to husbands was a cardinal feminine virtue, initiatives for marriage proposals came from the man’s family, and women were denied the right of refusal. Adulterous women (but not necessarily men) were put to death, and abortion was a capital offense. Women were denied access to political power, decision making, and the priesthood. Their economic activities were limited to trading in foodstuffs—tortillas, tamales, vegetables—or items of little exchange value, and to the domestic tasks of midwifery, spinning, and weaving.
Rodríguez’s instructive use of drawings from the codices and of contemporary Mexican anthropologists supplements a reading of Sahagún, Durán, and Torquemada. However, she does not consider how these Spanish authors, like other colonial writers, customarily criticized native “barbarity” and cruelty to women (pp. 170-171) to delegitimize native rule to European-language audiences, and therefore may have exaggerated their harshness.
Another missing consideration is whether women’s experience can be registered through narratives and descriptions written by men. Whether one believes that it is possible to “read against the grain” of male-authored descriptions, or whether one agrees with Gayatri Spivak that the subaltern cannot speak, feminist writers need to consider this question. Regardless of the answer, the query raises a methodological issue crucial to both historians and anthropologists about the prisms through which women’s lives and experience can be understood.