Women in Classical Greece

24.06.2020 in History Essay
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The analysis of various gender issues and the thorough study of the women’s role in Classical Greece allow reconstructing a comparatively realistic picture of the life women usually had during that period. Ancient Greece was a place where women did not enjoy many of the rights that seem natural for a contemporary woman, but their activities were crucial for maintaining the institute of the family and the stability of the society. The current essay will focus on the analysis of political, economic and social rights of women in Classical Greece. The paper will also explore the traditional patterns of their everyday routine and the way they were portrayed in literature of that period.

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Women in Classical Greece were not considered full citizens as the right to take part in the political life of a city was defined on the basis of property possessions and women did not legally own anything. Therefore, they could not take part in the agora meetings where important political and social issues were discussed. They did not have a right to vote or be elected to any post in a community. This aspect of women’s life in Greece was studied by many scholars. Lyons argues that bad situation with the rights of women in Classical Greece, in contrast to the modern world, can be explained by “their status as objects exchanged in marriage (as exemplified by Helen in the Iliad), and partly from a misogynist and pessimistic strand of Greek thought (embodied by Hesiod’s Pandora) that discounts any female economic contribution to the oikos” (104). His ideas are also shared by Blundell (102) and Brule (61).

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Women in the current period had almost no right to manage their property whether it was money, valuable objects, slaves or estate. Actually, they did not have the legitimate right to own any property in terms people understand it now. The only thing they could do with “their” property is to use it. A woman could wear jewelry, order slaves to work, live in the house, but could not sell, buy, exchange or do anything else with it, as anytime she needed legal contact with the outside or public world a man was required. A man that was her kyrios or guardian was also a person in charge of satisfying her needs in food, clothing, shelter and, in general, of providing her well-being. On the other hand, he could use her property as he wished and felt appropriate. At a younger age she would normally be under guardianship of her father and after getting married she was almost totally controlled by her husband. In case of a divorce, the woman would return to the family along with her dowry and in case of widowing she would have the choice to head back under her father’s guardianship or stay under her husband’s father (Ingalls 250). In either case, there always was a kyrios in woman’s life, from her birth to death.

Although all these facts could seem harsh and quite unfriendly to any woman of Classic Greece it must be mentioned that the woman’s dowry, that was almost all her possession in life and was a part of her father fortune, had to be made prior to sharing it among sons. Such approach, in most cases, provided the woman with certain financial sustainability. It was of utmost importance because there was almost no possibility for women to earn money and increase the amount of their possessions, especially taking in account that a “decent” woman would seat at home, feed children and manage household without even leaving the house, except, perhaps, for a festival of some kind. Women’s work was either enforced upon them in case the woman was a slave, or stipulated by the necessity in the poor families or in case the woman started performing immoral role of a hetaera. Whereas a slave woman would increase her owner’s fortune, a wife of a poor citizen would do the same in regard to the wealth of her family and only a hetaera or a prostitute could directly profit from her work (Pomeroy 78). The women of this profession could manage their financial assets independently, although their social status was quite low.

One of the most prestigious paths for a woman in Classical Greece was to become a priestess. These women enjoyed high social status and certain personal and financial freedom. The temples of Athena, Demeter, Hera, Aphrodite and some other goddesses usually employed women to act as the representatives of goddesses on earth. However, a poor woman could not become a priestess as “good birth” and significant financial resources were required to occupy this post. However, in the sphere of religious rituals and services women were equal to men. Priestesses could charge the temple visitors for different services, they did not have to pay taxes, etc (Pomeroy 92). 

Nevertheless, some women managed to break the social rules and acquire rather high social status and respect with their own work and achievements. For example, Hypathia, who was born in around AD 350 – 370 and died in 415 was one of the most prominent Greek mathematicians and astronomers (Freeman 192). She even taught philosophy and astronomy at one of the famous Greek schools. Although literature was dominated by male authors, Sappho managed to create an extraordinary style of poetry that reveals many important ideas about femininity and the role of women in ancient Greek society. Her work was respected during her lifetime and some authors called her “the tenth muse”, thus raising her oeuvre to the unprecedented levels (Freeman 189).

However, despite the above-mentioned cases of relative women’s freedom and independence, the main spheres of women’s activity remained within the frames of the family and house. Women were often busy with making clothes, decorating them, arranging the continuous and efficient running of the household. Ingalls writes, “Greek families were small, but family size was not determined by parental choice; it was the result of high rates of infant and child mortality” (246). Therefore, it would be a mistake to say that an average Greek woman had to take care of more than three children. Divorces were not common in Greece, but the laws concerning this area were comparatively liberal. Women could seek for divorce, but in such case their interests should also be represented by their guardians (father or brother).

Although Classical Greece was one of the world’s most influential centers for sciences, philosophy, art and literature, women received very little education. Poor women often could not read and write at all and the girls from richer houses were very seldom taught the basics of reading and writing. If they were educated, the main subjects were cooking, weaving, spinning, etc. Women were considered incapable to understand philosophy, mathematics and other sciences. For instance, Aristotle believed that it would be much better for a society, if the women who were the root of the evil would be kept away from men (Blundell 29). However, some Stoic philosophers, like Zeno of Athens and others, insisted that both men and women should have equal rights. Such ideas were revolutionary for Classical Greece and did not receive wide public approval (Brule 65).

It is obvious that much information about the life of women in Classical Greece is taken from the literary works, such as plays by Euripides, Sophocles and, by all means, The Iliad and The Odyssey. Although the women in Homer’s works also do not have any major rights, but some of them possess wit and courage that is almost equal to those of men despite the fact that women are always shown as belonging to the sphere of family and home. One of the strongest and smartest female characters in Homer’s oeuvre is Penelope who was waiting for the return of her husband for more than twenty years. However, she managed not only to keep their estate running, but also invented clever ways of keeping the suitors away without breaking any ethical rules of the Greek society. The name of her husband Odysseus is often accompanied by the epithet “cunning”, but Penelope also deserves such attribute. The Iliad shows various types of female characters, as well. Helen of Troy is a weak woman who is always treated like a “prize” and not given a chance to make her own decisions, whereas Andromache, Hector’s wife, is shown as a character of great inner strength, although her pleads and wishes also do not matter much as Hector puts pride and dignity much higher than family relations in his personal hierarchy. 

To conclude, women in Classical Greece enjoyed few rights in contrast to men. They could not take part in the political life of the Greek cities and did not have a right to be engaged in any commercial operations with movable assess or real estate. In almost all cases they were controlled by men from their families. However, there were some exceptions, such as influential priestesses or hetaeras, who enjoyed more freedoms than the others. The main spheres governed and regulated by women were family issues and household activities. All these aspects are reflected in the works of ancient Greek literature, including Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey. 

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