In a society that was purely patriarchal and misogynistic, women in the ancient world had few rights. Men and women were usually separated into different worlds, each with their own set of responsibilities and rules to follow. It is hard to fully define what women were like in antiquity simply because there can be no such thing as a “typical woman”, women differ from polis to polis and depended on social and economic background. The one thing that was expected of any woman was to belong to citizen families and maintain that family by giving birth, preferably to future male citizens.
During the Classical period, roughly between the fifth and the fourth century B. C. E, Greek women played a small role in society, the public world of the Greeks was always restricted to men. Women were expected to stay at home at tend to chores and their children. However, there were profound differences in social roles between Athenian and Spartan women, Spartan women had much more liberty than their Athenian counterpart. The main reason behind this huge difference was due to the fact that Sparta placed heavy emphasis on military and was thus a military based society.
Spartan men were usually out in battle and consequently left the women in charge of their property. In addition, the idea that by allowing women to freely participate in sports events, they would eventually have the perfect body to birth more strong a Spartan citizens, thus Spartan women were freely able to exercise without facing any objection from society and were instead encouraged by all to do so. The traditional lack of education muted the voices of women. While boys went off to school at the age of seven, young girls continued to stay at home until they were ready for marriage.
Girls in Athens were not formally educated instead there, “…training was in all likelihood entrusted to their mothers, who instructed them in the domestic arts and ‘womanly wisdom’; and their education was completed by their husbands…” (Katz). Like Katz states, the most important skill an Athenian girl learned was how to be a future mother and wife. On the other hand, Spartan girls had a totally different education. In addition to learning domestic skills, Spartan girls learned how to be warriors.
Their schooling was not as brutal as the boys, but all girls in Sparta could wrestle and fist fight and handle a weapon. The Spartans believed that strong women produced strong babies. By teaching these women defensive skills, they could protect the land while their husbands were out at war. Once a Greek girl was of age, she was ready to get married. A woman’s father controlled her before her marriage and afterwards the responsibility fell upon her husband. Most women in ancient and classical times were married in their early teens to much older husband.
Marriage was a means of creating a political alliance or even as a social tool. For example, Redfield stated “…by using money to capture women with land they were able to turn money into land. The women were thus the vehicles by which land came into the hands of the few…The transfer of property through women thus led to oliganthripia” (Redfield 160). This last quote illustrates how some men used marriage as a way to raise themselves on the social ladder. Marriages were arranged and often the bride did not meet her husband until the day of the wedding.
Once an Athenian girl reached sexual maturity, she would be married and removed from her parents’ house to her husband’s house. Spartan marriage had a mysterious “cross dressing” ritual, in which the bride would shave her and put on men’s clothing and later on have sexual intercourse with the groom. In both societies, marriage was seen as a sacred union that was seen as a duty to the gods, the state and to the bride and grooms ancestors. The social life of women in ancient Greece often mirrored the submissive female image.
Athenian women were restricted from participating in outside events, which men were only allowed to participate. From time to time, women were allowed to socialize with their female friends at the local water fountains. However, during cult ceremonies of major religious festivals, women were allowed to participate in these events, only under one circumstance, they must be accompanied by their kyrios, or male guardian, be that her husband or any other male relative. All in all, religious festivals were a social outlet for women.
For example, in the case of Thesmophoria, a festival for Demeter, men were excluded entirely, and women were able to freely walk around without her kyrios. Adherents of the cult of Dionysus were called maenads and were mainly women. When they were inspired by Dionysus they surrendered to a newfound sense of freedom and well-being, this inspiration came mainly from wine, which Dionysus was god of. This gave women an opportunity to break free from their usual confinement in the Greek culture. Women’s involvement in these festivals was not only significant because they made an integral part of the fabric of society, but it also ave them an opportunity to participate in the outside world. The women of Sparta were not like the other women of Greece, shut in their houses, instead they exercises and displayed their limbs. Since Sparta emphasized the importance of warfare, Spartan women were able to go out in public unescorted and participate in athletic contests. The Olympic Games were a very important and exciting PanHellenic game, but like any other social event women were not allowed to participate. There was an exception however, in Sparta there was a festival in honor of Hera.
This festival included foot races and other athletic events for unmarried women. The importance of this event is seen in Plutarch’s “Life of Lycurgus” when he states, “But even to the women Lycurgus paid all possible attention. He made the maidens exercise their bodies … in order that the fruit of their wombs might have vigorous root in vigorous bodies and come to better maturity, and that they themselves might come with vigor to the fullness of their times, and struggle successfully and easily with the pangs of child-birth… ”.
The previous quote illustrates the reason behind why Spartan women had more freedom than Athenian women. The idea that a fit woman would produce future fit babies that would eventually becoming strong soldiers was ideal for a city state that valued military in their society. Unlike women in Athens, Spartan women had small influence in politics. Women asserted themselves in political affairs by seeking to control the male office holders. They made greed a force in the state. The women of Sparta became the pawns, and sometimes the actors, in the competitive relations between the home and the state.
Spartan women would voice their opinion in the privacy of their home in the hope of subconsciously influencing their husband. They spoke for everything which Sparta in theory rejected but in practice required. By voicing their demands of the private households they motivated masculine competition, and therefore conclusively “…gave the competitive warriors a refuge from competition, a ‘private nest’…” (Redfield 160). As time began to change, a revolutionary idea began to spread across the Peloponnesian empires, that idea being that women are and should be treated equally as men.
Marilyn Katz states “By the fourth century…a few women rejected traditional roles and turned to the study of philosophy…” (Katz 73). Not only were women denying the status quo, but men were also behind this idea, such as Plato. “The Republic” by Athenian philosopher Plato, argues that in order to create a strong and successful country it is necessary to have strong and intelligent citizens, including women, and therefore, women should get equal education and training as their male counter parts.
Men and women alike possess the qualities which make a guardian; they differ only in their comparative strength or weakness…” (Kishlansky 60). Conclusively, the act of gender exclusion form the public sphere was adopted by the Athenians in the fifth century, a time when democratic ideals of liberty were being institutionalized. Women in Greece were secluded and uneducated not because it was the law, but because it was custom. However, not all Greek woman were subjects of exclusion, Spartan women retained their freedom they enjoyed during earlier years.
For example, Spartan women enjoyed more liberties when it came down to public spheres. Some of those liberties included but were not limited to the ability to freely speak to men, own land, have their own Olympic games and have an opportunity to an education. Plutarch once stated in The Life of Lycurgus, “‘You Spartan women are the only ones who rule their men,’ she [Gorgo] answered: ‘Yes, we are the only ones that give birth to men. ’”, emphasizing the belief that women are equal in intelligence to men.