Harriet Beecher Stowe once wrote, “Women are the real architects of society.” However, in most societies women are not the founders or the architects. As we found with the Hebrews, it is more common for a society to be a patriarchy. Were the Greeks any different? What role did women play in Greek society? Moreover, how has the Greeks’ view of women influenced our own? These are the questions I began with when researching my topic, the role of women in Ancient Greek society. And these are the questions I will attempt to answer in my essay. My hope is that I provide you with an interesting base of information, one with which you may begin to form questions and opinions of your own.
        The society of Ancient Greece was undoubtedly one of a patriarchy. From the words of philosophers to the law of the land, it is evident that men and women were neither considered to be equal, nor treated equally. In fact Aristotle, a leading and influential Greek philosopher, puts the idea most bluntly in his Politics when he says, “As between the sexes, the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject.” The Greek word for woman, “gyne” was also their word for wife. No distinction need be made between the two, which leads one to believe that the Greeks assumed a woman’s primary role was that of a wife.
        According to the law, women were subject to “kyrieia” or guardianship that gave fathers, husbands, brothers, or adult sons the authority to act on their behalf and the responsibility for their support and well-being. Children were also subject to their fathers' guardianship (boys until they reached maturity; girls until they were transferred to the responsibility of their husbands). When a man had a daughter but no sons, his daughter became an epiklêros, or heiress, endowed with the authority to transmit his legacy. She was then married off to her father's nearest male relative (usually his brother) and her sons became their maternal grandfather's heirs. Marriage was virilocal (centered in the husband's house), and involved a woman's transfer from her father's house and authority to those of her husband. The wedding was celebrated with feasting, dancing, and singing. The most important part was the torchlight evening procession, bringing the bride to the groom's house, accompanied by special attendants including the bride’s mother. The groom's mother awaited the couple's arrival in their new home, and the bride's entrance into her new home was celebrated with a special ritual performed at the hearth. The festivities continued the next day, when friends and family brought gifts to the new couple. The legally binding moment was the betrothal, a contract between the groom and the bride's father, which also fixed the terms of the dowry.
        Greek law makes it clear that women were essentially ‘owned’ by men. From the Greek perspective, women could not be trusted to handle their own personal affairs, or to support themselves. They were to be under the guidance and instruction of a man at all times, whether it be their father, husband, or another male relative.
According to the Greek philosopher Xenophon in his Oeconomicus, a woman’s role in society is limited. One major responsibility, after marriage, was producing heirs for her husband. Xenophon believed that God had created women for this purpose and he also believed that since God “had created in the woman and had imposed on her the nourishment of the infants, he meted out to her a larger portion of affection for new-born babes than to the man.” One speaker in a fourth century-oration commented, "We have hetaerae for pleasure, concubines for the daily care of the body, but wives to bear us legitimate children and to be the trusted guardians of our household." Another reports "after the birth of my child, I had every confidence [in my wife] and entrusted all of my affairs to her, presuming that there was complete intimacy between us." A woman's interest in her husband's household was secure only through the birth of children. From then on, she became guardian of the household stores, and was entrusted with oversight of its day-to-day functioning.
Clearly, a woman who could not bear her husband children was incompetent and undesirable. In order to feel safe and protected, and to ensure her status in the home, a woman in ancient Greek society had to produce heirs.
In Xenophon’s Oikonomikos he says, “God from the first adapted the woman’s nature, I think, to the indoor and man’s to the outdoor tasks and cares. For he made the man’s body and mind more capable of enduring cold and heat, and journeys and campaigns; and therefore imposed on him the outdoor tasks. To the women, since he has made her body less capable of such endurance, I take it that God has assigned the indoor tasks…” The epic work, The Odyssey by Homer, echoes this belief. "Man's job is in the fields, the agora, the affairs of the city; women's work is spinning wool, baking bread, keeping house."
Xenophon, Aristotle, and other great minds of the time thought men and women are, by nature, provided with opposite faculties, which nevertheless provide for the "partnership" of the household. Men, for example, are naturally adapted for movement, while women's nature is sedentary and patient; courage is given to men and fear to women so that man can defend the household and woman can preserve it. This further instilled the need for a woman’s role to be dictated by the men who controlled her. Let there be no mistake made, the woman’s place is in the home. These great philosophers explain this as certain truth, unwritten-law, unchangeable human nature, supposedly because it is the way God made women rather than the way society defines them.
In the Republic, Socrates catalogues women's customary occupations as, "weaving and baking and cooking." Spinning and weaving were the job of women to display their artistic skills. Socrates once advised Aristarchus, burdened with the support of his female relatives, to set them to work at the loom. For a woman, spinning and weaving was creative as well as practical. It was a daily occupation in the home and an act rich with religious significance. A woman also oversaw her son’s upbringing until he reached the age of seven, when his education was taken over by the men, and until her daughters departed for marriage. When it came their turn, daughters performed the tasks they had watched their mothers doing and which they had learned by practicing at their sides. Women were also expected to participate in obligatory religious rituals. Girls in Athens and Sparta participated in ritual associations. Spartan girls competed in athletic contests at Olympia in honor of Hera, goddess of marriage, and Athenian girls took part in races to honor Artemis at her sanctuary.
In his Politics and Ethics, Aristotle defends the subordination of wife to husband. “Consequently, man is made to rule and woman to be ruled, but not in the manner of a slave.” Aristotle stresses the distinction between the status of women and the status of slaves. “And it is fitting that he should approach his wife in honor, full of self-restraint and awe; and in his conversation with her, should use only the words of a right-minded man, suggesting only such acts as are themselves lawful and honorable. And if through ignorance she has done wrong, he should advise her in a courteous and modest manner.” Although women were absolutely inferior to men, they were not to be treated savagely. If they performed their ‘duties’ and did them well, they should be treated with respect. Although a little misguided, in my opinion, Aristotle at least had somewhat of the right idea.
A man who committed adultery with another man's wife could be killed on the spot, whereas rape was punishable by a fine. This shows that if a woman ‘belonged’ to another man, any man who slept with her, even with her consent, should be punished severely. However, if this same woman did not belong to another man, it was okay for a man to violate her, even without her consent. Adultery was serious mainly because it brought into question the legitimacy of the husband's children. A husband was required to divorce an adulterous wife, and she was punished further by exclusion from the city's religious rituals. This may not sound stern, but indeed it was, given that the women's entitlements in society involved principally the rights to bear legitimate children, to participate in religious festivals for women, and to assume an honored place in other public religious celebrations.
Because a woman’s main role in life was to oversee the activities of her home, the Greeks believed there was limited need for education. It is not until the end of the fourth and the third centuries B.C. that there is evidence of education and schooling for girls in the Greek world. Among the wealthy, however, women learned to read and gathered in private homes to share music and poetry. On a series of vases beginning in the mid-fifth century BCE, women are portrayed reading together from papyrus book-rolls, playing the lyre while reading the notes from a papyrus "score", and checking boys' recitations against a papyrus text. On other vases, groups of women appear to be holding contests in singing and recitation among themselves.
Only those women from less respectable classes of society, the old, or those whose family had fallen on hard times, worked outside the home. Even then, the occupations they assumed were hardly advanced professional positions, but rather street-venders, midwifery, matchmaking and child-care. Women who had to work were viewed as lesser since they learned low wages for lowly trades, working side-by-side with resident aliens and slaves, and had to encounter men. This last one may seem insignificant, but the avoidance of it was clearly the primary aim of keeping women at home in the first place. Aristotle reports that in democracies it was impossible to keep poor women from going out, and it was in fact not just a sign of immodesty, but also of poverty for free women to circulate in the public spaces of the polis.
As there are exceptions to every rule, some women were able to participate successfully in more respectable occupations, such as writing. Many of these women concentrated on those matters that most affected them, devoting themselves to their own sex. For example Sappho, a seventh-century poetess, dedicated many of her love-songs to other woman and girls. In addition, Erinna, a fourth-century poetess, is famous for a poem she wrote in memory of her friend Baucis, a young girl always by her side. Women dwelt on themes of important friendships with young girls, presenting the ideas of happiness and the innocence of childhood and likewise the horror of this lost innocence at an early age when forced into unwanted marriages. Although the work of both women has been admired and imitated by poets throughout later ages, Athenian playwrights mocked them.

When it comes to the medical profession, other than acting as midwifes or assisting their friends in childbirth, women generally did not have a place in this world. If a woman seriously wanted to pursue the study of medicine, she might have gone to the extreme of masquerading as a man. In one story, a young Athenian woman called Agnodike, cut off her hair and dressed as a man so she could travel to Alexandria to study medicine and midwifery in 300 BC under the famous doctor, Herophilus. Upon her return to Athens, she opened a practice still disguised as a man. Many women at the time were too modest to see male doctors and as a result, were dying in childbirth because of complications. Agnodike would lift up her clothes to reveal her true sex in order to pacify her reluctant patients. She became so popular among female patients that the jealous male doctors had her prosecuted on the charge of corrupting men’s wives, a charge relating to the Hippocratic oath. She surprised the court by stripping off her clothes and revealing herself as a woman. Unfortunately, by doing this she brought two different charges upon herself: one, being a woman physician, and the second practicing under false pretences.
The women of Athens protested the charges and succeeded, saving Agnodike and allowing her to practice medicine as a woman. The law was from then on changed and it became possible for freeborn Athenian women to work in the medical profession, restricted to female patients only. However, it is unclear whether this success story is completely true or not, and if it is there are none others like it. It is the closest thing to the women’s movement that I have found in my research. Perhaps Gloria Steinem learned a thing or two from the persistent spirit of the ancient Greek women. It is possible that this Greek society inspired more than just patriarchy, but was inspiration for the will to change, as well.
Greek women did not participate directly in the political and military affairs of the city. During their lives, even their public visibility was restricted by a number of limitations both formal and informal, such as the custom observed by the orators of not identifying respectable women by name. When women died, however, their names and lives were celebrated and enshrined on marble gravestones, erected and sometimes inscribed by family members. On them, the dead woman frequently clasps her husband's or mother's hand, in a gesture of last farewell. When inscriptions appear, they proclaim her virtue and record the grief of those she leaves behind. Only in death do the Greeks seem comfortable with valuing the worth of a woman.
Plato argued differently than his fellow philosophers. In the Republic, he says that justice, in both the human soul and in the state, is genderless. While differences in the capacity for it exist, they are correlated more closely with distinctions of class or type rather than sex. Plato's ideal state is similar to Sparta’s political system, where both the private and public life of the citizen was organized communally. Public education (the agôgê) was structured around a system of age-grades, and military training provided in the syssitia ("dining clubs") to which men of twenty were elected and where they dined daily even after marriage. The upbringing of girls in Sparta was also state-supervised, and included institutionalized training in dancing and athletics. In Plato's Republic, boys and girls are given the same education, with an emphasis on mathematics, but there is little evidence that girls in the historical Sparta learned to read and write.
Our society has generally evolved past the primitive notion that women are inferior to men, and our mindset is in many ways more similar to that of Plato’s than Aristotle’s. However, we also have much in common with the misogynistic tendencies of the ancient Greeks. Some of what Xenophon and his contemporaries have to stay would not be so easily dismissed as wrong or absent in the outlook of people today.
Xenophon says that God gave woman a larger portion of affection for newborns because he has imposed on her body the nourishment of the infants. Isn’t it generally assumed that the majority of women are instilled with a need to mother and nurture? Consider how often we praise a woman’s “motherly instincts.” The Greeks also believed that God gave women the less complementary trait of fear, and more was given to woman than men. We too, as a society, are guilty of the general stereotype that women are less brave and courageous than men. For centuries women been portrayed as damsels in distress, in need of saving rather than capable of saving themselves.
The Greeks believed God assigned women the indoor tasks of keeping house and child rearing, while appointing men the rougher outdoor tasks. The concept that a woman’s place is in the home, is one that has certainly graced the stage of American society. Although now considered old-fashioned or even politically incorrect, that idea was at one point in very recent history a foundation of our society. The woman’s place was in the home raising a family, while the man’s place was in the workplace. We have struggled to reject the biased and unfortunate idea that a woman’s place in society should be limited to the white picket fence bordering her front yard, an unwise idea we may have inherited from the Greeks.
Many of the other concepts I mentioned, such as women being the weaker, more fearful, more nurturing and affectionate sex, are no longer entirely accepted as appropriate in our society, but were at one point and continue to be evident in one form or another today. They are still present in some fashion because they were once central to our culture and continue to shape us as a people. Although it is now okay for a woman to work outside the home, it is less common for her to be the sole breadwinner for her family and have her husband stay at home to raise the children. We have changed, but we have not changed completely. We have, in essence, built ourselves a modified form of patriarchy.
As unattractive as the fact may be, we must admit that our society has its foundation in a patriarchy and that it still exists in an adapted form. Although women certainly do have more power and influence today than they once did, it is generally still a man’s world. We have only just begun to acknowledge and celebrate women as a valuable and important part of our society. As recently as 1980 the UN reported that, “Women constitute half the world's population, perform nearly two-thirds of its work hours, receive one-tenth of the world's income and own less than one-hundredth of the world's property.” Clearly, we have a long way to go. Still, progress has been made. Now, it is not just male superheroes saving damsels in the movies, but we have a teenage girl, Buffy, slaying vampires and fighting evil of all kinds. Fight scenes are no longer reserved for men alone, as Laura Croft and Charlie’s Angels participate in dazzling and difficult combat as well.
Surely, if so many ties can be traced from us to the Greeks, we could not have so many similarities with a society that was completely and entirely against women. The Greeks must have looked at women as something more than just a person to feed their children and clean their homes. They must have acknowledged some deeper value in this highly competent sex as we have acknowledged it in our world today. This is evident with Aristotle’s observations in Politics. Although he supports the essential element of a patriarchy, the idea that men are superior and must govern over women, he is also able to acknowledge that women deserve to be treated well by men. Despite the fact that we try to move past the belief that women are inferior, we agree with the Greeks in the sense that both women and men should treat one another well. Plato was certainly unique in his time because of his belief that justice and equality should be genderless. However, he still existed in Ancient Greece. The idea that men and women might be equal, had begun to take root even then.
The Greeks irrefutably had a patriarchy. We inherited many ideas and beliefs from the Greeks, and this one is no different. However, we have moved past the black and white world of a stiff patriarchy, and are now navigating our way through the shaded gray of a modified one. The Greeks should also be credited for this. For being the curious people that they were, and we having inherited such curiosity, we are not comfortable in merely staying where we stand. We are constantly growing and changing, and striving to develop more fully. Which explains May Sarton’s remark that, “Women are at least becoming persons first and wives second, and that is how it should be.”