Women in Classical Athens

The controversy surrounding women in classical Athens and some thoughts about a possible Greek articulation of a doctrine of "woman as Other"


Essay, 1987

30 Pages


Excerpt

[2]
List of Contents
INTRODUCTION ... 3
THE CONTROVERSY ... 4
THE WOMAN AS `OTHER' ... 14
Man ­ Woman ... 18
A Possible Greek Articulation of Doctrine of Woman as `Other' ... 20
CONCLUSION ... 25
BIBLIOGRAPHY ... 29

[3]
INTRODUCTION
The whole argumentation about the status of women in classical Greece and
especially in classical Athens can be very easily divided in five categories. I am
confident that although I relied on a very tiny traction of the works that have been
written about the subject, the great diversification of my sources can be trusted and
a representative example of the great controversy surrounding the subject can thus
support my claim.
So, I believe that we can see:
­ At first a category of authors on whom it is very easily to detect an apologia
both for the patriarchal bias of the modern society and for the pretensions
of the ancient and modern world. These authors rely heavily on the evidence
of a logic which sees patriarchal bias as normal.
­ Secondly, we can see especially among Marxist and feminist scholars the
view that likens the Athenian woman's situation to that of a slave, a theory
which is more widely known as seclusion theory.
­ Thirdly, we can see the unsuccessful attempts to analyze the situation in
Athens by using the Freudian tools.
­ The fourth category of opinions is a more clear minded attempt from a part
of some modern feminist writers to start analyzing (leaving aside the Marxist
and Freudian stereotypes) the conscious form in which sexual and familial
conflicts are expressed in the artistic and political life of the Athenian
society.
­ As the fifth category I will examine Foucault's writings on the subject.
­ And finally, I will express some of my own thoughts about a possible Greek
articulation of the woman as `Other', a thing which is just now being
established as a category of research.

[4]
THE CONTROVERSY
Characteristic examples and cornerstones of the first category
1
of views are the well
known studies of Gomme and Kitto
2
. `Most men are interested in women, and
most women in themselves. Let us therefore consider the position of women in
Athens,' says Kitto. And, he asks: would Pericles' dictum (that it was a woman's
virtue to excite neither public blame nor approval) not sound like `old fashioned
deference and courtesy' if Gladstone had uttered it? Does the Athenian wife's lack
of her own name signify anything when, `among ourselves, when Sheila Jackson
marries she becomes Mr. Clark'. The Athenian wife may have been excluded from
symposia, but don't `the gentlemen of London' belong to clubs which `do not
freely admit ladies?'
Gomme and his followers argued similarly. Richter, in 1971, for example explains
that the restrictions of Athenian women's social freedom sprang from `a quite
normal measure of husbandly jealousy and the goings-on of Greek women', whom
he characterized as `as undisciplined a bevy of nymphs as Hellas ever reared'
3
.
The bottom line of the above mentioned school of thought which seems to offer a
defense of modern practice is that Greek theory and practice did not differ
fundamentally from the average prevailing in mediaeval and modern Europe.
I will examine now an article by Mary Lefkowitz
4
which despite its author's
intensions can be easily included in the same category.
1
A category of authors on whom it is very easily to detect an apologia both for the patriarchal
bias of the modern society and for the pretensions of the ancient and modern world. These
authors rely heavily on the evidence of a logic which sees patriarchal bias as normal.
2
Kito, H.D.F. The Greeks. Penguin Book, 1960
3
Richter, Donald. The Position of Women in Classical Athens. Classical Journal 67 (1971)
4
Lefkowitz, Mary. Wives and Husbands. Greece and Rome, Vol. XXX, No1, April 1983

[5]
Mary Lefkowitz starts her article saying that `if recently feminist writers have placed
too much emphasis on the restrictions and limitations of ancient women's lives. At
least they have provided some compensation for the apologetic and uncritical
estimations made before the civil rights movement of the 60's. These earlier studies
had tended to single out the accomplishments of certain exceptional women; they
tended also to leave the impression that since most ancient women did not appear
to have complained about the kind of lives they led they regarded the customs and
Iaws that governed their lives as equitable and natural. It is easy (at least now) to
see that neither premise is acceptable'.
But, immediately after this ambitious start, Lefkowitz changes her aims (without
any explanation), and says: `for many years I doubted whether many intelligent
women took pleasure in leading an anonymous life of service to husband and
family, but now I wonder if I have not been judging ancient women, as I judge
myself, by male standards of accomplishment. Now I would like to re-examine in
detail several documents in which it is possible to discern some of the positive
aspects of conventional life'. Immediately after that, and in search for the positive
aspects of the conventional life Lefkowitz analyzes Semonides of Amorgos'
celebrated satire of women, in that poem the only laudable type of female, the bee
women, is described after a list of eight despicable ones, and as Lefkowitz admits
`since the bee woman herself is followed by reflections on women's deceptiveness,
the post leaves the impression that a good woman is to say the least) exceptional,
because she occupies only 11 of the surviving 18 lines of the poem'.
If we pay a closer attention to these eleven lines of the poem we can find out that:
`the man who gets her (the bee woman) is fortunate, for on her alone blame does
not settle. She causes his property to grow and increase, and she grows old with a
husband whom she loves and who loves her, the mother of a handsome and
reputable family. She stands out among all women, and a godlike beauty plays
about her. She takes no pleasure in sitting among women in places where they tell
stories about love. Women like her are the best and most sensible whom Zeus
bestows on men'.

[6]
It is easy enough to understand from Semonides' poem why the husband loves the
bee woman, but why does she love her husband?
Lefkowitz is never able to give an answer to that question or at least to distance
herself from the `apologetic and uncritical estimations made before the civil rights
movement of the 60's' which she said that she dislikes. She examines a variety of
sources, among them Homer's Odyssey and Iliad, Euripides' Alcesti's, fragments of
lost comedies. Fifth and fourth century grave inscriptions and so on. And what's
her conclusion?
`It is possible to infer from Penelope's remarks', says Lefkowitz, `that a woman has
reason to be faithful if her husband is a person entitled to respect, and if she herself
is well-treated; certainly both she and Helen, because of their husbands; wealth and
position, live in security and comfort'.
What else does Penelope expect (and get) from Odysseus?
`First of all, proof that she in her way is as important to him as he is to her. She
does not demand strict fidelity: neither she nor Helen object to their husbands'
liaisons with other women, so long as they are temporary; Odysseus tells Penelope
about Circe and Calypso; Menelaus is able jointly to celebrate the marriage of
Hermione, his daughter by Helen and of Megapenthes, his son by a slave woman.
But, as her questions about their bed indicate, it is important that they sleep
together; also that he tells her immediately what he knows about his future plans,
since that will affect both of them. But Penelope does not question his right to tell
her what to do, or seek to persuade him not to set out again for new battles and
journeys, since it is success in these that defines his importance in the world, and to
her, because she counts on him (in a society without police and law courts) to
protect her against their many enemies'. In the same article we see that Alcestis'
attitude towards her husband Admetus is much the same as Penelope's to
Odysseus: when she says she had from Admetus everything she needed to make
her happy, the only thing that we can assume from what she says is that Admetus
fulfilled the basic roles of protector and provider.

[7]
These are only a few of the examples that Lefkowitz uses in order to fulfill her aim
which is to find out a possible hidden pleasure in some of the `positive aspects' of
the conventional life which will explain why `so many intelligent women in Ancient
Greece took pleasure in leading an anonymous life of service to husband and
family'.
But I think that her analysis is not able to erase Medea's outcry: `Everything
depends upon whether you get a bad man or a good one'.
The second category of views is more widely known as seclusion theory
5
. It was first
introduced by M. Rostovtzeff
6
. According to him `Democracy banished women
from the street to the house: the kitchen and the nursery, and the gynaeceum, a
special part of the house reserved for women and children, now became their so
here'.
This theory which was standard in textbooks of Greek history and social life
through the early part of this century was challenged by Gomme and others
7
and
has lost a lot of its original appeal. Unfortunately the authors who challenged that
theory as we have already seen rely heavily on a logic which sees patriarchal bias as
normal (Pomeroy
8
; although she defends the arguments of Gomme's dispute over
the status of women in Ancient Greece attributes the various differences about this
status to the `genre of the evidence consulted').
Still, Marxist scholars (and a great part of feminist writers) tend to support this view
and to liken the Athenian woman's situation to that of the slave. The images of
5
We can see especially among Marxist and feminist scholars the view that likens the Athenian
woman's situation to that of a slave, a theory which is more widely known as seclusion theory.
6
Rostovtzeff. M. `A History of the Ancient World' 1: The Orient and Greece (London: Oxford
University Press, 1930).
7
Arthur, Marilyn. Classics. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 1976, Vol. 2 No 2
University of Chicago Press
8
Pomeroy, Sarah. Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. S.O.
Hocken Books, New York, 1975.

[8]
women, slaves and animals are almost interchangeable they say. I will not discuss
here in detail their opinions but I would like to say that among other things they
also fail to appreciate the vast differences between ancient slavery-in which
according to Castoriadis
9
, the administration, technical ­ administrative mechanism,
is composed up to and including its higher echelons (police, keepers of the public
archives, public finance) of slaves' (possibly Donald Regan and certainly Paul
Volcker would have been slaves in Athens, says Castoriadis) ­ and New World
slavery. And they fail also to understand, when they are complaining about the
interchangeability between the images of women and animals, that human reason
was not so clearly separated from animal behavior in Ancient Greece
10
.
The third category of opinions is an attempt to analyze the relations between the sexes
in Ancient Greece by using the Freudian theory. Although these attempts have a
broad appeal they usually are written and supported by people who don't have a
deep understanding of the Freudian theory and their tendency to violate historical,
textual and factual evidences is notorious. A perfect example of that category is
Philip Slater's book `The Glory of Hera'
11
.
Slater's stated purpose in his book is an analysis of Greek family life based on
certain inferences which a study of Greek myth enables us to draw. He begins with
the fact of women's oppression in Greek society and asserts that this had very
damaging effects on the relationship between mother and male child, and hence on
social relations as a whole.
The secluded and derogated wife, married to a man fifteen years her elder, envied
the male prerogatives of which her son was the symbol. Her ambivalent attitude of
9
Castoriadis, Cornelius. The Greek Polis and the Creation of Democracy. Graduate Faculty
Philosophy Journal, Volume 9, Number 2, Fall 1983, New School For Social Research
10
Lonsdale, Steven. Attitudes Toward Animals in Ancient Greece. Greece and Rome, Vol...
No... October 1979
11
Slater, Philip. The Glory of Hera: Greek Mythology and the Greek Family. Beacon Press,
Boston, 1968.

[9]
idealization and seductive love on the one hand and resentful, castrating rejection
on the other was `schizophrenogenetic. Her sons became narcissistic, woman-
hating homosexuals, overly concerned with the male body, competitive in the
extreme. The socially prescribed absence of the father from, the home in the child
developing years deprived him of a male model, for which he sought to
compensate by the homosexual attachments of his early adolescence. The attitude
toward women remained a profoundly ambivalent one characterized by what Slater
calls the `oral-narcissistic dilemma'. This is Slater's somewhat extravagant term for
the simultaneous feelings of desire for the close, protective relationship of infancy
and of hostility toward the devouring and castrating aspects of the female. Greek
men as a whole, that is to say, never managed to translate their early dependency
into true anaclitic love for another, or to transform their impulse toward separation
into a genuine sense of individuality and self-esteem.
I think that when the Freudian theory is used in interdisciplinary studies, outside
the endo-psychoanalytic dialogue, it can be very easily tailored so as to
accommodate the plans of any author that uses it, since, as I have already said,
many authors (and audiences) do not have a real knowledge of it, and, besides that,
the Freudian theory itself is prone to this kind of twisting.
Helen Foley
12
in her article `sex and state in Ancient Greece' by doing a counter
analysis of the Greek tragedies proves that Slater's anxiety to see a particular modal
pattern in the poetic and dramatic treatments of myth by the Greek drama, leads
him to continuous misreading of the plays and to a reading of all human
relationships in drama in terms of the same conflicts (the latter, is to be expected
since Slater takes as given the Freudian assumptions about the human symbolic
life).
12
Foley, Helen. Sex and State in Ancient Greece. Diacritics, Vol..., No......, Winter 1975.
John Hopkins University Press.

[10]
Some of the key parts of Slater's intra familial model are:
­ the remote and therefore relatively untroubled father-son relationship (but,
slaves did most of the child rearing in aristocratic families, so that the
relationship with both parents may have been remote and at least in the
Oedipus' relationship with his sons we can see an open father-son conflict
13
;
­ the troubled relationships between father and daughter (Slater finds that the
close relationship between father and daughter pictured in the `Iphigenia in
Aulis is virtually unique, in fact, as Arthur
14
shows, it occurs quite regularly),
­ the close relationships between mother and daughter (but, no feature in the
three Electra plays is so consistent as the daughter's hatred for her mother!!),
­ the fear of mature women which is developed in early childhood and leads
to a "widespread homosexuality' (but, there is plenty of evidence in Greek
art of strong heterosexual attractions to mature women
15
The fourth category of studies, although has some considerable relations with the
Freudian and Marxist analysis, tries to be more consistent with the historical
evidence of the texts. Characteristic works in this category are the studies of Helene
Foley and Arlene Saxonhouse
16
who by doing a re-reading of the classical plays try
to prove that these texts do not spring out of some conflicts of the unconscious
but from a highly sensitive social consciousness which has been shaped by a
brilliant observation of the tension-laden relationship between city and family, and
male and female.
13
ibid
14
Arthur, Marilyn. Classics. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 1976, Vol. 2 No 2
University of Chicago Press
15
Foley, Helen. Sex and State in Ancient Greece. Diacritics, Vol..., No......, Winter 1975.
John Hopkins University Press.
16
Saxonhouse, Arlene. Aechylus' Oresteia: Misogyny, Philogyny and Justice. Women and Politics,
Vol 4 (2), Summer 1984. The Haworth Press.
Excerpt out of 30 pages

Details

Title
Women in Classical Athens
Subtitle
The controversy surrounding women in classical Athens and some thoughts about a possible Greek articulation of a doctrine of "woman as Other"
Author
Year
1987
Pages
30
Catalog Number
V375514
ISBN (eBook)
9783668529533
ISBN (Book)
9783668529540
File size
393 KB
Language
English
Tags
Patriarchal, Marxist, feminist, Athenian, woman, slave, seclusion, Freud, Foucault, Gomme, Kitto, Pericles, Lefkowitz, civil rights movement, Semonides, Zeus, Homer, Iliad, Penelope, Odysseus, Medea, Sarah Pomeroy, Castoriadis, Freudian theory, Philip Slater, narcissistic, homosexuals, oral, Greek, psychoanalytic, Helen Foley, Greek tragedy, father-son relationship, Oedipus, Iphigenia, Electra, Arlene Saxonhouse, The History of Sexuality, sexual, domination, gender, sexual object, submission, David Halperin, bisexuality, heterosexuality, phallus, penetration, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Jacques Lacan, Republic, Timaeus, metaphysical, soul, Elizabeth Spelman, dualism, Plato, somatophobia, Feminine Sexuality, Marylin Arthur, misogynist, Aristotle, sexual dimorphism
Quote paper
George Dimos (Author), 1987, Women in Classical Athens, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/375514

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