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Women of Ancient Greece


            Just as a mother nurses a child, the society of ancient Greece, 400 B.C., nurtured and cultivated its demeaning role of women.  In ancient Greece, women endured many difficulties and hardships especially in three main areas.  The problems women encountered in this era occurred within marriage, inheritance and social life.  All three elements shaped and formed the mold of the submissive female.

 

            Marriage, a romanticized idea of being united with a person one loves dearly was the furthest thought from the mind of a woman living in ancient Greece.  Marriage was considered one of the most important decisions and events in a woman’s life, but she had no direct control over it.  However, in ancient Greek society, females were given little voice, if any, in major decisions.  They were denied the freedom to choose whom to marry.  When a young woman was to marry, she was “given in marriage by her male relatives and (her) choice had no legal bearing on the contract” (Sealey, p. 5).  A woman was not allowed to decide whom she wanted to wed, whether she loved her proposed spouse or not.  A woman was not given the opportunity or option to select her husband; therefore she “did not marry; she was given in marriage” (Sealey, p. 25).  Women were not active in making the initial decision, because it was arranged and planned by a father figure or male relative.  A woman, such as Medea, often dreaded the day of her wedding rather than looking forward to it as one of the happiest and meaningful affairs in her life.

 

In ancient cultures, women were seen as objects for they were “given” in marriage by the father to the bridegroom.  Thus, “the word for marriage...betrays its function and character. It was called ekdosis, loan, and so marriage was a transaction” between two men (Arthur, p. 86).  Marriage was seen as an exchange and another opportunity for men to maintain the superior position.  Marriage was seen as a “practical business arrangement, not a love match” (Demand, p. 11).  Additionally, in marriage, the issue of property aroused much conflict, supporting inequality between male and female.

           

            The distribution and ownership of inheritance was quite unfair and complicated.  In ancient Greece, “a woman’s property always remained separate from her husband’s” if she had any at all (Lacey, p. 138).  The husband possessed total control of the property “while he lived,” and “control passed to their children (if adult) or their guardians when he died” (Lacey, p. 138-139).  As you can see, once again the male had maximum authority over the situation.  If a relative or child were to pass away, her inheritance would go directly to the husband, instead of being shared between the husband and wife.  A woman could acquire property if she “ceased to be his wife without leaving him any children” (Lacey, p. 139).  A woman could gain an inheritance under this particular circumstance but she “could not engage in transactions involving property valued at over one bushel” (Arthur, p. 86).  This limit prevented women from gaining any influence or authority in “political and economic operation(s)” (Arthur, p. 86).  Ultimately, the limit of trading at a fixed low currency can be seen as a glass ceiling, which kept woman from attaining a high position in society. 

 

The only circumstance in which a female inherited property was through a male sibling: “wives did not inherit from husbands, nor daughters from fathers; but sisters could inherit from brothers” (Pomeroy, p. 20).  This example indicates that a female only obtained possession of inheritance if a brother passed away and the sister could then claim his property.  Essentially, property “was managed by the (husband, father, son)” (Demand, p. 12).  Additionally, young girls were restricted from getting married if they “had no dowry” (Lacey, p. 108).  Dowry, a form of property or inheritance, was more or less seen as a necessity in order to be considered for marriage.  As you can see, the circumstances of gaining inheritance were restricted and limited for women, and the laws were generally more favorable towards men.  The inequality that existed between men and women within the society of ancient Greece exemplifies a period of great prejudice and discrimination against females.  Along with the problematic issues of property, women came across many boundaries and obstacles relative to social life, maintaining the inferiority among females.

 

            The social life of women in ancient Greece often mirrored the submissive female image.  Women were restricted from participating in outside events in which men were involved.  Since “working out of doors,” was perceived as a place for women to become “potential prey of rapists and seducers” (Pomeroy, p. 21), women were confined indoors.  The house was considered a secure place; however, inside the home, women were often raped by their own husbands.  A social life for a female was only achieved in boundaries “within her husband’s house and the domain of his power” (Lacey, p. 153).  This indicated that a woman was permitted to socialize outside her home if her husband granted her permission and if her husband held a high position or authority in society.  While men were outside the house, trading, hunting and working the fields, “women remained in their houses” (Lacey, p. 168).  The majority of activities girls were involved in were “basically domestic” (Demand, p. 10). 

 

Females were occupied with nurturing their children and carrying out household duties.  Restricted and secluded within the household, women were compared to “mere adolescents” (Pomeroy, p. 21).  Living and working in the home, various responsibilities were imposed on women: “the functions of wife and mother that women had always performed were now construed as a necessity and a duty” (Arthur, p. 85).  The two primary functions for women of the 4th century, were child-bearer and housewife.

 

Bearing children, one of the main roles of women, was especially demanding and stressful.  It was distressing because women were not given a choice about carrying on their family’s name.  If a mother did not give birth to a male child, her daughter would be compelled to carry on the responsibility of producing a make heir: “When there is no son, a daughter can prevent the extinction of the oikos by producing a son” herself (Pomeroy, p. 25).  Giving birth to a girl was seen as an embarrassment and disgrace.  After giving birth to a daughter, a mother would “turn her head away” from her husband “in shame” (Demand, p. 6).  A father would not even consider his own daughters as his children: “men often do not count daughters when asked how many children they have” (Demand, p. 6).  Females were neglected and looked down upon starting the day they were born.  The strain and pressure of carrying on the name of the oikos, a household, lead to the following several appalling situations. 

 

Early marriages led to shocking and disturbing age gaps.   It was seen as the norm for fourteen-year-old girls to marry men of the age of thirty.  Because “the average age of death for men” was forty-five, many “fertile women without a husband” were left behind.  As a result, many “children would be orphaned early in life” (Pomeroy, p. 27).  Furthermore, early marriage and “childbearing” (Demand, p. 102) led to countless “death(s) of a young mother in childbirth” (Pomeroy, p. 27).  To give an idea of the great number of deaths that occurred due to early childbearing, “the death rate of women during childbirth” can be “compared to the death rate of men during war” (Carlson).  Before newborn babies could reach the age of one, “nearly fifty percent of all infants died” (Carlson).   Additionally, all children the women gave birth to would “belong” to the husband’s family more so than to the wife’s side of the family (Thompson).  Here, the children can be seen as an issue of property.  Other than playing the role of the child bearer, females served as housewives.

 

            In ancient Greece, wives were expected to stay in the house and fulfill domestic duties, such as cooking, cleaning, weaving, sewing and looking after the children.  The society of ancient Greece enforced that a “woman’s job…was to supervise the household” (Arthur, p. 88).  Moreover, in the household, the relationship between the wife and husband was “not equal in terms of power” (Pomeroy, p. 22).  Females had a lower social status than males.  In ancient Greece, women were mistreated, degraded and controlled.

           

         Overall, the society of ancient Greece, especially in the period from 800 to 500 B.C. preserved the issues in marriage, inheritance and social life, fostering the debasing roles of women.  The fact that men were denegation superior figures in this society, contributed entirely to the degrading of females.  The issues and restrictions ancient Greek women tolerated, maintained the weak and subordinate view of females.


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