Women in Ancient and Classical Greece

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It’s a boy!It’s a girl!How many times have you seen these signs around your neighborhood?The happy parents are announcing the birth of their child, regardless of the gender.If these signs were to exist in ancient Greece, one would see mostly “It’s a boy!” posted around the houses.One would not find a family who would acknowledge publicly that they had a baby girl.Women in ancient Greece were seen as a liability, and their only value to society was their ability to give birth, preferably to boys.Therefore, women were secluded, subjugated and muted. 

When a boy was born to a Greek family, it was a cause for celebration; the arrival of a girl, however, did not bring as much happiness to the family circle.Once a wife gave birth to a baby, its kyrios, or guardian (who was usually the father), decided whether or not to keep the infant and raise it, or to expose it.Evidence suggests that “girls were exposed more often than boys,” although this is not certain. (Demand 6)If it was decided that the baby was to be exposed, it was usually given to a servant so the servant could leave it somewhere at the mercy of the elements.This way, if the infant died, the family would not have blood on its hands because they did not directly murder the baby.If the guardian decided to raise the infant girl, it was given a name on the fifth or seventh day after its birth.During the amphidromia, the ceremony that was restricted only to the members of the oikos, or family, and those present at birth, the baby was officially welcomed to the family.The girl was named at amphidromia, as opposed to a boy whose name was given to him during the , more expansive ceremony, which occurred on the tenth day after the birth of a baby where all the relatives feasted and were entertained.(8)The girls often received the feminine form of the male names.By thus naming the girl, the males were already preparing her for the life under the constant guardianship of a male.Even though it was a feminine form of a masculine name, the women were never referred to by their first names.One would think that since the name showed that the female was already under the guardianship of a male, one could refer to the female by her name.However, this was not so.The women’s names were not known outside of the family, and they were only used within the oikos.In public the women were acknowledged as the daughters of their fathers, or if married, as wives of their husbands.By not referring to women by their own names, the men robbed them of their identity.The women became objects that were identifiable only according to their status in relation to the men in their lives.

Women were not seen as permanent members of the oikosto which they were born.They were seen as transitory members who were to leave the household upon their marriage; meanwhile, because they depleted the oikos’ resources, they were seen as a liability.After about 14 years, a girl would leave the oikos to marry and “become mother in rival oikos.”(3)Since each oikos was self-sufficient,another oikos was viewed as a rival since the other household had a potential to ruin the independence of any other oikos. (Ibid)A woman’s function in an oikos was to give birth to sons who would continue the family line; sons participated in the family business, which sustained the oikos.When sons married, their wife’s dowry enriched the household, and they were obligated to take care of their old parents.Sons were seen as a resource because their activities helped to enrich and sustain the independence of their native oikos.Therefore, when a girl was born, she was destined to leave the household, once she married, and enrich the household of her husband with children, over which she would have no right or claim.Before the girl could be married, however, she had to be provided with a dowry.A father, therefore, would have only as many girls as he could provide a decent dowry for.It was required that a girl had a dowry upon marriage because it protected her from frivolous divorce, and it was used by her husband to support her.The dowry, therefore, had to be of considerable size.This added another burden on the household.The money was taken out of the oikos and given away in the form of a dowry for the girl.Before the girl was successfully married off, however, she could cause dishonor to fall upon the family.If that were to happen, then the father would not be able to arrange any successful marriages for his remaining daughters, and especially for the one that disgraced the family.Therefore, the girls were kept within an oikos and were watched very carefully.

There was only one occasion when the family was happy that they had a daughter.If there were no surviving sons in the oikos, the girl became an epikleros, or an heiress to her father’s estate and remained in her father’s oikos to bear sons and continue the family line.Being an epikleros, however, did not mean that she was free of male guardianship.The law required that the closest male relative from her father’s side marry her or arrange a marriage for her and provide her with dowry.The sons from the marriage would be counted as belonging to her native oikos and would inherit their grandfather’s estate. (Ibid)Still, the family rejoiced not at the fact that they had a daughter, but at the fact that she would produce sons, so her father’s male line would not die out.

While growing up, the girl received training that prepared her for her future station as a wife and mother.Her domestic duties consisted of helping to care for her younger siblings.In the process, she was learning how to care for her own child in the future, so she might have also been taught how to read and write, but only enough to enable her to manage the household of her future husband.The girls’ lives were uneventful.They were kept in seclusion in the oikos, hearing, seeing and saying as little as possible. (10)Usually only married women participated in religious rituals; therefore, the first major event of a girl’s life was marriage.The seclusion of the girls was necessary so they would not disgrace the family, and their training in domestic duties made them more desired wife.

Marriage was a practical business; since girls were not educated and did not know anything about business, marriage was arranged by their father.Preliminary negotiations were carried out in secret, so as to avoid an affront to the family honor by a public rejection. (11)Once everything was agreed upon, the marriage took place, in three steps.First, there was theengue, betrothal or pledging of the bride and transfer of dowry; the bride was not present or even mentioned while this took place.It was followed bygamos, the wedding celebration, followed by sacrifices and the traditional procession from the bride’s house to her future home, the house of her husband.The procession took place at night, with the bride’s head bowed down and covered by a veil so no one could see her face.Therefore, a bystander would only know that a daughter of someone was being married to someone else.He would only hear the name of the bride’s father and husband, but not know the bride’s name or her appearance.The third and final step, which solidified the union, was cohabitation or sunoikein. (Pomeroy 36)

A girl, therefore, did not actively participate in the most important event in her life, marriage.She was marrying a man, usually twice as old as she was who was chosen by her father.She had never laid eyes on this man, and now she must leave her own family, live with him and bear his children.The marriage ceremony did not make up for the fact that the girl had to leave everything familiar and enter an unknown household.The fact that the girl was not mentioned during the first step of the marriage and the fact that she was not even acknowledged by name during the procession, further proves that, in ancient Greece men viewed women only as objects.In other words, marriage reaffirmed women’s subordinate status.She was not even asked whether she wanted to marry or not; she was just told that she would.The daughter’s consent, therefore, was disregarded.The mother’s knowledge of the marriage match was limited, too.The father might not necessarily let his wife know that he had decided to arrange a match for his daughter.The pronoun “his” was used to refer to the children, of a marriage because by law, the children belonged to and remained with the father in case of divorce.The mother’s role and personal interest in her daughter’s life were disregarded as well.During the ceremony, the bride was acknowledged only as a daughter and a future wife.This signified a transfer of guardianship over the girl, from her father to the husband.She was just an object who was known through her relationships to the men in her life.

Marriage in the girl’s life was a very important and intimidating step for her.When she entered her husband’s household, she was welcomed with mixed feelings by the mother-in-law.On one hand she was brought in so the oikos could reproduce, and she also brought a dowry with her.On the other hand, she came from a rival household and was a possible threat to the oikos’ honor because she could easily bring disgrace to the family. (Demand 4)For the girl herself, entrance to the new household was very traumatic because it forced her to leave everything familiar behind and enter a new environment, which was not very welcoming.In order for her to be able to establish herself as a member of her new family and become a gyne, or woman-wife, she had to give birth to a child.During the first months of the marriage, all attention was on the new bride.The teenage girl was under enormous pressure to get pregnant.If she did not conceive in the first few months, she became the subject of fertility tests and conception treatments.The tests and especially treatments were quite harsh.Sometimes the girl did not even survive them. (18)When the girl finally became pregnant, she had other obstacles in her path, which she had to overcome before she finally could give birth to a healthy baby.One of the greatest dangers was that the age of childbearing was very young.The girls were undernourished in infancy, because it was believed that girls “required less food than males and that growing girls were less fed than boys.”(8)When the girls did not get proper nutrition in their childhood, it affected their health and ability to carry healthy babies.When she was finally ready to give birth, “the uterus became more open since the child was advancing through it and causing violence and pain.”(19)The quotation has been taken from Hippocratic treatise, Nature of Woman.Careful Hippocratic physicians, however, found contradicting evidence to this popular belief.Nevertheless, the theory that the woman was a passive agent in childbirth was upheld. (Ibid)The idea that women were passive during childbirth was still believed (even though there was evidence against it) and further verified that women were seen as vehicles who carried children until the child was ready to come out him/herself, without the mother’s help.

Once the woman gave birth, she was on her own about how to care for the newborn.Medical books of the period, as well as the doctors, were of little help to the new mother.Neither provided much instruction on the care for a newborn, so the mother had to use her knowledge from childhood, when she helped raise her siblings, or rely on the help of the neighbors, or the midwife, or her mother-in-law.Sometimes, she had to rely on popular beliefs.If the child was a girl, she would feed her less and wean her earlier because it was thought that girls required less food.The mother, herself, following popular opinions of society and of male doctors was raising her daughter in such a way that as an adult, she would have problems during childbirth.Poor nutrition contributed to the risk of a fatal or complicated pregnancy; in addition, mother’s poor nutrition also put the life of an infant at risk.In addition to bearing the children and raising and caring for them, the wife had a duty to take care of the sick and manage the household.She prepared all the meals, wove clothing for the family, and cleaned and maintained the house and garden, as well as oversaw the slaves’ work.Whenever there was somebody sick in the house, it was the woman’s duty to take care of him or her. (23)

Women left the seclusion of their home very rarely, perhaps a couple of times a year.Mainly, their activities were concentrated around the family.Every year women went to worship Demeter, during the Elunisan mysteries.Demeter was the goddess of fertility, and women asked her to make them fertile.Their other religious activities also centered on their family such as when they went to shrines to ask the divinity to bless their homes.

Women’s religious activities centered on the fact that they were the ones who bore children.If a woman was infertile, she was pitied and it was thought that she had not fulfilled her duty to the state.Therefore, women asked the gods to grant them fertility.If a woman’s relative died and she wanted to attend his or her funeral, she had to be over 60 years old or had to be related to the dead person within degree of a second cousin, in order attend.If somebody died in the woman’s own household, it was her job to prepare the dead for burial.It was considered that if one touched or handled the corpse, one became polluted, so the task was given to women.However, when a woman’s close relative, such as a parent, died in a different part of town and she was not able to attend the funeral, she was still considered polluted, even though she did not see, let alone touch, the corpse.No such evidence exists for men. (Pomeroy 101-106)

When it came to death, however, women were not seen as inferior to men.The tombstone was the first place where a respectable woman’s name could have been seen.She was identified by her name and patronymic, a name that referred to their father’s name.However, very often her demotic, or “deme” name was also given.This showed the unbreakable bond, even in death, of her father’s guardianship over her.On the tombstone, however, a woman was not identified as a mother.It would be degrading to her daughter, if she was still living, but especially if she was to be named a mother of a son, it would imply that she had some authority over him, which was unthinkable. (126-128) Even in death, women were subordinate to men.

“The death of a young girl often elicited lamentations specifically over her failure to fulfill her intended role as a wife,” comments Pomeroy in Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves.Here, she sums up the whole point of women’s existence in ancient Greek society.Women’s entire roles and occupations were to become wives and bear children.Men needed women only to produce heirs for them.In Euripides’ Medea, Jason exclaims “There ought to have been some way for men to beget their children, dispensing with the assistance of women.”(45)The quotation proves that if the men would have been able to continue their line without the help of women, they would have done it.Since they could not, they decided that they would keep the women in a subordinate status of seclusion so they could control their reproduction.Girls were not welcomed to the world with joy, only with the idea that they were needed in order to continue the male line.During their lives, a woman’s job was to bear children to anyone her guardian choose for her. Therefore, when a woman was divorced or her husband died, she was very soon remarried.Her activities centered on her fertility and her family.Throughout her life, she was identified as a possession of men and was known only as their wife, daughter, or sister.This continued through to her death.She was never acknowledged as a mother, even on a tombstone, and there, with her name, which for the first time was made public, her father’s name was also given.A woman entered the world, lived in it, and died, known only in relation to males who controlled her life. 

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