Pragmatic Organization and the Inequality of Women in Ancient Greece

A Critique of Traditional Interpretations of the Status of Women

Contemporary culture has seen a growing sentiment that women are equals to men. While I am apt to agree with this sentiment, I must ask: on what footing are they equal? Western civilization is a direct product of ancient Greek thought. Their ideologies influenced the development of every aspect inhabiting our culture, our moral code for conduct. From notions of individuality to politics and governance, from Christianity to learning and the arts and endless other cultural artifacts that occupy our historical traditions. In recent decades there has been a rise of feminism thanks to a surge in the value of individuality and humanity as a whole rather than discrepancies in social constructs like race and gender. In Greek culture the female was glorified and valued, as they were represented as prestigious gods like Athena who embodied virtues like justice, warfare, and wisdom, but their status in society remained noticeably unequal. Why is this? I would like to examine why the ideologies differed amongst writers, why some women were able to transcend the prevailing attitudes, and determine whether the ideological tradition of gender inequality in Greek society found permeating throughout the ages were originally justified.

A fundamental fulcrum in which Ancient Greece society revolved around was the oikos, the household. It was the nucleus of organization and values that permeated into and reflected onto the structure of culture as a whole. The basic framework consisted of the male as the kurious— or lord, master, guardian– ruling over a plot of land occupied by the oikos which consisted of a single wife, children, and conquered slaves. In the city of Athens the function of the oikos was one of utility: self-preservation. Every household was a center for managing the production of resources drawn from the land for sustenance. Trade economy developed as households as they concentrated into the polis and households interacted as the role of division of labor increased.

Nomos in ancient Greek meant law or custom and referred to the structuring of daily experience. It was derived from the word nemō, meaning “I distribute, dispense”. The word oikonomikos, translated today as economics, referred to the law of the house hold. The male or kurios was responsible for leadership, protection and external affairs, internal management within the oikos was the responsibility of the wife. In this way each oikos possessed a nomos— laws or structure of daily activities– that was distributed or dictated by the kurios. In addition to managing the internal household affairs , the wife provided the household with children for labor and more importantly a way for the male to preserve and pass on his assets to future generations. This was not an inferior role but one of great responsibility and required that women had a good intellect and managing abilities.

It was well known and acknowledged that women were intellectually capable, possessing the same natural capacities as men, but because they were not formally educated they were not widely praised for their intellect. Socrates discusses this in Plato’s Republic (455d,e) when he debates whether women were fit to be guardians and therefore worthy of being educated. Though controversial to ideology at the time, Socrates insightfully concludes that because only their pursuits and bodily natures different, their abilities differ, but because they possess equal intellectual capacities they were capable of being educated and therefore could serve as guardians of the polis. In fact, many women did contribute to the polis, indirectly. Aspasia famed for her intellectual abilities and prowess and was considered a driving influence behind many of her husband Pericles policies.

As a result of the oikos organization the role of the woman was all important. Hesiod says that “there is no better possession for a man than his wife”(Word and Days, 695). Rather than a relationship of dominant rule, husband and wife was very much a companionship working together and relying on one another for the support and success of the oikos. However, it was considered vital that the male “trained” her appropriately and instilled his nomos so that the household could be managed well and efficiently. This was accomplished by marrying very young, around four years after puberty as Hesiod notes . The Greeks were very practical people from not on only a survival point of view but a social point of view. Hesiod says that men should marry a woman who lives near you and who is beautiful. I imagine that marrying a local woman may have played an important role in ensuring they shared similar values, perhaps a similar nomos that they would be familiar with and readily adapt to. In addition I speculate that this may have also made good business sense. By leveraging their marriage contract and keeping a good relationship with the wife’s father a husband would maintain social and perhaps political and economic ties.

Aristotle fell short of understanding the practical elements to his culture that led woman to possess their status. He viewed their virtues as inferior rather than acknowledging that, as Socrates and Plato did, because their roles differed they manifested and required a different set of morals, or values that presuppose and determine their actions. This is why he misconstrues the quote by Sophocles “Silence gives grace to women.” The reason this was important was due to the structure of the oikos that established men as the guardians, originally out of necessity because of their masculine strength and ability to protect and guard the household. Later the wife’s subordination became a matter of practicality in ensuring a single leadership in the home, a single nomos that unified the operations of the oikos through the will of the kurios or lord and any division was detrimental to its flourishing. With the male involved with external political and business affairs this was a practical solution to maintaining cohesion rather than any reflection of the female’s capabilities or lack thereof.

As a consequence of the organization of the oikos Greek society developed a culture that exploited this hierarchy as a result of some innately inferior qualities. They failed to see that the utility of maintaining a single oikonomikos is analogous to maintaining a single nomos or law within society, both of which ensure a structural framework for cohesive collaboration, a single vision for achieving eudemonia.

While there are no doubt physical differences among men and women that contributed to the gender prejudice within Greek culture, such as their hormonal propensities causing irrationality in periods of menstruation perhaps, I believe much of these differences were products of the cultural organization which was itself initially formed through practical purposes. It is likely that it was exactly these biases that were captured by Hesiod when he refers to them as a paradoxical necessary and baneful breed, and Semonides when he compared to them as various animals. However, more than likely such descriptions were indicative of the struggle for woman and man unify in agreement and consent to a single nomos, as well as the difficulty of possessing a physically and intellectually attractive wife that other men would desire after. Features like this would lead to the profusion of ideas that women were inferior or defective and contribute to their segregation.

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