Athenian Women Essay

This essay has a total of 1968 words and 9 pages.


Athenian Women




Athenian society was very dynamic in many areas while it was strict in regard to the
treatment of women. Although Athenian women were protected by the state and did not know
a different way of living, they were very stifled and restricted. The only exception was
slaves, and heteria, prostitutes, and this was due to the fact that they had no male
guardians. Since these women were on there own they had to take care of themselves, and
therefore were independent. In a more recent and modern way of viewing the role of a
woman, independence and freedom to do as one likes is one of the most important aspects of
living. In Athens the wives had none of this freedom and the prostitutes did. Who then
really had a “better” life, those who had all protection and no freedom, or those who had
all freedom and independence?

“Every Athenian girl expected to be married, and marriage and motherhood were considered
the fulfillment of the female role.” This was what a woman’s life was headed towards and
was thought to be the purpose of life. For a young girl to die before she had children
was a fate thought of as being extremely sad. Women did not marry for love; the reason
for marriage was usually for economic purposes or for political ties. The marriages were
arranged by a kyrios, the man looking after the marriageable woman. This man was required
to give her a dowry and then arrange for her marriage, usually a marriage that would in
some way benefit him. The Kyrios could not keep or use the dowry, but had to give it to
the husband of the female he was looking after, “the absence of a dowry could be used in
court as at least circumstantial evidence that no marriage…had taken place.” The
marriage was all settled without consultation of the female.

“…Often I pondered the status of women: we are nothing. As small girls in our father’s
house, we live the most delightful life, because ignorance keeps children happy. But
when we come to the age of maturity and awareness, we are thrust out and battered away,
far from the gods of our forefathers and parents, some to good homes and some to abusive
ones. And after one single joyful night live, we are compelled to praise this
arrangement and consider ourselves lucky.”

Sophocles, Fragment 583 from terus.

A scorned wife spoke this in one of Sophocles’ lost plays. Sophocles has seized the
essence of what it means to be a woman in Athens at this time.

The marriage of an Athenian woman and man is hard to define exactly because there has not
been an exact word translated that is equivalent to the word, “marriage.” The Athenians
have words that translate as physical acts for a marriage for the sake of having a child,
they also have words that translate as “cohabit” or “live together.” This leads to the
conclusion that our traditional connotation of marriage as a bond is not the way it was in
Athens. The reasons for a man and a woman to be joined in marriage were nor for love, as
we would expect, it would be for profitable and more pragmatic reasons. Usually most
beneficial to the male’s in the bride’s life. Since the women were not supposed to be
unattended they are assumed to have accepted what was decided for them in terms of a
husband. “…A husband normally addresses his wife as “woman.” The Greek word for woman,
is Gyne, literally means “childbearer.”

Wives are not allowed to leave the house and any work will be done within the house along
with the slaves. The man was, “free to engage in politics, and intellectual and military
training, athletics.” Women were not free to do any of the things that man would.
Although they may not have even known what they were missing, nor perhaps were they even
interested in it, but the choice was not theirs to make. Men utilized the domestic skills
of women but still thought of them as inferior. “Women’s work was productive, but
because it was the same as slaves work, it was not highly valued.” Wives were not
thought of as being intellectual in any way. They were not allowed to leave the home, if
an errand needed to be done, a slave woman would be sent.

Water had to be fetched from a fountain and was considered a female chore, however this
was among the jobs of a servant, “fetching water involved social mingling, gossip at the
fountain, and possible flirtations.” This sort of thing would be considered unacceptable
for a wife to handle. Women were not trusted and thought to be highly susceptible to
sexual intimacy and flirtation. Since the men placed no real value beside domestic labor
on the servant women it was fine for them to gossip and or flirt. What happened to them
was inconsequential. The wives were expected to produce citizens for their husbands,
preferably male. This is similar to if something was needed at the market, a servant
would be sent, however the servant would most likely be a male because a woman would be
assumed incompetent for monetary dealings. Men in Athenian society had “the feeling that
purchase or exchange was a financial transaction too complex for women, as well as the
wish to protect women from the eyes of strangers and from intimate dealings with
shopkeepers.” There were set views and expectations of how women were supposed to
interact with others outside the home. The wives were not allowed to leave, while some
female servants were permitted to do things that were determined to be trifling.

Adultery in Athens had strict ramifications in Athenian society. If a male was caught in
the act of adultery with another man’s wife this constituted justifiable homicide. Along
with war or accidental killing within an athletic contest, killing and adulterer was also
legal. In a documented prosecution dealing with adultery, a man “who had killed another
man he found in the act of adultery with his wife, the husband has the statute read to the
jury as part of his defense that the killing was justified.” The woman who is involved
in adultery must suffer the consequence of divorce. “The husband who takes his wife in
adultery must divorce her.”

Women were expected to be hidden from society that if a wife simply answered the door, she
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