By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University
Given the fact that Athenian women were confined to the four walls of their houses to be controlled by the male members of their family, how did some of them manage to pursue careers in what they aspired to be and stand neck and neck with their male counterparts?
Compensation for Being Athenian Women
For the majority of well-bred Athenian women, living the way they did had its compensations. It gave them security, status, respect, material comfort, and family ties. However, it came with a certain amount of boredom but was certainly better than being a spinster, an unmarried woman, which was a position with low social status in Greek society and little gratification. Most likely a spinster ended up as a kind of servant in the family of a male relative.
If a woman was poor, there would be no slave to do the shopping and other tasks, such as drawing water from the nearest well, so she inevitably enjoyed more freedom—at least to do manual labor. Widows, too, were not constrained in the same way that unmarried girls and married women were.
Calypso and Circe
What about women who chose for whatever reason not to get married? There were portraits of two single women in the earliest Greek literature. Calypso and Circe in the Odyssey were both single, between the age of 30-40, and looking for men to hang out with. Those were goddesses, not mortal Greek women, the Odyssey gives a unique picture. There was no one remotely resembling a Calypso or a Circe in any other literary source. It was inconceivable that there was a singles scene in ancient Greece.
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Highly Accomplished Hetaerae
In real life, there were hetaerae or ‘female companions’, the term sometimes inaccurately translated as ‘prostitutes’. Many hetaerae were highly accomplished, the only women permitted to take their place beside men at symposia or drinking parties. The most famous hetaera of all was Aspasia, the mistress of the powerful Athenian statesman Pericles.
Aspasia fully held her own conversations in the company of the leading luminaries of her day. Educated, politically informed, personable, and no doubt very attractive, she epitomized all that any and every Greek woman might have been, if allowed to fulfill her potential.
Reasons to Become Hetaera
The circumstances that induced those women to become a hetaera are not known. But maybe they opted to take that career path because it enabled them to achieve their potential in ways they could not have done if married, or they craved a life of independence. It is not clear what percentage of the population chose that path, but it definitely was very small.
They also had to deal with some opprobrium, a part of the reason why a lot of hetaerae moved away from their native cities to pursue their careers, like Aspasia herself, to avoid being made to feel ashamed and becoming an outcast. As foreigners in the city where they worked, those became more exotic and, therefore, charged higher fees.
Learn more about how growing up in ancient Greece meant facing a myriad of challenges.
The Job of a Midwife
Other options available to Athenian women outside the home included being a priestess or midwife, but there is no evidence of the percentage of the population choosing that path, so there were not many positions available. As a midwife, by contrast, they had not only independence but also authority, since midwives, not physicians, controlled the birthing process. Only women above childbearing years, especially widows, were regarded as appropriate for that job.
Privileges for Spartan Women
In contrast to the situation elsewhere in the Greek world, Spartan women enjoyed a measure of independence that was exceptional. A Spartan girl underwent an intense physical training program, which included running, discus and javelin throwing, and wrestling with an objective to ensure that they become a fit breeder of Spartan babies.
A Spartan wife could be loaned to an interested third party with the agreement of her husband, to maximize her fecundity, especially if the husband was elderly or infirm. She was permitted to own property, unlike in Athens. Spartan women were even celebrated for their wisdom, examples of which were preserved in Plutarch’s, Sayings of Spartan Women, although these may not all be authentic.
The most famous was the laconic farewell from a Spartan mother to her son departing for war: “With it or on it.” The ‘it’ was his shield. What she meant was that he should either return home bearing his shield, because to throw it away when retreating was a disgrace, or on it if he was killed.
Whether historical or apocryphal, this saying and many others like it suggest that Spartan mothers played a leading role in reinforcing the Spartan value system at the cost of their role as mothers.
This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Men Versus Women
Females had a lower life expectancy than males. Their opportunities for receiving an education was severely curtailed, and job prospects were very limited. The connection between education and longevity has recently been scientifically demonstrated. The research indicated that women who were educated and lived in countries with opportunities for fulfilling their potential actually lived longer.
Some Exceptions of Powerful Women
Many Greek men lorded it over their wives in a way that would be largely unthinkable today. However, that did not mean men and women did not have intimacy, or that men invariably held the upper hand. Odysseus in the Odyssey was wholly dependent on the services and resourcefulness of a group of very strong-willed and independent women who were more than a match for their male counterparts.
His wife, Penelope, fended off no less than 108 suitors over a period of 20 years to keep the household and her chastity intact and in the end tricked Odysseus into revealing his identity to her. Incidentally, it was Odysseus who provides the best definition of what marriage meant in the Greek world, notwithstanding the fact that he was flagrantly unfaithful to his wife.
No finer, greater gift in the world than that,
when man and woman possess their home together, two minds,
two hearts that work as one. Despair to their enemies,
A joy to all their friends, their own best claim to glory.
Greek drama, too, suggested that Greek women were anything but a pushover. The women encountered in Greek drama, Clytemnestra, Antigone, Jocasta, Medea, Phaedra, and Lysistrata, were among the most powerful in any theatrical tradition the world over. Then there were the goddesses—Hera, Athena, Artemis, and Aphrodite—nobody would want to mess with them. Although they were only fictionalized, the inspiration for them must have come from real life.
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Perfecting the Institution of Marriage
Plutarch wrote a treatise entitled Advice on Marriage and extolled the virtues of homophrosunê or homonoia, translatable as like-mindedness, which he, and many decent Greeks, believed to be the mark of an ideal marriage.
Ordinary men and women did not achieve that state of bliss with each other, but the fact that some Greeks did yearn for the perfect union suggested that they were not much different from people today.
Common Questions About Athenian Women
Athenian girls learned household work which included cooking, cleaning, weaving, and taking care of the family.
Hetaerae is best described as ‘female companions’. It is a term that is sometimes inaccurately translated as ‘prostitutes’. Many hetaerae were highly accomplished, the only women permitted to take their place beside men at symposia or drinking parties. The most famous hetaera of all was Aspasia, the mistress of the powerful Athenian statesman Pericles.
Spartan women enjoyed independence that was exceptional, if not unique. A Spartan girl underwent an intense physical training program, which included running, discus and javelin throwing, and wrestling with an objective to ensure that they become a fit breeder of Spartan babies.