By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University
The Greeks were deeply sexist, as women, in their view, were responsible for all that was bad in the world. It was a woman called Pandora, whose name meant ‘all-gifted’, who because of her insatiable curiosity, opened the jar which contained all the evils in the world—sickness, hard work, and so on—leaving only hope inside. Explore the truth behind this myth.
Myths about Greek Women
Along with Greek myths that were sexist, even the Greek scientists who believed that women were biologically inferior to men were not any better. In his treatise called Generation of Animals, Aristotle defined a woman as an infertile male. He explained that she was a female because of an inadequacy, adunamia, being unable to produce semen. He thought that the menses was failed sperm that was not coagulated properly.
The Drawbacks of Being a Greek Woman
Greek women were stuck in a rut with very few outlets for their talent. The chances of becoming a creative artist or an intellectual were almost nil. Some may have become poetesses, the most notable of whom was Sappho with only fragments of her work that have survived, due to the prejudices of male readers. There were also other drawbacks to being a woman.
A woman would have predeceased Greek men by about five to ten years, which was partly due to the early age at which they became pregnant and entered childbirth, and also due to the small interval between their successive pregnancies. There was a lot of social pressure for women to get married and pregnant.
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Negative Arguments by Scholars
Some scholars argued that Euripides was a misogynist on the grounds that he portrayed some frightening women in his plays; women like Medea, who murdered her children; Phaedra, falsely accusing her stepson of raping her; and so on. It may be possible that he was horrified by the horrific things women could do when placed under intolerable pressure by men, like killing their children if their ex-husbands tried to take them away, which is what Medea did.
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Being with their family, women were under the control of a male, be it their father, husband, eldest brother, or guardian. Subjugation to their husband would have been made more acute by the fact that there was typically a large discrepancy between their age. As a moderately prosperous wife, a Greek woman spent most of her time at home. Andromache in Euripides’ play, The Trojan Women stated, “There is one prime source of scandal for a woman—when she doesn’t stay at home.”
Being a Greek Woman
A young Greek girl for much of her life would have been stuck at home, strictly supervised, until the day she got married. During growing up, girls did not receive any formal education and never dated. Unsupervised pre-marital contact between a well-brought-up boy and girl was out of the question. Even a pre-marital peck on the cheek was forbidden, except perhaps when they become betrothed. Extra-marital union must have occurred from time to time, although teenage pregnancies were likely to have been far fewer than they are in society today.
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Hunting Marriage Proposals
Reaching the age of about 14, their parents looked for a husband for them. Arranged marriages were the norm in Greek society, as in most ancient societies, and still prevalent in many modern societies as well.
The criteria their parents had in mind while choosing a husband for their daughter was that they wanted a man with wealth and social status. Marriage served two principal goals, both for her and her husband’s family. Those were to produce offspring and increase the family’s wealth. Her parents had to provide her with a dowry, because without a dowry the girl may have risked ending her life.
This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Concept of Dowry
Dowry was intended to reimburse the husband for supporting her. If he divorced her then he had to return it in full, either to her father or, if the father was dead, to whoever was her legal guardian, perhaps her eldest brother. The girl’s dowry was a kind of insurance policy. It guaranteed that as a divorcee she would not be financially destitute and also acted as a disincentive to divorce.
Common Questions About What it Meant To Be a Woman in the Greek Society
The life of Greek women was restricted to home and was strictly supervised until the day of her marriage. During growing up, girls did not receive any formal education. Marriage for her meant producing offspring. Her parents had to provide her with a dowry because without that the girl may have risked ending her life.
Greek women did not have any rights as they lived in a male-dominated society. The main purpose of their life was to get married and have children. They were always under the supervision of a male member of their family.
The purpose of dowry was to reimburse the husband for supporting his wife. If he divorced her then he had to return it in full. The girl’s dowry was a kind of insurance policy. It guaranteed that as a divorcee she would not be financially destitute and also acted as a disincentive to divorce.