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Women and Gender Roles in “Antigone” by Sophocles

The discussion of gender issues and female social roles in the literature has been associated primarily with the works of 19th-century feminist writers. However, there are examples of much older literary pieces that explored the same themes, and one of them is Antigone, written by an ancient Greek tragedian, Sophocles. The play tells a story of a woman, Antigone, who disobeys the order of the ruler of Thebes, Kreon, who decided to leave the body of her brother unburied on the battlefield.

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By doing so, the female protagonist showed that acting in accordance with own moral values and love for family is more important for her than obedience with authority. Such behavior was unconventional in ancient Athenian society in which women had limited rights and were submissive to and highly dependent on males that played superior roles in both the household and society. The defiance with social norms endows Sophocles’ character with feminist features. It is possible to say that the courage of Antigone in her struggle to assert her beliefs resembles the bravery with which modern women strive to protect their interests and promote gender equality.

Before explaining how the theme of gender in Sophocles’ play is linked to the situation in modern society and before analyzing specific examples from the text, it is appropriate to discuss the role of females in ancient Athens. According to Rayor, women in Athenian society were “lifelong legal minors” without any political and financial rights (xx). Male relatives served as their guardians and usually made all legal and financial decisions for them (Rayor xxi).

It means that since Antigone’s closest male relatives were dead and since she did not have a husband, Kreon became her guardian. Thus, she was expected to comply with his orders not merely because he was a king but also because he had a superior position in the family and society as any other man.

The idea about the inferior position of a woman in Athenian society can be traced in the way Kreon talks about women, in general, and Antigone, in particular. For instance, he says to Haemon that “one must defend order, and in no way be less than a woman.

Better felled by a man, if need be, than called weaker than women” (Sophocle 33). The statement shows that it is considered disgraceful for a man to be called weaker than a woman, and it implies that males by their very nature are stronger than females, both physically and mentally. It suggests that females are viewed as qualitatively worse than males and, therefore, are less important. In fact, Kreon says that it is better for a man to die than be compared to a woman. This part of the statement points to an extremely negative perception of female qualities and roles by Athenian men.

It is also possible to find textual examples demonstrating that the Athenian society was strictly hierarchical and women had less power in it. For instance, in the dialogue with Antigone, Kreon says: “While I live, no woman shall rule me” (Sophocles 25). This statement is in line with an old-fashioned patriarchal perspective on gender, which suggests that the social roles of men and women are determined by their inherent biological and psychological characteristics. It implies that women, by their very nature, are unfit for leading people and especially men who are viewed as more rational and intellectually capable of taking leadership positions and making the right political decisions.

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It is worth noting that Kreon reacts to Antigone’s disobedience with his order to leave her brother unburied with an intention to kill her, which is the most severe form of punishment that one can implement. The king of Thebes says:

I caught her in open defiance,

she alone of all the citizens.

I won’t make myself a liar before the city.

I will kill her … If I nurture disorder

in my own family, how much more so in others? (Sophocles 32)

While Kreon’s reaction to Antigone’s deed can be explained through the lens of individual noncompliance with political authority, it is interrelated with the issue of gender inequality to a substantial extent. In the traditional patriarchal society, such as the one where the plot of Sophocles’ play is set, women are expected to be submissive and compliant with the will of not only their guardians but all males in general. Besides, women are expected to demonstrate the utmost respect to men even when the actions and decisions of the latter contradict their interests. Therefore, Antigone’s open disobedience is unacceptable for Kreon and others in the privileged social position.

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Not only her act goes against the established social rules, but it also undermines the king’s image as powerful and strong. By applying this observation to a broader context, it can be concluded that females’ disobedience threatens males’ interests that they are usually able to protect by maintaining order and encouraging compliance.

Clearly, modern US women live in a totally different situation than Antigone in ancient Athens. They enjoy equal political and financial rights as men, can obtain a high-quality education, and engage in a great variety of professions and activities. Moreover, people do not consider it outrageous when a woman says something that contradicts a man’s decisions, words, and wishes. Overall, the presence of old-fashioned patriarchal social values is not so apparent in the present-day society as it was in the Athenian one, yet it is valid to say that they still affect the contemporary view on women.

In the United States, the effects of a stereotypical perception of females as less capable of doing socially and politically meaningful work can be observed in the phenomenon of the gender-based leadership gap. According to 2018 statistics, there is a disparity in the representation of males and females in leadership positions across different professional fields. For instance, only 16% of women perform the responsibilities of medical school deans, 30% of college presidents, and 12.5% of chief financial officers (Warner et al.).

Besides, women are significantly underrepresented in the sphere of political leadership, with merely 24% of them being members of Congress and 18% – governors across different states (Warner et al.). One of the possible reasons for the existence of this leadership gap is a biased perspective on females’ capabilities and a wrongful belief that, due to their innate qualities, women are less suitable for leading organizations and people.

The gender pay gap also verifies that men’s work is often regarded as more important than the work completed by women. According to Graf et al., although the gender pay gap has decreased significantly within a period of a few decades, it still persists. Statistics show that in 2017, women received merely 80% of what men in the same professional contexts and positions earned (Graf et al.). To a substantial degree, the lack of payment parity is due to gender-based discrimination at work (Graf et al.). It means that the social and legal system in the United States does not discriminate against females openly anymore. Nevertheless, similarly to Kreon, many contemporary males hold beliefs about their inherent superiority, do not regard women as equals, and cannot accept the idea that the latter can perform well and sometimes even better than men.

Regardless of biased attitudes and prejudice, more and more modern women both in the United States and abroad take the stance of proactive disobedience. However, just like Antigone, they do it not in a violent way but by living in accordance with their interests, values, and beliefs. A greater number of present-day women follow their passions and become courageous enough to make unconventional choices in life that would be inconceivable just a century ago.

They become scientists, researchers, explorers and pursue other careers that traditionally were dominated by males. Unfortunately, in Sophocles’ play, the protagonists could not withstand the social pressure since she was to go against the authority and the established tradition all by herself. Nevertheless, modern women have greater opportunities for success as more people of different genders become aware of gender-based disparities. It is valid to say that such literary pieces as Antigone contribute to the promotion of gender equality in the modern world. They allow readers to learn about the detrimental nature of gender pride and understand how gender inequality may adversely impact individuals’ lives, as well as society.

Works Cited

Graf, Nikki, et al. “The Narrowing, but Persistent, Gender Gap in Pay.” Pew Research Center. 2019. Web.

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Rayor, Diane J. “Introduction.” Sophocles’ Antigone: A New Translation, edited by Diane J. Rayor, Cambridge University Press, 2011, pp. xi-xxiv.

Sophocles. “Antigone.” Sophocles’ Antigone: A New Translation, edited by Diane J. Rayor, Cambridge University Press, 2011, pp. 1-64.

Warner, Judith, et al. “The Women’s Leadership Gap.Center for American Progress. 2018.

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