Function of women in Greece
Classic Greece refers to the period from fifth to forth century before Christ. During this period, the Roman Empire witnessed prosperity that had a potent impact on the development of the Western Civilization. In ancient Greece, women performed three main functions – childbearing, fabric weaving, and managing household.
They have a restricted access to education because they did not take part in political and social activities in which their husbands and brothers were engaged in. However, social inequality and restrictions did not prevent women to play an important role in shaping cultural, political, and economic landscapes in Greece.
To highlight the influences that women had, it is necessary to discuss their role in marriage, their functions in a family, as well as male’s view on women.
During the classical age, Greek women were, first of all, valued for their ability to give birth to children. This ideological perspective had a distorted influence on the ancient writers concerning the male-female relationships and family roles. Some of the Hippocratic writers referred to marriage as an obligatory rite that all women should involve.
Due to the fact that most women got married during the puberty period, which is about fourteen years old, they faced challenges of the maturing process that was followed by emotional instability1. Most of the writers and theorists of the time considered marriage and pregnancy a cure for woman’s unstable psychological condition.
Although the relationship between men and women are heavily discussed in ancient literature, the concept of marriage was associated with agreement between girl’s father and her future husband rather than with love and affection. As a proof Blundell describes, “the suitors then put in their ‘bids’ for the young woman by making promises of bridewealth (hedna) which would only be accepted one the marriage had been definitely agreed”2.
Additionally, marriage arrangements also included property transfers. The material wealth of the parties concerned, along with their political influence, was a significant factor as well. Therefore, women did not participate in the agreement because there were considered as part of the property that will be transferred by father-in-law to a son-in-law.
Despite the explicit inequality and limited rights of women, the dowry still served as kind of protection for them within a marriage. Need for defense mechanisms implied lower position women, as well as their restricted access to political life in polis.
Nevertheless, the alliances represented through marriage have amplified the impact of women on their husbands’ decisions. At the same time, in case father failed to provide sufficient dowry for their daughters, it was unlikely that she could be protected enough.
The attitude to marriage, particular to the intangible role of women in it, was explained by the paternalistic structure of society in ancient Greece. Males only could participate in governing and managing political and social activities, whereas women should stay at home and look after children.
Women’s responsibility also involved working in the field, gathering harvest, and weaving the fabric. Therefore, her role as a wife entails a variety of activities that uncover her feminine nature and define her social duties.
Public activities of women
Apart from married women, women who decide to serve the Greek Goddesses who were also responsible for many other activities, including the peplos weaving, or robe that was used during the Panthenaia festival. Despite the identity accuracy of some of the women in Greece, most all of them defined the roles and activities girls when they reached the puberty period3.
Although the girls and women were not permitted to the public life in Greek polis, they still managed to make contributions to social, religious, and political life. Women’s dedications to religion and rituals were expressed through a number of statues, including Nikandre of Naxos, Iphidike at Athens, and Tlestodike of Paros. These figures of life-size or even larger were represented as goddesses.
There were also statues placed on columns. Dedication to women has different cultural, mythological, and religious underpinnings. For instance, the statue of Nikandre of Naxos is a well-known dedication to Artemis of a larger than life-size figure located on the island of Delos. Due to the fact that Naxos is not far from the Ionian Island, Ionian women accompanied their husbands to the festival in Delos.
There is an assumption that Nikandre went to Delos as well for the dedication to the statue with her children and husband. Dillon also concludes, “this is a very large and public dedication made at the least in t he name of if not actually by a woman, and apparently a recently married one”4.
By this dedication, Nikandre overtly acknowledges her religiosity and considers it as a means of expressing her position and self-perception. Other statues of women are represented mostly of a life-size to show their non-divine origins.
Apart from worships and dedications, young girls participate in such activities as singing religious songs in choruses. Women of different ages were also engaged in religious festivals, such the Panthenaia that was held in honor of Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war. This festival was attended both by men and women, but there also the festivals that were organized specifically for women, such as the Haloa, the Thesmophorian, and the Skira.
All these festivals amplified the connection of women’s general capabilities with vegetation renewal, as well as with the survival of the Greek community. Religious rituals were carried to for those girls who plan to get married. For instance, the girls under fourteen years old were chosen to serve the divinities, such Artemis.
The girls were tools of men that could later be domesticated after the marriage5. At this point, the self-perception of a woman in ancient Greece was controlled through behavioral frames accepted in home, through reiterated religious and social virtues, and through women’s participation in traditions and rituals that contributed to their education and appraisal in the community.
In order to define various dimensions of women’s activity and work, as well as their roles in ritual, specific attention requires the analysis of gender identity, as well as the consequences of civic participation. Living within the constraints of patriarchal culture allowed women to construct their own direction of influence on a male-dominated society in Greece.
There were three cultural areas in which women were influenced through ritual practice, representing their identity and needs. The emphasis is placed on the role of ritual figures in female poetry, phenomenon of maenadism, and representation of women on Attic vases. Cultural productions of women shape a series of experiences that refer to exceptionally female vision of the world.
In particular, Goff explains, “since the gendered division of labor characteristic of Greek culture was sustained not only by spatial differentiations but also by ideologies of women’s inferiority”6. The overt inequality and dominance of men led to the development of subcultures and marginal communities in which women strived to receive recognition.
Due to the established inferiority, education was another challenge for women in classical Greece. During this period, Sparta was the only polis in which girls can receive a public education. In the city, the girls attended schools to study Greek myths, philosophy, and poetry.
Women also participated in a number of artistic activities and, therefore, they were quite good at singing and dancing. Unlike Athens, the city of Sparta was recognized for the introduction of talented poetesses and female writers who were also well educated in poetry and philosophy7. Thus, while Spartan men were engaged in military training, a fine education was provided to women who were less concerned with warfare.
Greek philosophers also rely on more interesting facts about women in Sparta. In particular, women also participated in sporting activities, such as races, wresting, and even discus throwing. Therefore, it is not surprising that Greek women are depicted as extremely beautiful – with shining complexions, slim postures, and golden hair. At the end of the fifth century, these physical preparations were conducted in a specific manner.
Exercises in gymnasiums were also popular among girls because it allowed women to participate in certain women’s rites. In fact, the competition among adolescent girls in Sparta was associated with a religious cult of Dionysus, a part of initiation ritual for girls who are going to become women. In Lysistrata, it is possible to see the example of the beauty of women is attributed to her physical fitness.
The competition, therefore, “symbolizes possession of the virtues of the consummate young and free woman, ready for marriage”8. The case also demonstrates that all activities in which a woman was involved should advance its development and readiness for becoming a wife and a mother.
Men’s attitude and occupation
Most of philosophers and great thinkers of Greece acknowledge the tangible influence of women in social, cultural, religious, and political life. Nevertheless, most of the historical moments in Greek history are surrounded by men, as wise rulers and conquerors. In fact, women served as great support for men, as well as the mother of his children.
In the majority of cases women also served as a means of communication between men from different communities unless polices were created. In particular, women also defined the sharper distinctions between public and private activities. Despite the fact that women passively participated in political and cultural life, they “were excluded from the operations of democracy, and were not involved in and of the acknowledged field of cultural production”9.
In conclusion, although women’s place in ancient Greek society was diminished, their contribution to cultural, social, and political dimensions was extremely significant for development. Women’s inferiority was expressed in the function they perform, as well as through male’s attitude to them.
In particular, the main functions of women were confined to childbearing, household activities, and weaving. Some of unmarried girls served to the Goddesses, some of them participated to a number of rituals and religious rites. Marriage was not an act of mutual love and affection, but an agreement between girl’s father and her future husband.
Blundell, Sue and Williamson, Margaret. The Scared and the Feminine in Ancient Greece. US: Routledge, 1998.
Blundell, Sue. Women in Ancient Greece. US: Harvard University Press, 1995.
Claude Calame, Claude. Choruses of Young Women in Ancient Greece. US: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001.
Dillon, Mathew. Girls and Women in Classical Greek Religion. New York: Routledge, 2003.
Goff, Barbara. Citizen Bacchae: Women’s Ritual Practice in Ancient Greece. US: University of California Press, 2004.
Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Women in Classical Greece. Metropolitan Museum of art, 2012, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/wmna/hd_wmna.htm, n. p.
Salisbury, Joyce. Encyclopedia of Women in the Ancient World. US: ABC-CLIO, 2011.
1 Sue Blundell. Women in Ancient Greece. (US: Harvard University Press, 1995). 101.
2 Sue Blundell. Women in Ancient Greece. (US: Harvard University Press, 1995) 67.
3 Sue Blundell and Margaret Williamson. The Scared and the Feminine in Ancient Greece. (US: Routledge, 1998) 64.
4 Matthew Dillon. Girls and Women in Classical Greek Religion (New York: Routledge, 2003).11.
5 Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Women in Classical Greece. (Metropolitan Museum of art, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/wmna/hd_wmna.htm), n. p.
6 Barbara Goff. Citizen Bacchae: Women’s Ritual Practice in Ancient Greece. (US: University of California Press, 2004), 231.
7 Joyce Salisbury. Encyclopedia of Women in the Ancient World. (US: ABC-CLIO, 2011), 330
8 Claude Calame. Choruses of Young Women in Ancient Greece. (US: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), 236.
9Sue Blundell. Women in Ancient Greece. (US: Harvard University Press, 1995) 97