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Ancient Greek Women

We’re still at a point where many people aren’t comfortable with calling themselves ‘feminists’. I’m not talking about the troglodytes on the internet that call themselves ‘antifeminists’ – the sort that hurl online abuse at women like Clementine Ford for breathing. Instead, there are some more approachable people that nonetheless feel uneasy to associate themselves with the overall feminist movement. I want to suggest here that, to these people that are unsure, a bit of history (ancient and modern) should dispel any doubts about the merits of feminism, and why we need it.

If these non-feminists aren’t feminists, what do they tend to call themselves? Often, humanists, egalitarians, or both. This nominal rejection of feminism isn’t rare; in Britain, a 2016 study conducted by the Fawcett Society found that only 7% of an 8,165-person sample identified as feminist, yet over two thirds (still rather low at 67%) were in favour of a broad gender egalitarianism.

This common tactic rests on two misconceptions: firstly, feminism has an egalitarian objective, and any feminists that assert otherwise are firmly in the minority; secondly, rejecting feminism for ‘egalitarianism’ betrays a fair amount of unfamiliarity with the practical history of that idea. ‘Egalitarianism’ sounds pleasant enough, but it bears remembering that this strain of thought, while a noble ideal in the abstract, historically did little to directly contribute to improving the political, economic and social rights of women in Europe, in comparison to the feminist union movements initiated from the 19th century onwards (although, of course, feminism both then and now has an egalitarian objective). On the whole, movements with a distinctive focus (like feminism) prove to be more historically effective in providing positive social change, rather than indulging in vague and abstract generalities. Due to the unique historical position of women, addressing the matter requires specifically focusing on the topic, which didn’t really kick off in Europe until the 18th century, with the writings of Mary Astell and Mary Wollstonecraft – these women were feminists, not just humanists. And even then, feminism only reaped more practical results by forming women’s unions by the late 19th century in countries like Britain, headed by suffragist campaigners like Millicent Garett Fawcett. For centuries upon centuries, pre-modern philosophies and religions in Europe weren’t a decisive call to action. Before the rise of modern feminism, the earlier pretences to equality between men and women were too general and noncommittal.

If a vague humanism is historically ineffective towards improving women’s lives, I see no reason to view it as a competitive replacement to feminism. Being a feminist doesn’t require that you have to be a melodramatic Tumblrite – this ignores the incredibly diverse threads of thought within the movement. To be a feminist just involves recognising a historical and present trend of inequality towards women, and seeking practical and specifically tailored solutions to improve this situation. There’s a considerable divergence of opinions on how to achieve a better situation for women, so feminism certainly doesn’t require anyone to blindly follow extremist minority views. It would be a mistake to take the latter as representative.

If there still remain doubts, some history should serve as a remedy. In order to find a culture without feminism, we’re not exactly short of choices, so we might as well find a particularly fascinating one. The ancient Greeks from Homer to Aristotle provide a case in point, and the results are predictably abysmal for half of their population.

In the 8th-9th century B.C. Homeric epics the Iliad and the Odyssey, most women are servants, submissive wives or commodities (usually worth four oxen apiece – coinage was not a thing back then). Although fiction, it’s hard to deny that the roles of everyday women depicted in the poems reflect some of the social realities of Homer’s time. Women with more power in the poems tend to be one step further away from reality, compared to these everyday figures. The goddesses, for example, had considerably more freedom, even taking part in the Trojan War in the Iliad, but ultimately they were still at the behest of the patriarch Zeus (and in any case, the line between gods and humans was very strictly drawn). In the Odyssey there’s a queen that was highly esteemed and routinely settled disputes, but in line with fantasy of this poem, the island that she ruled with her husband – Phaeacia – was very utopian and detached from ordinary life.

As we move towards later ages in 6th-century B.C. Greece, where more texts start to crop up, female writers still remain conspicuously scarce. As Simone de Beauvoir put it trenchantly in The Second Sex, “Greek women didn’t even have the freedom to complain.” We do have a meagre amount of poetry fragments from this age: Sappho, the poet from Lesbos, has left enough to show her hand in writing about love and old age, for example. But mostly the picture is not promising, and jumping ahead another century to 5th-century B.C. Athens doesn’t provide much relief: just look at one of the most famous speeches from the height of Athenian power, Pericles’ Funeral Oration, reproduced by the best historian of antiquity, Thucydides. After a stirring encomium that praises democracy, the rule of law, and freedom, the great Athenian statesman Pericles declared that women, ideally, shouldn’t be worth talking about for any reason whatsoever, good or bad. They should be invisible.

The social history of women in Athens shows that this speech wasn’t exactly out of step with the norms of the time. As Sarah Pomeroy has shown, Athenian women that lived in households that could afford slaves were mostly confined to women’s quarters in the house, only to venture out in public for funerals and festivals. Even by the 1st century B.C., a Roman biographer confirms that this practice still continued in his day, contrasting it with the (slightly) greater freedoms permitted to women in Rome.

Along with children, slaves and foreigners, women weren’t citizens of Athens: they couldn’t take part in the democratic assemblies that were integral to Athenian life. Legally, their property rights were meagre: if a woman’s father died, Athenian law tried to keep the deceased estate on the male side as much as possible – if she had a brother, he would take the estate; and Athenian women couldn’t make contracts dealing with anything more valuable than a bushel of wheat. Not every polis was as bad as Athens in this respect: women in other Greek cities like Delphi and Sparta enjoyed much better legal property rights, and Spartan women famously received education and stringent training, just like the men. Still, from the little we know about Spartan women, this isn’t quite so great as it may appear –Spartan women were not permitted greater freedom for dignity’s sake, but rather to hone their physical strength in order to bear children more efficiently. They existed to populate the city with more soldiers: as Thucydides put it, military honour was always the Spartan’s main priority. Equality in the modern sense was an alien concept to them.

A minority of Greek philosophers did advance ideas that implied equality between men and women, such as Epicurus, but the practical impact of these doctrines were clearly limited. In spite of the intellectual ferment in Athens, the women there remained confined in their quarters; the implicit ideas of equality found in Socrates and Epicurus were not in themselves an adequate stimulus for change, and nor did these thinkers intend to meet these essentially modern feminist objectives. In Plato’s Republic, a 10-book dialogue that illustrates many of his core doctrines, Plato makes his old mentor Socrates discuss the nature of justice – and he embarks on the daunting task by sketching the ideal state. In speculating about who the rulers of this state should be, Socrates says to his interlocutor Glaucon that women could also rule. He thought they had less physical strength than men, but in every other respect they could match men, provided they had the same education. Rather than relying on crude generalisations about women, Socrates points out that women can have different natures: he says, for example, that there are women who are naturally brave or cowardly, or intellectual or not. If virtue applies in the same way for men and women, it’s not too much of a stretch to see an implicit gender egalitarianism at work in Socrates’ thought – it implies that men and women could perfect themselves in the same way. Although this was quite a radical idea for the Greeks at the time – Socrates himself appears aware of the unconventional consequences for educating women just like the men – it’d be misleading to call Socrates a feminist. His conversation with Glaucon, while ground-breaking, is very much a speculative and abstract matter. He didn’t spend his days calling for women to enter the assembly of 500 in Athens: as a Greek in 5th-century B.C. Athens, this sort of talk was unfathomable. Happiness for Greeks consisted in cultivating the virtues, which, as any sour-faced Stoic could point out keenly, could be done in the most squalid and limited conditions imaginable – virtue could be achieved in slavery. So, feminism and modern ethics are very closely bound together – which is precisely why so much of history before then confined the overwhelming majority of women to the domestic sphere.

As the main contrarian in Athens, Plato’s Socrates bore the minority view. The philosopher Aristotle, on the other hand, represented the majority. Across his corpus, Aristotle’s misogyny is really quite extraordinary in its wide-ranging application: it carries into his works on biology, where he considered women as a kind of curiously incomplete form of man; and even the role of females in the generation of offspring is regarded by Aristotle as an inferior one, with only the male contributing to the form and characteristics of the child.  In his book the Politics, Aristotle accepts a natural inequality between men and women, asserting that the husband rules over the wife in the household. Disagreeing with Socrates’ genderless understanding of virtue, Aristotle held that men and women always manifested virtues in different ways (as he put it, courage in men consisted in commanding, women in obeying).

On the whole, both in theory and practice, accepting the domestic subordination of women was the majority view in a culture without any kind of feminist movement. Philosophies that at least approximated some elements of this view, like that of Socrates or Epicurus, were not representative; and even if that were the case, it’s clear that they wouldn’t have borne out the same practical results as a feminist movement. On a wide scale, you can find this implicit egalitarianism in quite a handful of philosophers and theologians in history, but a more fine-grained look at social problems is ultimately what’s needed.

With inequalities towards women still persisting today, the best solution is not to distance away from feminism, but rather to join in – in its general approach to social, economic and political rights for women, nothing else in history has proved quite so effective.

John Henry

The author John Henry

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