Women in Ancient Athens

Women in ancient Athens had very little choices open to them. If they were lucky, they could read a little, play an instrument, and owned slaves to do the daily household tasks. Women could not vote nor own property. They could not choose whom to marry nor own/sell anything of great value.

If you were a respectable woman, you could not even walk around town except occasionally to a neighbor’s house or to a religious service. A young girl often went from her father’s house to her husband’s while she was still young, accompanied by a dowry and her virginity.

Role of the Respectable Woman

A respectable woman’s main role in ancient Athens was to stay home, keep pretty, and bear children. Her life centered on the house and the children. Most citizen wives had slaves to do the cooking, cleaning, and grocery shopping. Once she gave birth, her father could not take her back.

It was difficult, but not impossible, for a woman to divorce her husband, but easy for her husband to divorce her. With divorce, her property which was turned over to her husband upon marriage was returned to her father or male guardian. She would also lose all rights to her children. Her husband was within his rights to lock her up in the house if she wasn’t behaving like he thought she should. Publically she would only be seen at religious events, weddings, and funerals.

Childbirth occurred at home, usually without the assistance of a midwife. Some contraception methods were available but not readily accessible to most women. The mortality rate for both mothers and babies was high. Infanticide was common as the father of the child decided to keep the baby or not. Unwanted or deformed newborns were put in pots and left out or otherwise exposed, leaving the agent of death to natural causes (exposure, dehydration, asphyxiation, etc.).

Other Classes of Women

There were other classes of women though, which were less respectable than a citizen wife. These included hetaera, pornoi, poor women, and slaves. If there was a woman in the middle of an intellectual debate in public park, she was a hetaera (courtesan). Courtesans had the ability to go where they wanted, when they wanted. They were normally educated in dancing, singing, music, conversation, and other ways of pleasing men. Most were intelligent women, well-educated and able to intellectually entertain their guests. These women were not as respected as wives, but the benefit was a much greater freedom.

Pornoi (prostitutes) were much less respected and either plied their wears on the street or in a brothel. Many brothels were owned by the state. Poor women might be forced to take a job in the marketplace, the fields, or in an inn. They were valued even lower than prostitutes but now as low as slaves. Slaves were common in ancient Athens and performed much of the domestic work needed in the household. With no rights whatsoever, slaves were at the mercies of their masters and mistresses with no legal recourse available.

The one exception to the classes of women were the priestesses. Priestesses were necessary to conduct and organize the over 100 annual religious events that occurred yearly in Athens. These women had high status, relative freedom, and remained unmarried. And as true today, most events would have fallen apart without their organization by women.

Daily Life

The daily life of a house wife would involve supervising the household tasks and slaves for the day, the care and raising of any children, making clothing and any other items the house needed for daily running, and, of course, waiting for her husband to come home much later. While her life focused on the smooth operation of her house, his life centered mostly outside the house. This was her only sphere of influence and even that could be over-ruled by her husband if he wished.

Despite the lack of control, citizen wives were respected and sheltered. Well-to-do women did not have to work and could pass the day in leisure while slaves did the labor necessary to keep the house running. Wives were the only females that could give legitimacy to off-spring and confer citizenship to children (as opposed to being resident aliens).

A Sample of Notable Athenian Women

  • Agnodice was the earliest historical midwife who would dress in men’s clothing to attend medical lectures.
  • Aspasia taught public speaking and, although she was unable to vote, she was influential to leaders such as Pericles.
  • Hedyle was a poet.
  • Lamia was a celebrated courtesan who was known for her lavish parties and quick wit.
  • Perictione was the mother of Plato and an esteemed writer in her own right.
  • Phaenarete, midwife, was the mother of Socrates.
  • Timarete was a famous painter, best known for her painting of Diana at Ephesus.
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