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