The Lives Of Athenian Women Essay

2413 words - 10 pages

Women in classical Athens could not have had an extremely enjoyable experience, if we rely on literary sources concerning the roles of women within the Greek polis. The so-called Athenian democracy only benefited a fraction of the entire population. At least half of this population was female, yet women seem to have had very little influence and few official civic rights. `The position of women...is a subject which has provoked much controversy.'

(Lacey: 1968, 151).

Studies concerning the lives of women in classical Athens have sparked much controversy because, despite the apparent fascination with femininity manifested in art and drama, we have no evidence voicing the opinions of the actual women themselves. This presents a paradox between an Athenian woman's everyday life and her prominence in art and literature. (Just: 1989; Gomme: 1925, Gould: 1980; Pomeroy: 1976).

The sources that we do have regarding women are invariably from the perspective of men. `Women of Athens have kept a prudent silence' (Just: 1989, 1), therefore, all our knowledge pertaining to women is relative to a male conception of society. `The study of women is furthermore complicated by the fact that we have to study them almost exclusively through statements made by men' (Humphrey: 1983). In my essay I shall discuss the possible reasons why, and the extent to which the female voice was repressed.

Our evidence concerning the roles of women within the Athenian state comes through a variety of media; historiography discussing aspects of Athenian law and customs, orators, and imaginative literature such as comic and tragic theatre. Scholars in the past have selectively manipulated these different sources in order to support their predetermined arguments (Pomeroy: 1976; Gould: 1980). I shall briefly look at these individual forms of evidence in turn and try to assess the extent to which they offer a `subjective' representation of the experience of Athenian women.

In Sarah B. Pomeroy's influential monograph, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity (1976), it is pointed out that in the past, when scholars have considered the quality of life for women in classical Athens, they have often subjectively selected the type of evidence to use for their argument. She argues that `optimists,' who are of the opinion that women enjoyed a comparatively liberated lifestyle, focus upon the prominent role that women play within art and drama. `Pessismists,' on the other hand, base their ideas upon Athenian laws and the writings of orators and moralists (Pomeroy: 1976; Just: 1989). The evidence that we have available regarding women `relate to different levels of reality' (Humphreys: 1983; Just: 1989), therefore the sources pertain to different aspects of women's lives and need to be pieced together to provide a clear picture.

One such `optimistic' scholar is A.M. Gomme (1925), who referred to distinctive female characters such as Medea,...

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