Women: Herstory to Modernity
The role of women has been a prominent discussion among academic research and studies. Where gender dynamics from the ancient culture up to the modern time reflects how different societies have evolved basing from the role which women played in these early times. Women have been often associated as the underprivileged class where no access to public participation is granted and men dominated the private and public sphere. From the richest nations to the poorest of them all, this kind of role predominate the history of women. Whether or not this applies to all ancient cultures, it will be shown by relating the role of women within the context of one prominent classic civilization.
The most affluent culture which is considered to be the root of western civilization greatness is the ancient Greece, where intellectual reasoning flourished and first cultivated. It is in this kind of culture where the roles of ancient Greek women will be looked at and how they have developed to be the modern women that they are today. Specifically, two notable city-states from Greece will be the point of discussion to be able to show the differences of women’s role at the same period of time. The paper will revolve around the silent Greek women of Athens and the independence which the women of Sparta possessed. These two contradicting roles which Greek women have will be connected to the progress of women in modernity and if the changing time entailed a drastic change for them or their roles remained the same.
Between the two city-states, Athens became the center of intellectual and cultural exchange at the height of the fifth century. From this progressive place, the Athenian women lived under the domination of patriarchy. At a time of great cultural achievement, perhaps, the role of Athenian women are evident in the plays and tragedies being performed in public. Though Goddesses are portrayed as powerful beings in Greek mythology, most of the playwrights produced at this time which includes female characters are meant to keep with the tradition of “relegating women in all things behind the scene” (Laurin 15). Female characters, especially females which play the lead in these tragedies are being performed by men where the perception of women’s role and status are reflected through these plays.
The works of Euripedes include women characters as seen in his tragedy The Trojan Women. Some of these plays showed the heroic deeds of women which is a complete contrast in Athenian society. These heroic acts of women are considered to be associated as possessing a man’s attributes, like “if a woman is assertive she is called masculine, if she is, clever she said to have a man’s mind” (Laurin 20). The fictitious representation of courageous women in playwrights is still made to project the absorption of male traits to be able for women to possess a certain kind of social power. Through these playwrights, “male hegemony was not a ‘cultural fiction’, it was a daily reality more real in fifth century Athens than at any other time” (Laurin 18).
Currently, women’s role in media such as in films, literature, and in the arts has changed drastically. If ancient women – like the ones in Athena – are being shied away from the limelight of playwrights, modern women evolved into becoming the center of media creation. One downside of being the center is that women became the objects of men’s desire most evident in films, where the “female is the erotic object of both the male characters and the cinema spectators; their role is to drive the hero to act the way he does” (Gauntlett 38). Films with the themes of damsel-in-distress, with author David Gauntlett using Bruce Willis’ Die Hard as an example where Willis’ wife ‘does very little while her husband is thereby motivated to save her’ (Gauntlett 38). The film implicitly emphasized the heroism of Bruce Willis where the female served as an instigator of his actions.
Despite of this image, as the media adapt the current change of modernity ad liberalization, its portrayal of females gradually transform into more of an equal pairing with men. As Gauntlett stated on his book Media, Gender, and Identity, “men and women are seen working side by side, as equals, in the hospitals, schools, and police stations of television-land” (57). Modern women are able to portray and act in media the roles of society which they cannot do during the ancient times of Athens. They are able to be at the center of the spotlight and have the opportunity to present themselves as capable individuals with active roles within the society.
If women are being kept away from the public life in the Athenian lifestyle, it is quite the contrary for the women of Sparta. At an early age, Spartan women are exposed to the public by going outdoors naked, unlike their Athenian counterpart. This is meant for public scrutiny where “young girls learned to evaluate the beauty of other girls and to compare their own appearance with that of their peers” (Pomeroy 132). The treatment of women in Sparta is a unique trait among city-states in Greece. Spartan women are trained in athletics and are being educated to read and to write, they are trained just like the men but the difference is that women are more culturally trained while men concentrate on military training. “The cultural level of girls may well have been superior to that of boys, inasmuch as the latter had to devote so much attention to military training” (Pomeroy 8). This nature is to exude the Spartan trait of competitiveness on both genders, in terms of intelligence and physical aspects. Another power that the Spartan women possess is that they can manage their private property, in which they can “live close to their kinsmen and friends in a relatively well-protected territory” (Pomeroy 60). The age which they have to be married would be eighteen, which is much later than their Athenian sisters. As a full-grown woman, it is a suitable age for her to get married and rear a child for her pregnancy is a priority issue. A Spartan woman’s reproductive health is a main concern for healthy children – especially healthy boys – are essential for a military state like Sparta. The freedom and domination which the Spartan women enjoy appeared to be strange to the rest of the Greek city-states. Sarah Pomeroy cited one of Plutarch’s work entitled Sayings of Spartan Women where Gorgo – Queen of Sparta – has been asked by a foreign woman why Spartans are the only women who can rule men, Gorgo quickly replied, “That is because we are the only ones who give birth to men” (135). This aspect represents the kind of power that the Spartan women have over their kingdom. As a child-bearer who will later on produce the greatest soldiers of the state, Spartan women are highly regarded and praised.
Fast forward to modern time, it can be said that an educated, physically healthy, and assertive woman is not unusual anymore. Perhaps due to the economic opportunities and different choices that are available for today’s women, the independence that the Spartan women have is highly attainable. If Athens and Sparta would be compared within the same timeframe of fifth century, Athenian female is a symbol of a secluded traditional woman while a female Spartan is the representation of woman’s liberation and emancipation. Women nowadays – whether single or married – opt for career advancement than in any period of human history.
The traditional housewife image is slowly being challenged by today’s working mothers. “Working women can be viewed as having taken one of the options which has been restricted for women — only in the case of working women can employment be clearly viewed as a behavioral indicator of more modern sex role ideology” (Lupri 197). It cannot be said that all women have attained this kind of lifestyle, for there are still some societies which forbid women to work like in some Japanese or Middle Eastern environment. However, as the world approach modernity with the opening of individual freedom and choices, the role of women became more assertive and stronger which can be compared to the women of Sparta in fifth century. The restriction which has been imposed in most societies like in Athens gave way for modern women to get out of those restrictions and embrace “more egalitarian values than men” (Lupri 197).
The two powerful city-states in fifth century Greece entailed two contradicting images of ancient women. The role of the women in Athens does not participate in any public and private activities in the society and this kind of image mostly prevail in all other Greek polis. On the other hand, the role of the Spartan women exuded peculiarity due to the massive amount of influence, power, and government investment that is given to every woman of Sparta. Situated in one country and encapsulated in the same era, these two opposing roles of ancient women are still manifested in today’s context. Significant changes in terms of women’s portrayal in media and women’s participation in the public and private sphere, undeniably created improvements in the status of women. However, there are still societies that have leanings with traditional values and practices, include a huge number of women living under seclusion and limited choices.
With the discussion of two roles which existed in a great ancient civilization, it represents the opposing image of women which still exist despite of the world’s advancement in modernity. Women in fifth century Athens and Sparta portrayed heavily opposing roles which used as basis for how the roles of women have or have not changed over the following years. It has been a realization that the common stereotype of women living under the dominance of patriarchy is not universally true, for within the same country of Greece, lays Sparta, which embodied the early forms of modern women. In this case, the modern women that we now know today can be said to have been derived as early as the ancient Greek culture. Somehow, though some other societies have not embraced women’s emancipation, the thought of the differences between Athenian and Spartan women became a satisfying thought.
Gauntlett, David. Media, Gender, and Identity. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Laurin, Joseph. Women of Ancient Athens. Cambridge, Mass: Trafford Publishing, 2005.
Lupri, Eugen. The Changing Position of Women in Family and Society. Netherlands: Brill Archive, 1983.
Pomeroy, Sarah. Spartan Women. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.