GREECE - AEGEAN PRELUDE (3500 - 1000 BC)
The woman of Crete did not put up with any Oriental seclusion, purdah or harem. There is not a sign of her being limited to certain quarters of the house or at home. She worked there, doubtless, as some women do even today. She wove clothing and baskets, ground grain, and baked bread; but also, she labored with the men in the fields and in the work of pottery-making. She mingles freely with them in the crowds.
She took the front seat at the theatre and the games; she swept through Cretan society with the air of a great lady bored with adoration. When her nation created its gods, it was more often in her likeness than in man's. Sober students, secretly and forgivably enamored of the mother-image in their hearts, bow down before her relics and marvel at her domination.
Within the patriarchal framework, the position of woman was far higher in Homeric than it was in Periclean Greece. In the legends and the epics, the woman plays a leading role from Pelops' courtship of Hippodameia to Iphigenia's gentleness and Electra's hate.
The gynaeceum did not confine her, not did the home. She moved freely among men and women alike and occasionally shared in the serious discourses of the men as Helen did with Menelaus and Telemachus. when the Achaen leaders wished to fire the imagination of their people against Troy, they appealed not to political, racial or religious ideas, but the sentiment for woman's beauty. The loveliness of Helen must have put a pretty face upon a war for land and trade.
Without woman, the Homeric hero would have been a clumsy boor with nothing to live for or die for. She taught him something of courtesy, idealism and softer ways.
The girl, though left to be brought up at home, was also subject to regulation by the state. She was to engage in vigorous games--running, wrestling, throwing the quoit, casting the dart--in order that she might become strong and healthy for easy and perfect motherhood.
She should go naked in public dances and processions even in the presence of young men so that she might be stimulated into proper care of her body, and her defects might be discovered and removed. "Nor was there anything shameful in the nakedness of young women," says the highly moral Plutarch. "Modesty attended them, and all wantonness was excluded." Mental education was not wasted upon Spartan women.
In 450 BC, a young woman arrived in Athens, and won the heart and love of Pericles. Pericles married Aspasia, and soon afterwards, she opened a school of rhetoric and philosophy, boldly encouraging the public emergence and higher education of women.
Many girls of good families attended her classes. Many husbands brought their wives to study with her--even Socrates attended her classes. Socrates said that he had learned from her the art of eloquence, and some ancient gossips would have it that the statesman inherited from her the philosopher.
For her part, Aspasia made her home a "French Enlightenment Salon" where the arts and sciences, the literatures, philosophies, and statesmanship of Athens were brought together in mutual stimulation. Socrates marveled at her eloquence and credited her with composing the funeral oration that Pericles delivered after the first casualties of the Peloponnesian War.
Aspasia became the uncrowned queen of Athens--setting fashion's tone, and giving to the women of the city an example of mental and moral freedom.
ATHENIANS (400 BC - 399 AD)
As surprising as anything else in this civilization was the fact that it could not have been brilliant without the aid or stimulus of women. With their help, the Heroic Age achieved splendor and the age of the dictators, a lyric radiance. Then, almost overnight, married women vanished fro the history of the Greeks as if to confute the supposed correlation between the level of civilization and the status of women.
In Herodotus, woman was everywhere. In Tucydides, she was no where to be seen. From Semonides of Amorgos to Lucian, Greek literature is offensively repetitious about the faults of women, and towards the close of it, even the kindly Plutarch repeats Thucydides: "The name of a decent woman, like her person, should be shut up in the house."
This seclusion of women did not exist among the Dorians. Presumably, it came from the Near East, then to Ionia, and from Ionia to Attica. It was part of the tradition of Asia.
Most of the woman's life was spent in the women's quarters at the rear of the house. No male visitor was ever admitted there, not did she appear when other men visited her husband. In the home, she was obeyed and honored in everything that did not contravene the patriarchal authority of her husband.
Her educations was almost always confined to the household arts; for the Athenian believed, with Euripides, that a woman was handicapped by intellect. The result was that the respectable woman of Athens was more modest and charming than the woman of Sparta, but less interesting and mature--incapable of being comrades to husbands whose minds were filled and sharpened by a free and varied life.
The women of sixth century Greece contributed significantly to Greek literature; the women of Periclean Athens contributed nothing.
Towards the end of the period, a movement arose for the emancipation of women. Euripides defended them with brave and timid innuendoes, while others made fun of them with boisterous indecency.
From 411 BC onward, female roles became more prominent in the Athenian drama, and revealed the growing escape of women from the solitude to which they had been confined.
Through it all, the real influence of a woman over a man continued, making her subjection vastly unreal. One historian stated that Nature had given woman so much power that the law could not afford to give her more. Sometimes, this natural sovereignty was enhanced by a substantial dowry, an industrious tongue, or an uxorious affection. More often, though, it was the result of beauty, the bearing and rearing of fine children, or the slow fusion of souls in the crucible of a common experience and task.
ALEXANDRIA (322 BC - 146 AD)
Women of all classes moved freely through the streets, shopped in stores, and mingled with men. Some women made names for themselves in literature and scholarship. The Macedonian queens and ladies of the court from Ptolemy II's Arisnoe to Anthony's Cleopatra took an active part in politics, serving policy rather than love with their crimes; but they retained sufficient charm to arouse the men to unprecedented gallantry, at least in poetry and prose, and brought into Alexandrian society an element of feminine influence and grace heretofore unknown in classical Greece.