To what extent is it appropriate to describe 5th century Athenian men as sexist?
It can be argued that Athenian men were very sexist in their views and opinions on women and how they should lead their daily life, but some may say that this was only a way to protect women from the harmful society that was Ancient Athens, and that they were valued in the roles they did play as part of Greek society.
Women had much more household-based jobs and responsibilities in the 5th century, whereas men went out to the city, attended meetings and worked to provide money for the oikos. The jobs women did were much more laborious and did not require a lot of mental skills, whilst men did the jobs that involved providing a point of view and knowledge. Why were men allowed to contribute to society and give their opinions when women were stuck at home cooking and cleaning, not having a say in how society was governed? Only men could be Athenian citizens and would spend little amount of time in the day-to-day managing of affairs of the household.
In addition, the men often dined out with friends and left their wives and children at home to do the household jobs and chores. They also had symposia, which were dinner parties reserved only for men where the only women there would have been concubines or prostitutes only there for the men’s entertainment and pleasure.
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If women were seen out on the street as men were, they were seen as prostitutes or concubines, simply because they were not forced to stay in the house at all times. This can be seen as a very sexist ‘idealisation’ for men to enforce on women; just because they were the opposite sex, why did they not get the same rights to live as good and full a life as men?
It was men that set up the idea that women should not be seen or heard, as the C5 Athenian statesman Perikles states the ideal – “Your (i.e. women’s) great glory is not to be inferior to what God has made you, and the greatest glory of a woman is to be least talked about by men, whether they are praising you or criticising you”. They made sure that women never got any choice in what their role in society was and how they would contribute to Athenian civilisation. The men more or less had complete control over women and what they wanted them to do, which I think is very bigot.
However, it can be argued that men had to work everyday just to provide for their wife and family, and they would not do this unless they loved their family and cared for their welfare and safety. Everyone had a job in the household, and the women’s job was to an extent vitally important; they took care of the children of the family and made sure they were brought up well-educated and nourished, and the children would then grow up to be future citizens and continue the oikos.
Women also had their own form of Symposia called the Thesmophoria, where women’s role in the handling of life was celebrated and respected. It was an annual festival exclusively for women. There were also many very well respected women priests, goddesses and teachers in the 5th century, which must mean that women were well respected and valued to quite a large extent.
Their jobs were very highly praised and appreciated, as a quote from Demosthenes shows – “Courtesans we have for pleasure and concubines satisfy our daily bodily needs, but wives to produce true-born children and to be trustworthy guardians of the household.” This shows they were considered trustworthy and an important factor in the running of the household, as well as making sure that the family name stays strong by bringing up good Athenian citizens.
Despite the second part of this quote, what does the first part say about the women who were concubines and courtesans? Were they simply used by wealthy men for their own pleasure, not considering how the woman would have felt about this? The men ‘categorized’ women into either prostitutes or household wives, which seems extremely unfair and very sexist, as it is a stereotype that discriminates against women of all natures.
More to the point, a woman would lose their citizenship and almost everything they had if she was found to be having an affair with a man other than her husband – the husband would most likely have divorced her and left her to be exiled. They would also have had the right to kill the man that their wife was seeing, whereas this would not be the case vice versa.
On the other hand, this might be seen as a way of protecting the woman from the sometimes very harsh punishments and consequences of ‘messing’ with the Athenian law, as many of punishments were not used on women, only men. Maybe the men were only trying to protect their families, especially wives, from the outside world, and that is why they made sure the wife stayed at home where the oikos and family would protect them. They might also have been protecting them from other Athenian men; reducing the chances of their wife having an affair and trying to make sure that no other man would fall in love with their wife – preventing divorce and therefore preventing the oikos from falling apart and the family name dying out.
To conclude, I think that 5th century Athenian men were much more sexist in their views and opinions on how women should be treated and what their rights and responsibilities were than today, but partly because of their traditions and what they were brought up to believe. It seems that both men and women were happy with this lifestyle and did not have to change things, as the way they were living seemed to work for them – no one rebelled and everyone got on with life, carrying on the oikos and enjoying each others’ presence at the same time.