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Women of Greece

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  • 0:00 Greek Society
  • 0:42 The Role of Greek Women
  • 1:13 Minor Rights
  • 1:55 Portrayal in Theatre
  • 2:39 Sparta
  • 3:47 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

The Greeks were one of the most progressive ancient civilizations, but that wasn't true in how they treated women. This lesson goes over facts about how women were treated and explains how the best place to be a woman in Greece was Sparta.

Greek Society

As members of Western society, we owe an incredible debt to Greeks, from philosophy and acting to democracy and history. The Greeks were directly responsible for starting so many of the great aspects of our culture. However, the Greeks do have one massive blot on their record of paving the way for Western civilization. I'm talking about the large number of Greek women who lived and died, yet seemed to have lived as second-class citizens in their own society. In this lesson, we'll look at the roles of Greek women and their portrayal through art before finally looking at the one great exception, Sparta.

The Role of Greek Women

As far as we can tell, the first Greek women of the Archaic period didn't have it so bad. They were by no means equal, but at least they had some economic and social rights. That all seems to have been forgotten by the time Greece reached the Classical period. Women were simply something attached to the household and were effectively transferred from the administration of their fathers to the administration of their new husbands. As such, they were limited in what they could do or even own.

Minor Rights

That is not to say it was all bad for Greek women; there were a few workarounds. For example, if a Greek woman was given or willed a piece of property, then it was hers to keep until the man of the house decided he wanted to sell it. A Greek woman also had easy access to divorce if she could convince her father or brothers to go along with it. If they did, they could take back the dowry and much of what had been purchased during the marriage.

Additionally, Greek women had the right to take part in petty trading in the marketplace. The ceiling on how much they could trade varied from region to region, but it was enough to typically ensure a woman would not end up destitute.

Portrayal in Theater

Greek theater actually provides an interesting view into the situation of women during the Classical period. For starters, they were always played by men or boys, so there weren't any actresses from way back when. Additionally, we see that they are expected to be passive and devoted to their husbands. That said, there are exceptions. Sometimes, a woman proves to be too good for her husband and ends up defending him, despite his own despicability. These women are particularly honored.

At the other end of the spectrum are those examples, such as Lysistrata, that show just how cunning women can be, especially when faced with illogical men.

Sparta

The words 'progressive' and 'Sparta' don't always seem to go well together, but when it comes to the rights of women, the Spartans seemed to have the right idea. At the end of the day, their public reason was incredibly egotistical, just like you'd expect from a Spartan. It was said that since Spartan women raised Spartan warriors, they deserved a certain amount of gratitude and respect. More pragmatically, it just made sense for Sparta to treat its women with respect.

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