Ancient Greece was no feminine paradise. Women knew their place, as was all too apparent 200 years after Sappho, in the city that gave birth to one of the greatest political experiments of all time. You could argue that what happened here in Greece gave us the building blocks of Western civilization–a belief in democracy, a belief in freedom of speech, and a fixed and firm notion that women were very definitely second class citizens. Women were often not allowed out during daylight hours. Some had their faces completely veiled. Only a few were educated and a woman’s greatest celebrated virtue was her silence.
~Historian Bethany Hughes, in the BBC’s Women and Religion series, “Priestess: Handmaid to the Gods” (episode 3)
There is but one Delphic Maxims I really and truly have a problem with, and it is this one. I try very hard to meet a culture on its own terms, to not perpetuate presentism, and so, I understand and fundamentally disagree with Delphic Maxim #95–Rule your wife (Γυναικος αρχε). And, seeing as this is the first Monday of Women’s History Month, it seems a fortuitous time to tackle this particular maxim (seriously, I did this by accident, not design). The roles of women through out history is complex. In many civilizations of antiquity (and clear through until modern history), the overall role of women has been one of secondary to men, with the occasional person that seems to be an exception until one takes a better look at the events surrounding them.
Lets start with this poem by Semonides for an idea of the views of women as wives in Greek society. According to Semonides, women are made by the gods in the image of (or perhaps from) the sow (fat and slovenly), the fox (fickle and sly), the dog (nosy and yapping), from the sea (unpredictable and it will get you in the end), the donkey (easy, but works hard), the skunk (an unattractive slut that will steal anything not nailed down), the dainty mare (a gold-digger with a pretty face), and the monkey (pure ugliness and evil), and the queen bee (the only good one among the lot, and impossible to find). At the end of his poem, Semonides proclaims, “Zeus made this to be the greatest evil–women.If they seem to be helpful, they prove in the end to be an evil for whoever has them. He never goes the whole day in cheer,that man who has a woman.”
But, wait! You might say…judging an entire culture by a comedy writer? Imagine what people will say about us if all they had to show was the celebrity roast series!!
True. And I would hesitate to judge an entire culture on the work of one poet if it wasn’t actually representative of the culture’s views of women as a whole. Instead, we have the creation of Pandora as a punishment, the poet Hipponax who describes the day a man marries and the day he buries his wife as the only two days when a woman is pleasurable, the reduction of rights for women through development of the Greek state, the myth of Medusa who was punished by Athena for being raped, the common place and accepted rape of a number of mortal and immortal women by Zeus, the view of Aristotle that a woman is “a defective by nature” and equivalent to an “infertile male” (the Greeks also thought that it was only the male sperm that was responsible for creating a child and women were just vessels for babies). I could go on, but its sort of depressing.
But wait! What about Spartan women? And Sappho, and…
Unfortunately, in much of history, the exceptional woman proves the rule. First of all, most women were not educated beyond what they needed to do to do their job. And their job was to oversee the home and produce children, preferably male children. Earlier in Greek history, women (mostly aristocratic women and women in wealthy families) had rights, and even had responsibilities outside of the home…allowing wealthy aristocratic women like Sappho (an admired contemporary of Solon the Wise, one of the purported maxim authors) to be married and run schools for unmarried women to prepare them for marriage and to write poetry. Among the Spartans, women were given incredible (at the time) freedoms, precisely because Spartan women gave birth to Spartan men*–their fitness and intelligence giving rise to fit and intelligent males, and because someone was needed to oversee the home and the slaves while the men were off earning glory in battle (BTW, the clip from The 300 is actually a quote from Plutarch and attributed to the Queen of Sparta, Gorgo).
Just as the democracy of ancient Greece echoed down and influenced history, so did its misogyny. While women in Rome were allowed more freedoms than women in latter Greek antiquity, their role was still restricted. And when women were the exception to this second-class stature or were allowed to deviate from the restricted gender norms, they still prove the rule (for example, the Vestal Virgins and the festival of Bona Dea). It is interesting to note that part of the reason for the early success of the Christian cults was in part the comparative egalitarianism. In the (very) early Christian church, women were considered more equal in measure to men than in the majority culture (though still not equal)…at least until Augustine decided that women were responsible for men’s lust because he was miserably trying to control his libido to keep his vow of chastity. And from there, for the next ~1700 years, women have been treated like crap, with religion as part of the reasoning of why it was acceptable.
In some ways it seems like we’ve come so far, right? I mean…we can even vote.
But then there are blog posts like this (don’t bother with comments unless you like the feeling of the steam streaming out the ears). Not to mention movements like Quiverfull** and “Christian domestic discipline”, a good portion of music from rap to rock, the current defunding and restriction of women’s reproductive rights, the difficult in passing the Violence Against Women Act, the the ideas of “real” rape, the idea that society’s ills can be traced back to women voting, the emphasis on the looks of women in politics rather than their abilities, the sexualization of little girls, the pinkification of everything made for women and girls, the marginalization of teachers, and the shooting of the little girl in Pakistan. I could go on, but it depresses me as well.
I like the Delphic Maxims. Most of them can be read in a way that is illuminating within their historical context and can be applied to modern day life. Most of the few that cannot be read this way can be reinterpreted to have meaning in a modern context. This one cannot. Ruling one’s wife (or being ruled as a wife) may have been an important part of many ancient cultures, but AFAIC, that is something to learn from and to resist. I am not a child, I do not need to be governed by my husband. I do not need to submit to him as an example of my femininity or worth as a woman. And he is man enough to not want a woman that needs to be defined and governed by him. And since I don’t belong to a faith that demands obsequiousness to old words carved in stone or scratched onto parchment, I feel completely and utterly comfortable throwing this one out the metaphorical window.
Rule Your Wife?
*Spartan culture is a bit more complicated than this, and is quite interesting, in how this idea of men as warriors and women as the head of the household and makers of those warriors was carried out. Wives were chosen primarily for their character and their physical fitness. Because male children were raised communally in the agoge, and because of the emphasis on physical perfection biological paternity was not particularly important and divorce was allowed. For a woman, honor was found in childbearing–as with a man that died in battle, her name could only be inscribed on her gravestone if she died in childbirth.
**This one links to a really good blog by a former Evangelical Christian raised in a homeschooling Christian Patriarcy/Quiverfull family…I’ve followed her blog on and off over the past few years, and it is incredibly interesting. I refuse to link to a CDD site though, if you want to know about Christian Domestic Discipline, Google it!