In high school, you might have learned that Athenian women were an oppressed and marginalized group of second-class citizens, to be neither seen nor heard. History textbooks are full of claims to reinforce this idea: women couldn’t own property, were forced to remain inside the home and couldn’t participate in government. At least, that’s the traditional line of thought.
However, classics professor Laura McClure of the University of Wisconsin believes that Greek drama tells a different story about the status of Athenian women. McClure’s recent talk on campus was sponsored by the Jasper Jacob Stahl Lectureship Fund, the Department of Classics, and the Studies in the Mediterranean course cluster, one of Bowdoin’s three interdisciplinary course clusters funded by a Mellon Foundation grant to enhance the humanities.
Said McClure, “Athenian drama repeatedly offers positive examples of women’s contributions to the larger democratic community.” Far from meek and invisible, women in Greek drama are often political mavericks, religious leaders and the cornerstones of their family units. Famous theatrical works like Lysistrata, Alcestis and Iphigenia at Tauris illustrate women as a powerful force in both public and private capacities. If art imitates life, women in classical Athens may have been very influential indeed.
McClure’s lecture first emphasized the crucial role that women played in the religious life of the city, as a major source of their clout in personal and political realms. Religion permeated all aspects of life in the ancient world, and women dominated this sphere. In fact, it’s estimated that women participated in 80 percent of all ancient Athenian ritual activities. Religious participation, according to McClure, was “the tangible sign of belonging and citizenship,” meaning that women were actually afforded tremendous civic power by way of their involvement with religion and ritual.
Women were not only valued for their essential role in religion but also for their duties as wives and mothers. Towards the end of the 5th century BCE, new legislation was enacted requiring mothers, as well as fathers, to be citizens in order to confer citizenship on their children. This new law hugely enhanced women’s status, making them indispensible for the creation and upbringing of new citizens and soldiers: the lifeblood of Athenian civilization. The act emphasized “the procreative function of the household as a building block of the city,” said McClure. This improved status is obvious in Athenian art, where an explosion of images of domestic life occurred in tandem with the citizenship legislation, in both visual and dramatic art.
Of course, we’ll never know precisely what life was like for women in the ancient world. But McClure makes a compelling case that history books don’t tell the full story; that Athenian women were an integral part of Athens and its renowned political and cultural life.