Athenian Women, More Than Just Wall Flowers

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Athenian Women, More than Just Wall Flowers


Ancient Athens can be best described as a patriarchy, where women and children were under the authority and guardianship of a male (Blundell 66). A dichotomy exists between ancient sources surrounding the life led by Athenian women. On one side there is Xenophon, who portrayed Athenian women to be limited to a domestic role where household duties such as cleaning, cooking, and supervising slaves were primary activities of Athenian women. While on the other side there is Aristophanes, Demosthenes, Euripides, and Sophocles who provide evidence Athenian women did have opportunities to engage in activities outside their domestic roles. Although Athenian women did engage in primarily domestic roles as illustrated by Xenophon, evidence shows that Athenian women did participate in economic, social, and public activities. Economic Activities of Athenian women

When looking at accounts made by Xenophon, Athenian women are restricted to a domestic role. For example, Xenophon described a conversation where Ischomachus was telling Socrates how he instructed his wife on household management; Ischomachus tells his wife, “God from the beginning devised, I believe, the nature of woman for indoor work and activity and the nature of man for outdoor” (Xenophon, Oeconomicus 7. 22) Ischomachus went on further and told his wife, “You will have to stay indoors, to join in sending out those of the servants whose work is outdoor work, and to oversee those who have indoor work to do” (Xenophon, Oeconomicus 7. 35-36). Despite Xenophon`s account, evidence shows that not only did Athenian women participate in household duties, some women participated in public economic. Evidence of the participation of Athenian women in economic activities comes from lower class Athenian women, who had to work outside the home in order fight poverty and increase the family income (Herman 51). Some women found work in low-grade occupations such as midwives, washerwomen and wetnurses, or in activities like selling ribbons (Herman 51). Evidence for this comes from Demosthenes when he trying to defend Euxitheos’s citizenship (Brock 336). Demosthenes states:

We agree that we sell ribbons and that we do not live as we would prefer....He has also said of my mother that she worked as a wet-nurse. We do not deny that this happened, at a time when the city was suffering misfortune, and everyone was in a bad way; but I will make clear to you the manner in which she worked as a nurse and the reasons why she did so. Let none of you interpret it unfavourably, men of Athens; for indeed, you will find that many citizen women work as nurses, and, if you wish, I will mention them by name. (Demosthenes 57, Against Eubulides 31-35)

While few women engaged in public economic activities, some Athenian women engaged in economic activities within the home as well. One major economic activity Athenian women engaged in within the home was weaving. Athenian women were in charge of activities such as spinning, weaving, and sewing (Budin 104-105). Although Xenophon does restrict women to a domestic role, there was one instance where he provided evidence for the participation of women in economic activities. In his account Xenophon recalled a conversation between Socrates and a fellow named Aristarchus (Budin 105). Aristarchus was rather upset because many of his female relatives came to stay with him, and he was concerned he would not be able to provide for all of them (Budin 105). Socrates advised Aristarchus to get his female relatives to produce clothes in order to earn their stay (Budin 105). Aristarchus was hesitant to have his female relatives work but Socrates explained to Aristarchus that weaving or sewing is, “the work considered the most honourable and the most suitable for a woman; and the work that is understood is always done with the greatest ease, speed, pride and...
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