Gender Inequality in the Ancient World

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Francesca Succi
Dr. Brown
Western Civ I
18 September 2012

Gender Inequality in the Ancient World

Throughout history, women have been regarded as unequal and subordinate to men. In the male-dominated Western culture, the issue of women’s rights seems unending; even thousands of years after the first evidence of gender inequality, society has yet to even the playing field. Although it seems like our culture is progressive, we still share many qualities with the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and Greece. Women were in no way equal to men during these ancient times; in fact, in some areas, they were considered subservient to men, with no rights or privileges. However, there were some areas of Ancient Greece that had a different model for social structure. The treatment of women in Mesopotamian culture differs greatly from that of Greek culture, as well as within Greece, between Lacedaemon and Athens; despite this, gender inequality was still present in each culture at some level. Of these three areas of the ancient world, Lacedaemon indisputably had the most progressive model for social structure, with Mesopotamia close behind. Athens, which seems like it would have the most liberal model for society, actually had the highest level of gender inequality. In ancient times, there were several aspects of life that caused a divide between genders. First, and probably most obviously, women had various levels of responsibilities and several social roles within the different areas of the ancient world. In the most progressive social structure of Lacedaemon, women played an indispensable and essential part. Since the basis of their culture was to train and sustain an unconquerable army, this occupied most of the time for almost all men, who left many responsibilities that the women needed to take on. Girls learned from age seven not only how to cook and clean and be a good housewife, but also everything that was required to run an estate (Brown, Lecture, 2012). Young women were taught math and accounting so they would easily be able to take on and run an estate when they were older. Lacedaemon “was unique among ancient Greek cities in the freedom it granted to its female citizens—this was partly due to reliance on women to manage estates while men were away at war” (Sacks “Sparta”). This culture relied almost equally on both the men and women in society for very different jobs. Since the responsibilities were so evenly distributed, there was more of a sense of gender equality. Indeed, Lacedaemon was quite unique in this tendency to treat women relatively equally to men. The Mesopotamians, who were the second most liberal of these three areas, set women on a much lower pedestal than the Lacedaemonians: Mutually exclusive extremes [like male vs. female] are at the core of ancient Near Eastern gender roles… [cuneiform] makes it very plain that the place of a woman was considered the domestic sphere, where she gave birth and raised children; cooked, baked, and brewed; made textiles by spinning, weaving, and sewing; laundered and cleaned; and kept the household running (Radner).

The women’s social roles and responsibilities were much more restricted than those of Lacedaemon women. They were only expected to clean and be a suitable housewife. One of the only similarities between Lacedaemon and Mesopotamia is that the women were held somewhat responsible for running the estate. Males and masculinity were associated with power and strength, while females and femininity were associated with passiveness and weakness. This probably sounds relatively familiar, because in the modern and post-modern eras, society still experiences these gender roles that were established in ancient times. Mesopotamia, the foundation of Western civilization, is where these moderately-conservative gender roles truly began.

Even more extreme gender roles could be found in Athenian culture. Women were, in the most literal sense, inferior to men. The...
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