Spartan Women vs Athenian Women

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  • Topic: Sparta, Ancient Greece, 5th century BC
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  • Published : November 21, 2006
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Most people think of ancient Athens as the city of freedom and democracy, while they think of Sparta as a highly restricted society. The schools teach us that modern democracies are modeled on Athens, while military dictatorships are modeled on Sparta. However, history shows us that women had much more liberty in Sparta than in Athens. In fact, the democracy of Athens was available only to free men who were citizens of Athens. Moreover, to claim citizenship, an Athenian had to prove that both his parents were "astoi." For the father, being "astos" meant that he was an Athenian citizen, but the mother could not be a citizen. Women were never citizens, but only able to transmit the rights of citizenship to their sons (Perry, et al, 1992, pp.60-61). The political structure of Sparta, on the other hand, provided more liberty for more people, especially when those people were women. This goes against our generally held beliefs, yet there is much evidence for it. Both Athenian and Spartan women lived much of their lives separately from the men of their societies. Athenian men spent time away discussing politics and philosophy, but when they went home they expected obedience from their wives. Moreover, no Athenian citizen would ever admit that he took advice from a woman. Spartan men were gone even more, since they were soldiers. Only the men held official office, but everyone recognized the influence of women in decision making. Spartan women gained freedom from male domination, but they were not likely to get any emotional support from their marriages. The men of Athens had to be the boss in public, but not necessarily in the home behind closed doors. In Athens, the men held public power, but in Sparta the state held public power (Perry, et al, 1992, pp.54-55, pp. 60-61). Even the style of dress reveals the relative liberty of the Spartan women, compared with the Athenian women. Athenian wives wore plain, modest clothing. Only prostitutes were allowed to wear jewelry or bright colors in public. Spartan women, on the other hand, wore tunics in a way that gave them a little more freedom of movement and the opportunity to reveal a little of their legs if they so desired. Spartan girls competed in athletics at the same time as the boys and may have done so in the nude with a mixed audience. Fashions in clothing were closely associated with morality. With regard to education, the difference is striking. Athenian women were taught how to perform household chores, but they were discouraged from learning to read and write. Spartan women, on the other hand, received basically the same education as men, including physical education, as well as academics. Women were free to leave their homes without fear of being labeled as a prostitute or a slave, and they could fulfill strong roles in their society.

Status of Athenian Women in Society
Most Athenian philosophers believed that women had strong emotions and weak minds, so of course they had to be protected from themselves and prevented from harming others. Guardianship was the system developed to deal with this perceived quality in women. Every woman in Athens had a kyrios (guardian) who was either her closest male birth-relative or her husband. Although she could own her clothing, jewelry, and personal slave and purchase inexpensive items, she was not allowed to buy anything else, or to own property or enter into any contract. Her kyrios controlled everything about her life (Oswyn, 1986, p. 212). Citizenship for a woman entitled her to marry a male citizen and to join certain religious cults that were closed to men and non-citizens, but it did not give her any political or economic benefits (Oswyn, 1986, pp. 208-209). Compared to the women of Sparta, the status of an Athenian woman in Greek society was minimal. Athenian wives were only a small step above slaves. From birth a girl was not expected to learn how to read or write, and she could never expect to earn an education. Boys...
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