Gender Roles in Ancient Greek Society Research Paper

Ancient Greek society was highly stratified in terms of gender, class, and ethnicity. These stratifications had tremendous implications for how power was distributed and expressed in Greek society. One of the most notable power differentials, and likely the most severe and immutable, was the difference in status between males and females. Females were categorically prohibited from altering their own status or role, ensuring the perpetuation of patriarchy. Women meditated the patriarchal system by developing spheres of power and command in two realms in particular: the domestic and the religious.

Elite women had access to systems of power that lower class women did not. So bereft of power were the women of the lower classes that their lives were not deemed worthy enough of observation or analysis by Greek historians, scholars, writers, or philosophers. Elite women, on the other hand, enjoyed some treatment by each of these historiographies. Particularly in Sparta, elite women could possess enough status to influence public discourse, as Sophocles demonstrates in his plays like Antigone. Family reputation did have a strong bearing on the relative status of a woman, but generally a Spartan female elite enjoyed tacit, but not explicit property rights: even though she could not enjoy the full privileges of title and deed such as political empowerment, she had some localized control over her property and how it was managed (Pomeroy, 2002).

Beliefs about the lowly status of women in Greek society can be traced to the high value given to physical strength and power and the perception of female weakness. The highest pinnacle of a woman’s strength was deemed to be her ability to produce a healthy male offspring and survive the ordeal, perhaps to do it again (Xenophon, 4th cent BCE). Male strength on the battlefield was weighted highly, particularly in ancient Sparta. Excluding women from participation in the military precluded half of all Greeks, Spartan or not, from demonstrating their prowess. Yet women were encouraged to develop their athletic strength so that her body would be suitable for childbirth: “the female sex ought to take bodily exercise no less than the male,” (Xenophon). Whereas men had an ideal body, the body of the female was inferior and subordinate to men. The female body in Greek myth was linked closely with death because the female body symbolizes the cycle of birth and death (Clark, 2009). Aristotle went so far as to claim that…