Pride in the Classical Past?—Pause! It’s Patriarchal
Every Greek loves to brag. We created democracy, we created drama, we gave the world literature, poetry, architecture, the foundations of Western culture. That may be all well and good, but the Greeks, both ancient and modern, got one thing dead wrong—their treatment of women. As a woman of Hellenic descent this fact gives me pause; as much as I relish in the glory of my culture, I am checked in my enthusiasm when I read the sad history of how women have been treated in Greek society.
It is common knowledge that women of ancient Greece, as in many other male-dominated and agrarian cultures, could not own property, were not educated to the degree of their male counterparts, could not attend dramatic performances or athletic feats, say such as the illustrious Olympics. (While girls were educated especially in gymnastics, dancing and music to perform in religious and athletic events, these were segregated according to gender). A woman’s name could not even be uttered in public. So in essence, they were part of the culture but forbidden to enjoy the fruits of its civilization. They were invisible. (Dare to say, much the same way women in certain Muslim countries are treated.) As the online Ancient Encyclopedia states, “The ultimate goal of a girl’s education was to prepare her for her role in rearing a family and not directly to stimulate intellectual development.” Her role was primarily involved the private sphere of hearth and home.
Never mind the theoretical malignment of the female sex. Aristotle had no doubts that women were intellectually incapable of making important decisions for themselves. Socrates was no different. In the Apology, Socrates calls those who plead for their lives in court “no better than women” (35b)… The Timaeus warns men that if they live immorally they will be reincarnated as women (42b-c; cf. 75d-e). Plato was the same. The Republic contains a number of comments in the same spirit (387e, 395d-e, 398e, 431b-c, 469d), evidence of nothing so much as of contempt toward women. Even Socrates’ words for his bold new proposal about marriage… suggest that the women are to be “held in common” by men. He never says that the men might be held in common by the women… We also have to acknowledge Socrates’ insistence that men surpass women at any task that both sexes attempt (455c, 456a), and his remark in Book 8 that one sign of democracy’s moral failure is the sexual equality it promotes (563b). Imagine that! The O Sokratis o Sofos, the wise and respected Socrates, held even as a saint in the Orthodox faith in some circles, discounted democracy on the basis that it promotes sexual equality! You can be wise and smart in all things but still have a blind spot. We cannot go on patting a patriarchally insidious culture on the back without recognizing how utterly flawed it was.
Yiassas, all you wonderful philosophers and statesmen we so revere! Newsflash– “you got the woman issue wrong.” You can be right about many things, but if you deny the personhood of more than 50% of your population, let’s be honest, you cannot be considered an “ideal” society. So much of Greek pride whitewashes the truth–that it ignored, demeaned, and discredited women. Not to acknowledge the blatant misogyny in the glorious Greek past (and present) is to ignore the truth. But Zeus forbid, confessing that you have made a mistake in logic would be anathema. It erodes at your own ethical and logical foundation as an “authority.” Ironically, it is the blind spots, the irrational hatred for women because they are women, which demonstrates how illogical the magnificent men who founded the West were.
Not to recognize the errors in logical thinking by the founders of logic themselves is to go on seeing the past in rose-colored glasses. I wish that this overlooking the female sex is illogical oversight. The other possibility poses a darker picture–that they had been all too logical and they wanted it that way.
The history of misogyny in Greek culture I believe became even more entrenched after the 400 years under Ottoman rule. Many of the Hellenistic ideals became “Islamified”and women lost even more freedom. To this day, especially in the isolated agrarian villages, women are held in contempt. A fellow colleague whose family came from the rugged highlands of Thrace admitted that when people asked her father how many children he had, he would respond with two. He would leave her out, because she did not qualify as a child. In those parts a girl was considered a “kopeli” and did not count as a child.
All this collective misogyny leaves this woman of Hellenic descent very conflicted. How can I embrace and glorify my past when I know it would not recognize me? How can I cheer for these illustrious glorified icons of Greek pride without damaging my own identity? How can I be part of a culture that holds such hateful and mistaken ideas about my sex, even while it has made so many incredible contributions to the world? As smart as the ancients were, they had it all wrong when it comes to women.
I cannot embrace in full frontal pride and blind acceptance, the traditions and institutionalized intellectual misogyny that has continued to this day.
It is this understanding that gives me pause. It is this realization that makes me reject it even while I love it. I do not have research or surveys to gauge it, but I have a hunch that this is partly why many second and third generation Hellenes, especially women, have abandoned their culture of origin. In the era of heightened sensitivity for gender matters, the conflicts of coming from a patriarchal culture . #metoo has left a huge wake for us hybrid Americans to ride on.
Can you keep your culture without throwing your identity out with the dirty bath water? This is the task we are left to grapple with as Greek-American women.
Dear Irene, Your articles repeatedly have so much more worthwhile content than any of the vapid media sites! You raise such interesting questions. My response to this article is that, for 90% at least of Greece, and based on my decades in Greece spent near devout, everyday people, our true identity is not Greek, but Christian Orthodox. The philosophers were “little lights” preparing for the great Light who is Christ. While they got some things right, as you point out, they got many things wrong, not just about women; they also saw slaves as less than human. Their real contribution were their questions regarding the relationship of man to God, which ultimately were solved only in Christ. These questions thus helped prepare humanity for His coming to the world. Their questions also created a vocabulary which the patristic saints made use of to explain man’s union with God – the goal and meaning of life for Orthodox Christians. Not that Orthodox saints adopted philosophical concepts – just the vocabulary. So our glory as people of Greek descent is our identity as Christian Orthodox – which the devout fought hard to keep on our Greek identity cards. Being Greek does matter, however, why? Because the Greek constitution is written in the Name of the Holy Trinity! Our greatest pride and glory is that we belong to the authentic, biblical Christianity taught by Christ, which never demeans women, by the way. People who say the opposite do so without any real knowledge of our Christian tradition with its emphasis on humility as the path to God for both men and women. We don’t always follow Christ’s teachings unfortunately, as seen by practices like the non-Christian dowry system which made people regret having girls. But our Christian Orthodox faith itself is pure and perfect; this is our Greek glory, and what we take pride in – without any fears of its trustworthiness – by trying to live up to it.