“The male is by nature superior and the female inferior…the one rules and the other is ruled.”
In comparison with other civilizations in the ancient world, Greek women in general did not enjoy high status, rank and privilege. Even so enlightened a man as Pericles suggested in a major public speech that the more inconspicuous women were, the better it was for everyone. Sparta, which history clearly ranks as the cultural inferior of Athens on almost every scale, seems to have had a superior record in its treatment of women. And it wasn't outstanding.
At social gatherings, intellectuals argued that perhaps men and women were two separate species. Men had more in common with the gods, while women had far more in common with the animal kingdom. (Perhaps this was an earlier, and fundamentally flawed, version of Men are from Mars: Women are from Venus). In any event, despite the efforts of many to ensure that women stayed in their proper place in the home and out of sight, a few did succeed in escaping that orbit. None flew as high as women in Egyptian society where several attained the highest office in the land- that of Pharaoh- but some Greek women managed to leave a public legacy. Following are three of them.
Penelope, wife of Odysseus, may not have existed at all but she still succeeded in leaving a legacy taught to new generations of Greeks for centuries by itinerant poet-storytellers. The virtues, values and roles ascribed to Penelope became, in effect, the standard to which women in that situation were expected to aspire. The story is well known.
Odysseus, King of Ithaca and the man responsible for the idea of the Trojan horse tried to return home after the long war with Troy. But he had offended Poseidon and the ruler of the seas threw many obstacles in his path. Odysseus, a reluctant warrior, had left his household in charge of his wife. Now she was being besieged by suitors who thought her husband was dead and wanted his wife and valuable property. Penelope outsmarted them. The woman that Homer portrays is one who can stand on her own two feet, is a partner with her husband in the life of the family and a real role model.
Aspasia, daughter of Axiochus, was born in the city of Miletus in Asia Minor (present day Turkey) around 470 BC. She was highly educated and attractive. Athens, at that time, was in its golden age and as a city must have had the kind of appeal that New York, London and Paris have today. Aspasia moved there around 445 BC and was soon part of the local social circuit. Some of the most influential minds of the era spoke highly of her intelligence and debating skills. Socrates credited her with making Pericles a great orator and with improving the philosopher's own skills in rhetoric. She contributed to the public life of Athens and to the enlightened attitude of its most influential citizens.
Hypatia, daughter of Theon of Alexandria, was born in that city around 350 AD. She studied and later taught at the great school in Alexandria. Some modern mathematicians acclaim her as having been “the world's greatest mathematician and the world's leading astronomer”, a viewpoint shared by ancient scholars and writers. She became head of the Platonist school at Alexandria lecturing on mathematics, astronomy and philosophy attracting students from all over the ancient world. Political and religious leaders in Alexandria sought her advice.
Women, of course, were also present in the various other non-citizen classes. As slaves, they would have performed all manner of duties and they would also have worked in businesses such as shops and bakeries. The group for which we have most information is that of sex-workers. Women were here divided into two categories. The first and perhaps most common was the brothel prostitute (pornē). The second type was the higher-class prostitute (hetaira). These latter women were educated in music (especially the flute) and culture and often formed lasting relationships with married men. It was also this class of women that entertained men (in every sense) at the celebrated symposium, the private drinking party for male guests only.
Finally, some women participated in cults and performed as priestesses to certain female deities (Demeter and Aphrodite especially) and also Dionysos. Priestesses, unlike their male counterparts, did have the added restriction that they were often, but not always, selected because they were virgins or beyond menopause. Worshippers, on the other hand, could be both sexes, and those rituals with restrictions could exclude either men or women. The Thesmophoria fertility festival was the most widespread such event and was only attended by married women. Each year in Athens, four young women were selected to serve the priestess of Athena Polias and weave the sacred peplos robe which would adorn the cult statue of the goddess. Perhaps the most famous female religious role was the aged Pythia oracle at Delphi who interpreted the proclamations of Apollo.