To our eyes the position of women in classical Athens seems incredibly repressive. To quote Oswyn Murray in the Oxford History of the Classical World, women who were Athenian citizens “could not enter into any transaction worth more than one medimnus of barley; they could not own any property, with the conventional exception of their own clothes, their personal jewellery and their personal slaves. At all times they had to be under the protection of a kyrios, a guardian; if they were unmarried , their father or closest male relative, if they were married their husband, if widowed their son or other male relative by marriage or birth”.
This contrasted with the position of women in Sparta where women could own land and by the third century two fifths of the land was in their hands.
Oswyn Murray gives some reasons for the position of women. “The coming of democracy meant the imposition of the social norms of the majority. Many peasant societies combine a high value placed on women with a mistrust of them”. ..”In an agrarian society these feeling are held in check by the need for woman’s labour in the fields; with the advent of urban life the woman is confined to the house, and increased wealth brings with it aspirations to liberate her even from domestic duties”.
Murray quotes this passage from Sophocles (Tereus, fr 583) to illustrate the predicament of women.
“But now outside my father’s house I am nothing; yes, often I have I looked on the nature of women thus, we are nothing. Young girls have in my opinion the sweetest existence known to mortals in their father’s homes, for innocence keeps children safe and happy always. But when we reach puberty and understanding, we are thrust out and sold away from our ancestral gods and from our parents. Some go to strangers’ homes some to foreigners’, some to joyless houses, some to hostile. And all this, once the first night has yoked to our husband, we are forced to praise and say that all is well.”
νῦν δ ̓ οὐδέν εἰμι χωρίς! ἀλλὰ πολλάκις ἔβλεψα ταύτηι τὴν γυναικείαν φύσιν ὡς οὐδὲν ἐσμεν. Αἳ νέαι μὲν ἐν πατρὸς ἥδιστον, οἶμαι, ζῶμεν ἀνθρώπων βίον· τερπνῶς γὰρ ἀεὶ παῖδας ἀνοία τρέφει. ὅταν δ ̓ ἐς ἥβην ἐξικώμεθ ̓ ἔμφρονες, ὠθούμεθ ̓ ἔξω καὶ διεμπολώμεθα θεῶν πατρώιων τῶν τε φυσάνθων ἄπο, αἱ μὲν ξένους πρὸς ἄνδρας, αἱ δὲ βαρβάρους, αἱ δ ̓εἰς ἀγηθῆ δώμαθ ̓, αἰ δ ̓ ἐπίρροθα. καὶ ταῦτ ̓, ἐπειδὰν εὐφρόνη ζεύξηι μία, χρεὼν ἐπαινεῖν καὶ δοκεῖν καλῶς ἔχειν