From Ancient to Modern: Greek Women's Struggle for Equality. (Women of the World)

By Pantziara, Nicoletta | Social Education, January-February 2003 | Go to article overview

From Ancient to Modern: Greek Women's Struggle for Equality. (Women of the World)


Pantziara, Nicoletta, Social Education


Since it joined the European Union, Greece has been pushed toward modernization at a faster speed. A country still very tied to the legacy of its ancient civilization, Greece has been struggling to find balance between modernity and the country's rich cultural heritage. Even as the country advances technologically, the power of tradition continues to exert tremendous influence. Greek women, in particular, are caught in this paradox. It is a quiet struggle, but a fascinating one worthy of greater study. Unfortunately, in American schools, teachers who examine Europe often limit their study to the powerful countries of the continent like Britain, France, Germany, or Italy. Although some aspects of ancient Greece are covered in the social studies curriculum, American students rarely study the vibrant contemporary Greek society.

One significant aspect of modernization has been the change in women's status-the result of a blend of tradition and innovation, according to some scholars. (2) After providing a brief overview of Greek women's historical struggles for autonomy, this article will offer suggestions for teaching about contemporary Greek women.

Women in Ancient Greece

   Of all creatures who live and have intelligence, we women
   are the most miserable. [...] People say that we women
   lead a life without danger inside our homes, while men fight
   in war; but they are wrong. I would rather serve three times
   in battle than give birth once.

      Medea's complaint, Athens, Greece, 431 BC (Euripedes, Medea
   230-51. G) (3)

As Medea's distressed words indicate, the glorious democratic freedom of the classical Greek polis was not applied to women. On the contrary, in everyday life, women of ancient Greece were under the authority of men--either fathers or husbands. In fact, Greek law required the bride's family to pay a dowry to the groom when getting married. In a period when the nuclear family and the oikos (household) served as the foundation of proper citizenship, a woman's neglect of domestic duties could lead to severe legal and social consequences. (4) A man's parallel household violation, such as the sexual exploitation of young slaves or hetairai, was not similarly punished.

Nonetheless, not all women were absorbed with their domestic tasks; some dared to undertake employment outside the home. (5) Women also played an important role in religious festivals. (6) The work of classical Greek writers demonstrates that Greek women's desire for self-determination is not simply a modern phenomenon. Plato's Symposium, for example, tells the story of Diotima, a woman who challenged Athenian men with her bold opinions. Kallipateira, a name quite familiar to Greek schoolchildren, was the first woman to participate--albeit secretly--in the ancient Olympic games.

Still, despite some advances in women's political and social rights during the Hellenistic and Roman eras that followed the classical Greek era, the household remained the foundation of social cohesion. Throughout the centuries leading up to the modern era, many cultural patterns affecting gender relations proved remarkably resilient in the face of new economic and political conditions. As scholar Marilyn Arthur puts it, although Greek gods "ceased to hate men," unfortunately, men did not cease "to hate women" (7)

The Greek Women's Rights Movement

The emergence of a women's movement in Greece traces its origins to the late nineteenth century, although this effort involved only a small proportion of middle and upper class urban women. (8) Even as they dared to demand better treatment, these pioneering women did not totally question their traditional female role, fearing that upsetting the institution of family would be seen as threatening society as a whole. (9)

At that time, Greek women fought mainly for their right to education; in fact, the first people to speak out in support of more education for women were teachers.

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