Women and Politics in Democratic Athens

By Cole, Susan | History Today, March 1994 | Go to article overview

Women and Politics in Democratic Athens


Cole, Susan, History Today


The Athenians maintained that Erichthonios, the king from whom they believed they were descended, was born from the earth herself. This myth of autochthony rationalised claims to the territory of Attica, expressed a strong relationship with the land, and recognised male dependence on the female as nurturer of life. Even in the classical period, when many people lived in the urban area of Athens, families maintained agricultural property in the countryside and therefore continued to have strong economic and emotional ties to the land of Attica, the agricultural territory of Athens. Linguistic distinctions preserved this identification of the people with the land. Terms for the collective population were 'Attikoi/Attikai', 'people of Attica', or 'astoi/astai,, 'having a share in the city', used for both males and females. 'Athenaioi ', from which we derive the English term 'Athenians' was almost always reserved for the male population eligible for citizenship. Females seem to have been called by the feminine form of this term ('Athenaiai') only when the issue was the religious office of a public priesthood, as 'Attikai' females were defined in terms of the land. Official documents are very precise, distinguishing those with political authority from their dependents when they refer to the whole population of Athens as 'the people (demos) of the Athenians and their wives and children'. The usual term for 'citizen' (polites, masculine singular) referred only to men; its rare feminine form (politis) defined a woman as daughter of an Athenian citizen or resident of the polls, but not as a political actor.

In the early Greek polls, political responsibility entailed military service, a fact that tended to sharpen the distinction between the lives of men and women. The lives of men were spent in public; women lived, for the most part, in the private domestic world of the home. Male and female roles were represented, paradoxically, by the two great female divinities of the city. Athena was represented as Promachos, armed for battle, her perennial virginity a necessary sign of the city's invulnerability. Demeter, on the other hand, goddess of grain and symbol of motherhood, was identified with the establishment of agriculture and civilised life. The Thesmophoria, a secret festival celebrated by the wives of the city's citizens, honoured Demeter and encouraged her protection of the city's crops. Athenian democracy evolved in the context of an agricultural community, a fact recognised by the oath sworn by young men during the military training that would qualify them for full political rights. They vowed to protect the boundaries of the land of Attica and invoked as witnesses the products of the land: the wheat, the barley, the vines, the olives, the figs. Wars were fought to protect the agricultural territory and the wives and children of the Athenians, an idea reflected in a vocabulary of war that described the rape of women with the same terms used for destruction of land and crops. Full political rights were originally predicated upon possession of land, but even after they were eventually extended to men without land, the Athenian political system did not outgrow the hierarchy of wealth and privilege based on and derived from the land.

The basic social unit was the family (oikos, 'household'), a unit defined originally in terms of possession of land for farming (kleros, 'allotment'). Stability was represented by the land, and success was measured by the transfer of land from a father to a son. Males remained in the oikos of their birth (unless adopted by a childless family), but females had to move to a new oikos at the time of marriage, when they took property away from the natal household in the form of dowry. This movement of women between families provoked anxiety because the allegiance of a married woman could always be divided between a father's and a husband's oikos. The transmission of land from one generation to the next was another source of anxiety for husbands and fathers; first, because it required marriage and the reception of a female from another (perhaps competing) oikos; second, because it required the production of legitimate sons (but not too many); and third, because the birth of daughters, who took land away from the oikos in the form of dowry at marriage, posed a risk to the economic security of sons. …

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