Wife, slave, or prostitute?

I just have to share some of the things I learned in my Philosophy class. Dr. Schreibman is a brilliant teacher, and you won’t believe what I’m finding out! I quote (myself, in a recent paper, leaving out the footnotes and bibliography): In ancient western civilization (700-300 BCE) women were relegated to three primary roles: Wife, Slave or Prostitute. During this period they were further regarded as men’s legal wards, could not own property or engage in significant business transactions. A woman’s children belonged to the husband and her participation in adultery was punishable in many cases by harsh execution. Additionally, records show that a woman could not leave the home without the consent of her husband or father. Thusly, a woman could never become an autonomous individual. Few women during this time were formally educated, never mind gained notoriety as a scholar, poet or the like. Only the privileged few (aristocrats or courtesans) would be permitted social advances while the remaining vast majority were never allowed any betterment.

Does this ring any bells for anybody? How far have some of us come, and how many of us are still trapped 2700 years ago?

Four hundred years later power shifted from the Aristocracy to the Polis, a particular form of male-dominated democracy, resulting in intense periods of severe patriarchy and misogynistic practices. Instead of women fulfilling their traditional roles, these roles were now seen as a “necessity and duty” and the failure to perform them had extreme moral and legal consequences. During this time, “…unlike men, women were considered a hybrid creature, a domesticated animal who could be adapted to the needs of society but whose fundamental instincts were antagonistic to it.” That quote is from www.alphabetvsgoddess.com, a terrific resource!

So if you, dear reader, are a woman, and sometimes find yourself feeling like a domesticated animal or a prostitute, and can only relate to the denigrating qualities of the word “wife,” here are some of the sources of this ancient and demeaning self-talk.

Men typically married late in life, usually during their thirties. This is important to consider given the average life expectancy was only fifty; while some never married or preferred the company of prostitutes or young boys. Furthermore when they did marry, they did so primarily for breeding purposes, and chose brides between the ages of 12-15 years old who were deliberately kept separate from the adult women.

One reason for this intensifying trend, according to Sara Pomeroy, was due to men’s fear of women’s power, particularly as it was portrayed in their everyday and existing cosmology. Goddesses of their cosmology were often considered immortal and had the power to destroy men and to give and take life as they wished. Additionally, many had warrior-like qualities that exceeded those of their male opponents.

Today in the business world, powerful, assertive women are seen as aggressive “bitches” (back to the animals again) while powerful, assertive men are seen as dynamic and successful. But hey, at least women are playing in that arena now!

It is fascinating that precisely during the introduction of literacy the imbalance between men and women arose and began to escalate. According to Leonard Shlaine, “…literacy reinforced the brain’s linear, abstract, predominantly masculine left hemisphere at the expense of the holistic, iconic feminine right one. This shift upset the balance between men and women...the decline of women’s political status. Patriarchy and misogyny followed.”  Finally, it must be noted that there are very few records of women’s personal thoughts or reflections during this period in history, aside from those reported and recorded by men.  

The spoken and written word commanded significant influence, and in creating society’s rules and values poets of that time were mostly regarded as “…ranking next only to the Gods.” Hesiod, one such “Epic Poet” whose very name was etymologized to mean, “he who emits the voice” (some say his name was given to him by himself!) commanded such influence. In one of his most well-known poems, The Works and Days, he elaborates on topics including, morality, farming and country life. He often illustrated significant (to put it mildly)  bias against women, i.e. “Do not let a flaunting woman coax, cozen and deceive you: she is after your barn.” “The man who trusts woman-kind; trusts deceivers.”  

Hesiod’s characterization of a flaunting woman emphasizing and epitomizes the particular way in which women are not to be trusted by luring men (cozen, coax) in order to deceive them. He goes on to say that it is a man’s “barn” that women are after, implying this is her only aim. We might note that since women could not own property (with the exception of women in Sparta), the man’s “barn” is best understood to be “security.” Additionally, women were not free to choose who they married, which draws suspicion to the poet’s assessment, unless he is referring to the lure of the prostitute or courtesan. Hesiod’s bias against women is unmistakable; the man “who trusts women-kind trusts deceivers” can only mean that all women are untrustworthy and deceivers!

In my workshops for men and women I have seen these cultural patterns play out again and again for both sexes. Men think they have to impress women with the size of their…barns (Hummers, businesses, bank accounts) and women try to persuade the men that they will be good caretakers of their wealth by providing an endless supply of comfort food, good sex, and rapt attention.

Of course, this dude Hesiod is an extreme example. Can’t you just hear him in some bar halfway through the evening: “…Pernicious is the race; the woman Tribe, dwells upon earth: a mighty bane to men.”  “…such evil did the Thunderer send to man in woman’s form, and so he gave the sex, ill helpmates of intolerable toils.”

Despite Hesiod’s humble beginnings as a farmer he would become one of the most influential men in the western world, whose speculations would shape societies to come. While he was not alone in his bias against women, this man of meager means chose to condemn women rather than study them as a true philosopher. His well-published denigration of women led to significant escalation of misogyny and contributed to the lasting suppression of all women. 

So how do we, as modern women, deal? One of the most effective tools I have found to clear away the ancient scum is to sit down and write down all the things you believe about yourself, all the things you “know” are true: “I’m lazy,” “I’m a workaholic,” “I have a bad memory,” “I can’t possibly do _______.” Keep on writing them down until you’ve exhausted them. And then take them one by one and look them squarely in the eye. Is this really true? Who told you? Can you hear their voices? Feel the emotions each belief brings up in you, all the way out loud, for as long as it takes. Then thank each one—your grandmother, your aunt, your teacher—for keeping you safe when it was needed, and let them go! I have a lovely letting-go ritual in my book, Hindsight, that I highly recommend. And then go out with your head and your heart held high!