It’s no secret ancient Greece wasn’t exactly progressive in terms of gender equality (remember our old friend Hippocrates and his magic cure-all?). However, there seems to be a pop-culture misconception that Spartan women were some how different. That because Spartan men were often away at war, it necessitated the city-state have more equable gender politics.
Oh, if only.
It’s true that Spartan women had greater legal standing as property owners. And it’s true that Spartan women competed in athletic contests like and alongside the men with little, if anything, on. It’s also true that typical domestic, “womanly” work expected of women in other Greek city-states were considered distasteful for free women to do.
However, the culture completely revolved around the masculine. Greater property rights came because Spartan men lived almost exclusively in barracks when they weren’t off at war. Because only the menfolk were considered strong and virile enough to go off and fight. So women got to not only own a goodly chunk of the property, they got to manage it pretty much totally on their own.
The idea of men needing to be strong enough for war also fueled women’s athletic competitions and freeing them from what was elsewhere thought of as women’s work. The physical competitions – foot and chariot races, wrestling, and discus and javelins throwing (according to volume one of Katherine French and Allyson Poska’s Women and Gender in the Western Past) – were actually conducted, for unmarried women only mind you, because it was thought the training would make women more likely to conceive “vigorous” sons.
Sons, and daughters, that these women would essentially raise alone. Spartan men married around age 20 (Spartan women also married later, most likely around age 18, as opposed to other Greek city-states where women married upon puberty; although like other Greek women, they probably were not allowed to choose their spouse), but were required to live in the barracks until they were about 30. Thus children could go as many as 10 years without knowing their fathers; for sons conceived in the first year of a marriage, they would very likely be moved into the barracks to begin military training by the time their fathers lived in the home full time.
Even on the wedding night, femininity had little place in Spartan society. The night before a couple’s wedding, the bride would be dressed in men’s clothing and have her hair chopped short, then she’d be left alone in the dark. After her husband-to-be finished his dinner, he would go to her, the couple would have sex, and then he would return to the barracks. The next day, they’d get hitched. Although there are many theories as to why this tradition was started, Sarah Pomeroy in Spartan Women proposes that it was to help ease the switch from homosexual sex (oh yes, the Spartans were still Greek after all, so women were still inferior sexual partners in their estimation) to heterosexual sex. Personally, I see it as a continuation of their devaluation of women and femininity.
Still, Spartan women did wield a bit of political power, though not in any direct manner. Their political power mostly rested in their wealth and property. And even this one perk was tainted; Aristotle (among others) heavily blamed the wealth of Spartan women for the city-state’s decline.
Manda is, in no special order, an artist, mama, writer, activist and history geek.