Thursday, 14 April 2011

Bossy Women

Just to make how I feel about women absolutely clear before I start this. I am a woman. I have female friends. I have male friends. Women are lovely, but they can also be right pains. The same can be said for men. I am not a feminist. I am a gender equality-ist. It doesn't enrage me that women in history have been badly treated, because that's history. So long as it doesn't happen again.

Right, so here's a thought I had this morning as I was sitting down to breakfast and Jeremy Kyle. (oops). Today's society is outstandingly matriarchal. I'm just talking about western society, Britain in particular, I'm not getting into any discussion about particular religions' attitudes towards women or the treatment of women in other countries. But it does seem to me, that in the household, as the centre of each individual's both private and public society, women rule.

It's like, on a lot of these chat shows, (ok, I admit it, I'm just using Jeremy Kyle as an example), the 'head woman' of the household can be so incredibly controlling and dominant. They have the final say on who their son/daughter is allowed to see, who is 'in' and who is 'out' of their household. They can be bossy and domineering, (but of course there are counter-examples of completely down-trodden women). But the majority of women today, I think, do have a fair amount of control, both in the household and the workplace.

Obviously, this wasn't always the case. Women in the Classical Greek world had no rights to speak of. In fifth and fourth century Athens, women could not give evidence in the jury-courts and they had no rights to property. Their position was not even as head of household, but they belonged to the oikos, the household and to their husband, as can be seen in the trials and speeches of Demosthenes. Even when women apparently gain power in Aristophanes' comedy Ekklesiazusai, the very idea of women in such a role is  comedy in itself. The women then essentially create a welfare state that feeds and cares for every Athenian citizen and a kind of 'sexual socialism'. Unusually enough for Aristophanes, the situation is never resolved, but it is clear that the very concept of a matriarchal society for the Athenians was completely ludicrous. 

Antigone, by Frederic Leighton 1882, looking all Pre-Raphaelite-y.
Then there is my absolutely all-time favourite Greek tragedy EVER: Sophocles' Antigone. Antigone acts against the laws of the king, her uncle, in burying her dead brother, yet acts in complete agreement with the laws of kinship and of the gods. Therefore she must suffer the consequences and tragedy occurs. It was, of course, the duty of a sister to give her brother the correct funeral rights, but we might wonder if the same events would have occurred if it was a man in her place, or whether it really is the fate of the family of Oedipus to end in utter tragedy.

In the material evidence, women in ancient Greece were goddesses, or korai, (archaic statues with essentially, no personality) and were rarely depicted as individuals until the mid-fifth century, and even then they were dumpy, even masculine in features [Polyxena stele c.440BC]. Even when women were truly represented as 'women' it was always in a domestic context, with a husband, slave or child:

Hegeso stele c.400BC. If she stood up she'd be taller than the stele itself, plus her breasts are all crazy-wonky.

A similar picture can be drawn for ancient Rome. Although we might get the impression that Roman women were much more liberated, and TV series like Rome might give us the impression that they regularly interfered in politics and threw orgies. (One I saw a bit of recently, Spartacus: Gods of the Arena definitely gave that impression. I only saw a little of it, but spent the entire time wishing they'd hurry up with the orgy. Oh dear... Apparently it was given 9.5/10. This makes me a little sad). 

Yet the Senate remained male, during the Imperial period, the Emperors were male and women remained subordinate; matrons of the state. Cornelia Scipionis Africana, daughter of the famous Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus was seen almost as the ideal Roman woman. She was the mother of the ill-fated Gracchi; the widow who refused to re-marry, even when proposed to by the King Ptolemy VIII Physcon, the supporter of her children and student of Greek and Latin literature, all of which were, despite her prominent role in the second century BC, subordinate positions.

The wives of the Emperors especially were expected to maintain the image of dutiful wives and as examples of good Roman women. Augustus' wife, Livia, despite her husband's apparent reputation was seen as a pious matron, although later craving power on behalf of her son, Tiberius.

Women were certainly never forgotten, but were side-lined and a certain duties and actions were expected of them. Even during the Hellenistic period they remained subordinate, yet it is in this period, in Ptolemaic Egypt, that we actually see the prominent role of women. The (often) sister-wives of the Ptolemies were treated as divine humans in their own right. Roman empresses were worshipped as part of their ruler cult, but so were the queens of the third and second centuries BC. Yet the royal couples were still represented as a family. Women were able to branch into the male sphere of euergetism and munificence, and this is how we see the prominence of women in ancient Rome. Eumachia was able to dedicate a building to Concordia and Pietas (peace and piety - womanly virtues, perhaps?) in the Forum at Pompeii. Plancia Magna financed the re-building of an entire city gate in Perge. These were successful women, able to publicly display their own wealth, so long as it was beneficial to others, yet they had both been priestesses of Venus and of Artemis respectively, and so keeping to roles deemed appropriate for women.
Eumachia statue, Pompeii, first century AD. She is veiled in a pudicitia pose; appropriate for a woman, even an affluent one.

Perhaps it is through looking at women in ancient history anachronistically that I am even able to consider calling today's society a matriarchy. I realise that this is not a true 'matriarchy', but when looking at past evidence, it is certainly possibly to see that a number of women today possess 'matriarchal aspirations' that it was once never possible to even consider holding. Perhaps the only reason why we do not live in a matriarchal society today is because we still perceive matriarchs as the bossy mothers on Jeremy Kyle and as "bra-burning" feminists. Just a thought ...

This has turned into an incredibly long piece, which is er, slightly ironic, seeing as I actually really dislike the theme of women in history. I feel that it's important to understand what role they played and why they were seen as subordinate. But I do think that it's unnecessary to base entire essays on the subject as though it's a surprise. (In A Level History, I had to write essays on the role of women in Stalinist Russia. I feel like that is kind of missing the point of the subject itself). The same can also be seen for women in ancient history, but because material and inscription-al evidence is often so sparse, we feel the need to illustrate and explain points that we might otherwise see as quite common sense. 

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