Creation stories associated women with both life-giving and life-taking forces.

          Many Mesopotamia myths described the earth and other creative elements as female; but women’s creative forces were also perceived as dangerous to men

          Hebrew Bible – Eve tempted Adam to disobey God and thus brought sin and death into the World

          GilgameshIshtar, the Goddess of Love, kills men she has sex with.  A harlot civilized Enkidu, the wild man who later became Gilgamesh’s friend. Women’s sexuality can weaken or even destroy men.


Long before the Greeks literally defined woman as womb, the Ancient World similarly perceived them as either mothers or whores.




The warrior societies of Ancient Greece valued male attributes and contributions more than women’s.

See https://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/700greekwomen.html

Dark and Archaic Ages

Hesiod (8th c. BC), Pandora’s Box

·        “Don’t let any woman dazzle you with her decked-out rump; behind the twaddle, she’s after your barn; anyone who trusts a woman is trusting thieves”

Homer (8th c.  BC), Iliad and Odyssey

·        Women figure in Iliad as prizes, wives and mothers, mourners, and priestesses

·        Penelope faithfully waits 20 years for Odysseus to return; her unfaithful serving women are slain

          Sappho (6th c. BC) of Lesbos,

·        10th muse, lyric poetry

·        often erotic poetry, love of women for women


Classical Athens (5th and 4th c. B.C.)


·        Plato, The Republic

·        Aristotle, Politics



mind / body dichotomy

rational, human / physical, sensual

man / woman



·        Women’s physical and mental health depended on the functioning of their uterus

·        Women’s physiology necessitated early marriages and frequent pregnancies



·        Men came of age at 18; women never

·        Women were legal wards of head of oikos

·        Needed consent of kyrios

·        Epikleros couldn’t inherit; wealth to nearest agnate


·        Marriage (Ekdosis) mean “loan”:

Ideal age for marriage

Plato                                                           16-20         


Aristotle                                                     18               


Average                                                      14     


·        Dowry was inalienable; interest computed at 18 % annually

·        Husband could divorce wife without cause; must divorce her if she was adulterous

·        Wife must prove “extreme provocation”


Gyne, the Greek word for woman, meant “bearer of children”

·        Ideal woman was housewife and mother; stayed in gyneceum engaged in spinning and weaving; e.g., Pericles: “Fulfill diligently the tasks that nature has assigned you and you will be praised; and the highest praise you can win is to be spoken of by men as little as possible, whether for good or ill”

·        Male children preferred; evidence of female infanticide; e.g., Posidippus: “Even a poor man will bring up a son, but even a rich man will expose a daughter”

·        Religious festivals were only occasions free women appeared outside the home; the position of priestess, the only public office an Athenian woman could hold

·        Slave and poor women were washerwomen, woolworkers, vendors, nurses, midwives, cobblers, prostitutes (see below)

·        Hetaira were highest class of prostitutes. Typically foreign women who entertained at male drinking parties called symposia; more “cultivated” than “cultured”

·        Concubines were less common by classical period since citizenship law of 451-450 BC did not consider their children citizens

·        Brothel girls were hired on per diem basis. Solon established brothels in 6th c. BC; annual tax benefited the state


Demosthenes (4th c. BC): “We have hetairai for the sake of pleasure, prostitutes for the daily care of the body, but wives to bear us legitimate children and to be the trusted guardians of our households.”




The Romans absorbed much of the Greek intellectual tradition and much of its misogyny as well.


·        The Latins, an Indo-European people who were the ancestors of the Romans, settled in the Italian peninsula some time between 1500-1000 BC, and moved up the Tiber River to Roma in 753 BC.

·        In 509 BC patricians overthrew monarchy and established a republic; story of Lucretia


Women in the Republic

·        Male guardian required (in theory); see Twelve Tables

·        Marriage obligatory for propertied classes

o       “in the hands” (manu): by use, by confarreation, by coemption; husband became wife’s guardian

o       “without the hand” (sine manu); father retained guardianship of daughter (women had to be absent from husband’s home for 3 successive nights every year)

·        Univirae preferred

·        Adultery associated with women

·        Vestal Virgins revered (Virgins consecrated to goddess Vesta who tended the sacred fires in her temple); their office essential for survival and welfare of state; story of Tuccia

·        Roman Revolutions (133-27 BC) marked by political assassinations, gang warfare, and civil war; story of Cornelia, mother of Gracchi brothers


Women in the Empire

·        Imperialist foreign policy from 3rd c. BC on led to influx of slaves, loot, and tribute; 40 percent of Rome’s one million people were slaves; increased disparity between rich and poor

·        Gaius Julius Caesar Octavian (ruled 31 BC – 14 AD) defeated the forces of Antony and Cleopatra at Alexandria in 30 BC and assumed sole leadership of the empire (although he claimed to restore the republic)

o       Augustus passed a series of laws to reform family life and to increase the birthrate; bachelors fined; women encourage with promise of freedom from guardianship - The Right of Three Children

o       Women assumed male tasks when men were away from home

·        No law regarding succession meant 7 of first 10 Caesars met violent ends. Women often involved in political intrigue; Claudius fed poisoned mushrooms by his wife Agrippa


The Romans bequeathed to their barbarian successors a distrust of women only slightly less vitriolic than that of their Greek predecessors.