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It is sometimes suggested that women occupied a position analogous to slaves, in relationship to the free male master of the household (oikos). Medea’s use of the word despotes (“master”) in the passage alluded to earlier suggests that the lot of women resembled that of slaves (Medea 233). Aristotle said that a husband rules his wife as master rules slaves. Nevertheless, there were important social and legal differences in the status of free women and slaves (Kluth 2005). For example, free women were not bought or sold; a man could only have one legitimate wife, but many slaves.
And yet, howsoever an advantageous position women may be enjoying in comparison to slaves, free women were in fact free only in name. In reality they hardly had any freedom to move and be themselves, neither in the domain of work nor in the domain of pleasure and entertainment. It goes without saying that women and men did not socialize together — at least, respectable women and men did not.
But there was a class of talented women known as heitairai (“companions”) who provided entertainment at parties and company at male gatherings (much like Japanese geishas).
These were much more liberated women, though regarded to be of very much lower status than the regular housewives. It was very likely for these women to be literate as well as informed on the issues of the day (Wilson 2006). Athenians divided all women into two groups: wives and potential wives in the first, and all others in the second.
It was almost impossible to move from the second group to the first. Heitairai fell into the second group. There are several levels in this group.
At the bottom were the women who lived in brothels. Most were slaves; all had a fairly miserable existence. The women on the streets were only slightly better off. Law limited the price they could charge. On top of the ladder were the courtesan class, the heitairai. While it is true that wives were thought to be a particularly stupid group of people with whom a man would want to spend as little time as possible, heitairai on the other hand were considered to be a delight to spend time with.
As Demosthenes says, in late 340s, in his speech Against Neara (Neara was a historical woman who actually climbed the ladder from being a prostitute to a heitaira and finally a wife) “Courtesans we love for the sake of pleasure, and concubines for the daily care of the body, but wives we love to bear us legitimate children and be the trusted guardians of our household. ” Thus, seen from anywhere, the simple fact is that the domain of the Athenian aristocratic housewife was the house (oikos), and their chief duty was to raise their children.
She was expected to remain inside her home except for attendance at funerals and festivals of the specials cults that were open to women. During such religious gatherings it was possible to socialize with other women of the broader society, but beyond that women were expected to remain invisible and at home. A woman seen outside on her own was assumed to be a slave, prostitute, concubine or a woman so destitute that she had to work. Thus, while men worked in public space, in the Ecclesia, the law courts, the agora, the streets, women “worked” in private space at cooking food, spinning clothes, and most importantly supervising slaves.
It must be noted here that slavery was an all-pervasive feature in ancient Greece. The slaves, generally foreigners captured in war or provided by a flourishing slave trade, might be found working in just about any skilled or unskilled task in both town and country, at home or in public places (Adler and Pouwels 2006). Owing to the contribution of such slaves, though the upper class women were spared most of the chores and drudgery involved in maintaining large households, they had nowhere to channel their energies — living, as they were, strictly confined to the domestic realm.
Thus, the lack of proper outlet for physical energy could only have had compounded their plight. They were barred from intellectual pursuits, there was no need for them to do much physical labour – in such circumstances it can be imagined how easy it would have been for the natural vitality and energy of a living person to corrupt and rot, possibly leading to some of the negative characteristics so gleefully attributed to these women by the Greek gentry, the thinkers and writers.
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