The Unenfranchised I - Women

Numerous people resident in Athens and Attica had little part in the political life of the state. Most glaring by modern standards was the exclusion of women, although a similar exclusion persisted into the 20th century in Western society: Women only received the vote in all states of the United States in 1920, in France in 1945, and in Switzerland in 1971. Though protected by numerous laws regarding her property and rights, Athenian women had no vote and were not allowed to participate actively in political life. Women were not expected in the Agora, and it is not entirely clear that they were allowed to attend the theater. The proper Athenian lady was expected to spend almost all her time at home, and her primary function was to bear and raise the children. Perikles' comment on women in his great funeral oration is illuminating:

If I am to speak also of womanly virtues, referring to those of you who will henceforth be in widowhood, I will sum up all in a brief admonition: Great is your glory if you fall not below the standard which nature has set for your sex, and great also is hers of whom there is least talk among men whether in praise or in blame. (Thucydides 2.45)
Athenian (Attic) red-figure fragment of a kylix (drinking cup), late 6th century B.C. H.: 0.055 m. Athens, Agora Museum P 23133. The fragment shows the upper part of a nude woman, probably reclining on cushions at a symposion. She holds a castanet in her left hand and wears disk earrings. She is probably a hetaira, or courtesan, a woman accomplished in the arts of music, conversation, and sex.

In addition to her duties as mother, the average Athenian woman was expected to run the household, an extraordinarily time-consuming operation. In addition to cleaning and preparing, food, this meant making most of the family clothing on the loom and fetching drinking water from one of the local fountain houses.

Only in the area of religion did women have a direct role in public life. They were active participants in most of the cults and their associated festivals. Several of the significant cults had priestesses rather than priests as the chief religious functionaries.

Athenian (Attic) red-figure fragment of a vase, about 460 B.C. H.: O.O57 m. Athens, Agora Museum P 29766. In contrast to the hetaira, this woman appears to be a properly dressed Athenian lady. The fragment preserves the upper part of her body and shows us that she wears a tunic, cloak, and headband.

Needless to say, there were exceptions to the rule, and the famous women of Athens about whom anything was written were infamous, including -- ironically -- Perikles' own companion Aspasia:

Sources claim that Aspasia was highly valued by Perikles because she was clever and politically astute. After all, Sokrates sometimes visited her, bringing along his pupils, and his cose friends took their wives to listen to her -- although she ran an establishment which was neither orderly nor respectable, seeing that she educated a group of young female companions to become courtesans. Aeschines says that Lysikles the sheep-dealer, a man lowly born and humble of nature, became the most important man of Athens by living with Aspasia after the death of Perikles. (Plutarch, Life of Perikles 34.3-4),
Excavations in the Athenian Agora are conducted by the American School of Classical Studies.
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