Marriage was considered the most important part of a free Athenian woman’s life. This box, known as a pyxis, would have been used to hold a woman’s jewellery or cosmetics and is decorated with a wedding-procession scene.
Almost every civilisation, from Mesopotamia onwards, has been patriarchal in its set-up. In such male-dominated societies, men hold the main power over the family and in society, prevailing in roles of political leadership, moral authority, and social privilege. In a traditional patriarchy, wealth and property flow through the male line, from father to legitimate male son and heir. But there is a problem. Since women are the ones to reproduce, they can disrupt the system. Consequently, social taboos, laws, and divine scriptures have been put in place to control women, their rights, their sexuality, and their movements. The Greeks, whose influence spread widely through the conquests of Alexander, wrote extensively about the inadequacy of women. Aristotle saw them as morally, intellectually and physically inferior to men, the property of men, and argued that male domination of women was both natural and virtuous. Nevertheless, then as now, the degree of male domination over women varied in different patriarchal societies. Herodotus records his shock at the difference between Egyptian and Athenian women, observing how Egyptian women were employed in trade and went to the market, and how middle class women could inherit or bequeath property, engage in real estate transactions, and were allowed to sit on local tribunals — all elements denied to Athenian women.
It is very possible to point to this relatively recent, post-farming, patriarchal set-up to explain almost all of our own modern gender stereotypes. We applaud dominant, public men, and we are less sure
The Past | April/May 2021