The role of women

Tue Mar 10 00:06:52 2009
I think we have a tendency to read far too much of our own post-industrial bias into our interpretation of the role of women in ancient Greece. We tend to undervalue the importance and complexity of running an oikos (often translated as “household,” probably more appropriately “estate”) when living in a culture where our food comes from the freezer section of the supermarket, clothes and furnishing come from the shopping mall. The wife was responsible for raising children, tending the sick, processing grain into flour and baking flour into bread, the manufacture of clothes (which included carding wool, spinning thread, weaving cloth, etc.) the washing and maintenance of clothes, utensils and facilities for what was probably more like a business or industry than our modern household.

The number of people in an oikos varied but probably included three generations of family and their slaves. The number of slaves varied. Poor households may only have had one or two. Xenophon describes wealthy men who hired out some 300-1,000 of their personal slaves (Poroi, 4.15). In the Republic, Plato does not find it unusual for the well-off to have fifty or more slaves (9:578e). The care, feeding, clothing, health and quartering of this small army was under the management of the wife. “This, then, is the province over which a woman should be minded to bear an orderly rule; for it seems not fitting that a man should know all that passes within the house.” “She alone should have knowledge of what happens within…” (Aristotle, Oikonomikos, Book III)

This contribution was important and was not overlooked at the time. “Is there anyone to whom you commit more affairs of importance than you commit to your wife?” (Xenophon, Oikonomikos III.12). I prefer to think of the role of the wife as similar to the business manager who oversees the internal operations of the company. The role of the husband would be similar to the sales manager who goes out into the world and establishes the relationships that bring in the money. Both of these operations are essential. “I think that the wife who is a good partner in the oikou contributes just as much as her husband to its benefit; because the income is for the most part the responsibility of the husband, but the expenses are managed by the wife. If both do their part well, the oikoi is increased; if they act incompetently it is decreased.” (Xenophon, Oikonomikos III.15)

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~ by severalfourmany on March 10, 2009.

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