The trouble with women

In which I invent a new, or at least not usually acknowleged, genre: the historical editorial.

I have been teaching a quarter-long class on “Women in the Ancient World.” It’s a little odd that I should be teaching such a class, since I have never studied women as a separate subject in my own career as a student, nor do I think much of feminist historical theory, insofar as I have experienced it. But the class has been quite eye-opening, in that I have learned a lot both about attitudes toward women in history and the attitudes of my students towards women in history.

In thinking how to sum up my experience with the class, I think that one way to categorize what I’ve learned is that historically, women have been viewed not as partners and co-pilgrims in the journey of life (whether equal or unequal ones), but quite often as a problem to be solved. I think this view is easy to substantiate, and has nothing to do with man-bashing or extreme feminist theories; but that this view is difficult to wrap modern heads around because it differs substantially from modern viewpoints–those of modern defenders of traditional gender roles and even those of modern misogynists, as well as those of feminists and believers in gender equality.

In class, it seems that the most diverse viewpoints–the most feminist as well as the most ardent defenders of traditional gender roles and relations–agree that women are different from men. Women are different biologically, they are typically not as physically strong and, in premodern times, spend much of their adolescence and adulthood either pregnant or caring for small children. Hence, a division of labor is virtually mandated by biology. Further, women are different temperamentally.

Both the feminist and traditionalist views seem to want to view these differences as complementary and equally good. But it seems to me that in antiquity, the differences between men and women–or rather, the differentness of women–was viewed as a problem to be solved, or at least endured.

To begin from the time when people began to think about things in a way we today would recognize as rational (as opposed to religious or practical), in Classical Greece, the problem of women was put by men in terms which are impossible to misinterpret. Women are the cause of all evils in the world, as typified by the myth of Pandora. Women are biologically and intellectually inferior to men. Women are frequently compared to animals, and while it’s not denied that they are humans, they are certainly more animal-like than men are. Marriage, for men, is to subject oneself to the tyranny of an irrational and demanding entity. Marriage was to be undertaken as a duty to the state, not to be expected to be a source of personal enjoyment or fulfillment. Some, though not all ancient writers concede that a good wife is indeed a great good for a man, but she is so rare than no man should expect to get one.

Women are good for only one thing, and that thing is not what more modern misogynists think it is–young boys are much better for that. It’s not what defenders of complementary gender roles think it is, either–women in general make very poor companions, and they are very unlikely to be diligent in their work, preferring to gossip with the servants and sneak around with other men whenever they can. The only thing women are good for is procreation. And they are not so much good for that purpose, since they are liable to try to contracept or abort without the husband’s permission (with the husband’s permission, there’s no problem with either of these things, nor with exposing an infant to die if the husband decrees it). Rather, they are the only option for that purpose. One ancient male writer wonders why Zeus saw fit to saddle them with women as the only way to produce an heir. Wouldn’t it be better, he wonders, to procure an heir by making a donation in a certain amount to the temples? Despite the gods’ undeniable avarice, it seems they didn’t respond to this suggestion.

In the ancient view, women were not fragile and in need of protection, as in the Victorian or Islamic formulation. Rather, they were cloistered, veiled, denied citizenship or virtually any public role, because they were dangerous. A later Roman writer, writing at a time when women had begun to take on more public although not political roles, wonders nervously what is to become of the men if the women were to get equal rights?

In the pre-Graeco-Roman Ancient Near East, the female gods are at least as fierce and cunning as the male gods, perhaps even more so. Inanna of Mesopotamia, Anat of the Canaanites, and Bastet of the Egyptians are like ancient berserkers, losing all capacity for rationality or mercy when exacting revenge on enemies. Isis tricks the aging Ra into giving her his power by poisoning him and offering the antidote if he tells her his secret name.

Of course, the ANE goddesses were also seductive and sexual, whereas the Graeco-Roman goddesses, with the exception of Aphrodite, were much less so. Artemis seems in some ways like a continuation of the antisocial ANE goddess, and was a “virgin” (meaning she was unmarried), and as such was not a threat to men as human women (who did not have the option of being unmarried) were. Athena is representative of how great it would be if a woman could indeed be more like a man–but real women aren’t like Athena. Hestia is the embodiment of the perfect wife and mother, except for one thing: she was neither married nor a mother. Hence, she was the perfect woman: she kept to female roles without imposing her presence on any poor man. Hera was married, and her marriage can easily be seen as representative of the trouble with marriage: though subject to Zeus, she continually chafed at this, and was eternally jealous, quarrelsome, and sought to throw spokes in the wheels of any of the various wacky enterprises Zeus undertook.

It doesn’t seem to be primarily women’s sexuality that was a problem for the Greeks, as it was for the ancient Hebrews, Christians, and modern Muslims. Rather, it is the fact that by their very nature they were a threat to men. Not a potential threat, but a very real and immediate threat, both right this minute and for all time, written into the cosmology. Women were the source of all problems that men encounter in life, said the Greeks, in so many words.

Women were a problem for the Greeks. Of course, men were a problem too, and in one sense the solution to both problems were the same: men were a problem to be solved by men, and so were women. Men solved the problem of themselves through politics and philosophy (note the rise and prevalence of Stoicism, a male pursuit). They solved the problem of women in similar ways. Sumptuary laws limited the public appearances of respectable women to none at all–since wives were a luxury commodity like other forms of conspicuous consumption. The roles of nonrespectable women, slaves and prostitutes, were clearly delineated from those of respectable ones. Both of these nonrespectable categories had much more varied and interesting lives, and simultaneously much worse ones, for the most part, than respectable wives.

There were exceptions to this view of women, of course. Socrates had all sorts of good things to say about a heterae (a kind of geisha-like woman) of his acquaintance, and nothing at all good to say about his own wife, and seemed to prefer the sexual companionship of boys to that of women. But he did believe that women were or could be the intellectual equals of men, and for this and other peculiar opinions was executed as a danger to the morals of the young. Plato followed his lead on this. He proposed a utopia in which family relationships were so diametrically opposed to anything actually practiced anywhere in the world–women holding all societal roles equally to men, and this equality protected by the abolition of the family–that one wonders where in the world this was coming from, and who in the world would want to live that way. The answer, apparently, was that nobody did. Finally, the Epicureans, the main rival to the Stoics, accepted women students on the same basis as men–but nobody every thought very highly of Epicurus or his philosophical school.

During the Hellenistic and the later pre-Christian Roman periods, women had much broader public roles than in the classical Greek or republican Roman periods, but they were still potentially dangerous creatures. The devoted wife and mother finally did get her due, and women were more able to control their own lives rather than to pass from the absolute control of her father to that of her husband. There was also more freedom for women to not be respectable, if they liked, and still lead reasonably pleasant lives. Women had more economic and legal powers.

But there were two things women could never do: hold political power through voting or holding public office, or serving in the military. The reasons for the latter are fairly obvious. What were the reasons for the former? For one, military success was one sure way of garnering political influence, and that was not possible for women. For another, there were still doubts about women’s intellectual capacity and ability to control their emotions, although women’s intellectual ability was now more recognized.

Finally, women were dangerous. As noted above, Romans feared the consequences of giving women political power–they didn’t know what might happen, but they were pretty sure it wouldn’t mean anything good for them. Whether or not one believed women were capable of taking on traditionally male roles, it was better to keep women under men’s thumb as much as possible. It was more “seemly,” it kept the established social order from descending into an unpredictable chaos, it was, above all, safer.

The appearance and rise of Christianity fundamentally challenged the Graeco-Roman notion of the nature and proper roles of women, and it too made the Romans nervous. The early Christians were persecuted because they threated the established Roman order, both as pertains to women and in more important ways. And when the church inherited the project of ordering society from pre-Christian Rome, it too had to tackle the trouble with woman–leading to an entirely new formulation of the problem as well as a new set of solutions, which I hopefully will eventually favor you with my interpretation of.

Queen of the desert

Zenobia is one of antiquity’s more fascinating individuals. She was queen of the city of Palmyra (which you can see on the far right side of this map of the Roman Empire). During the mid-3rd century, she annexed a surprisingly large swath of Syria (and beyond) and declared independence from Rome.

That sort of thing rarely ended well for the would-be-secessionists, but Zenobia held out until a Roman army under Aurelian finally defeated her. From this entertaining account of Aurelian’s victory we get a brief glimpse at Zenobia’s feisty attitude:

[Zenobia responds to Aurelian's demand for her surrender, writing:] “Zenobia, Queen of the East, to Aurelian Augustus. No one, saving you, has ever required of me what you have in your letter. One ought in war to harken only to the voice of courage. You demand that I surrender myself, as if you did not know that the Queen Cleopatra preferred to die rather than to live in any other save her station. The Persians do not abandon us, and we will wait their succors. The Saracens and the Armenians are on our side. The brigands of Syria have defeated your army, O Aurelian; what will it be when we have received the reinforcements which come to us from all sides? You will lower then that tone with which you–as if already full conqueror–now bid me to surrender.”

Fightin’ words, to be sure.