British Museum blog

Did women in Greece and Rome speak?


Mary Beard, Professor of Classics, Cambridge University
Did women in Greece and Rome speak? Stupid question; of course they did. They must have chattered and joked together, laughed at the silliness of their menfolk, advised (or chatted up) their husbands, given lessons to their children… and much, much more.

But nowhere in the ancient world did they ever have a recognised voice in public – beyond, occasionally, complaining about the abuse they must often have suffered. Those who did speak out got ridiculed as being androgynes (‘men-women’). The basic motto (as for Victorian children) was that women should be seen and not heard, and best of all not seen either.

This streak of misogyny made a big impression on me when I first started learning ancient Greek about 45 years ago. One of the first things I read in Greek back then was part of Homer’s Odyssey – one of that pair of great epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey that stand at the very beginning of the whole tradition of western literature.

Gold finger-ring with a seated woman, perhaps Penelope. Western Greek, around 400 BC – 300 BC, possibly made in Sicily GR 1867,0508.402

Gold finger-ring with a seated woman, perhaps Penelope. Western Greek, around 400 BC – 300 BC, possibly made in Sicily. GR 1867,0508.402

I remember even now coming across an extraordinary passage in the first book of the poem. Penelope, who is waiting loyally for her husband, Odysseus, to return from the Trojan War, comes downstairs from her apartment in the palace to find a bard singing. His song tells of the terrible and deathly struggles the Greek heroes are having in getting back home after the war to conquer Troy. Not surprisingly Penelope, thinking of her own husband’s troubles, is upset and asks the bard to choose a happier theme. But no sooner has she spoken than her son Telemachus – not much more than a wet-behind-the-ears teenager – tells her to pipe down and go back upstairs to her weaving, “for speech is the business of men”.

It stuck in my mind (as I kid, I always rather admired the Greeks, but this seemed a terrible black spot almost to match slavery). I never imagined then that I would come back to reflect on this incident again, when I was thinking about how the voices of modern women have often been silenced too. Of course, that silence isn’t so dramatic. But when I agreed to give a London Review of Books Winter Lecture at the British Museum, on the public voice of women today, I kept coming back to the ancient world – and to the sense that women’s silence was very deeply embedded in our culture.

Edward Burne-Jones, Philomene, with a woman (Philomela) standing by her loom holding a shuttle in an interior, with a half-woven tapestry with the story of Philomene and Tereus, looking out of the window. Wood-engraving on India paper.  Proof of an illustration designed by for the Kelmscott Chaucer, p.441, 'The Legend of Goode Wimme’. 1896. PD 1912,0612.372

Edward Burne-Jones, Philomene, with a woman (Philomela) standing by her loom holding a shuttle in an interior, with a half-woven tapestry with the story of Philomene and Tereus, looking out of the window. Wood-engraving on India paper. Proof of an illustration designed by for the Kelmscott Chaucer, p.441, ‘The Legend of Goode Wimmen’. 1896. PD 1912,0612.372

It was fascinating (if slightly chilling) to collect some of the different ways that the Greeks and Romans so clearly paraded the idea that women should not speak out. These ranged from Ovid’s story in his Metamorphoses about the rape victim Philomela having her tongue cut out to prevent her naming her rapist (though she eventually managed to denounce him by weaving an account of what happened) to the abuse of one Roman woman who did get up to speak in the forum as a ‘barking’ (that is, non-human) androgyne.

Red-figured hydria, depicting the rape of Kassandra by the lesser Ajax, son of Oileus, in Athena's temple at Troy. In the centre, the Trojan princess Kassandra kneels on the base of the statue of Athena, the Palladion. Attributed to the Danaid Group. Made in Campania, Italy. GR 1824,0501.35

Red-figured hydria, depicting the rape of Kassandra by the lesser Ajax, son of Oileus, in Athena’s temple at Troy. In the centre, the Trojan princess Kassandra kneels on the base of the statue of Athena, the Palladion. Attributed to the Danaid Group. Made in Campania, Italy. GR 1824,0501.35

In fact, it was hard to choose which examples to use for my lecture, and many people have written in since with even more, and sometimes even better, examples. One of the very best is the myth of the virgin prophetess Cassandra, the daughter of the king of Troy, who was – when the city fell – taken by king Agamemnon to be his concubine (she was eventually murdered, with the king, by his wife Clytemnestra). But before that, Cassandra’s lot was always to prophesy the truth but never to be believed. It is a wonderful twist on the idea that women’s speech is never authoritative: even when it really is true, it doesn’t seem so to listeners.

In antiquity, it is true that – almost without exception (perhaps the weird Diotima in Plato’s Symposium is one) – you only hear a woman speak when she is about to die, or when she is speaking up for the concerns of women and the home (as did Antigone, when she defends the proper burial of her dead brother). Otherwise, as Telemachus put it, speech is for men.

Now, of course, I don’t think that the classical tradition simply explains why many women have such a hard time getting their voice heard even now. We have come a long way since then. All the same, my lecture does argue that if we want to do something about some of the current issues women face when they try to speak up, it’s important to think of the very long western history of women being shut up.

Mary Beard blogs at A Don’s Life.
If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Uncategorized, , , , , , , , ,

36 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. John M says:

    I don’t recall Xanthippe being known for her silence.

    Like

    • Mary Beard says:

      True, but she was derided for being a shrew — the antitype of the brilliant and persuasive Socrates. No one listened to Xanthippe, esp. not Socrates

      Like

  2. Richard Frost says:

    Minoan art suggests the women of that culture were at least the equals of their men – indeed several frescoes show women unmistakably chatting freely. But since the Minoans were pre-Classical, I presume Prof. Beard does not regard them as Greek.

    Like

    • mb127 says:

      Have to be careful here. Of course Linear B is a form of Greek, but M. I. Finley long ago insisted that we do not confuse language and culture (the Minoan palaces have much more in common with Near Eastern palace societies). Whether women were the equals of men, we really dont know. It is always very risky to go from visual — and often religious — images to social reality (cf Athena..). But the point surely is (as I say at the beginning… of course women “chatted”. The culture refuses them access to the voice of authority.

      Like

    • Richard Frost says:

      Thanks MB for explaining your thoughts on the Minoan question. I think the gender issue is more pertinent pre-Linear B ( Crete seems to have been ruled subsequently by patriarchal Mycenaeans.) Bull-leaping images suggest both sexes took part, but men are depicted with red-brown skin and women with white. This might indicate an ‘Er Indoors’ division of labour, or possibly (as Bettany Hughes believes) the women in the frescoes are either high status (and perhaps suntan phobic) or goddesses. Until Linear A is deciphered, Minoan men and women are equally silent.

      Like

  3. Mary,
    Fascinating survey of women, and very important to me. I am pleased to tell you that my new book “Farms, Factories and Families: Italian American Women of Connecticut” allows women to reconstruct their own history in their own words, through the oral tradition. The book begins with the Greeks of southern Italy in the 8th century BC and wends its way to the present. You can see it on my website

    Like

  4. Catherine Hughes says:

    I can’t help but notice it is two men attempting to diminish the speech of a woman professor. The irony is amusing, and a little sad.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Actually, Xanthippe is an interesting example. Who knows how much she talked and about what? Where the expectation is that women are quiet and docile, wives who aren’t doormats are “shrews.”

    Like

  6. rogerjsmith58@btinternet.com says:

    I would never ever dream of telling Mary Beard to shut up. She is a wonder.

    Like

  7. How interesting although very sad. Thank you for this insight.

    Like

  8. Marilyn Todd says:

    I’m not sure how this squares with the Oracles. Especially the one at Delphi.

    Like

    • Oracles are not women’s voices, but divine voices through the medium of the oracle. (But perhaps such indirections were ways sometimes used to find a public voice?)

      Like

    • absconn says:

      [Posted this before, but seems to have been eaten by gremlins.]

      Oracles are not the public voice of women, but the voice of the gods through the women’s bodies — if anything, this backs up Beard’s point, given that a woman’s body was a safe and unambivalent vehicle for divine voices, unlike a man’s. (But whether women used such means to inject their voice into the public sphere…?)

      Like

      • Mary Beard says:

        Yes, I agree. Delphi is the classic example of the god speaking through the empty vessel of the woman.

        Like

      • absconn says:

        But, like the nomothete, they’re not a player in the game. (At least, they are not perceived that way … hence my utter speculation about underground usage of this role.)

        Like

  9. absconn says:

    1) Re: Telemachus. Not that this changes your point — perhaps it underlines it — but his story seems to me to be presented as a positive: he now is man enough to assert himself in the family, & hence man enough to take action. P. could defend the house, but no more.

    2) Later, the equation of public voice (e.g., ballot) linked to brute strength & violence (e.g., bullet) is made explicit Would you care to comment on this as a factor defining public speech: speaking in public as contest and combat?

    3) The Biblical witnesses show some interesting cases. In line with your analysis, Miriam, Moses’ sister (but Aaron’s at fault, too). But the stories of women speaking in 1-2 Samuel are interesting. Abigail needs to take extraordinary action, speaks brilliantly (the longest speech in the book) and is praised for it; Bathsheba is fascinatingly a cipher (maybe something is being left unsaid?); & so on. The Hebrew midwives, Ruth & Naomi, Esther, & Judith all know how to take action when needed, without direction or permission (& can speak as needed) — not public speech, but effective behavior. (I’m neither promoting or demoting the importance of public speech, but noting other modes of public influence.) (Obviously, see Phyllis Tribble’s work.)

    Thanks for an interesting post!

    Like

    • mb127 says:

      Thanks very much for that. I love the ballot/bullet point. I hear people sometime saying (re academic seminars) “That was a really killer point”.. I always want to say “But I didnt think a seminar was a battlefield”. I need to think harder about some of those biblical example, eg Abigail. But as you say, sometimes women’s interventions are defined as NOT speaking,

      Like

  10. George Pounder says:

    Is Theocritus Idyll 15 relevant here? Praxinoe tries to be feisty at least!

    Like

  11. Fiona Hayes says:

    Check out the bible with reference to ‘a virtuous wife’ whilst she may not have spoken in the synagogue – it seems a jewish wife had plenty authority and respect. Not afraid to run husbands affairs and certainly not downtrodden!

    Like

    • absconn says:

      “The bible” — i.e., a section of Proverbs. And, as MB would say, this is control in a private sphere, not a *public* voice. (& so Sarah at home.) Abigail’s story is interesting in this regard, since the two spheres are overlapping: she tells off David (but in an amazingly graceful way — by praising him for having made the decision she wants him to make!), but in the context of saving her household. Her speech is a wonder of practical rhetoric: no wonder David respects her so much.

      Like

  12. Tom says:

    I’m not going to argue against the premise, but I do think that relegating Antigone to a half of a sentence does the discussion a disservice. Also, how does Cleopatra fit in? (People think of her as an Egyptian pharaoh, but she was Greek, of the Ptolemaic dynasty.) I assume we’re only discussing ancient Greek culture and not later individuals such as Hypatia, but those two examples bring up an interesting question / observation — namely, what of Greeks Abroad? In those two examples, we see Greek women in Egypt being vocal. (Leading to another observation, Greek women who speak up seem to die prematurely.)

    It’s been years since I read much Greek mythology, but weren’t the goddesses (e.g. Hera, Aphrodite, the Muses) fairly vocal? (Not that Aphrodite or Hera would necessarily be considered good examples of women speaking up, but the male deities weren’t terribly good examples either, see petty jealousies, etc.)

    Also, if you make the case for Roman gender bias, couldn’t that be what we’re seeing in the Greek records that survive as well? i.e. the works that survive have been filtered by the Roman / early Christian / Ottoman curators that selectively preserved Greek culture and weren’t particularly well known for gender equality.

    Like

  13. Tom says:

    I’m not going to argue against the premise, but I do think that relegating Antigone to a half of a sentence does the discussion a disservice. (The exception giving insight to the rule, etc.) Also, how does Cleopatra fit in? (People think of her as an Egyptian pharaoh, but she was Greek, of the Ptolemaic dynasty.) I assume we’re only discussing ancient Greek culture and not later individuals such as Hypatia, but those two examples bring up an interesting question / observation — namely, what of Greeks Abroad? In those two examples, we see Greek women in Egypt being vocal. (Leading to another observation, Greek women who speak up seem to die prematurely.)

    It’s been years since I read much Greek mythology, but weren’t the goddesses (e.g. Hera, Aphrodite, the Muses) fairly vocal? (Not that Aphrodite or Hera would necessarily be considered good examples of women speaking up, but the male deities weren’t terribly good examples either, see petty jealousies, etc.)

    Also, if you make the case for Roman gender bias, couldn’t that be what we’re seeing in the Greek literature that survives as well? i.e. the works that survive have been filtered by the Roman / early Christian / Ottoman curators that selectively preserved Greek culture and weren’t particularly well known for gender equality.

    Like

  14. absconn says:

    Many here are not hearing the specification of context: woman’s voice in the public arena (and I use that term on purpose). So, many forms of female speech are excluded, as in examples above, especially in the privacy of home. Of course, other voices were excluded too: slaves; poor; & youth at least. We have a bright spotlight on one part of the stage, but a theater-full of actors & crew all around it.

    This also raises a question I learned from John Boswell: why accept the privileging of this one arena? (Specifically, in our study of history — the contemporary political ramifications are another matter.) Which women were excluded (i.e., would have but couldn’t)?

    How else were their voices introduced into the masculine public arena? E.g., discussions at home in one way or another, as individual talents and relationships functioned (I can imagine a woman coaching or encouraging her husband, having an unrecorded effect on the arena).

    And, why is this arena the most interesting or important? It’s well-recorded, but so much of life went on elsewhere.

    All this calls for further pondering, sharpening the questions (are questions swords for combat?) and suggesting new ways of looking at data.

    But MB’s basic thesis — that women’s voices in the contemporary public sphere are still often unheard, even unhearable, and that the weight of history suggests this is a deep and hard problem — remains.

    Like

  15. P Myers says:

    Women are not WRITTEN about as speaking, and are written about being silenced. The role of writing is worth considering.
    I started wondering a few years ago, why Sappho, then no women writers? A colleague suggested reading The Alphabet Vs. The Goddess (L. Shlain (1999, Penguin)). Shlain makes a case that there may have been an evolutionary, biological basis for men having been more adept at writing due to technological aspects of writing that corresponded with particular strengths in the use of the right hand and the eyes that had developed more in males than in females. Then writing itself was used to magnify male dominance at the expense of women, as culture after culture discovers writing and converts from goddess worship to a mythology of the sort of male domination described by Mary Beard above.
    With the evolution of the technology of communication (typing, computers) and the re-emergence of imagery as a dominant form of communication (photos, film as opposed to script), that IS changing. The “problem” of excluding women’s voices from public remains, but better days are ahead, a decommissioning of literacy as a weapon of gender based oppression. That is Shlain’s case in his speculative archeopsychological work “The Alphabet Vs. The Goddess” which I have found persuasive and useful as a teacher of classics. Anyone out there familiar with that work with a critical point of view?

    Like

  16. LuckyLuigi says:

    Gorgo is a classic example of a female voice in ancient Greece.

    Like

  17. Emil P says:

    Dear Professor Beard,

    Women did in fact have a recognized voice in public in Greece. That would of course be in Sparta. It is possible that you are mostly referring to references in ancient literature to women having a public voice. Even so, there is an example of that; Plato writing in “Protagoras” about Spartan women being encouraged to train in public speaking and being skilled in philosophical debate.

    I’d say something about classical scholars worshipping Athens, a society just as slave-owning as Sparta, but where women were treated as mindless property, while repeating Athenian propaganda when it came to Sparta (where bold independent women were admired) but I don’t think you’re one of those individuals. Seeing how so much surviving Greek literature is Athenian, it’s understandable that Sparta would get overlooked in your survey.

    Like

    • Mary Beard says:

      Trouble about Sparta is that we only know about it from the outside, and part of that image (“the Spartan mirage”) is that it was a symbolic inversion of (largely ) Athenian values.. so women talk and exercise, children are removed from their families etc. Still no Spartan female political leaders

      Like

  18. Kane says:

    I appreciate the discussion of the role of women and their silence but I’m always careful that the we not overdo our modern moral template & judgment on ancient cultures. And I think this goes far beyond “..the very long western history of the treatment of women”, a phrase that might seem to infer that women’s poor treatment is limited to western society.

    Like

    • mb127 says:

      wasnt meant that way.. but I am not really qualified to talk about other areas (and I was trying not to make the conflation of “the west” = “the world’

      Like

  19. Gabrielle Story says:

    I can’t agree with the statement “But nowhere in the ancient world did they ever have a recognised voice in public – “, remember the Vestal Virgins? Not only did they have a say, but they changed things as well, they were very powerful women in Ancient Rome. #TheFlametenders

    Like

    • mb127 says:

      Indeed I remember the Vestal Virgins (wrote my first academic article about them). Important yes. A voice? no.

      Like

  20. Amana Mission says:

    No less a luminary than Socrates credited females for his learning: Diotima of Mantinea, for example, to whom he attributed his views on Love; Asphasia of Miletus, who instructed him in rhetoric; and the aforementioned Pythian priestess of Delphi, who inspired the Socratic method. The premise of classical minimization of the feminine, while certainly valid enough, conveniently neglects such counterexamples, which indicate that this marginalization was hardly universal, and that female intellectuals had a marked influence, albeit on a small segment of clever men with open ears.

    Like

    • mb127 says:

      Diotima is a tricky one. In many ways she falls into the inspired prophetess class…(Socrates not always known for his respect of women: see Xanthippe)

      Like

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 14,371 other followers

Categories

Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

For our final #MuseumInstaSwap post we’re highlighting the 'Make Do and Mend' campaign of the Second World War, as told by our partner @ImperialWarMuseums in their #FashionontheRation exhibition.

The campaign was launched to encourage people to make their existing supplies of clothes last longer. Posters and leaflets were circulated with advice on subjects including how to prevent moth damage to woollens, how to make shoes last longer or how to care for different fabrics. As the war went on, buying new was severely restricted by coupon limits and no longer an option for many people. The ability to repair, renovate and make one's own clothes became increasingly important. Although shoppers would have to hand over coupons for dressmaking fabric as well as readymade clothes, making clothes was often cheaper and saved coupons. ‘Make Do and Mend’ classes took place around the country, teaching skills such as pattern cutting. Dress makers and home sewers often had to be experimental in their choice of fabrics. Despite disliking much of the official rhetoric to Make Do and Mend, many people demonstrated great creativity and adaptability in dealing with rationing. Individual style flourished. Shortages necessitated imaginative use of materials, recycling and renovating of old clothes and innovative use of home-made accessories, which could alter or smarten up an outfit. Many women used furnishing fabrics for dressmaking until these too were rationed. Blackout material, which did not need points, was also sometimes used. Parachute silk was highly prized for underwear, nightclothes and wedding dresses.

We've really enjoyed working with and learning from our friends at @imperialwarmuseums this week. You can catch up on all our posts and discover many more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 4773 For #MuseumInstaSwap we’re discovering the street style of the Second World War in the #FashionontheRation exhibition at @ImperialWarMuseums. In this archive photo a female member of the Air Raid Precautions staff applies her lipstick between emergency calls.

In wartime Britain it was unfashionable to be seen wearing clothes that were obviously showy, yet women were frequently implored not to let 'standards' slip too far. There was genuine concern that a lack of interest in personal appearance could be a sign of low morale, which could have a detrimental impact on the war effort. The government's concern for the morale of women was a major factor in the decision to continue the manufacture of cosmetics, though in much reduced quantities. Make-up was never rationed, but was subject to a luxury tax and was very expensive. Many cosmetics firms switched some of their production to items needed for the war effort. Coty, for example, were known for their face powder and perfumes but also made army foot powder and anti-gas ointment. Make-up and hair styles took on an increased importance and many women went to great lengths to still feel well-dressed and stylish even if their clothes were last season's, their stockings darned and accessories home-made. As with clothing, women found creative ways around shortages, with beetroot juice used for a splash of lip colour and boot polish passing for mascara.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap © IWM (D 176) In the @ImperialWarMuseums exhibition ‘Fashion on the Ration: 1940s street style’ we can see how men and women found new ways to dress while clothing was rationed. Displays of original clothes from the era, from military uniforms to utility underwear, reveal what life was really like on the home front in wartime Britain.

Despite the limitations imposed by rationing, clothing retailers sought to retain and even expand their customer base during the Second World War. Britain's high street adapted in response to wartime conditions, and this was reflected in their retail ranges. The government intervened in the mass manufacture of high street fashions with the arrival of the Utility clothing scheme in 1942. Shoppers carefully spent their precious clothing coupons and money on new clothes to make sure their purchases would be suitable across spring, summer and autumn and winter. Despite the restrictions, the war and civilian austerity did not put an end to creative design, commercial opportunism or fashionable trends on the British home front.

#FashionontheRation exhibition runs @imperialwarmuseums until 31 August.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. For our final day of #MuseumInstaSwap we’re learning about the Second World War @ImperialWarMuseums, and discovering the impact of the war on ordinary people. 
Clothes were rationed in Britain from 1 June 1941. This limited the amount of new garments people could buy until 1949, four years after the war's end. The British government needed to reduce production and consumption of civilian clothes to safeguard raw materials and release workers and factory space for war production. As with food rationing, which had been in place since 1940, one of the reasons for introducing civilian clothes rationing was to ensure fairness. Rationing sought to ensure a more equal distribution of clothing and improve the availability of garments in the shops.

As this poster shows, the rationing scheme worked by allocating each type of clothing item a 'points' value which varied according to how much material and labour went into its manufacture. Eleven coupons were needed for a dress, two needed for a pair of stockings, and eight coupons required for a man's shirt or a pair of trousers. Women's shoes meant relinquishing five coupons, and men's footwear cost seven coupons. When buying new clothes, the shopper had to hand over coupons with a 'points' value as well as money. Every adult was initially given an allocation of 66 points to last one year, but this allocation shrank as the war progressed. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 8293) This week on @instagram we’ve joined up with other London museums to highlight our shared stories. Our partner is @imperialwarmuseums, whose incredible collection brings people’s experiences of modern war and conflict to life. Follow #MuseumInstaSwap to discover some of the intriguing historical connections we have found, as well as insights into everyday life during wartime. As part of our #MuseumInstaSwap with @ImperialWarMuseums, we’ve been given special access to the Churchill War Rooms – located deep below the streets of Westminster.
This is Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s bedroom, which includes his private desk, briefcase and papers, his bed and chamber pot and even an original cigar! The bedroom is located close to the Map Room, keeping Churchill as close as possible to the epicentre of Cabinet War Rooms.
Following the surrender of the Japanese Forces the doors to the War Rooms were locked on 16 August 1945 and the complex was left undisturbed until Parliament ensured its preservation as a historic site in 1948. Knowledge of the site and access to it remained highly restricted until the late 1970s when @ImperialWarMuseums began the task of preserving the site and its contents, making them accessible to as wide an audience as possible and opening them to the public in 1984.
Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 14,371 other followers

%d bloggers like this: