Gender Inequality in the Ancient World

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Francesca Succi Dr. Brown Western Civ I 18 September 2012 Gender Inequality in the Ancient World Throughout history, women have been regarded as unequal and subordinate to men. In the male-dominated Western culture, the issue of women’s rights seems unending; even thousands of years after the first evidence of gender inequality, society has yet to even the playing field. Although it seems like our culture is progressive, we still share many qualities with the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and Greece.

Women were in no way equal to men during these ancient times; in fact, in some areas, they were considered subservient to men, with no rights or privileges. However, there were some areas of Ancient Greece that had a different model for social structure. The treatment of women in Mesopotamian culture differs greatly from that of Greek culture, as well as within Greece, between Lacedaemon and Athens; despite this, gender inequality was still present in each culture at some level.

Of these three areas of the ancient world, Lacedaemon indisputably had the most progressive model for social structure, with Mesopotamia close behind. Athens, which seems like it would have the most liberal model for society, actually had the highest level of gender inequality. In ancient times, there were several aspects of life that caused a divide between genders. First, and probably most obviously, women had various levels of responsibilities and several social roles within the different areas of the ancient world.

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In the most progressive social structure of Lacedaemon, women played an indispensable and essential part. Since the basis of their culture was to train and sustain an unconquerable army, this occupied most of the time for almost all men, who left many responsibilities that the women needed to take on. Girls learned from age seven not only how to cook and clean and be a good housewife, but also everything that was required to run an estate (Brown, Lecture, 2012). Young women were taught math and accounting so they would easily be able to take on and run an estate when they were older.

Lacedaemon “was unique among ancient Greek cities in the freedom it granted to its female citizens—this was partly due to reliance on women to manage estates while men were away at war” (Sacks “Sparta”). This culture relied almost equally on both the men and women in society for very different jobs. Since the responsibilities were so evenly distributed, there was more of a sense of gender equality. Indeed, Lacedaemon was quite unique in this tendency to treat women relatively equally to men.

The Mesopotamians, who were the second most liberal of these three areas, set women on a much lower pedestal than the Lacedaemonians: Mutually exclusive extremes [like male vs. female] are at the core of ancient Near Eastern gender roles… [cuneiform] makes it very plain that the place of a woman was considered the domestic sphere, where she gave birth and raised children; cooked, baked, and brewed; made textiles by spinning, weaving, and sewing; laundered and cleaned; and kept the household running (Radner). The women’s social roles and responsibilities were much more restricted than those of Lacedaemon women.

They were only expected to clean and be a suitable housewife. One of the only similarities between Lacedaemon and Mesopotamia is that the women were held somewhat responsible for running the estate. Males and masculinity were associated with power and strength, while females and femininity were associated with passiveness and weakness. This probably sounds relatively familiar, because in the modern and post-modern eras, society still experiences these gender roles that were established in ancient times. Mesopotamia, the foundation of Western civilization, is where these moderately-conservative gender roles truly began.

Even more extreme gender roles could be found in Athenian culture. Women were, in the most literal sense, inferior to men. The Athenians took the conservative gender roles that were found in Mesopotamia and inflated them to enormous proportions: Male Greek society valued rational discourse, military courage, and physical endurance and self-restraint. Women were believed to be irrational, fearful, and ruled by physical desires. One reason why women were kept secluded at home is that they were thought liable to sexual seduction (or other mischief) if they ventured out unescorted (Sacks “Greece”).

Women were predominately seen as mothers – they would be married off at a very young age, begin bearing children as soon as possible, and consequently died much younger than men, often during childbirth. Women were taught not to speak unless spoken to, and were required to tag along beside their husbands the rare times they were ever permitted to leave the house. Although Athens was the birthplace of democracy and was one of the most progressive cities in history, they still stripped women of some of the most basic equality rights (Brown, Lecture, 2012).

Athenian culture perpetuated the gender stereotypes that began in Mesopotamia and exaggerated them to ostracize women in society more than the Mesopotamians or Lacedaemonians ever did. Women and men were separated not only in their social roles and responsibilities, but also in their legal rights and punishments. In Mesopotamia, citizens were under the command of Hammurabi’s code. Although this code was harsh in general, it is important not to compare the laws and punishments to modern or post-modern practices, but instead to compare Mesopotamian legal treatment of men vs. omen. Where men had to pay monetary fines for crimes that broke Hammurabi’s code, most times women had to pay with their lives. With more serious crimes, Hammurabi seemed to follow the “eye for an eye” philosophy when it came to men, but women were once again subjected to more serious punishments, and men were permitted to add to the abuse: “In addition to the punishments for a man’s wife that are written on the tablet, a man may whip his wife, pluck out her hair, mutilate her ears, or strike her” (Brophy 33).

However, while men could physically abuse their wives with no penalty, women were sentenced to physical punishment if they laid a hand on their husbands. The one accommodation that the Code made for women is that they were allowed to own property. If the scenario arose where a woman was widowed, they would inherit the land that her late husband owned. Although the Code of Hammurabi was an effective ruling tool in Mesopotamia, it created a double standard that is still prevalent in society today. This double standard is seen not only in Mesopotamian culture, but in the

Athenian society as well. The Athenians treated women as subservient and inferior, so naturally the laws would favor the males in the society over the females. Similarly to the Mesopotamians, the punishments for women were more severe than those for men. Women had no rights in society, while most free men had the right to vote in the original democracy, whether it was in the Assembly or the Council of 500 (Brown, Lecture, 2012). Since the Athenian double standard is more extreme than the Mesopotamian one, it seems clear that their law codes would in turn be more extreme.

Athens solidified the gender inequality between men and women, and it lasted through pre-modern, modern, and post-modern eras. One of the cultures that went against the grain of gender inequality is the Lacedaemon society. Because the society was more inclined to equality between genders, the laws were more predisposed to be fairer towards women. Although the voting rights were similar to Athens, where only free men could vote, the women still had more rights than they ever would in Athens or Mesopotamia.

As aforementioned, women were educated on how to run an estate in Lacedaemon, so even at a young age they had more privileges than women in other cultures (Brown, Lecture, 2012). Since women were so essential in the society, their rights, as well as their punishments for broken laws, would naturally follow the same trend and be relatively evenly matched. After seeing all of these variances between different cultures, a logical progression of thought would lead one to ask, why? Why is there some much differentiation between cultures in the same time period, and even in similar geographical locations?

The answer may lie in a group of people called the Dorians. The Dorians invaded and conquered the ancient city of Mycenae, taking the Mycenaeans as slaves (Brown, Lecture, 2012). Later on, the city developed into Lacedaemon. This sort of shift in power happened only in the Lacedaemon civilization, not in both the Mesopotamians and Athenians. It could be that the Lacedaemonians, so afraid of a slave uprising with their new political paradigm, developed a different system of gender roles to try to remedy the potential situation (Sacks “Sparta”).

This could be the reason that Lacedaemon differed so greatly from the other two civilizations, while Athens and Mesopotamia – although they has some dissimilarities – were relatively parallel to each other. Overall, each culture has at least some level of gender inequality woven throughout the society, despite the variances between levels of different cultures. No matter the level or severity of gender separation, it is indisputable that women were treated as subservient and inferior to men.

The developing Western civilization began a double standard between men and women that would perpetuate through thousands of generations, and is still prevalent today. This inequality between genders can be clearly identified in the ancient traditions, laws, customs and social structure. The issues of women’s rights, uneven distribution of responsibilities and privileges, and unequal treatment based on gender are obviously not going away any time soon, because they have endured through thousands of years of societal development. Even post-modern era thinkers cannot eliminate this disparity.

The everlasting discrepancies between genders are more a result of Athenian and Mesopotamian customs, rather than Lacedaemonian. Western civilization has always been, and very may always be, male-dominated. Works Cited Brophy, James M. , Cole, Joshua. , Epstein, Steven. , Robertson, John. Perspectives from the Past: Primary Sources in Western Civilizations from the Ancient Near East through the Age of Absolutism. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. , Inc. Print Brown, K. M. 2012. Lecture. York College of Pennsylvania. Radner, Karen. gender structures and roles in ancient Mesopotamia. ” Encyclopedia of Society and Culture in the Ancient World. New York: Facts On File, Inc. , 2008. Ancient and Medieval History Online. Facts On File, Inc. Sacks, David. “Sparta. ” Encyclopedia of the Ancient Greek World, Revised Edition. New York: Facts On File, Inc. , 2005. Ancient and Medieval History Online. Facts On File, Inc. Sacks, David. “women in ancient Greece. ” Encyclopedia of the Ancient Greek World, Revised Edition. New York: Facts On File, Inc. , 2005. Ancient and Medieval History Online. Facts On File, Inc.

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Gender Inequality in the Ancient World. (2017, Mar 19). Retrieved from

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