The Women That Were Cherished: Rethinking Misogyny In Classical Athens

Women near an altar. Interior from an Attic red-figure kylix, ca. 450 BC. From Vulci. (Wiki Commons)

Women in classical Athens lived restricted lives famously marked by lower legal status compared to their free male counterparts. Never the less, women were not universally treated as inferior humans unworthy of respect and dignity. Various evidence from classical Athens informs us of the high-value women held in families and in the city.

Women held one of the most important roles within Athenian society, the occupation of the midwife. Older women who were no longer able to conceive a child were the best women to become a midwife. In Plato’s Theaetetus, Socrates, whose own mother was a midwife, informs us of the midwife’s skill and importance:

They say the cause of this is Artemis, because she, a childless goddess, has had childbirth allotted to her as her special province. Now it would seem she did not allow barren women to be midwives, because human nature is too weak to acquire an art which deals with matters of which it has no experience, but she gave the office to those who on account of age were not bearing children, honoring them for their likeness to herself.[1]

Linking the midwife to the Olympian goddess Artemis demonstrates the crucial role and the high level of respect owed to midwives. This association with Artemis and the midwife reveals the sacred aspect of the profession and important in Athenian society.

Midwives were not only respected, in the case of Socrates but also loved during life and honored after death by the families they served. A fourth-century tombstone from Athens erected for the midwife Phanostrate depicts her seated, holding the hand of the mother she served, and surrounded by children. The tombstone reads “[m]idwife and doctor Phanostrate lies here, she caused pain to no-one and, having died, is missed by all.”[2]

Along with midwives, nurses who helped to raise children also were loved and honored by the families they served. A tombstone for a female servant, Malicha, was erected and inscribed with the following “[h]ere the earth holds the nurse of the children of Diogeites from the Peloponnesus, she who possessed the highest moral character, Malicha of Kythera.” [3] Such an honorable homage, the emphasis of high moral character, signifies how nurses, no matter their position in society, could be respected and cherished.

Another tombstone demonstrates the deep bond between a nurse and the those which were cared for. Inscribed on the tombstone of Hippostrate it says:

Here the earth conceals the loyal nurse of Hippostrate; she now longs for you. While you lived I loved you, nurse, and still now I honour you even as you are under the earth, and I will honour you as long as I live. I know that for your part, even beneath the earth, If there is a reward for the good, honours lie in store for you first, in the realm of Persephone and Pluto.[4]

Nurse or midwife, these two figures played important roles in the household, in the lives of the mothers they helped and the children that they helped to bring into the world and raise. It is evident that after death they were honored and missed. In life, they were loved and valued deeply.

Wives played pivotal roles in the management of the household their relationship to their husbands as a partnership is notable. The women who would be regarded by men to have the deepest respect, regard, and trust would naturally be his wife.[5] The respected position a wife held is ideally represented in Xenophon’s Oeconomicus, which narrates a conversation between Socrates and the recently married Athenian Ischomachus. Within the lengthy conversation, Ischomachus provides us details concerning his expectations heading into this new marriage. Speaking to his wife, he tells her that when and if the gods grant them a child, they with decide together the best way to raise the child.[6]

When his wife asks how she can help him, what power she possesses, since all depends on the husband, Ischomachus tells her that both husband and wife should act in a way that keeps their possessions in the “best condition possible” and to acquire as much as possible by “fair and honourable means.”[7] To improve the property, he instructs his wife to the best that is in her ability which the gods made her capable of and what the law permits.[8] When pressed to explain this Ischomachus gives the metaphor of the queen bee, the work of a queen bee in the hive is like that of a wife in the home, they are no “small amount.”[9] When she asks how is she and the queen be alike, Ischomachus says:

“How? she stays in the hive,” I answered, “and does not suffer the bees to be idle; but those whose duty it is to work outside she sends forth to their work; and whatever each of them brings in, she knows and receives it, and keeps it till it is wanted. And when the time is come to use it, she portions out the just share to each. She likewise presides over the weaving of the combs in the hive, that they may be well and quickly woven, and cares for the brood of little ones, that it be duly reared up. And when the young bees have been duly reared and are fit for work, she sends them forth to found a colony, with a leader to guide the young adventurers.”[10]

The overall theme in Ischomachus’s speech to his wife is that man and woman unite as husband and wife for mutual benefit. They have children that should be raised in agreement by both husband and wife. Each spouse has natural abilities and skills that the gods have allotted, which the other lacks so that each person compliments the other. The husband needs the wife for the skills that she excels in and vice versa.

Detail from Attic black-figure cup, or kylix, ca. end of 6th century BCE, by the Chiusi Painter depicting sileni (aka satyrs) and maenads in a grapevine, harvesting grapes into baskets. (Wiki Commons)

While women did not have the same legal status of men, it can be argued that freeborn women could expect some level of respected behavior to be shown to them. Lacking the same legal status of free males did not grant legitimacy to the maltreatment of women, though it did occur, free born women could protest. Kostas Vlassopoulos notes that within comedies are references to working women in the agora who assert their rights and position.[11] He provides an example within Aristophanes’ Wasps where the baker’s wife defends herself against Philocleon. Being insulted by Philocleon’s mocking, the baker’s wife says

You make a mock of me! Very well! I don’t care who you are, I shall summon

you before the market inspectors for damage done to my business. Chaerephon

here shall be my witness![12]

There are other examples of free women exercising with confidence their right to be treated properly and with respect.

Overall, the picture that we received about the role of women in Athenian society is painted by the artifacts left to us to examine. The perspectives found in the sources often come from males, we do not have much evidence that can be identified as revealing direct female perspectives on their lives and place in Athenian society. Never the less, the evidence of tombstones for midwives and nurses are a neutral source which conveys the love, respect, and dignity the families had for these women, regardless of their legal status. Evidence from comedy reveals that it would not be unthinkable for a free woman to defend herself and voice her rights for proper treatment against abusers in the agora. In the home, a wife, ideally, ought to be seen as an equal partner with her husband working towards a common goal through the division of labor. An Athenian wife has the potential, depending on the husband, to experience the most respect and dignity within the home as opposed to open spaces in the city.


[1] Plat. Theaet. 149b-149c

[2] CEG 2, 569

[3] IG II2 9112

[4] IG II2 7873

[5] Charles Seltman, “The Status of Women in Athens,” Greece and Rome 2, no. 03 (1955): 120, doi:10.1017/s0017383500022191.

[6] Xen. Ec. 7.13

[7] Ibid., 7.15–16

[8] Ibid., 7.17

[9] Ibid., 7.18

[10] Xen. Ec. 7.35


[12] Aristophanes, Wasps, 1396–1408.



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Angelo Nasios

Angelo Nasios

Author, Ancient Historian, Theolatric Thoughts