It is difficult to attain an accurate image of the life of women in Ancient and Classical Greek history because, aside from some scraps of lyric poetry, almost all of the formal literature of classical antiquity has been written by men, and as a result reflects the attitudes and misogyny of the male writers of the period. I will begin this section with a general look at the lives of women in ancient Greece. I will then proceed to look at the social attitudes towards women at the time.
When compared to the women of Sparta, the standing of Athenian women in Greek society was minimal. When compared to the present day, Athenian women were regarded as being no more than a step above slaves by the 5th century BC. Girls in Athenian Greece were not permitted to learn how to read or write, nor were they required to obtain an education. Menander wrote, regarding reading and writing, “Teaching a woman to read and write? What a terrible thing to do! Like feeding a vile snake on more poison.” There are many examples of other authors and philosophers with similar witticisms about women.
Much of the evidence with regards to Athenian women comes from the 7th century BC onward, when education in Athens started to emerge. Prior to this date, it has been pointed out by some authors, that the reputation of women was not so saturnine. For example, the rights of women in Athens and their deterioration may have been as a result of political tensions which were heightened by Pericle’s decree on the authenticity of marriage. Moreover we also have evidence which implies that Athenian women prior to the 7th century BC had been subject to the equivalent rites of passage as boys. The famous scholar Jean-Pierre Vernant, wrote that the Arrephoroi, and many other religious rejoicing’s of Athens, could have been curtailed from conceivably a whole age grade’s involvement, to only a small number of girls who were selected to partake1.