Queen Gorgo of Sparta’s most famous quote was an answer to an Athenian woman, who asked why “only Spartan women rule their men.” The answer, that only Spartan women gave birth to men, was far more than a witty retort, it was a profound commentary on the differences between the societies. The most important point, of course, is that Gorgo did not claim Spartan women were superior at all, but rather that Spartan men were superior to their contemporaries.
Readers need to keep in mind that at no time in Spartan history was Sparta “ruled” by women. Spartan women were hardly Amazons, who scorned men and took to the battlefield themselves. Spartan women could not vote in the Spartan Assembly, and they could not be elected to office, neither the Gerousia nor the ephorate, nor lesser positions such as magistrates. Every contemporary of Gorgo knew this, so the question was never meant to suggest Spartan women had political power, but rather that they had influence over their menfolk to an exceptional, indeed “unnatural,” degree.
As Gorgo’s answer likewise illuminates, Spartan women did not live separate, lesbian lives, disconnected and divorced from their male relations and focused on themselves. The image of Spartan women living apart and satisfying their sexuality among themselves is a modern myth, based on the patently false misconception that Spartan males were “far away” “most” of the time. In fact, ancient wars were short affairs and only conducted during the campaign season, so that Spartan husbands were never gone more than half a year and that very rarely. (Not until the Peloponnesian war did Sparta campaign year after year; throughout the archaic period Sparta was at war only sporadically with years of peace in between.) Furthermore, the barracks and messes at which Spartan men ate were much closer to the temples, markets and public buildings at which the women congregated than the work-places of most modern (commuting) husbands.
On the contrary, Spartan women viewed their role as completely integral and indeed traditional. As Gorgo’s reply underscores, a Spartan woman’s principal contribution to society – like that of her Athenian counterpart – was to produce the next generation of (male) citizens. There was nothing odd, offensive or sinister about respectable women in the ancient world identifying with the role of mother. The idea that women might have other societal functions other than wives and mothers is a relatively new historical phenomenon and far from accepted in many parts of the world from Afghanistan to Africa.
As Gorgo so brilliantly summarizes the situation, the difference between Spartan women and the women in the rest of the ancient world was not one of a fundamentally different role, but rather a difference in the way men viewed that role. Athens was a virulently misogynous society. Its greatest philosophers viewed women as “permanent children” and the doctors attributed everything from stomach illness to asthma in women to a “wandering womb,” for which the best cure was sex (with the woman’s owner/husband of course.) Women could not inherit property, nor indeed control more money than was needed to purchase a bushel of grain. They were largely uneducated and almost all were illiterate, so it is hardly surprising that their educated, usually significantly older husbands considered them congenitally stupid. The discrepancy between the education and maturity of husbands and wives was aggravated by the fact that female children were fed less nutritious food in smaller quantities than their brothers, and were denied fresh air and any kind of exercise. The result was females stunted both physically and mentally, married as soon as they became sexually mature, and usually dead by the age of 30 or 35. In short, Athens' laws and customs condemned women to ignorance, stunted grown and an early grave – assuming they were allowed to live at all.
There is little doubt that in Athens far more female infants were exposed than males. As it was aptly put in an Athenian law case, even a poor man would raise a son, while even a rich man would expose a daughter. The archaeological evidence supports the historical record; Athens suffered from a severe demographic imbalance in favor of males, something that is most similar to sex ratios in China and India where the systematic murder of female infants (either as embryos through abortion or after birth through exposure or neglect) is still widespread.
Sparta did not suffer either from the misogyny that created the imbalance in the population, or from the consequences. In fact, by the late 5th Century BC, Spartan women appear to have significantly outnumbered men. This imbalance may have been the real reason for the Spartan custom of “wife sharing.”
Returning to Gorgo's most famous quote, I would like to show how I put it in context in Book III of the Leonidas Trilogy, Leonidas of Sparta: A Heroic King:
Eukoline shoved her veil off her head and turned on Gorgo to ask in a tone that mixed disapproval with amazement, “Why are you Spartan women the only ones who rule your men?” She did not mean it as a compliment.
“Because we are the only women who give birth to men!” Gorgo snapped back.
“As if I hadn’t given birth to two sons?” Eukoline retorted indignantly. “Athens has five times the number of citizens Sparta has!” she added proudly.
“Athens has 40,000 males who think that making clever speeches is the pinnacle of manliness.” All Gorgo’s pent up anger at what she had seen since her arrival [in Athens] boiled over. “That’s why they are afraid to educate their daughters and keep their women in the dark ― physically and mentally!” Gorgo could not resist adding, “Sparta’s men prove their manhood with their spears and need not dismiss good advice just because it comes from the mouths of women!”