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Friday, March 11, 2011

Women in the West: Sparta's Contribution

International Women’s Day, March 8, is celebrated here by parties, newspaper articles, speeches – and red roses. I was invited to give the keynote address at an event, but while, as expected, I outlined the major milestones of the women’s movement in the U.S.A., I couldn’t leave it there. The condition and position of women in many parts of the world is so incomparably worse than in the “West” that I felt an International Women’s Day should not focus exclusively on the demands of rich and successful Western women for more, but on the need for solidarity with the truly oppressed and misused.

The statistics are truly appalling. A woman dies in childbed every single minute. Two million female infants are either aborted or killed before they reach their first birthday. Five to six thousand women are murdered each year because their fathers or brothers think they did not behave “modestly.” Ten times as many women are trafficked across international borders each year in the 21st Century than Africans were transported across the Atlantic during the height of the African slave trade. A million children each year are forced into prostitution, and ten million children are currently sex-slaves, the bulk of these are girls. Women are not only denied education, access to medical treatment and excluded from economic and political power, they are tormented, enslaved, humiliated, neglected, and murdered – simply because they are women. In many societies, the position of women can only be described as systematic subjugation based on contempt, scorn, loathing and palpable hate.

What does all this have to do with Sparta? Maybe nothing at all, but it did strike me that women in “the West” have status, respect, and legal protection to a degree that is exponentially higher than women in other parts of the world. Furthermore, women in “the West” have enjoyed status, respect and legal protection for literally thousands of years. No, women were not “equal” to men in ancient Rome or in the Middle Ages, but the status of women in Rome and in Medieval England, France and Scandinavia, for example, was significantly higher than in many parts of the world today. Respect for women (not equality) is an integral part of “Western” civilization.

But what is “Western” civilization? It is not just Christianity (although that is an important component!). The “West” also claims the traditions of pre-Christian, ancient Greece as part of its heritage. That is the reason Marathon, Salamis and Thermopylae are often portrayed as the defense of “the West” against the Orient.

But we have a slight problem here. Women in Athens – that favored example of all things “golden” in the ancient world – were treated pretty much like women under the Taliban today. They were denied a healthy diet and exercise, and confined to the cramped, dark “women’s quarters” – just like women in Afghanistan today. They were kept illiterate, and married off at 12 or 13 to die in droves like the child-brides of Africa and Asia today because their immature bodies could not cope with childbirth. They could not inherit or even control property worth more than a bushel of grain.  If they were raped, their husbands were compelled to discard them or lose their own citizenship. They had no part of Athens famed culture. They did not even attend the symposiums unless they were sex-slaves. As Pericles put it, the less one talked about or saw Athenian women, the better. In short, they were an embarrassment that Athenian men would rather have done without – how the Taliban would have understood and applauded Pericles! If Athens is the source of our “Western” traditions with respect to women, than Christianity alone is the source of the higher status of women in the West. Possible.

But Sparta had a very different tradition with respect to women. In fact, the status of women in Sparta was notoriously high. Spartan women certainly had economic power – hence Aristotle’s diatribes against them and Sparta itself. They were educated. They received the same food as their brothers and engaged in sport. They were not married until they were sexually mature and had a better chance of surviving the rigors of childbirth.

In the contrast between the Athenian and Spartan treatment of women, we have a microcosm of the modern world -- with Athens firmly located in the regions in which women are most exploited and despised. If ancient Greece had any impact on modern Western attitudes toward women, then we are following – quite unconsciously in most cases – the example of Sparta. In short, Sparta’s influence on Western civilization may be greater than most people – raised on adoration of Athens’ intellectual and artistic accomplishments – realize.


  1. Dr. Schrader, I think you bring up some eye-opening statistics and appropriate historical analogies in your post. It is ironic that we follow the Spartan way of treating women in our society instead of the Athenian way, as we view Athens as the cradle of democracy and Sparta as a militaristic anomaly. I have one question for you. In the Spartan practice of infanticide, did they also discard female babies? I would assume they did. If so, did they tend to discard males more often than females? I only ask, because it seems logical that the inspectors would more harshly judge the male babies, who would do the soldiering. Great post. Keep blogging.

  2. Scott,

    Thanks for posting a comment!

    The easy answer to your question is: we don't know. In fact, there is no archeological evidence that the Spartans engaged in infanticide at all. The crevance into which unworthy infants were allegedly thrown is full of skeletons -- all from adult males.

    However, the ancient Greeks -- all ancient Greeks -- routinely exposed children they didn't want. (More often girls than boys.) What scandalized the other Greeks was not that unwanted children were exposed at birth in Sparta, but that the decision was taken by the city rather than the father.

    I personally believe that obviously deformed or unhealthy children, regardless of sex, were exposed in Sparta, but that most children were given a chance -- particulary after the great earthquake of 465 and in the period of Sparta's accute population decline.


  3. Dr. Schrader, I took the popular history about Spartan infanticide at face value. After looking up some details on recent archeological digs around Sparta, my mind is blown away. In addition, I was not aware that other Greeks practiced exposure. That is very interesting and your blog is doing a lot to dispel some misconceptions I have had about Sparta. Please, keep it up!