When somebody from today's world wants to condemn the first democracy, ancient Greece, one of the things that they inevitably bring up is that ancient Greek culture is terribly sexist and oppresses women (especially if they've read Riane Eisler's tripe). They base this criticism on the "fact" that women were only allowed one role in ancient Greek society, that they were denied the vote, and that they couldn't own land. And in point of fact, there are only two or three socially accepted roles for middle or upper class women in ancient Greece. But then, there are only two acceptable roles for middle or upper class men in ancient Greece. I'm curious as to how many acceptable roles you think there are for you in your social class?
It is unmistakeably true that ancient Greece is the mathematical opposite of a unisex society. There are definite roles that are for men only. There are definite roles that are for women only. What's more, men and women of the upper and middle classes actually had very little to do with each other. Their worlds overlapped very little at all. The fact of the matter is that it would have been very difficult for a husband to oppress his wife during most of the ancient and classical period in Greece ... first, he would have to see her other than briefly at dinner, and the couple of times in her life when she wanted a child. If anything, I could make a pretty strong case that the ancient Greek system oppressed men rather than women.
To make any sense out of what follows, you have to imagine the floor plan of your typical ancient Greek house. The house is shaped either like an L or a U, wrapped around a walled courtyard. It's either 1-1/2 or 2 stories, depending on whether or not the top (master bedroom) floor in the back wraps around the side(s) or is only at the back. The entrance to the house is almost always into the courtyard, which has the house cooking fire, the house altar, and some sturdy outdoor furniture. It is the only space that the whole household uses. Off to the right as you come in to the courtyard is usually a small room, about the size of an average guest bedroom. It's got one or two storage chests that can be used as low tables, and a couple of couches that are remarkably like a late 19th/early 20th century bachelor apartment's "day bed." That room is called the andron, the Man's Room. It is called that because it's the only indoor room of the house that he has the key to, the only room of the house he's allowed into except by her invitation. The master bedroom? Hers. The rest of the household storage? Hers. The various workrooms, dayrooms, and sleeping rooms? They're used by the slaves, who with the exception of maybe one field hand the rest of the slaves work for her, not him. In all likelihood, unless he's a remarried widower or we're talking about the rare family house in town, it was her (family's) money that paid for building the house, to her specifications. He may officially be the owner of the house, but he's the one who's treated like a guest. (Which is why, apparently, most middle class men slept outside if they could stand it, and why most upper class men kept a small apartment in the city; the farm fields and the house in town were theirs.)
There's only one acceptable role for him. He's got to be a farmer first, and a heavy infantry soldier, and a part-time priest in at least three neighborhood or city or family religious banquet clubs. He can barely escape a life as a farmer if he's lucky enough to find a permanent paid priesthood, but such jobs are super-rare. There were men who chose to risk their lives and livelihoods investing their inheritance in a sea-going trade boat (or fleet). To try to earn a living trading between cities and countries by sea was considered a semi-honorable way to go slowly broke and die young. Unless you combine it with also running a farm that's at least semi-successful, for a man any other way of making a living, oddly enough including quite a few things we'd consider skilled trades, were viewed as being about equal in honor to being a cheap afternoon-quickie prostitute by the city gate: you get paid wages for working for others. Even the famous orators, politicians, and generals you've heard of in ancient Greek history considered themselves farmers first.
(Right before the end, it became possible and briefly even faddish for even middle class men to make a full-time living as itinerant sophists. A sophist is basically a combination rhetoric instructor and lawyer. That this was a respectable way to make a living was a bad sign, as you'll see when I get around to discussing the reasons the Greeks fell.)
There are, however, two roles for her. Nearly all citizen women chose, more or less freely, the role of house-bound wife. Now, I say "house-bound" despite the fact that she can travel freely to any temple on any feast day (10 to 15 days out of any month), and in between can take a servant bodyguard and travel freely to any neighbor woman's house on the slightest excuse, without asking permission from anybody. There probably weren't very many women who took every opportunity to get out of the house, and the ones who did were looked down on not for being unwomanly but for being poor. Why? Because just as much as the husband, she's got work to do. In her case, that means overseeing almost the entire staff of the household. She's probably got her own vegetable garden to farm with servant help. She runs at least one loom, doing much of the weaving and embroidery herself but handing the repetitive parts out to servants who have to be supervised, too. If there are children in the house below the age that the city takes over their education, she's responsible for overseeing the servant who teaches the kid(s), too. The cook works for her. If the house is anywhere near a town or city center, one of the windows out of her rooms is probably a sales counter for the family's business; the servants who man that report, that's right, once again not to him but to her. She runs a staff, depending on how successful the household is, of anywhere from three to maybe ten employees, male and female. He's only barely trusted to manage one full-time field hand.
The other role was not terribly popular with citizen women, although foreign women migrated to Athens just to try for the job: Companion. The word heteira literally means "female companion." In English, the word is usually translated courtesan. She does not sell sex; that's a pornos, or prostitute. Indeed, it's not entirely clear if some of the most famous courtesans in the ancient world ever had sex. A courtesan, a companion, is something rather like a geisha in old Japan. She's a woman who's hired by the wealthy and the middle class to facilitate parties that were, in no small part, also business meetings. Unlike the woman who chose to be a wife, she travels freely throughout the city. But then, remember, as an unmarried woman she doesn't have a farm/business home to retreat to (although you could measure a companion's success by the size and location of her rented apartment or house in town). She doesn't own slaves, but she hires employees for her business of providing entertainment at parties: musicians, singers, jugglers, dancers, prostitutes. She doesn't vote in the Assembly, but she's expected to follow the debates. They have an entire boxed section at the theater, one second in quality of location only to the high priest of Dionysus and his guests. And very much unlike married women, she spends most of her waking life either at the men's parties, or preparing for them.
Why don't married women attend parties? Sexism? No. For the same reason that many jobs in America are closed off from women of childbearing age: they're not safe. Alcohol is not the primary intoxicant in ancient Greek party wines. Wine is used to extract and concentrate the active ingredients in many herbs, many kinds of "mint" in the common translation.These include opium, belladonna, amanita, and many other plants with abortificant or worse birth-defect causing side effects. (There may also have been, even at this early date, varying amounts of lead-based sweetener.) This getting stoned together, the symposion, was the great leveling ritual of Greek society. These social occasions were hemmed in with many careful customs and presided over with as much religious piety and sincerity as silliness, probably more, but the drugs are a major and unavoidable part of them. A pregnant courtesan who chooses not to abort is a scandal, even if she retires, even if she marries a single or widowed citizen. No, she's expected to retire single, childless, and propertiless ... which means that by the time she looses her charm or her energy for going to parties all night, she'd better have savings. Fortunately, your average courtesan during her working years has many rich friends. If she's good at it, they vie for the privilege of her attention, and being men, they compete in gift giving. If she's witty and charming, she'll do just fine.
(Again, I leave out the tiny handful of women in any given generation who landed a permanent full time job as a priestess. They exist, and there are at least as many of them as there are men in the priesthood, but your odds of landing that job as either a man or a woman are comparable to your odds of being a full time professional athlete now. Historically significant individuals, but not statistically significant for analyzing a society.)
Am I advocating that we return to a world with such strict gender separations, am I suggesting that the gods would only bless this way of life? No, probably not. This was a solution for a particular time, at a particular technology level, in a particular environment. But I do suggest that it is not a social solution to look down our noses at. It did at least as good a job of providing a safe and comfortable living for both men and women as our world does. It had few or no single-adult households. It did a great job of providing for children, in most cases, including all the adult attention a child could ask for; there is no ancient Greek word for "latchkey child." It put men in the most dangerous jobs, where we belong. It put women in charge of front-line management, where in a saner world they'd probably belong. What's more, for women who choose not to be parents, who choose the company of men, it provided a small but potentially very comfortable niche. As such, I'm willing to bet that it did at least as good a job as our society did of providing both sexes with a fulfilling life. No, we don't have to copy that model to be blessed by the deathless gods. But does our model really solve all of the same problems as thoroughly?