Apology for a woman writing

Not all women in ancient Greece benefited from the advent of democracy – but exceptions like Aspasia are a source of inspiration today.

Aspasia of Miletus (c. 470-400 BC). with her lover Pericles.
Aspasia of Miletus (c. 470-400 BC). with her lover Pericles. Chromolithograph from 1881. Credit: Universal History Archive/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Around the sixth century AD, a Roman named Marcellinus wrote a biography of the historian Thucydides. Some people, he says, think Thucydides’ daughter wrote the last book of the Athenian’s great history of the Peloponnesian War. But this, our biographer opines, is implausible. Women are attention-seeking creatures. If a woman had written that subtle analysis of war and democracy’s often brutal pathologies, she’d surely want her name on it, not let posterity attribute it to a man.

When I started studying ancient Greek at 16, I sometimes wondered whether the birth of democracy was a good thing for women. Athens’ democracy shattered political monopolies of the rich over the poor and of tyrants over everyone. But while it put some 40,000 men from all classes in charge of government, women were worse than left out. Well-to-do Athenian-born females were closeted at home, married young, and kept away from sports and matters of war. Their sisters in Sparta, Athens’ deadly enemy during the Peloponnesian War, had it better. Sparta was a military oligarchy run by about 3,000 citizens. Women from these leading families trained for war and in athletics, often practising naked in front of men. They could own and inherit property, had better education than most Athenian women, and married at around 18 to 20 instead of 13 or 14.

Plato and Xenophon, both students of Socrates, were qualified admirers of Sparta. They wanted girls to have the same education as boys and to have an equal share in government and in military training. In the dialogue he leads in Plato’s Republic, Socrates goes further than some feminists today, arguing there are no natural differences between males and females that have any bearing on their ability to govern, and no intellectual or emotional differences, not even innate attitudes to family or children or competition or caring. Socrates thinks the best city would be one where every individual has a chance to discover and develop their abilities and use them for the common benefit. If girls don’t have the exact same education as boys, and don’t see examples of women doing whatever their personal nature directs them to do, society, and their own doubts, will hold them back from discovering their true abilities and following their vocations. Then society, the whole polis, will be far worse off.

A similar message comes through in plays performed in Athens not long before Plato wrote the Republic. The playwright Aristophanes left us three comedies about women who get so exasperated with their men’s follies that they subvert male power and steer things in a better direction. In The Assemblywomen the women of Athens, fed up after decades of botched war and even more botched politics, cook up a subterfuge to take over the Assembly. They dress as men, fix beards to their chins and spread them over their bosoms, rehearse speaking in masculine voices and swearing like crewmen on a trireme, and enact their plan. Their proposals for reform are so good that the male citizens agree to them, even after the ruse is exposed. Though in case anyone should forget how things really are, the men still keep interrupting them.

In the seventeenth century Marie de Gournay, a collaborator with the philosopher Montaigne, wrote an ‘Apology for the Woman Writing’. The pioneering writer and essayist also wrote autobiographically about how her world crushed intellectual women. I never used to think of myself as a woman when writing. When I was younger I avoided learning that focused on women. I didn’t want anyone to drag me away from the study of humanity in general just because men dominated and shaped what that meant. I longed to escape from ‘male’ and ‘female’ and ponder human nature, equality, freedom, and justice as a pure person, a thinking and judging human animal whose reproductive organs had no effect on what I thought and wrote.

But if today I could choose what kind of woman to be in ancient Greece, instead of choosing between Athenian or Spartan women, I’d want to be like Aspasia. She was, among other things, a lover of the statesman Pericles, and as a foreign courtesan living in Athens she could perform intellectual feats that no Athenian of her sex could get away with. Plato says this versatile businesswoman not only ran a political salon and composed some of Pericles’ best speeches, but instructed many other citizens in rhetoric and politics.

In the late nineteenth century Friedrich Nietzsche declared ‘If a woman has scholarly inclinations, there must be something wrong with her sexuality.’ Pericles, and all the other men and women who benefited from Aspasia’s multiple talents, would have laughed.


Erica Benner