If men could see us as we really are, they would be a little amazed; but the cleverest, the acutest men are often under an illusion about women: they do not read them in a true light: they misapprehend them, both for good and evil: their good woman is a queer thing, half doll, half angel; their bad woman almost always a fiend.Charlotte Bronte, 1816 – 1855
In discussions about gender in the ancient world, women never seemed to be portrayed in a decent light. In Ancient Greece, women were described as dogs, demons and degenerates. Semonides of Amorgos (c. 7 century BC), a popular poet in his time, suggests that one way to deal with one’s wife is to silence her by knocking her teeth out with a stone. His descriptions of women were equally unkind as he classifies them as being made from, among others, a pig – “a hairy sow whose house is like a rolling heap of filth”, a fox – “pure evil and aware of everything”, and a dog – “she wants to hear everything, know everything, go everywhere and stick her nose in everything, and bark whether she sees anyone or not.” A few centuries later, Socrates (c. 470 – 399 BC) refers to women as horses and slaves.
In China, in his quest to revive the Golden Age of Chinese history, Confucius maintained that women were meant to be subservient, like they were in the past. He goes as far as comparing them to servants, “Of all people, girls and servants are the most difficult…If you are familiar with them, they lose their humility. If you maintain a reserve towards them, they are discontented.” A quote attributed to the Buddha says that “The female defects – greed, hate, and delusion and other defilements – are greater than the male’s…You [women] should have such an intention. Because I wish to be freed from the impurities of the woman’s body, I will acquire the beautiful and fresh body of a man.”
However, despite the misogyny in the ancient world, discussions and debates about gender equality has also started (or, at least, made famous) by an unlikely source: male philosophers. Even the term “féminisme”, first coined in 1837, was credited to a male philosopher, a Frenchman by the name of Charles Fourier. In its most basic form, feminism is movements and ideologies to define, establish, and achieve political, economic, personal, and social equality of genders. In practice, of course, the concept still invites many arguments. However, even in the ancient times changes have been made in direction of discussing gender equality.
Literature can tell us a great deal about a civilization, as well as its ideals and its people. Although literature in itself cannot be considered as a flawless account of happenings of the past, it can still reveal much about the opinions of the writers at the time. Ancient Greek literature is a particularly valuable source of information in this case as it is especially self-conscious – that is, the authors seem to have taken great care to ensure what they said suited their purpose at the time of the writing.
Reading further into ancient Greek literature would lead us to “the Trojan Women” by Euripides (c. 480 – c. 406 BC) which reveals a different depiction of women. “The Trojan Women” features a chorus of captured Trojan women including Queen Hecuba, who display an unending capacity for suffering and a strength of character. A prose of the day is surprisingly modern in its indication that having a wife who does not need to work was a status symbol that many, in fact, could not afford – creating the impression that wives who worked were hidden in literatures of the age.
The ancient Greek laws could also reveal as much as the poetries and dramas. An ancient Greek woman would have a kyrios (usually translated as a “lord” or “master”) to carry out her affairs of law and property. If the father of the woman was not available for this position, her other male relative would take the position until she married, whereupon her husband would fulfil the obligations of the kyrios. Further, Athenian women could also be legally be given into marriage by the men of their family without considering their own choice on the matter. However, there is also evidence that a consideration was paid for the well-being of the women as, although many of her legal matters were managed by men, Greek women could still be tried in court for offenses, serve as witnesses to transactions and inherit properties. An account of an epitrepontes (“arbitration”) describes a man named Charisios who was found to be squandering the significant dowry he has received for his bride. The father of the bride, by the name of Menander Smikrines, then demanded for the marriage to be dissolved by claiming that “a husband who has received so large a dowry ought to consider himself the slave of his wife”.
In Buddhism, the male body is considered to be sacred and superior from the the female body, making the teachers and leaders of Buddhism to be only Khuankaew (male monks). On the other hand, the nun are still considered to be of lower status than a Chodron (a newly ordained child monk). To this day, in a few Theravada Buddhist countries, women are not allowed to sit beside and touch monks because they believe that women are temptations against the monk’s enlightenment.
It is useful to remember the relationships between some of these male philosophers with the women in lives. The Buddha left his wife and newborn son to search for his own enlightenment. Socrates had two wives, one of them, Xanthippe, despised her philosopher-husband and his younger wife – Xanthippe herself was already believed to be younger than Socrates by 40 years. On his death-bed, Confucius was said to have ignored his wife and daughter as he preferred the company of his scholar-retainers.
Although we may not consider Socrates, Confucius and the Buddha to be model family men, they seem to include women in their thinking. Socrates, through Plato in the Republic, says that women should have a real role in society, otherwise “the state will only ever be a half of itself”. Xenophon’s Symposium also credits Socrates in saying that “a woman’s nature is really not a whit inferior to man’s…” although he then rather disappointingly added “…except in its lack of judgment and physical strength.”
Despite Buddhism’s preference to the men, the Buddha surprised society by suggesting that women also have the potential for enlightenment. Although he initially resisted this progress, the Buddha would later insisted there should be Buddhist nuns as well as monks; “I will not take final Nirvana until I have nuns and female disciples who are accomplished until I have laywomen followers who will teach the Dhamma.” The Vimalakriti Sutra, which is widely used in Tibetan and Zen Buddhism, states that “In all things, there is neither male nor female.”
Socrates was said to have been fascinated by Sparta where women and girls seemed to enjoy more freedom than their Athenian counterparts. Spartan women were allowed to eat the same rations as boys, exercise naked and ride in chariots. He then controversially states that “If we are to use women for the same things as the men, we must also teach them the same things.”
Socrates then radically states that women should receive the same training in subjects such as geometry, gymnastics and music as the men in society. He analyzes women as a whole and sees them to be of use in a perfect society, stating that “there is no practice of a city’s governors which belongs to a woman because she’s a woman, or to a man because he’s a man…”. In his dialogue, Meno, Socrates asks for the meaning of virtue. The response he receives is that virtue for men consists in managing affairs of the city, and a virtuous woman is obedient to her husband. Socrates argues with this by saying that virtue does not change according to who carries it. However, even Socrates was still not immune to the form of sexism familiar to us today. Plato writes that, before Socrates and his friends began their final discussion before his execution, Socrates excused a woman from the room for bursting into an emotional display and dismissing it as “typically female”. When his execution was carried out at the end of the Phaedo, Socrates shamed the men around him for weeping aloud saying this was the reason he sent the women away.
Plato (427—347 BC) also seems to have broken the boundaries of the time in regards to his treatment of women by believing that the possession of virtue is a consequence of knowledge of the good. In the Republic, Plato makes the assumption that different people have different natures and it is in every person’s best interest to do what is best according to his or her nature. He also makes the point that certain attributes are irrelevant to the nature the person must follow. Speaking through Socrates in his Symposium, Plato makes the analogy that if a man with as a full head of hair is known to be a good cobbler, it does not necessarily follow that a bald man s not suited to the same profession. Here, he is again making the distinction between mind, or soul, and body where the body is irrelevant to the nature of a person to be proficient in a profession, and thus concludes that a woman could be a philosopher as well as a man. Indeed, if one were to accept Socrates’ and Plato’s theory that the soul exists after death and later create a new life, one should also be able to accept the possibility of the soul of a philosopher entering the world as a female with the same nature and ability as the body (male or female) is irrelevant to the person’s proficiency. Therefore, although Plato and Socrates did not preach gender equality, they opened the window to the potential for equality.
Unfortunately, this potential for progress in the discussion was later undermined by Plato’s own pupil Aristotle (c. 384 BC to 322 BC) who describes women has having lack of reason to determine the good and therefore obligated to be obedient to achieve virtue. He further describes women as being the physical opposite to the spiritual male and that women were merely passive receptacles who bore and nurture the life created by the semen supplied by the spiritual male. Although he shared Plato’s notion that women are the opposite of men and connected to the body, he did not share Plato’s belief that there was potential for growth beyond that state as he described women as “children who never grew up” – thus leading the discussion of gender equality in ancient Greece to take a few steps back.