Ancient Greece was a very hard place to be a woman. Many women were enslaved. Some worked in bread factories, like this one, grinding wheat and barley into flour and baking the flour into bread. Other enslaved women worked in big perfume factories, or in textile factories, where they spent all day spinning wool and linen and then weaving it into big bolts of fine cloth for their rich owners to sell on the Silk Road. Other enslaved women worked on farms, planting and weeding the fields, then picking grapes and olives when they were ripe. Women cleaned houses or carried water or did wet nursing, childcare or elder care in free people’s houses. They took care of disabled or sick people. Some enslaved women worked as waitresses, or as entertainers for men’s parties or in bars.
Even free women couldn’t own land, so they still almost always had to live under the control of a man – their father or husband, or a brother or uncle. Some women ran their own businesses, selling apples or or garlands of leaves, straw hats or medicinal herbs. Women worked as midwives, delivering babies. Or, like enslaved women, they worked on men’s farms.
Women milked sheep and goats and made cheese, and they fed chickens. They cooked and cleaned, nursed sick people, and did child care. Like enslaved women, they spent time spinning and weaving, but usually at home rather than in factories. Greek men thought public spaces were only for men, so they kept their wives and daughters inside their houses or courtyards most of the time. Men thought it was rude even to say a woman’s name in public. Greek women couldn’t go to school, fight in wars, vote, or be leaders, or act in plays. They didn’t sail on Greek ships. They couldn’t choose who they would marry – their fathers or brothers chose for them. A Greek woman could divorce their husband, but he usually got custody of the kids. Women who were on their own, without a husband or brothers to support them, were especially badly off. Homer‘s Iliad mentions how “a woman carefully weighs the wool she has spun to earn a meagre wage and feed her children.” It was probably something like Afghanistan today.
Women from rich families worked as managers, running a large household with dozens of slaves, children, relatives, and guests. In addition to keeping everyone clean and fed, they often managed businesses out of their house, making and selling clothing or straw mats or baskets.
But women’s lives weren’t all about work. Women talked to their friends at the water fountain while the jugs filled. They went to religious festivals and drank wine there, and danced together. Women learned to juggle and to swim, and to play music, and some women could even read.
Eyewitness: Ancient Greece , by Anne Pearson.
Families in Classical and Hellenistic Greece: Representations and Realities, by Sarah B. Pomeroy (reprinted 1999). One of the first scholars to write about Greek women, and still one of the best.
Children and Childhood in Classical Athens, by Mark Golden (1993).
Women in Ancient Greece, by Susan Blundell (1995)