Why didn't the Athenians give the women the vote?
I have had a dreary cold, which in other circumstances would mean postponing teaching and taking to bed with a glass of whisky and a DVD. But the term-time schedule here (see previous moaning blog) means that if you put off an afternoon’s teaching, there’s really nowhere to put it except 7.00 in the morning or 10.00 at night sometime beyond next week. And I can assure you that students find that no more agreeable (or quaintly idionsyncratic) than you or I.
So you muddle through, like I did this afternoon from 2.30 to 7.00 solid, spreading your germs, trusting your voice will hold out, and hoping that the young will get you interested enough to forget you’re feeling so ghastly. It usually works. I can’t claim I was particularly looking forward to the three consecutive hours on the Critics (ancient and modern) of Athenian Democracy, but the students – pairs of my college first years – got me engaged. (If they didn’t, this job would be a lot less worth doing.)
One of the issues we skirted round was, of course, the Woman Question. Why didn’t those lovely democratic fifth-century Athenians give women political rights? And do we think worse of them for not doing so?
It’s easy enough to toe the party line here. You can't apply modern criteria to ancient Athens. Within Athenian culture women were assumed to be un-political animals. Their job was to bear citizen children (and weave -- neatly captured in the picture to the right). They were, almost by definition, incapable of taking the responsible, informed decisions demanded of the (male) citizen body. Different from us, of course; but that’s how the ancients, not just the Athenians, were.
So far so good. But the problem is trying to imagine what it would actually be like to think of women in those terms. What would it feel like to feel that women were, by definition, excluded from political power, that it would be simply bonkers to include them (a question, needless to say, that applies to many cultures other than fifth-century Athens).
The analogy we tried was children. If someone were now to suggest that the under-tens should have the vote, we would bring out all those arguments that the Athenians would have brought out against women. They can’t understand the decisions they would have to make. They still need the protection of their parents. It would be irresponsible to entrust major decisions of state or finance to them. In short it would be bonkers.
Yet could we imagine a world in the far distant future where children had the vote? Could we imagine a world which derided our twenty-first-century “folly’ in depriving a clever nine-year-old of her citizenly rights, while driving the frail 95 year-old to the polling station to put her cross by whoever happened to take her fancy on the morning?
Maybe we almost could? And maybe in the process we were beginning to empathise a bit better with the assumptions of the Athenian misogynists – and so understand the ancient world in a different way. And maybe in the process we were beginning to understand something more about "the invention of childhood" too.
And maybe my sore throat was receding in the fun of it all.