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A Critique of David Cohen's "Seclusion, Separation And The Status of Women in Classical Athens"

Updated on February 21, 2014

Seclusion, Separation And The Status of Women in Classical Athens

The status of women in classical Athens is very difficult to ascertain. For instance, some evidence describes women being separated and secluded, and other information describes the opposite. The true answer may never been known, but one scholar in particular, David Cohen, attempts to answer the debate with a common sense approach. While there are various problems with his argument, Cohen has an interesting idea. The problem with his argument, however, is that Cohen offers evidence that he expects scholars to apply to all women in classical Athens.

Cohen's article states that by studying modern Mediterranean cultures one can draw conclusions about classical Athens. The fact remains however, that this evidence is not strong enough to stand by itself, and like previous scholars Cohen does not separate the economic classes. Most scholars agree that women were secluded in Athens, but the level of seclusion decreased as the level of poverty increased by matter of necessity. In other words, the more poor the woman was, the less secluded she was due to the needs of survival. Although Cohen's article has merit, it lacks the hard evidence that would make it truly great.

Cohen starts his article by stating that the current trend of thought by most scholars is that women in Athens had a very low status. This low status was due to their confinement to the home and their exclusion from economic, public and social life. While Cohen agrees that women did not have the same access to these spheres that men did, he believes that the women had spheres of their own. Cohen gives various examples of where scholars have gone wrong, and why their conclusions are incorrect. He feels that scholars can get a glimpse of what life was really like in classical Athens by studying current Mediterranean cultures.

In current Mediterranean cultures there are parallels to Athenian culture. For instance, in both cultures the women are said to be confined to the home, and to have little influence in public and political spheres. Even though similarities do exist, Cohen seems to think that if this fact is true of women now and of women from classical Athens, then it must follow that there are other parallels that scholars can draw from the study of current culture.

Cohen defends his argument by pointing out that currently in Mediterranean cultures it is obvious that women have their own social spheres. He uses women's meeting and gossiping at the town's fountain or well as his primary example. He also says that women in today's Mediterranean cultures have economic influence by selling things at the market.

Cohen believes that if women have their own social spheres today it must have been the case in classical Athens. "Scholars have too often mistaken separation of spheres and roles for seclusion and isolation." Cohen believes that just because women have different functions, and are said to be "in the home," it does not mean that they are trapped there. Cohen supports his argument by relating the story of a woman who when interviewed said she stayed in the home, but later was found to be supervising fieldwork. The woman explained that this was perfectly natural for her to do, and that she still considered herself as being "in the home."

Towards the end of the article Cohen attacks fellow scholars. He states that there are four reasons why scholars have difficulty recognizing the difference between reality and ideals:

"(1) ignoring the little bits of evidence about the details of women's lives because one has already reached conclusions based upon the grand ideological statements; (2) excessive concentration on the wealthy classes . . . (3) failure to view the sexual division of labor and public space as a typical Mediterranean social pattern; and (4) failure to recognize that separation is not the same as seclusion or isolation."

The problem with these four reasons is that Cohen forgets to apply them to himself. The first reason Cohen gives is a basic generalization of a trap that most human beings are guilty of falling into; Cohen himself is no exception to this trap. It appears that he has already reached conclusions based on ideological statements, and forgets to examine all the evidence.

The second reason he gives is the concentration on the wealthy classes. This is problematic because the majority of evidence that scholars have from Athens comes from its wealthy male population. Admittedly, concentrating on only this type of evidence is not the best way to draw accurate conclusions, but as it is the only source of information we have to go on, then we have an obligation to use that information to the best of our abilities. Cohen seems to be asking for scholars to utilize what little we can know about the Athenian lower-class women, and use comparative information from Mediterranean cultures to flesh out the true picture.

The last of Cohen's reasons, that separation is not the same as seclusion and isolation, is an excellent point. Cohen makes a strong case for this statement, and it is completely possible to be separate without being secluded. The fact remains, however, that Cohen lacks the evidence to back up his claims, but then again he did not really go looking for that evidence.

There are many things Cohen could have done to make a stronger argument. For instance, evidence from ancient writings can help build a very strong case for Cohen's claims. The greatest amount of evidence that would help support his claims come from the various plays that were written in this time period. For example, plays such as Antigone and Medea suggest that the ideas of David Cohen may not be that far off.

When one wants to make a compelling argument about the status of women in Athens he need look no further than Sophocles' Antigone. This drama should be considered in two ways when looking at the status of women. The first is the fact that in many scenes Antigone is seen out in public without a chaperone, and it doesn't bother anyone. A.W. Gomme in "The Position of women in Athens" writes:

"Ismene, most timid of women, tries her best to dissuade her sister; but she never uses the one argument which, according to the rules we have laid down for the conduct of Greek maidens, should have been the first to occur to her immediately conclusive - she does not censure Antigone (and herself) for appearing outside the gynaeconitis and still more for proposing to walk through the streets of Thebes." (Classical Philology 20: 8)

The two women have met in a public place and never act or talk about this as if were out of the ordinary. Antigone and Ismene are acting naturally in the situation as if it were an everyday occurrence. Antigone says, "…That is why I sent for you to come outside the palace gates to listen to me, privately." (20) It becomes apparent with these words that Antigone needed no man's permission or approval to set up this meeting with her sister in public. The fact that both women are alone suggests that they both traveled by themselves to get there. As Sophocles presents both women as being members of the upper class, and Antigone is the heroine of the story, the fact that they are traveling alone in the city must not reflect negatively on the characters.

The fact that the Antigone appeared in around 442-441 BCE, which is arguably the height of greatness for Athens, suggests that perhaps not all is as scholars have thought when it comes to the status of women in this time period. Gomme says that this kind of evidence is consistently ignored, but that it is relevant and of great importance. Surely, if women were secluded then these dramas would not unfold as they do, and some of the characters within them would be unnecessary.

The second consideration is that the story is about civil disobedience, and Antigone is the heroine. Therefore, the idea of a woman having an active role in society is not an unknown concept in the Greek world. One can argue that the drama is based on myth and therefore anything is possible, but as with all stories that are told for entertainment in a culture, the material must be relevant in the society to be accepted.

The fact that Antigone is the heroin, and that the story is about civil disobedience suggests that women were not as secluded as one might think. Civil disobedience is defined as the refusal to obey civil laws as a way of securing reforms. One can see, however, that this definition is incomplete and that it will have to be amended. Civil disobedience must include that the individual disobeying the law is willing to accept the consequences for his actions. With this new definition, one can now apply it to Antigone to see that she is justified in her actions.

Ismene- you are so headstrong Creon has forbid it.

Antigone- It is not for him to keep me from my own. (53)

In a conversation with Ismene, Antigone states her refusal to keep Creon’s laws. Antigone will bury her brother because she believes it to be right, even though she knows the punishment is death. It is through these words that Antigone demonstrates her willingness to accept the punishment for doing what she believes to be right. It is through these words that we glimpse why Antigone thinks she is right.

Antigone- it will be good to die, so doing. I shall lie by his side loving him as he loved me; I shall be a criminal-but a religious one. (82)

The fact that Sophocles would write the drama in this way suggests that it is relevant to his culture. The fact that a woman can be a heroine even when she is seen outside of the home unaccompanied and breaks the laws of the city suggests that perhaps women were not as secluded as today's scholars think. No one will argue that women were not separated from men, but as David Cohen says, "…Scholars have too often mistaken separation of spheres and roles for seclusion and isolation."

Some may argue that there are just as many sources in Greek drama that suggest women were secluded. John Gould writes,

"And even in the case of Gomme's own examples, Medea, is it not reasonable to see in her opening words to women of the chorus 'Women of Corinth, I have come out of the house…' Some implication of conscious abnormality in what she is doing? It is just not true that in Attic tragedy women come and go from their houses at will."(Journal of Hellenic Studies 100: 40)

What is most interesting about Gould's words is that while he raises an interesting point about what Medea says, he does not address another important fact about the situation. It is true that Medea says these words, but it is also true that she says them to a female chorus. The women to whom Medea is addressing are also out of the house, and they offer no such excuse, as Gould would have scholars interpret Medea's words. A good case could be made that the words Medea speaks are nothing more than general statements like "I have come here today…"

Many scholars like to use Euripides as their prime example, as he is seen as a misogynist. However, even Euripides demonstrates that seclusion may not be as complete as today's scholars think. In Euripides' Medea we are shown a scene that may provide further insight into the status of women.

Ageus-Medea, greeting! This is the best introduction of which men know for conversation between friends.

Medea-Greetings to you too, Ageus, son of King Pandion. Where have you come from to visit this country's soil?

"Medea [does not] hurry indoors when the stranger Aegeus appears, and the latter - a perfectly respectable Athenian - does not seem to expect her to." (Classical Philology 20: 8) The two of them chat as if all is normal. There is nothing amiss in this conversation to suggest that a woman outside her house is a shocking site. Euripides is being realistic in his writing to make the story relevant to his culture.

With these words Gomme is making an excellent point. Would not a respectable Athenian who was supposedly used to the seclusion of women react differently in this situation? Even if one were to argue that it was artistic license on the part of Euripides, would a respectable Athenian male invite a woman who, if we are to believe in the seclusion of women, was so obviously unrespectable into his own house? After Aegeus hears of how Medea is treated by Jason he condemns his actions, but wouldn't an Athenian not care about what Jason did because woman are only for producing legitimate heirs?

Euripides' Medea and Sophocles' Antigone are just two examples that help support Cohen's argument. Cohen has an interesting theory, but expects scholars to agree with him without proving his essential hypothesis. If Cohen would use the research done by other scholars like Gomme as a springboard to his own ideas, he would have a great article. He needs to explore deeper into all the evidence and pull out more concrete examples from Athens. Cohen's article seems to be a common sense solution to questions that have puzzled scholars for many years. Although it is a good argument and provides an answer that makes a lot of sense, it lacks the hard evidence to support its claims. This is the reason that this article must be read with hesitation. An individual must evaluate Cohen's claims and his methodology before drawing any conclusions.

"Neither do the vases and the sculpture of the fifth century lend any support to such a view [seclusion]; and we may add that the scandal that gathered round Pericles' name implied an equal degree of social freedom in the women of his generation to that enjoyed by Elpinice." A. W. Gomme


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