English 3050 8 December 2014



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Elmurr



Alexis Elmurr

Dr. Lopez

English 3050

8 December 2014

The Ebb and Flow of Women in Ancient Greece
“If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again. And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them,” Sojourner Truth proudly proclaimed in her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech at the Women’s Convention in 1851 (Halsall). Women being oppressed was nothing new: From ancient Greece, to the women’s suffrage movement, all the way to the current time, women have always struggled to gain full and equal rhetorical strength, especially in the think-tank that is the public intellectual sphere. Through thorough research and class discussion, I have come to the conclusion that rhetoric means power, in its most simple definition. Thus, if one controls the ability to participate in rhetoric, one is controlling the other’s power. Essentially, women’s role in society goes hand in hand with their rhetorical role as well; in the following essay, I will examine how particular cultural and political ideas influenced women’s role in society, rhetorically and otherwise, specifically in ancient Greece.

The stereotypical, domestic shoe that women have filled dates all the way back to ancient Greece; “…Athenian women were defined in terms of their ability to reproduce Athenians” (Biesecker 99). Interestingly enough, women cleverly took advantage of their oppressed roles in order to become more powerful. Claire Taylor, an author and contributor of the Center for Hellenic Studies at Harvard University, believes that “…interpretations of politics which focus only on institutions (and the production of citizens for them) are increasingly seen as misrepresentative and narrow, ignoring the complexity of ancient life not just for women, but for men as well,” so she chooses to analyze women’s social networks and female friendships in ancient Greece. Taylor discusses how there are “strong ties,” such as those between family and close friends sometimes brought together through official ceremonies like a wedding and how there are “weak ties,” or ties between acquaintances whom one interacts with during regular or irregular activities (705). Any of these ties can shifted to be made stronger or weaker, thus the existence of a social network (705). In ancient Greece, the strongest tie was found within the household, known as “oikos” (705). Taylor states, “The oikos was a fundamental part of the social structure” and goes on to quote Aristotle, who said it was the combination of different oikoi that constituted the polis (705). Notably, Aristotle acknowledged that women were central to the oikos—one could not even have oikos without women (705). This powerful role can be best demonstrated through marriage; through marriage, women were virtually lynchpins between two families (706). This process enhanced not only the woman’s status but also the entire family’s status as well. The wife’s status improved because she shifts into a “brokerage role,” a role that functions as an intermediary between two or more parties and even the mother-in-law’s role improved because she assumed an important function within the family (706). Clearly, women “played a key role in developing the social capital—and social status—of both families, [through] expanding the network and maintaining or improving the economic and social positions of all those within it” (Taylor 706). Therefore, marriage was a form of status negotiation and a way to ensure social mobility both inside and outside the household (706).

Another way women managed to make the most of their oppressed role was through religion, Anne Stockdell writes in her article, “A Forum of Their Own: Rhetoric, Religion,and Female Participation in Ancient Athens,” which was presented at the 1995 Penn State Conference on Rhetoric and Composition. Stockdell says, “Religious participation provided women with the only regular, permitted means of gathering and appearing publicly as a community” (4). This forum allowed women to be viewed as credible representatives and interpreters of venerated goddesses (4). Stockdell goes on to explain how women were confined to their homes and expected to be not only silent but also invisible (5). One opportunity for public discourse for women were funerals where they were allowed to openly lament for their loved ones (Stockdell 5). Interestingly, the more women present at the funeral, the more important the deceased (5). Even more interesting is the fact that the funeral included not only family members but also women hired specifically to morn, “who found opportunity for expression through vocal mourning in the funeral procession” (Stockdell 5). Women’s sorrow was more socially acceptable than men’s sorrow, as it is nowadays, in my opinion (6). Thus, women utilized this opportunity to express themselves publicly and make money (6). The men delivered a restrained, individual speech, or eulogy, while the women provided a deep emotional grief—both balanced each other out at funerals much how the artistic proofs of logos and pathos balance each other out in rhetoric.

Not only were women influenced culturally, but they were also influenced by the laws of the polis. Women were not allowed to directly participate in any governmental affairs: holding public office, voting and serving as jurors or soldiers (Biesecker 99). Interestingly, Biesecker also argues that there is a direct correlation between “the rise of democracy within the city-state and the subordination of women” (100). In other words, women’s status worsened as Athens shifted from an aristocratic to a more democratic society (Biesecker 100). Herrick coincides with this argument and states that the larger amount of men involved in politics made it even more difficult for the women to find a space in public life (45). I find this ironic, because one would believe that the more free the general population became, the more free women would become, thus bolstering them rhetorically; however, according to Biesecker’s research, the opposite effect ensued. She explains this phenomenon as a “symptom of a physic dynamic in the male Athenian collective unconscious” (100). Furthermore, she states that contrary to popular belief, a paradox existed in the venerated origin of Western democracy— the opening of the public sphere to some caused the almost complete exclusion of others such as, foreigners, women and slaves (Biesecker 100).

A political idea that perhaps opened up the possibility of the expansion of women’s roles is a law created by Pericles in 451/450 B.C.E, which stated that a child could not attain full citizenship unless both the father and mother were Athenian citizens, thus implicitly stating that women counted as citizens. It is interesting and worth noting that Pericles lived with Aspasia, a female rhetorician of the fifth century B.C.E and the only woman in classical Greece to have distinguished herself in the public domain (Herrick 45). Aspasia serves as hope and a sort of peace of mind that female rhetoricians existed in ancient Greece; unfortunately, not a lot is known about her because little history about her was kept due to women’s unimportant status in society. Actually, so little is written about her that there is some debate in rhetorical history whether Aspasia was merely a legendary figure or an actual woman. What is known about her is that her knowledge of politics and ability as a speechwriter, conversationalist and teacher of rhetoric was unmatched (Herrick 45). Furthermore, it is rumored that she taught rhetoric to Socrates, as well as many others, and that she may have even invented the Socratic method (Herrick 45). What is important about Aspasia’s story is the two-fold: First, it demonstrates the incredible rhetorical skill of an extraordinary woman and second, it illustrates the strict limits ancient Grecian woman experienced in the rhetorical world (Herrick 45).

On the other hand, the law created by Pericles caused a handful of occurrences that may have positively affected the women’s role. Firstly, in order to enforce the law, every citizen group had to review each citizen’s lineage to ensure they were deserving of citizenship (Biesecker 103). This exposed the extreme lack of records kept of matrilineage, which is important because it illustrated the blatant social practices that “privileged the patronym” (Biesecker 104). Although this law did not grant women’s full rights as citizens, it did create conditions for women’s exclusion from the public sphere to be challenged (Biesecker 104).

In conclusion, as Claire Taylor eloquently states in her article, “By examining the different uses of social capital that women commanded within the ancient world, we can see what these allowed women to do and to be” (715). Society acted as a double-edged sword; it “restricted women’s ‘full’ political involvement and opportunities for economic enrichment, but they also allowed women to determine their own roles within society and to command status within a group as well as in the wider community” (715). We are forced to examine a history written by men for men and search for the history of a different but equal species—women. The place of women in ancient Greece and rhetoric is a fascinating area to study due to how little is actually known about it. Luckily, women’s place in society and rhetoric has dramatically changed; however, the cause and effect of all of those shifts is a different, much bigger, essay.

Works Cited



Biesecker, Susan. “Rhetoric, Possibility, and Women's Status in Ancient Athens: Gorgias' and Isocrates' Encomiums of Helen.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 22.1 (Winter, 1992): 99-108. JSTOR. Web. 10 November 2014.


Biesecker analyzes the entire culture in Ancient Greece and how it specifically related to women and their lack of a role in society. This lack of presence in society led to a lack of presence in the academic world, hence the scarcity of women in early rhetoric. What is extremely noteworthy about this article is how Biesecker exclusively examines oratory and how that played such a huge role in the culture and society of Greece. Furthermore, she chose to investigate, compare and contrast Gorgias’ and Isocrates’ Encomiums of Helen. I believe this article will prove to be very useful as I write my paper because it directly correlates with my topic. I am excited to utilize this article and delve into the effects ancient Grecian culture had on women and their role, or absence, in rhetoric.


Halsall, Paul. “Sojourner Truth.” Fordham.edu. Fordham University, Aug. 1997. Web. nnnnn29 Nov. 2014.


Herrick, James A. The History and Theory of Rhetoric: An Introduction. 5th ed. Boston: nnnnnPearson, (2013). Print.

Herrick’s book accurately and effectively describes rhetoric’s history beginning from Ancient Greek all the way up to contemporary times. I am unsure exactly what the scope of my paper will be, which time periods it will cover; however, I am sure that Herrick’s insight will be useful, especially in the chapters containing information on Aphasia as well as the following chapters about the Middle Ages and the Renaissance where the women’s role in rhetoric and education begins to slowly shift. This book, and specific chapters, provide me with a general, overall insight about the history of rhetoric and the role of women in that history.



Ramsey, Shawn D. “The Voices of Counsel: Women and Civic Rhetoric in the Middle nnnnnAges.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 42.5 (2012): 472-489. MLA International nnnnnBiography. Web. 11 November 2014.



Ramsey discusses the role of women and rhetoric during the Middle Ages. He notes the incline of women’s participation, especially within the sphere of letter writing. Ramsey writes about the multiple and differing purposes of women’s rhetoric, particularly letters. As stated in the abstract, “These rhetorical artifacts demonstrate that women operated in the rhetorical tradition as eloquent, powerful agents of persuasion in the civic arena.” This article is important for my paper because it illustrates a shift in women’s participation in rhetoric and obviously discusses a new time period versus the previous articles.
Stockdell, Anne Meade. “A Forum of Their Own: Rhetoric, Religion, and Female nnnnnParticipation in Ancient Athens.” July, 1995. ERIC. Web. 11 November 2014.
Stockdell presented her paper at the 14th Annual Penn State Conference on Rhetoric and Composition, which makes this source extremely credible and noteworthy. Stockdell’s purpose “is to call for a new definition of rhetoric, one which broadens its scope beyond the modern interpretations of Platonic and Aristotelian traditions of public agonistic argumentation among peers” (1). She basically wants to turn away from the traditional definitions and thoughts on ancient rhetoric represented by the exclusive society, men, and pull information from the oppressed, seemingly socially absent group, women. This is perfect for the paper I want to write because it focuses solely on women and introduces some profound ideas on the expansion of rhetoric’s definition shaped around women.
Taylor, Claire. “Women's Social Networks and Female Friendship in the Ancient Greek nnnnnCity.” Gender & History 23.3 (Nov, 2011): 703-720. EBSCO Host. Web. 10 nnnnnNovember 2014.
Taylor examines women’s role within two spheres: civic engagement and social relationships. Both were important social networking tools that greatly influenced women and the part they played in the polis. Taylor states, “As Putnam says, by examining the social networks to which people belonged, their ‘individual and otherwise quiet voices multiply and are amplified’; this is fundamentally desirable within the ancient world where political and economic elites are disproportionately represented among the source material” (715). This coincides perfectly with my topic because women are extremely underrepresented in ancient rhetoric history, so hopefully studying their culture and relationships will help shed a lot more light on them and their involvement within the rhetorical sphere.

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