Classical Greece didn’t have the best track record as a society promoting the equality of women, at least in Athens (it would seem that Spartan women had rather more freedom than their Athenian sisters). However, I wanted to celebrate some of the great women from Greece’s past for International Women’s Day on March 8th.
I think Aspasia (usually described as lover and partner of Pericles, but I’m not sure it’s right to be defining her in terms of her relationship with a man) sounds like a remarkable woman. The extent to which she is referred to in complementary – albeit patronising – terms by giants of classical Athens such as Socrates, Plato and Xenophon suggests that she was someone very distinctive among women of her time.
She appears to have been both loved and disliked, lauded and loathed, but anyone that was one of Judy Chicago’s dinner guests (other Greek historical figures include Sappho and Hypatia – see below) is all right by me.
I’m not sure how far afield we should consider Greek extends for this but I’ll also put in a word for Hypatia of Alexandria who was certainly working in the Greek language and was presumably Greek by culture if not by country of birth. She seems to have been a highly educated, principled and outspoken woman who paid for her beliefs as a pagan martyr (described in Catherine Nixey’s book : The Darkening Age).
From more recent times I will add Laskarina Bouboulina, who looks from her portrait to have been a formidable woman. Heroine of the Greek war of independence, she was a commander of a fleet of ships, funded by herself, that were involved in the blockade of Nauplio and the Siege of Momenvasia in 1821.
Bouboulina was sadly killed on Spetses in a family feud with the father of the girl her son was eloping with.
I will also include the Souliot women who chose to commit suicide in the face of Ottoman troops in Epirus in 1803. Choosing to die with their children rather than to face enslavement.
The memorial at Zalongo that marks the spot is a moving and disturbing reminder of the cost of freedom.