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Women in the Apology

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Women in the Apology


The most striking thing about women in the Apology of Socrates is their absence from where we might expect them. Only two specific women are mentioned: 1) the Pythia, the priestess of Apollo, who answers Chaerephon's question that no one is wiser than Socrates (21a); and 2) Thetis, the mother of Achilles (who himself is not mentioned by name but only referred to as the "son of Thetis"), who warns him that he will die if he kills the Trojan hero Hector (28c). Only two other times does Socrates even mention women: 1) a disparaging reference that those who embarrass the city by coming into court, weeping and carrying on to win the sympathy of the jury, "are in no way better than women" (35c); and 2) a remark that Socrates would enjoy questioning people in the hereafter, "both men and women" (41c), although everyone he actually names is male. Socrates does not mention questioning women in his investigations. Nor do women occur either as spectators to his questions or in relation to all his talk about educating the "youth." The "youth" are obviously all young men. And again, Socrates mentions his family and his sons without mentioning his wife. Plato relates some relationships Socrates had with women (especially with Diotima in the Symposium), but those may be fictional. The only episode of Socrates questioning a woman that is clearly historical is related by Xenophon in his Recollections of Socrates: Socrates questions the courtesan TheodotÐ"Є, who is famous for her beauty and poses for artists.

Socrates lives in a world where the spheres of life of men and women were radically separate. In Plato's Symposium, which is a drinking party, both men and women are drinking and partying, but they do so in separate parts of the house. The musicans and dancers go back and forth between the men's party and the women's party. Political life was regarded by the Greeks as part of the male sphere of things, and so there were certainly no women in Socrates's jury; but it is hard to know whether there were any in the audience. There has been some dispute about whether women attended Greek plays, the comedies and tragedies, when they were staged -- though there are references by Plato to women in theater audiences. We have this difficulty in part because it was not considered proper for strangers to address respectable women in public. The device of addressing a group of strangers as though there were only men present is also conspicious in the New Testament. Note Matthew 5:27, where there were certainly women present in the crowd that Jesus spoke to, here in the Sermon on the Mount, but he merely says "everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." There is nothing about what happens if a woman looks at a man lustfully. We are left to assume that this must be equally as bad for women, but Jesus doesn't actually say so.

There certainly were no women actors in Greek plays, which would have been unacceptably scandalous -- the same situation as in Shakespearian Britain and in the Kabuki plays of Tokugawa Japan. By Roman times there were some female actors, but when the future Roman Emperor Justinian married the former actress Theodora, they were afflicted with vicious rumors from then on that she had been a prostitute. Unmarried Greek women attended events like the Olympic games -- where the athletes went naked -- but married women did not. Respectable women did not even go shopping in the marketplace. The only women who freely moved in public life were courtesans (like TheodotÐ"Є).

Although Plato will later question separate spheres and roles for the sexes (at least among his Guardians) and admitted women to the Academy (Axiothea of Phlius and Lasthenia of Mantinea -- as Pythagoras is supposed to have admitted at least one woman, Theano, to his order), Socrates does not. Indeed, the spheres of life of men and women remained radically different in every culture and civilization until this century, and that situation was not seriously questioned in political discourse until within the last two centuries -- a process whose first major influential statements perhaps were Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) and John Stuart Mill's The Subjection of Women (1869), which were, significantly, written first in the shadow of the American and French Revolutions and then after the abolition of slavery by both Britain and the United States. In traditional cultures, however, the idea that everyone should be free to do the same kinds of things would not even make sense for men, let alone for women. Some feminists talk about the "silence" of women in something like Greek literature. The great poetess SapphÐ"Ò' was the exception. Will Durant mentions (in The Story of Civilization) that Plato wrote about her "an ecstatic epigram":

Some say there are Nine Muses. How careless they are!



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