Classical Feminism: Spartans

 (Helen of Troy, another Spartan, by Evelyn de Morgan)

I don’t even a little bit claim to be an expert on ancient Sparta.  It lay outside my field of studies at university.  I don’t watch popular movies as a rule so I have not seen 300.  I read the internets and turn to my various classical writers for insight.   As I ponder the future of feminism and my own views I keep returning to a story from my childhood.  I’m paraphrasing here, the story (with the historical reference) can be found in Moral Compass.

This story tells of the spirit of Spartan women, who bade their sons to come home from war either bearing their shields or on them.  A certain city in Sparta was laid siege by a foreign general.  The city was overwhelmed, no chance to outlast the siege.  Rather than sack the city and massacre all the inhabitants, the general offered amnesty for the women.  He sent messengers to announce that the following morning at break of day, his soldiers would allow the women of the city to evacuate before the sacking.  Each woman was to bear on her shoulders her most precious thing, and the women would not be molested by the army.  

At the break of the next day, the general and his soldiers opened the city gates and stood back to allow the women passage from their doomed city.  Slowly, with faltering steps, the women passed through the city gates bearing their husbands on their shoulders.  The general was so moved by their courage, their devotion and strength that he spared the men as well as the women.

This is a simple story; I shortened it considerably and probably sucked most of the poetry out of it.  The general makes some tear-soaked speech.  I can’t remember the name of the general, and his speech made no lasting impression on me.  I don’t think this matters because it is the essence of the story that moves me.  Those women used their wits, their physical strength, and their courage to save their husbands.  They saved mighty men, warriors renown for their ferocity, who in this instance could not save themselves.  These women were the last line of defense.  The general could just as easily have struck them all down in the road for their cleverness, and I’m sure those women knew that. 

Now, it could be argued that the women took their courage in hand and saved their husbands in order to save themselves from forced marriages (also called rape) to the victors.  This was not unheard of in the ancient world, rather common.  Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t, right?  I doubt this one, because the general took pains to show the women amnesty and protection.

It could also be argued that the men thought of the plan and forced their wives to carry out.  I doubt it, who would be pushed around by a man condemned to die? 

I think it was an organized, calculated move on the part of the women to preserve their families and their peculiar way of life, and an expression of their place in their society.  The romantic in me likes to think it was also for love, but that is debatable. 

Spartan women enjoyed a peculiar freedom compared to other women in the ancient world.  They could hold property, were expected to be educated, were encouraged to strengthen their bodies physically through sport.  Spartans saw themselves as a race of warriors, and that included the women.  Women were seen as fierce protectors of the home.

In a world where girls were generally married off in their early-mid teens to much older men and then held a status slightly higher than slaves, Spartan women did not marry until the age of 18- usually to men only a few years older than themselves.  Most of these marriages were “assigned” and the woman would be abducted by her assigned husband for sexual liaisons. I think it is a little bizarre, but I don’t live in classical times. (Isn’t it a little bit exciting, though…?)  In Spartan society, men spent 40 years in military service, and were often away for long stretches of time.  Who kept the home fires burning?  The women.  Who managed properties, raised families?  The women.  If their husbands stayed away too long, they were permitted to take new husbands.   Some women had several husbands, they would mostly spend time together for shagging.

Granted, women did not serve in the government Assembly.  Neither did they spend their lives in the military, so it is a fair trade-off.  In many ways they enjoyed a very equal relationship to their men.  So much so that neighboring countries joked that Spartan women were “Persian men with their beards shaved off” and that Spartan men were ruled by their women.  The Spartan reply?

“Only Spartan women give birth to real men.”

This is interesting because it carries the implication that a real man easily accepts equality with a woman.  Further, it implies that Spartan women raise men to understand that women are their equals.  It also acknowledges that all men spring from woman, which is an old idea associated with feminine strength.  That brings me to a major issue I have with 2nd wave feminism: Misandry.

Misandry is the hatred of men.  It is undeniable that men are becoming more and more marginalized in our society.   An evening of watching network television will show you that.  Today’s sitcoms are tomorrow’s Shakespeare, and are often very indicative of social currents.

The modern feminist movement can be summed in the words of Bell Hooks: “Feminism is a struggle against sexist oppression. Therefore, it is necessarily a struggle to eradicate the ideology of domination that permeates Western culture on various levels, as well as a commitment to reorganizing society so that the self-development of people can take precedence over imperialism, economic expansion and material desires.” (hooks, bell. 2000. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Cambridge: South End Press. p. 26)

I think the first sentence is straight to the heart of the matter.  I think the second sentence shows one way feminism has failed- we still have a culture of dominance.  Look at the imperialist, expansionist wars being fought right now over resources to satisfy our material needs.  I think that shows it is obvious that our “ideology of domination” is not a masculine phenomenon, but rather a product of human nature.

Leaving that as a topic for another discussion, I think it is important to note that young women such as myself prove that we no longer have a culture of male-dominance in the West.  I am well-educated, I am thoughtful, I married at 22 and raised MANY eyebrows, I am not afraid to explore my own ideas and interests because I have never been taught to limit myself because I am female.  The thought is laughable to me.  I do find myself disgusted by misandrist t-shirts, ideas, and misandry in feminine culture.  Perhaps we’ve gone a little overboard in our quest to enforce our equality.  

A masculist writer made the point:  In the past quarter century, we exposed biases against other races and called it racism, and we exposed biases against women and called it sexism. Biases against men we call humor.  —Warren FarrellWomen Can’t Hear What Men Don’t Say”

Is he wrong?  I don’t think so.

(Michelangelo’s David)

My point is that I think women and men are equal, but very different.  We are different biologically (check out a naked man sometime, it is perfectly obvious), our minds work differently, even our circulatory systems.  I don’t believe that all gender roles are imposed by society, either.   I could spend some time digging up the study I read while pregnant that explores how baby girls tend to respond to faces and facial expressions much more than little boys.  From a larval age, women seem to be hard-wired to respond to the emotions of the people around them much more so than little boys.

If nothing else, women can do something men can never do- we nurture the next generation inside our bodies and give birth.  Only women can give birth to men.  It is physically impossible for a man to give birth (I’m sorry, but if you have a beard and a uterus, you’re still a woman. Dress and act how you like, that’s the way it is.) and it is something they can never really understand.  Freud spoke of “penis envy,” perhaps deep down men have a little “uterus envy?”  Is that at the root of the historic masculine need to subjugate women?  I’m not sure it is fair to ask questions based on a ridiculous and debunked theory, but I have a desperate need to ask questions so I will.

Then we feminists break up the boy’s clubs.  We go to university, we become professionals, we go to war, we women infiltrate every aspect of society in the name of equality which leaves a tiny space that solely defines “masculine.”  And that tiny space is often filled up with ridicule.   I find this to be disconcerting.  Who celebrates what is admirable about men?  Should we women do things just because we can?  Or should we step back and allow our men to be men, and permit them to have their sphere?  Where is the division between separate and equal spheres for men and women?  Hasn’t the world benefited from women in politics and the professional world? (This one is an obvious yes.)  Does stepping back mean we have to resign ourselves to keeping house and humbly raising children and never thinking of ourselves?  Does it mean we are doormats?  Is there no dignity in keeping the home?

I don’t think so.  I think of the Spartan women, I think of their strength, I think of them managing the civil affairs of a country while the men fight.  Spartan women associated themselves with Artemis, goddess of the hunt and protector of animals, women, girls, youth and connected to childbirth.  Their role was to keep the home, and to protect their society.

Perhaps our society could bear a little protecting.  Perhaps it is all well and fine for women to operate in male spheres but not at the expense of their families and their home.  For example, remember Sarah Palin, 2008.  When she was campaigning for Vice President, she had a four-month old special needs baby, her unwed teenage daughter was pregnant (a no-no in conservative circles), and her marriage falling apart.  I know I don’t know everything going on with her, I have no way of understanding every aspect of what had to be a complex situation, but it struck me at the time that she should get her own house in order before aspiring to this house:

(Number One Observatory Circle, Vice President’s Residence.)

I find it very tempting to forget my duties to my family.  I find it very tempting to be selfish, to put my own wants and pursuits ahead of those of my family and call it feminism.  Perhaps we need to keep our own houses in order, without being made to feel we’re degrading ourselves and without having to experience financial hardship.  (I feel a socialism rant coming on, but I’ll leave it for another day.)

I don’t advocate emulating every aspect of Spartan culture.  Some of it was rather weird and harsh.  I don’t believe every Spartan woman was treated as an equal.  In fact Herodotus tells a story of a man tricked into promising his wife to the wicked king of Sparta.  He is forced to divorce her so the King can have her.  I suspect that had it been any man other than the king, the husband’s protestations that she was not his property to give away would have held fast.  She got her own back, at any rate.  

Unfortunately, absolutes do not exist in our world.  I know that every individual finds their own path in life, and different circumstances shape that individual.  I haven’t lived your life, and you haven’t lived mine, so how could we judge each other?  How can I pretend to be able to tell you how to live? 

I merely suggest we can take inspiration from the Spartans, and suggest that being a keeper of the home and protector of the family is an honorable role, every bit as important as “going to war,” and does not need to imply subservience or male dominion.   I think every human being should be treated with dignity, without regard to race or sex- but at the same time those differences should not be obliterated or over-looked.    

Regardless of who does what or why or what they call themselves, I think the current state of our society shows we can’t and probably shouldn’t all “go to war.”  The spaces of “Hearth” and “War” are different, and generally divided along gender lines.  Each of these spaces should regard the other as extremely vital to our collective well-being.   The danger comes from trying to create absolutes, and from trying to sort everyone into pre-designed places.  It is also dangerous to assume that what works for me and my family should be done in other families.

I’ll use my house as an example.  My husband is still studying.  I work.  I have to work, and I like my job.  But it is a job, not a career.  We both tend our baby, we both tend the home, and we both “go to war.”  I consider my role to be generally supportive, though we both accomplish domestic tasks.  One day he’ll finish studying, have a job, and I can take over the domestic side completely.  He knows that the things I do for him and for our family allows him to succeed, and he knows he couldn’t do the things he does without me.  Likewise, I need him.  None of us live in a vaccuum, everyone needs other people and that is part of the beauty of living.  No one is an island.

I do wonder where this ideal of mine leaves a single man/woman, the woman who enjoys her career, a woman who started off her life as a man, a woman who loves another woman, a man who loves another man or a husband who wants to stay at home while his wife/partner pursues her career?

Personally, I believe I have no right to judge another human being for their lifestyle choices and don’t believe that one person’s choices threaten my own. (Unless of course they choose to burn my house down around my ears, in which case I refuse to respect their choice…)

I think the important lesson to take from the Spartans is that we all rely on one another, society needs those who “go to war” just as much as society needs those who “keep the hearth,” and that both of those roles are sacred and worthy of respect. 

After all, modern notions of democracy grew out of flawed Athenian ideals.  Perhaps a new, un-gendered, human equality ideal for the organization of society can grow from the gender-specific Spartan ideal? 

What do you think?  I do hope you all understand this is in the spirit of inquiry, looking to the future, trying to understand the culture and society around me.  I’m not interested in deconstructing the past, and I don’t disregard the struggles of those who have come before.  I think they would approve of trying to discover ways to make a better world.


10 comments

  1. Interesting post. Grant and I were talking the other night about an ad for something (forgotten what it was) that had a two buff shirtless guys in a kitchen and a woman making sexist comments. If ad agencies are still making things like this then it's really hard to move forward. I agree with you, we need people who stay home and people who go into battle, regardless of their gender. Many years ago I worked on a documentary about the Bisu and how they recognise 6 genders because they know that the roles we play in our society are not as simple as man-hunt, woman-cook. No doubt we will be discussing these issues for a long time to come, but I hope at least we are raising children who are more aware than previous generations.

  2. Two things, when you reference sitcoms as an example of misandry, the problem with that is that most of the writers are men on these shows (and usually the creator of the show is a male stand-up comic), and if you look at the reception of the husband/wife characters by the general audience, I think you would find that the husband is found to be funny and lovable and the wife is found to be a harpy. So even though there are jokes at the husbands expense, the overall structure of these shows is well within standard gender roles.Second, when you're talking about all the things you've been able to do and other women are able to do, as a reason for perhaps the irrelevance of feminism, you are talking about a very small percentage of the female population – ie. middle class and up, largely white, able-bodied, etc., etc. In other words, a privileged group (of which I am a part, as well). I very easily identify as a feminist, and if there's one thing I have a problem with in popular feminist discourse is that the emphasis is still to much on the perspective of Western, middle class, mostly white women, when there are women who suffer physically, economically, and live in fear throughout the world simply because they are women and without resources or a voice to obtain resources. -R

  3. Yes, both of those are true. I misandry in sitcoms, anti-male advertising, etc as by products of the shrinkage of space for the masculine. Even if they are written by men, they are still telling about the society that we live in. The "self-hating man," if you will.I know I belong to one of the most privileged classes of women this world has ever seen. That's not my fault, I make do with what I have. I fully advocate rights for women around the world, but I also believe that in many of those places men are also oppressed. I'm for equal opportunity in regards to human rights. I think the reason the emphasis is still on white, western, middle class society is that we are the ones who are educated and have the leisure time to devote to thought, forming theories, and writing about them. Simple as that. That does not mean I don't feel it is my responsibility to do what I am able to do in order to help women (and men) who suffer physically, economically, and live in fear. I would do more if I could, but I can't at this stage in my life. It seems to me the things I do are very small and insignificant, but I still do the things I can and hope I can help make a difference here and there. I know that sounds like rich white lady whining about helping others, but I really do. If I could inoculate babies and free sex slaves with my own hands, I would, but for now I help support those who do.

  4. I wish I could talk to face to face about this stuff, as I always feel in this medium it's near impossible to really hash things out with one another.At any rate, I'll just try to quickly respond and clarify some of the things I said above. I don't see the sitcoms as evidence of the self-hating man. Like I said, most viewers empathize with the husband in these shows and dislike the wife. It's just a different way of enforcing the same old gender roles. Wife as harpy to aggrieved husband is a trope as old as time. And, I just don't see a real shrinkage of space for the masculine. If just look who are in positions of power in the government, who owns media conglomerates, who are the CEO's of corporations, etc. etc. Men are not in a defensive position. Western society has been a patriarchal power structure and still is. If there's been any movement to cause men (as well as women) to question what "masculine" really is, I think that's a good thing. I don't believe there's one way to be a man anymore than I think there's one way to be a women, and I think men benefit from feminism (at least ethically) because it allows rigid gender definitions to be explored.And the second point, I certainly don't think you have to go out and save the women and children of the world with your own hands. I mention non-Western women, because I think it's clear evidence that feminism's goals are far from being reached. I think you probably more agree with me than not, because you talk about how men can fulfill the role of tending the hearth, just as easily as a woman, and you mention different constructions of families – gay, trans, single parent, single without children – and it certainly sounds like from your description of the Spartan women that they were basically working moms, and more or less single working moms with the husbands often gone. It sounds like you've found a good way to organize your family life, and it also sounds like you know that other people will organize their personal lives, hopefully, cognizant of what works for them. In other words, difference wins out over a monolithic view of gender and structuring your personal/family life. I think that's all that's really important (and, also, that's feminist). -R

  5. It's not completely necessary to remain anonymous, I believe I know who you are, R… Monolith is correct and touches the heart of the problem I have with second wave feminism- the single mindedness. I don't believe I identify with third wave, either. Third wavers don't have a political rallying point like votes for women or equal pay. What if the next great push was to allow women (predominantly because we're disposed towards it, but really whoever) to stay at home, paid some sort of living wage. I don't think that's too far out. Also, I really believe that most men are top CEO's and etc because it is in their natures. Look at cooking. It can be argued that most day-to-day cooking gets done by women. But who are the top chefs? Men. Why is that? I think it is simply because they're men and to a man, being the biggest and the best is important. With women, other women make sure to "keep us in our place." It is undeniable. We tear each other down, we fight like cats in a sack. No wonder men hold the top jobs.I can't avoid the misandry in pop-culture. I know there are some old archetypes at play there, but you can't deny that men are portrayed across the board as a joke with a certain level of impotence.

  6. I'm not sure who you think I am. I don't have a blog or such to go by for my comment identity, so I chose "Anonymous." I don't feel comfortable linking to my google account, and I think that's the only other option available. You probably can disable the ability for people to comment anonymously, if that's something you don't like – lots of blogs do this.At any rate, I feel like we're not really hearing each other, as I said above it's pretty difficult to have conversations like in this particular medium.-R

  7. I had to close this and walk away because it seemed so pointlessly transphobic. If someone referring to themselves as a male and living as a male while having some functioning biologically female parts hurts you so much that you feel the need to talk about them this way, I think you should take that as a reflection on you, not a reflection on them.I'm really disappointed – I've been reading through your archives from the January 2011 entries back, because you're such a thoughtful blogger and I'm very interested in your thoughts on ethical fashion, and this was just such a weird, prejudiced thing to run across seemingly out of nowhere.

  8. I'm so sorry you think that. I don't know that I know any trans-gender people, but I tend to more or less accept people as they present themselves. If I caused offense because I referenced a woman who has a beard who gave birth to a child (and has since produced another child), I hope you can understand that I found the coverage with headlines "Man Gives Birth" both misleading and offensive. To me, it seemed this person wanted to both have their cake and eat it, too. This is a much more judgmental attitude than I usually allow myself. However, this person used their female body to produce a child, which is a female act. It is the female act. If that person wanted to loose their feminine bonds and live as a man, she would not have also had a child. It's all so confusing I can't find the proper grammar. All I can say is… If you're a man, then don't go getting pregnant. We can't have everything in this life. If you are a man with functioning woman parts but you want to share your life with a child, then adopt. The world is too full of little children with no one to love them.


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