One very important distinction needs to be made about the women within the world of Euripides’ play: they are characters in a play that depicts events that theoretically happened during the Heroic Age in Greek mythology, or the archaeological Bronze Age of Greece.
Bronze Age Greece: Queens, Wives, and Slaves
The archaeological record of the Bronze Age is spotty at the best of times but sites in ancient Mycenae suggest that several Bronze Age cultures had centers of female power in all of the public sphere, both the religious and political. This is a narrative we can see within the works of Homer where even though Helen is “abducted” from Sparta, the battle Menelaus and Paris fight is for Helen and her possessions, which within the original Greek also suggests her position as Queen, meaning that she is not Queen by the virtue of being the wife of Menelaus, but she is queen within her own right.
The mythological record is one of the best tools we have to reconstruct the gender roles of the Bronze Age because the myths reflect those roles in a slightly obscure way. In 5th century Athens, cuckolding is grounds for divorce, even banishment. Yet consider how many gods would’ve gone all Apollo and Artemis vengeful on their mother’s home cities if that behavior went down in Bronze Age Greece.
Examine all the powerful queens and princesses that appear in Greek tragedy and myth: Helen, Hecuba, Clytemnestra, Andromache, Phaedra, Medea, and patterns start to emerge. Not equal partnerships, per se, but symbiotic systems where women are valued for their views and wits rather than just their ability to bear children. Even the “bad women” of the Trojan War, Helen and Clytemnestra, are presented as somewhat justified, operating after experiencing legitimate traumas. (Helen is stung by Eros and taken to a land she doesn’t know and Clytemnestra watches her husband sacrifice her daughter so he can sail to Troy.)
Andromache, the tragic wife of doomed Hector has a well-reasoned conversation with her husband in Book Six of the Iliad:
Hector you are father and mother to me no and brother and youthful spouse besides. Pity me. Stay within the fortress here with me. Do not make your son an orphan nor your wife a widow.
She then suggests to him a military strategy that would allow him to kill Achilles with the help of his army rather than in single combat. (Since we all know Achilles doesn’t fight fair ever anyway. That whole dunking in the river of invulnerability thing is way worse than taking steroids so you can hit a few more homeruns.)
The Bronze Age of myth is filled with women who took their functions within the home and parleyed them into positions of power and wisdom, making their husbands and masters comprehend their importance.
[If you want more on this, I can highly recommend Bettany Hughes’ Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore, which explores the twisting and manipulation of Helen’s legacy to fit the times.]
5th Century Athens: Courtesans, Wives and Slaves
“Athens” is the operative word here because there really was a clear cultural difference between Athens, Sparta, and other city-states. Spartan women were taught to read, write, and defend themselves. Women could own property and divorce or abandon their husbands. This is not true of Athenian women (with very few exceptions.)
In Athens, there were three classes of women in Euripides’ time: slave women, who were the property of the household and performed menial tasks and childcare, citizen women, who owned the slaves and ran the households, and the hetaerae, the educated courtesans.
Demosthenes, an Athenian philosopher who was born about twenty-five years after Euripides’ death once said in an oration attacking a woman who was claiming citizenship:
“We have hetaerae [courtesans] for pleasure, pallakae [slaves/prostitutes] to care for our daily body’s needs and gynaekes [wives] to bear us legitimate children and to be faithful guardians of our households.”
All women were technically minors in the eyes of Athenian law. A woman’s chaperone/guardian was her kurios, a father or brother until marriage, and her husband after. (In Alcestis’ case after her father’s death, the position of kurios would have passed to either Pheres or Jason, both of which would have been happy for her to marry Admetus.)
A 5th century Athenian women’s most important trait was sophrosune “sound-mindedness,” moderation, self-control, self-knowledge, and chastity. (The reason Lysistrata is a comedy for the Greeks is watching the women struggle with these huge urges that they are expected to control.) Female sexual desire was especially dangerous to the Athenian patriarchy because it could delegitimize lines of succession. (“If only men could find some other way of having children,” says Jason to Medea, “There would be no more women and no more trouble in the world.”)
There are certain clearly misogynist voices that appear within the cultural record of Athens (just like modern day America), and we have to be careful to not judge the Athenians solely based on the texts that appear most often.
Most of the accounts of courtesans come from the 4th century, not the 5th, but there are some very notable women, commended for their wit, talent, and hospitality. Courtesans were public figures and could own property and even attend symposia, the debates and forums for ideas. The catch was that aside from wartime, courtesans’ children were always considered illegitimate. They were not allowed to live in the households of their clients and lovers and they were politically vulnerable, depending on the mood of the leaders at the time.
Slaves did a lot of the same work of the other two classes but had none of the agency. Being a slave meant that you would always have food and a patron’s protection, but you were also subject to your master’s mercy. Xenia, the Greek principle of hospitality, includes the idea of not abusing the position of power a master maintains (which is why Admetus’ treatment of Apollo is an excellent example), but virtues can be extolled and people still get abused.
Pallakae were considered available for service at all times, and for slave women this also meant being available sexually. (This has been one of the primary inherent dysfunctions in the slave-master relationship since the relationship was first devised.) Pornae [sex slaves] would have to give their earnings to their masters, but many were able to buy their way out of slavery. Whether a woman was pallakae or pornae, she could claim no protection or ownership of herself or her children. She was provided for but also very tightly controlled (in most cases).
Both slaves and courtesans were often of non-Athenian blood, which also disenfranchised them in many ways. The Athenian leaders defined citizenship as being born of an Athenian father and an Athenian mother. This would mean that both Alcestis’ and Medea’s children would be non-citizens. Regionalism was very powerful in this period and being born twenty miles away would make you a foreigner.
Pretty much all marriages were arranged between the prospective husband and the woman’s kurios, and most husbands were at least twice their wives’ age (about fifteen). Marriage signifies the death of the life the girl had known within her home. (The myth of Persephone is directly related to this.) In many cases she would never see her family again. In Sophocles’ Tereus, the Athenian Princess Procne describes her fears as she faces the prospect of her marriage:
When we reach puberty and understanding, we are pushed outside and sold away from our paternal gods and those who gave us birth, some to foreign men, some to barbarians, some to joyless homes, some to abusive ones.
And this, when a single night has yoked us, we must praise, and think we are faring well.
A wife’s primary responsibility was to have healthy children. Many wives didn’t leave the neighborhood around their compound for their whole lives. Management of the household and the care and education of the children was paramount. Less wealthy women did sometimes have jobs outside the home as craftspersons and artists, and weaving was a highly valued, even religiously charged skill.
Priestesses: Some Things Don’t Change Much
The position of priestess was valued and respected during both the Bronze Age and the 5th century. (Though by the 5th century B.C., the religion was beginning to weaken, partly thank to the pointed questions Euripides asked in his plays.)
Priestesses were usually unmarried, often virginal, especially when in the service of one of the virgin goddesses (Artemis, Athena, Hestia) or if acting as a prophetess, (Pythia, the Apollonian oracle at Delphi was to remain celibate for life.), but some priestesses were also married women who inherited the title from within their family. Priestesses owned property (on behalf of the god), brought lawsuits and wrote wills, and made sacrifices to the gods. Only priestesses and royal women were given public funerals, a sign of immense respect.
[All these statements must be qualified with the fact that we get these ideas from mostly male accounts not female ones, so we are trying to discover a perspective that is obscured by smoky glass. There are very few primary sources, mostly secondhand accounts.]