The historiography of Athenian women is difficult to interpret; the writings from classical Athens were by men, and the best basis we have were from plays at the time. Plays in general, specifically tragedies, will paint women in a specific light where they only contribute to the main character’s story. This is often seen in Noirs where they have a "femme fatale," a mysterious, dangerous woman that utilizes influence and emotional weight to get her way.
The reason I bring up Noir's is that Athenian women were not unlike this role in classical Greece, but knowing this doesn't take away from their power, it instead enhances it. What they lacked in physical prowess they made up in political and religious influence, and this is important to understanding how Athenian women operated in Greek society.
Let's start with the religious, because truly everything stems from there. As we're all aware, Greeks are responsible for one of the most unique and absorbing mythologies: that of the Greek pantheon. Religion was not just something they practiced, it was something they lived. When they woke up in the morning, to festivals, to battle, everything was in relation to the gods in some way.
So, if religion was so important, so pivotal, what then are the priestesses? They are the leaders, the influencers, the ones who decide and interpret change. This was the role of Athenian women. If men were the head of society, they indeed were the neck. The direction, the guide for all things Athenian were women, because the basis for their city was, in fact, a great goddess.
Athena, the goddess of battle and wisdom, was their namesake. She was their roots, their reason for existence. Thus, she was revered and treated with respect, and women were treated the same. They had gender-specific festivals and, even in the multi-sex festivals, they led them.
To understand religion in classical Athens is to understand politics. It's to understand who controlled the movements and the way people thought. This is superior to physical prowess and the ability to be a combatant. Changing the way people think and act is not having the ability to fight, but being in control of where the city's power goes.
Religion and politics are two areas that we've been raised to believe are very different, and deservedly so. To understand the role of women in Athens though, we have to strip away that belief and understand that religion and politics were one and the same. Whoever controls the church, especially the high priestess, was in control of most things and respected possibly even higher than they are in today's society.
With that being said, understand the things they didn't have. They didn't have the right to vote unless they were not an Athenian citizen. They could own limited property but could inherit property and have respectable dowries when being wed. This society wasn't perfect, and women had a lot of progress to make. They weren't offered a lot legally that we have today, but there was something they had that in American society they don't, and that's respect.
Since women held such a high place religiously, in turn, politically, women were at the top of the food chain. They had to be respected because they had the godly defense of being protected. Nobody wanted to upset Athena, so they treated women with reverence.
As always, I leave off with a note. Something to internalize and think about. Where is our Athena? Where is our godly protection for women, our respect, our reverence? Classical Athens wasn't perfect, but they had that. Maybe, just maybe, Athena should make a comeback.