Oftentimes when we think of the subject of gender, we think of things happening now; we think of evolving gender roles, non-binary gender recognition and struggles between and within genders. What we do not usually think of, however, is gender in the past because we usually know the answer: Men would be breadwinners, landowners and voters, whereas women would be child-bearers, housekeepers and chefs. Nevertheless, there are a handful of examples throughout history where traditional gender roles had a modern flavor. Today, I will be writing about my favorite of these exceptions, the powerful and historically strange women of Sparta.
Most people know of Sparta as an ultra-militaristic society, whose every move was made with the consideration of war and their military in mind. This conception is very true; they were indeed one of the top militaristic societies in history. What is usually not thought of, though, is how women’s roles in that society changed due to this intense militarization. One major angle to consider is that constant war more or less means a constant stream of death among the male population, and since women were the providers of new babies, their role was determined by this ability to supply the army. To ensure the production of quality soldiers, women were given a large degree of freedom and followed traditions of relative equality that seems rather contemporary.
Firstly, Spartan women were fed similar diets to their male counterparts. This provided them with as close to a proper, balanced meal as was possible at the time and robust nutrition that was seen as necessary to strengthen their women for carrying and raising children. After all, the meals Spartan men ate were meals for soldiers.
Although nutrition is important, the age of a woman when she gives birth also has significant effects on the viability of children and the safety of the mother. Spartans figured out that delaying when a woman married (and thus had children) to her very late teens and early twenties lended a better chance that the woman and the child would survive the ordeal of childbirth. Compare that to the rest of the world, where mid-teen marriages were much more common.
In fact, childbearing was such a significant aspect of a female’s place in society that men who did not feel they could produce good babies would ask another man to impregnate his wife so that her traits would not go to waste. Farther still, infertility or a general lack of producing strong children were grounds for a divorce.
After birth, both male and female children had similar exercise and educational regimens. Completely contrary to the world outside of Sparta’s borders, women not only exercised but exercised in the nude along with the men. Some of their exercises included, but were probably not limited to, riding horses, running, wrestling, throwing javelins, and maybe even entering in competitions.
Education was a bit different, however. As amazing and strong as these women were, they ultimately did not end up on the battlefield, so they were not educated in the agoge — the war training and education program mandated for all Spartan males. That does not mean the women were not educated, quite contrary. Women were the head of the household, as any male would most likely be at war, so they had to be educated to manage the affairs of the estate.
Although literacy for women was not considered the most important, their educational program was steered to something called mousike — meaning “art of the muses.” Things covered by mousike included learning poetry, dance and especially playing instruments. Being educated gave Spartan women a reputation for speaking their minds out in public and having notoriously sharp wit. In fact, Plutarch, a philosopher of the time, collected into a book “Saying of Spartan Women” some of which do portray such wit, and quite funnily.
Perhaps the most radical thing about Spartan women were their roles in politics. Now, officially, women had no role in the governance of Sparta, which ruled as a kind of constitutional monarchy; rather, women had a huge informal role by way of wealth they acquired through the strange inheritance laws unique to Sparta. If a husband died, his property was inherited fully by his wife, not his sons. When the widow died, the property would then go to the sons in particular, but a healthy portion was expected to go to the daughter as well. Women were allowed to remarry as well, so if she had multiple husbands who died, she could accumulate great wealth. This system led to an informal political bloc of wealthy women called the “Spartan Heiresses” who at some points owned as much as a quarter of the land and often had more wealth than the kings. Through bribery, these women could influence how laws were crafted or killed.
Now, before I end I must mention a terrible consequence of this system on children. Since the society was ultra-militarized, and that militarization trickled down to society so far as to upend normal social customs at the time, it holds true that military strength was the defining factor in how people behaved. The effect of this was at its best what I described here — unique female liberation of the ancient world — and at its worst, infanticide. See, because the whole goal was to produce strong, able soldiers, any child that seemed weak would have been killed so as not to expend resources on mediocre soldier. This probably led to the killings of thousands of babies through Spartan history, but it would be impossible to be sure.
Despite this, today we can still find inspiration from the women themselves in a time when traditions they enjoyed were rare, and indeed, ridiculed in their time (and to an extent our own). When Sparta went into a period of decline in the 300s BCE culminating in the fall to the Roman Empire in 146 BCE, many outsiders who had been weary and suspicious of Spartan women’s strange role blamed, in no small part, the women for Sparta’s fall from grace, turning blindly of course to the thousands of male-dominated empires and city-states who fell before. They could not appreciate this gem of history, but today we live it.