Who were the women of ancient Sparta? What were their roles? And how did they manage to relieve themselves of their 'feminine' duties? Spartan women were gymnasts, acrobats, prostitutes, priestesses, and mothers. They were expected to marry by the ripe age of 13 and bring many a Spartan man into this world. However, their dexterity and durability were just as important as their role as mothers. They were expected to attend public school focusing on the arts and physical prowess. As they neared sexual maturity, Spartan women were almost always kidnapped or 'taken' for marriage. Immediately before intercourse, the bride's head was shaved and she would lay down in male clothing awaiting her bridegroom's advances. A huge stretch from the fairy tale romances of our day. This gender-bending ritual was key to Spartan male machismo. A mingling of the sexes was unheard of in ancient Greece, and for a man to engage intimately with a woman, it had to be in private and she had to look like a man, for fear that their union may be 'found out'.
The Spartan woman's main duty was to uphold Homeric values such as arete, or excellence, by breeding strong Spartan males. In doing this, she displayed her loyalty to Sparta, and became a key enabler to Spartan hegemony over the Peloponnesus and the local Messenian helot population. She inherited the right to hold property once her husband was away at war, thus managing the fiscal and proprietal issues of the estate. This was unheard of in other regions, particularly Sparta's neighbor of Athens, where women were expected to stay in the domestic realm and avoid fiscal matters. Euripedes exemplified Athenian female drudgery in his play Medea. His protaganist, the female Medea laments, "They [Athenian men]... say we lead a safe life at home, while they do battle with the spear. What imbeciles! I'd rather stand to arms three times than bear one child."
Throughout a Spartan woman's lifetime, it was understood that she would engage in sexual practices much like her male counterparts. She was a product of the city-state or polis, and thus belonged to everyone. She was expected to have a healthy sexual appetite, and enjoy sex much the same way as a man. This helped to spur the population and satiate the sexual desires among men and women. Although sex was key to male machismo, it was encouraged to be under the control of the men. Something that Spartan women had no qualms with. This perhaps may be why Sparta was less engaged in homo-eroticism, something quite rampant in ancient Greek society. Aristotle blamed the fall of Sparta on their women and found the freedom of women most vile. He argued that Sparta would forever be plagued with bad luck as long as women held power. He wrote, "Again, the license of the Lacedaemonian women defeats the intention of the Spartan constitution, and is adverse to the happiness of the state."
Interesting, the role of gender still resonates debate today. The debate of whether or not women should have the same claim to leadership and physical prowess as that of a man remains. Sparta initiated this gray area of gender that will always be imbedded in social discourse. No doubt, the debate began with ancient Greece and is still construed today.
Frost, Frank J. Greek Society, Fifth Edition. University of California, Santa Barbara, 1997.
'Sparta Reconsidered': http://elysiumgates.com/~helena/Women.html
Ancient History Sourcebook: Aristotle: Spartan Women: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/aristotle-spartanwomen.html