Women’s History Through the Lens of Literature: Homer, Plato, and Dante
As long as history has been recorded, a woman’s role in society was dictated by man, for a long time women accepted this patriarchy. This arrangement can be seen in different societies and cultures throughout history; after all, the great literature that is studied in academia serves as evidence to the way ancient society treated women. Ancient Greek society’s treatment of females is preserved in Homer’s epic tales like The Odyssey. The Medieval idea of the different women of society can be seen in Dante’s work. Additionally, literature shows the early champions of feminism like Plato, who gives the greatest lines of his Symposium to a woman. Indeed, literature tends to accurately reflect the social gender norms of the time and the challenges these norms created for women. The goal of this paper is to analyze gender social norms as illustrated in The Odyssey, The Inferno, and The Symposium. Additionally, this paper will outline the rise of gender equality and the feminist movement.
Women in ancient Greek society formed the lowest class of citizens—they were considered property and they were there to serve a specific purpose. Marriage in ancient Greek society was not the bringing together of a loving couple, but a contract between two males. Women were used as property and were taught that their ultimate purpose in life is to be married and bear children, specifically boys. This ancient Greek tradition can be seen in the conversation between Telemachus and Minerva, as recounted in Homer’s Odyssey: “Minerva said, ‘There is no fear of the race dying out yet, while Penelope has such a fine son as you are’” (Homer, 8). The women of the tragedy are given life through their sons—this reinforces the Greek notion that an honorable woman gives birth to sons. For example, Ulysses’ mother passes away from grief over her missing son. Similarly, Homer shows that Telemachus matures when he dismisses his mother’s suitors from his father’s palace. The entire epic reinforces the importance of a father-son relationship—for example, Telemachus says that “It is a wise child that knows his own father” (Homer 8). However, there is no mention of women or the importance of a mother-daughter relationship. Greek Society put an emphasis on the man’s journey to discovering himself. For example, Homer’s epic, The Odyssey, centered around Ulysses’ adventures as he tries to return home to his wife and son. The biggest female character in the epic is Penelope, Ulysses’ wife, who sits in her castle awaiting her “true love” to come back home. Penelope would be seen in a negative light if she accepted one of her suitors’ offers; however, her husband—the hero—is sleeping with different women—Circe and Calypso—on his journey back home. Homer describes Ulysses as the victim of these two “enchanting” women and is forced to sleep with them.
Furthering such stereotypes, Phaedrus, in Plato’s Symposium, contends that the common “bad” love is the one between a man and a woman. This “evil” love only serves a sexual purpose—those who are only interested in the common love are not intelligent beings. Therefore, the noble and heavenly love is one that can only be shared between two males: “…The offspring of the heavenly Aphrodite is derived from a mother in whose birth the female has no part, —she is from the male only; this is that love which is of youths…those who are inspired by this love turn to the male, and delight in him who is the more valiant and intelligent nature” (Plato 77). Greek society promoted philosophies like ones made by Phaedrus’—ideas where women served as objects of sexual satisfaction. Women couldn’t possibly be intelligent beings who are capable of serving a much bigger purpose. Dante brings his own twist on the definition of love, one that is very similar to Phaedrus’ definition. Dante shows the sinful love, which is one that is born out of lust for women. We see this through the examples of Francesca. She explains that her love is, Love, which in gentlest hearts will soonest bloom seized my lover with passion for that sweet body from which I was torn unshriven to my doom (Dante 97-99) Additionally, in the eighth circle of Hell we meet Thais—a woman who used sex sinfully throughout her life. Dante depicts her “scratching herself with dungy nails, the strumpet who fidgets to her feet, then to a crouch” (Dante 129-130). However, the ideal love is the platonic, heavenly love that Beatrice has for Dante. Beatrice embodies the non-sexual form of love that promotes faith, learning, and knowledge—very similar to the concepts mentioned by Phaedrus. However, Phaedrus believed that his form of love can only manifest between two males. Dante exemplifies heavenly love in a woman—showing that there are different types of women. Upper class, elite women are the ones that personify heavenly love. Lower class women exemplify the sinful and lust form of love that is punishable in Hell.
Homer’s Odyssey embodies many sexist Greek traditions and it focuses on the male’s journey to self-discovery. On the other hand, Plato steps forward and opposes these norms by giving center stage to a female character in his Symposium. Socrates is the most intelligent philosopher in Ancient Greek society and in The Symposium he recounts the explanation of Love as defined by a woman: Diotima. Plato would be considered a feminist because he showed, through Diotima and Socrates’ interaction, that a woman can hold an intellectual argument that can baffle the best philosopher of Ancient Greek. Socrates starts off his speech by praising Diotima, he says: “And now, taking my leave of you, I will repeat a tale of love which I heard from Diotima, of Mantineia, a woman wise in this and in many other kinds of knowledge… She was my instructor in the art of love, and I shall repeat to you what she said to me…” (Plato 94). Even though a woman is not physically presenting an argument herself, it is still important to recognize Plato’s effort to incorporate women in the intellectual circle. Plato uses Socrates speech to elevate the position of Greek Women by giving them the recognitions and respect they deserve.
Plato would be considered a feminist, taking into consideration his time and society. Feminism is a movement that campaigns for equal rights of women and men in social, political, and economic spaces. The movement’s ideas and goals are constantly changing with current times and events. Modern feminism is broken down into four different waves; each wave encompasses a generation of feminists who crusade for different causes based on their time. The ancestors of the modern feminist movement were part of first-wave feminism, which advocated for women’s right to vote. First-wave feminists focused on legal changes that greatly improved the role of women in the society. However, first-wave feminism was propelled by white middle-class women—lacking diversity and representation of gender, races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic statuses. Second-wave feminists were proponents of social reform—they protested social traditions that degraded women. They formed groups that brought women together under the name of sisterhood. Second-wave feminism welcomed women of color and women of different socioeconomic status. They became popular for their strong opposition of the Miss America Pageants. The Redstockings, a second-wave feminist organization, protested the Miss America beauty pageant by “crown[ing] a sheep as Miss America and threw “oppressive” feminine artifacts such as bras, girdles, high-heels, makeup and false eyelashes into the trashcan”. Second-wave feminists believed that anything deemed remotely feminine by society is a form of female oppression. They vehemently protested against anything that “objectified” women, they promoted the unification of all women, and the extraction of anything remotely sexist from all social traditions. First-wave and second-wave feminists were forced to empower themselves because they had to fight tooth-and-nail for their basic human rights.
However, third-wave feminists inherited those rights and were born empowered thanks to their feminist ancestors. To the horror of the second-wave feminists, third-wave feminists embraced the feminine traditions—championing the notion that women can be beautiful and intelligent. Third-wave feminists believed that a woman can beautify herself, not because of the objectifying social patriarchy, but solely because she wants to. These feminists embraced the social slurs that their ancestors deemed degrading and used it as a form of female self-empowerment. Third-wave feminists didn’t like to label themselves as “feminists” and their goals were never as clear as their ancestors. Second-wave feminists advocated for many concrete goals like abortion rights and the academic adoption of gender studies. Third-waves didn’t need to fight as hard for their rights because it was handed to them—they focused on women self-empowerment and moved away from the social arena. Fourth-wave feminists are the current feminist generation that combines second and third-wave feminist ideas. Fourth-wave feminists are advocates of equal pay, champions of abortion rights, and leaders in bringing back the feminist movement to the public space. Additionally, like the third-wave feminists, they believe that “feminine beauty [is] for themselves as subjects, not as objects of a sexist patriarchy.” Fourth-wave feminists are still trying to define themselves and find the purpose of their movement.
Homer’s The Odyssey showed us the state women had to endure in ancient society. Plato was one of the earliest writers to advocate on behalf of women. However, he was limited by his social norms and advocated for women through the lens of his male characters. Dante’s The Inferno showed us that Medieval society accepted that some women deserve praise; however, women of lower social classes tend to be dirty and sinful. Modern day feminism emerged at the beginning of the 19th century with women who made sure their voices were heard. They started a movement that played a major role in social reform and is still active till today. Feminism has come a long way and has been constantly evolving and changing to meet the needs of gender rights with each century. From ancient Greeks, to medieval times, to modern day feminism, women are still working hard to clearly define their role in the patriarchal society they live in.
References (1) Alighieri, Dante, and Michael Palma. Inferno. New York: W.W. Norton, 2002. Print. (2) “Four Waves of Feminism.” Four Waves of Feminism. Web. 05 Apr. 2016. (3) Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster. Web. 05 Apr. 2016. (4) Homer, and E. V. Rieu. The Odyssey. Baltimore: Penguin, 1946. Print. (5) Plato, and Benjamin Jowett. The Complete Works of Plato. United States: Akasha Pub., 2008. Print.
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