Misogyny in the Classics 

Did the ancient Greeks and Romans ever celebrate international women’s day?

By Michelle Lin ’23

All throughout history, women have been discriminated against. When females are given the power of a womb, somehow, history twisted such a gift, turning it to be the ultimate inferiority of women in the social hierarchy. Even in historically famous works that were passed down generation after generation, women are always subordinates — sexism is deeply rooted in Western culture. 

Last year, I was fortunate enough to be exposed to renowned works of literature: The Iliad and The Odyssey. Although impressed with the heroism of the male characters in the epic poems, there are instances in which women are clearly misportrayed. In Homer’s Iliad, Homer describes the exciting games for men: one of the “exciting” parts is the chance to win women as prizes. Back in that time, powerful men were allowed to indulge themselves in whichever way they wanted to, and this includes winning women in games. Moreover, in The Odyssey, a similar pattern of female inferiority occurs. Although we consider Penelope cunning for tricking the suitors and successfully finding out that Odysseus is her husband, I doubt that back in the time when the Odyssey was first popular, people thought the same way. Because it was during a time when women were seen as the reproductive machine, the Greeks must have thought that Penelope should have married one of the suitors instead of tricking them. Additionally, a woman being cunning is not usually perceived as a positive thing; women are not supposed to be smart, they were supposed to acquiesce to men and continue the family bloodline. When she took time in weaving, the feedback from the public must not have been supportive. 

The Roman epics, as a counterpart, continues to instill the idea of female inferiority and wickedness. In Vergil’s Aeneid, Juno (Hera in Greek mythology) is depicted as a woman teeming with jealousy. She puts the hero of the epic, Aeneas, through a multitude of adversities, preventing him from founding Italy. Vergil argues that the sole motivation for Juno to commit actions so out of line is because she did not get the Golden Apple. Ever since Paris chose Aphrodite, Juno holds a grudge against all Trojans. Once again, Vergil puts Juno into the typical perception that all women care about is their beauty. The word “wrath of Juno” is repeatedly used throughout the epic to accentuate her hatred towards the Trojans. In many ways, she is depicted as the impediment and antagonist of the epic because of the torture she inflicted on Aeneas. 

Couldn’t Vergil have chosen a male god to stop Aeneas? 

Why did it have to be a beautiful goddess devastated by abomination? 

In the same epic, the queen of Carthage, Dido, kills her because of her love for Aeneas. Even though Aeneas and Dido are in love, and the relationship is indeed two-sided, Vergil makes the plot seem like it was one-sided, and the woman still ends up being the one who kills herself for love.  Dido sets fire to a pyre and dies on top, hoping that Aeneas would see the smoke on his journey to found Italy. Vergil describes Dido as a woman who commits suicide for a man and is still desperate for love to the last minute of her life. He describes the woman to be overly infatuated, putting Dido as a contrast to Aeneas, a responsible Trojan who is willing to abandon his lover to fulfil his fate. 

Into more recent work: Macbeth. Reading this play was an enriching experience because it offered a powerful and manipulative female character (which is not usually seen during Shakepearan times). Shakespeare writes Lady Macbeth as the driving force behind Macbeth’s wrongdoings. At the beginning of the play, Macbeth is portrayed as a soldier who kills for his country, displaying his heroism and patriotism throughout different battles and wars. But because of his wife’s encouragement and persuasion, he ultimately becomes callous and kills the benevolent king. Ostensibly, Lady Macbeth is the catalyst in these events, causing Macbeth to go on a killing spree. Additionally, Shakespeare also describes Lady Macbeth as witch-like, making the audience horrified by her presence. 

How come Lady Macbeth is the one who demonstrates witchy characteristics and not Macbeth? 

At the end of the day, Macbeth is the one who committed the murder, not Lady Macbeth.

If Macbeth’s thoughts were steadfast enough, holding his beliefs firmly, he would not have fallen for Lady Macbeth’s words. Of course, the blame always falls on the woman: for centuries, people shift the majority of responsibility onto Lady Macbeth, even though she did NOT commit murder. 

In the status quo, the discrimination against women is ubiquitous: in the workforce, in school, in the government. It’s time to think about why sexism is so deeply rooted. Perhaps, it’s in our subconscious as we re-read the classics in western history. 

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