Status of Women

The legal status of a woman in Gehennese society is unenviable. She may not hold public office, vote, or bring a suit at law. Any property a woman has, apart from personal effects, is legally under the control of her husband or (male) guardian, and a woman must marry whomever her guardian dictates. In practice, things need not be so strict– a sympathetic guardian can allow a woman to choose her husband, and can order her property in accordance with her wishes, but few guardians are so indulgent.

If a woman has property, her guardian will probably marry her off as a exercise in patronage, and her property will go to her husband as a dowry. If she does not marry, but remains in her guardian’s house as a spinster, she will most likely have very low status and standing there—even concubines have higher status than spinsters.

A woman without property has very few options. She can marry, and become either the wife of a poor man of the concubine of a rich one, or take a post as a live-in servant, with a status only just above that of a slave, or become an hetaira or prostitute. Even in the latter case she will need a male protector of some sort, as women living alone are in danger of being sacrificed, enslaved, robbed, raped, or abducted. Almost any protector a woman might engage will demand returns which might make a marriage seem attractive by contrast.
Social convention also imposes unpleasant strictures on women. A ‘fast’ woman incurs shame both for herself and for her husband or guardian. To protect her reputation, a woman must never be in the company of a man (other than her husband, of course) without a chaperone to attest that nothing improper took place. Men who can afford it set aside a secure gynekeum for their women, and guard it from would-be rapists and seducers. When women go out of the house they are chaperoned and escorted as well as their household can afford. Women of wealthy family are nearly always escorted by a woman (if only a slave hand-maid) and a man (sometimes only a slave, but usually armed). Poorer women go about in company with one another for mutual protection and chaperonage.

Propriety also requires that women take steps to exclude the ogling eyes of strange men, especially men of lower class. The formal garments worn by women in public tend to be all-enveloping. In the Archaic and Classical Periods an mantle is de rigeur, and in the Decadent Period this convention dictates a long khiton or peplos as minimum outdoors wear. In private, at private parties, and among friends this requirement is considerably relaxed, but it is considered extremely rude to stare at a woman, and will give offence to her escort and admirers to do so, possibly provoking a duel.

A woman who fails to meet the proprieties of her social class, however innocently, will be suspected of licentious behaviour, and incur disgrace for herself and her family. Her reputation will be ruined, and her prospects for an advantageous marriage diminished.

The degree of sequestration of woman varies with period. The custom is only new, and not fully developed, in the Archaic Period. An hundred years later women of good family are utterly cloistered, and rarely allow to see men. By the Classical Period the status of women is improving, due partly to the influence of Aspasia and other prominent hetairas, who have shown that women can handle their own affairs capably, and that their company at symposiums can be enjoyable. Tolerant husbands and guardians are beginning to allow their women to meet men at parties in private homes, to go out for shopping and pleasure trips, and to have some say in their choice of husband. By the Decadent Period women are allowed and expected to go to balls and soirees, and to dress for display at these semi-public parties.

Copyright © 1991 by Brett Evill. All rights reserved.