(repeating from yesterday…) Both historically and in the modern day, patriarchy stunts and diminishes both women and men, and will continue to do so until that time when women are once again regarded as both human, and an integral part of history and civilization.

This is not to say, of course, that women had no part in more recent human history, which the next three book selections will conclusively show. For example, American classics professor, historian, and translator Sarah B. Pomeroy demonstrates in her fascinating 1975 work Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity — with a revised edition released in 1995 — that even in repressively patriarchal cultures such as Ancient Greece and Rome, women have constantly struggled for what agency they could. Admittedly the author tackles an immense subject; the book covers an amazingly comprehensive 1500 years over a mere 230 pages — although, as Pomeroy observes, it would be not just impossible but also demeaning to attempt to fill out all the historical gaps regarding women in just one book (xvii).

The ensuing terseness is consequently a likely result of the author's wish to both use only primary sources, and to remain procedurally precise — which, considering the book's original publication date is quite understandable. This was, after all, the very beginnings of women performing accurate and valid historical research on the then-epistemologically-ignored subject of women. As Pomeroy perceptively notes, "The story of the women of antiquity should be told now, not only because it is a legitimate aspect of social history, but because the past illuminates contemporary problems in relationships between men and women" (xvii, italics mine). Pomeroy's methodology is consequently both excellent and meticulously transparent, as she is careful to explain her weighting of the usefulness and/or validity of her primary sources. This explication is of value for several reasons: the author examines eras for which the data is often exceedingly sparse, and frequently the only information we have on women of the time has been created by the men of that era — and thus presents women through a decidedly patriarchal lens. This means Pomeroy must also take time to explain male attitudes on women, both past and present, in order to clarify this false perception and presentation. Interestingly she covers both the viewpoints of the men of antiquity, through whose eyes are the only way we can see the women of that time — and also those of modern men, who unwittingly (mis)interpret or (mis)represent while viewing historical relationships through a modern social perspective. Despite this, Pomeroy's presentation on such controversial issues is clear and unprejudiced; the book is a marvelous reflection of the early insights of feminism.

Interestingly, Pomeroy frames her empirical research with chapters on women in religion — perhaps a subtle testament to the immense power of symbol systems in influencing a society's perspectives on women? The author opens with a review of some of the Greek myths as portraying an idealized patriarchal perception of women, explaining how having various skills or abilities broken up between several goddesses highlights the cultural gender roles available to women, as well as illustrating how "proper" men of the time should perceive and use women as social resources.

Remarkably, Pomeroy is able to draw on different types of sources for practically each chapter; examples are Bronze Age women as portrayed in Homeric poems, the women of Classical Athens within literature of the time, a review of that era's financial and legal papyri to explore Hellenistic women, and so on. The chapters on Greek women are occasionally sparse as a result of the rather limited amounts of primary sources, but there is a goodly amount of detail on the more recent and (relatively) more emancipated Roman women. The author is also careful to showcase the differences in status accorded to women of that time, depending on their class and/or wealth — which somewhat explains the modern scholarly disagreements considering the freedom or lack thereof of women of antiquity; as in: it depends on which class of woman is being studied.

The book's final chapter reviews the Roman goddess cults, including especially Isis — who is praised even at that time in history for her emphasis on equality between the sexes rather than a relationship of domination (219). Relatedly, while the Romans did not reach that particular social goal of egalitarianism, they were certainly closer than their Greek predecessors. Consequently Pomeroy closes with a slightly grim recognition of the classical legacy for women: "rationalized confinement of women to the domestic sphere, as well as the systematization of anti-female thought by poets and philosophers" (230), which circles the reader around into a recalling of her initial reasoning for writing this book.

 

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