Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Birth of the women's movement, 463 BC

The great causes in the progress of mankind – freedom, justice, democracy, the abolition of slavery -- often have deep roots, lost in the mists of the ancient world. But the cause of female empowerment, I think, can be given a pretty firm birth-date: 463 BC.

The ancient world was an inhospitable place for women. For more than a thousand years, the lives of women in ancient China were described as “unbearable”, and they were likely to have, not names, but numbers, i.e. “Daughter Number Two”. In theory women of ancient Egypt had legal rights but in practice they were seen as second-class citizens and child-bearers only. Greek women had little control over their own lives, virtually no property of their own, and virtually no rights.

Misogyny in Greece extended to the arts. The Greeks didn’t want women writing plays, performing plays, or even seeing plays in the audience – according to some accounts, “proper” women would never dare see a show, and only the prostitutes and female slaves would show up.

Enter Aeschylus. In 463 BC, women suddenly had a new voice, or at least an advocate. Aeschylus’s play The Suppliants told of the daughters of Danaus, who were fleeing for their lives to avoid arranged marriages. Five years later he told the story of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra: Agamemnon agreed to slaughter his own daughter in order to appease the gods and win favour on the battlefield, whereupon his wife (the girl’s mother) killed him and was killed in turn by her son and daughter.

A few years later, Sophocles followed with Antigone, about a woman who defies the death penalty in order to give her dead brother a decent burial.

And then the big one, Euripedes.

Euripedes was a trailblazer, a destroyer of conventions, and like most such men he paid a price for it. In an age in which playwrights were creating characters, kings and gods, who were impossibly grand and noble, Euripedes was truly the first realistic artist, showing humanity in all its folly, warts and all. Sophocles admitted that he portrayed characters as they ought to be, whereas Euripedes portrayed people as they really are.

In a civilization which treated women with contempt, Euripedes put women downstage center to tell the story of life and war from their point of view. To Euripedes, women mattered.

Euripides, starting in 438 BC, gave us plays which said a lot about female sacrifice. First, the play Alcestis, about a wife who agrees to die in place of her husband; Medea, about the Mother Of All Nasty Divorces; Hippolytus, about a woman who dies for love; Heracles’ Children, about a girl agreeing to be sacrificed to appease the gods.

Euripedes’ women, on stage, began to grow in power. Next he wrote Andromache, a woman who saves herself and her child from death; Hecuba, who avenges her child’s murder; Ion, about rape and infanticide; The Trojan Women, about war’s impact on women; Electra and Orestes, retelling the Agamemnon story; the Iphigenia plays, about a woman who agrees to die for her country and is later rescued; Helen, who finds and reconciles with her husband and escapes a horny king who wants to marry her; and The Phoenician Woman, about women trapped in the middle of a war.

Even more striking for a man of the ancient world, Euripedes despised war and said so in his plays: he wrote “Trojan Women” just as the Athenians were mulling over the prospect of invading Sicily, a notion which repelled Euripides. But speaking out for women and against war, of course, cost Euripedes a lot: in the annual drama contests Euripedes was regularly defeated by lesser men, partly because he refused to kowtow to the judges, and he was constantly ridiculed by the more successful Aristophanes. In the end, of course, Euripedes was proved right: just after “Trojan Women” was staged, Athens invaded Sicily despite the objections of wiser men, the operation was a disaster, Athens’ enemies in Sparta and Persia formed an alliance, and within eleven years Athens itself was destroyed. Euripedes may have been comparatively lucky, however: a few years after the fall of Athens another iconoclast, Socrates, was executed.

Neatly enough, though, Euripedes seems to have shaken the will of his opponents. After Euripedes condemned war in script after script, his enemy Aristophanes wrote his own anti-war story, Lysistrata, about women forcing their men to end an endless war, by denying them sex. And like Euripedes, Aristophanes shows kings and generals as realistic, all too human, and he focuses on the women. Of course, Aristophanes being Aristophanes, his version is a lot funnier. But once again, women were downstage center, taking charge of the story.

Euripedes and Aristophanes both endure to this day because they appeal to all audiences: whether you favor or oppose the war of your own age, everyone can agree about the terrible toll which war takes not only on the men who fight but also their families. Homer endures for the same reason: his first book, “The Iliad”, tells us a lot about the folly of both men and gods, but his sequel, “The Odyssey”, shows vividly how even the victors suffered terribly.

Oh, and a footnote about Berthe Morisot. She was a painter of a century ago, who not only managed to shove her way into the ultra-male Paris art world, but also defied the existing traditions of all the male artists painting Hercules and Napoleon killing people. Instead she focused on depicting women and girls simply living their lives: reading a book, picking cherries, playing with their children. Women and girls mattered to Morisot, as they did to Euripedes. Of course by painting women and children she also made life easier for her husband, who was worried about her spending long hours painting male models. So, as often in the world of women, multiple motives were at work.

And she also painted a portrait that is a dead ringer for my two daughters.

1 comment:

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