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Paternity and Women's Social Standing

The social restrictions on women's freedom of movement served men's goal of avoiding uncertainty about the paternity of children1 by limiting oppportunities for adultery among wives and protecting the virginity of daughters. Given the importance attached to citizenship as the defining political structure of the city-state and of a man's personal freedom, it was crucially important to be certain a boy truly was his father's son and not the offspring of some other man, who could conceivably even be a foreigner or a slave. Furthermore, the preference for keeping property in the father's line could be maintained only if the boys who inherited a father's property were his legitimate sons. In this patriarchal system, the value attached to citizenship for men and its accompanying rights to property therefore led to restrictions on women's freedom of movement in society. Women who did bear legitimate children, however, immediately earned a higher social standing and greater freedom in the family, as explained, for example, by an Athenian man in this excerpt from his remarks before a court2 in a case in which he had killed an adulterer whom he had caught with his wife: “After my marriage, I initially refrained from bothering my wife very much, but neither did I allow her too much independence. I kept an eye on her.... But after she had a baby, I started to trust her more and put her in charge of all my things, believing we now had the closest of relationships.”

The Value of Sons

Bearing male children brought special honor to a woman because sons meant security for parents. They could appear in court in support of their parents in lawsuits and protect them in the streets of the city, which had no regular police patrols. By law, sons were required to support their parents3 in their old age, a necessity in a society with no state-sponsored system for the support of the elderly like Social Security in the United States. So intense was the pressure to produce sons that stories were common of barren women who smuggled in a baby born to a slave in order to pass it off as their own. Such tales, whose truth is hard to gauge, were only credible because husbands customarily were not present at childbirth.

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