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Inequality and Women in the City-state

Social and economic inequality among citizens persisted as part of life in the polis despite the legal guarantees of citizenship, The incompleteness of the equality that underlay the political structure of the city-state especially revealed itself in the status of citizen women. Women became citizens of the city-states in the crucial sense that they had an identity, social status, and local rights denied metics and slaves. The important difference between citizen and non-citizen women was made clear in the Greek language, which included terms meaning “female citizen”1 (politis), in certain religious cults reserved for citizen women only, and in legal protection against being kidnapped and sold into slavery. Citizen women also had recourse to the courts in disputes over property and other legal wrangles, but they could not represent themselves and had to have men speak for their interests, a requirement that reveals their inequality under the law. The traditional paternalism of Greek society—men acting as “fathers” to regulate the lives of women and safeguard their interests as defined by men—demanded that every woman have an official male guardian ( kurios 2 ) to protect them physically and legally. In line with this assumption about the need of women for regulation and protection by men, women were granted no rights to participate in politics. They never attended political assemblies, nor could they vote. They did hold certain civic priesthoods, however, and they had access along with men to the initiation rights3 of the popular cult of the goddess4 Demeter at Eleusis near Athens. This internationally renowned cult, about which more is said elsewhere in the Overview5, served in some sense as a safety valve for the pressures created by the remaining inequalities of life in Greek city-states because it offered to all regardless of class its promised benefits of protection from evil and a better fate in the afterworld.

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