Antient Greek Pioneer of Women’s Rights
About 450 B.C.
Aspasia, a Milesian woman who fixed her residence at Athens during the “golden age” of Greece, about 450 B.C. By her great eloquence, political and literary ability and personal fascination, she at once obtained a commanding position among the leaders of the state, and gained the affections of Pericles, the ruler of Athens, so far that he separated himself from his wife and made Aspasia his consort in private life as well as in political affairs. The fact that the laws of Athens conferred no rights upon foreign women, and allowed no legitimate marriage with them, has given rise to the impression that Aspasia was a courtesan. The many enemies of Pericles, especially satirists of the time, also conveyed this idea by their attacks, but it seems to have been without foundation; she was held in universal esteem, and her union with Pericles was as close as the Athenian law allowed, and continued throughout his life. She is said to have instructed Pericles in oratory, and it is certain that she assisted him greatly in the government, and that her own eloquence was remarkable. Socrates and Phidias were her friends; her house was the resort of the leading statesmen and philosophers of Athens, and in many of their works her great abilities are celebrated.
After the death of Pericles, she attached herself to an Athenian named Lysicles, whom she instructed in oratory, and by her influence raised in position. Her son by Pericles took his father’s name, being legitimated by a popular decree, and became a general of high rank.
It has been said that Aspasia belonged to the hetaira, a class of women, who have variously described by learned writers.
In some respects the position of the ancient Greek hetaira or “free women,” was analogous to that of the Japanese geisha. For the Greeks, the name hetaira meant friend or companion, and teh woman to whom the name was applied held an honorable position. The hetaire “were almost the only Greek women,” says Donaldson, “who exhibited what was the best and noblest in women’s nature.” This fact renders it more intelligible why a woman of such intellectual distinction as Aspasia should have been a hetaira. Gomperz in Greek Thinkers says: “It would be exceedingly strange if three authors – Plato, Zenophon and Æschines – had agreed in fictitiously enduring the companion of Pericles with what we might very reasonably have expected her to possess – a highly cultivated mind and intellectual influence.” Havelock Ellis adds: “It is even possible that the movement for woman’s right which, as we dimly divine through teh pages of Aristophanes, took place in Athens in the fourth century B.C., was led by hetaira.” According to Ivo Bruns “the most certain information which we possess concerning Aspasia bears a strong resemblance to the picture which Euripides and Aristophanes present to us of the leaders of the woman movement.” It may perhaps be the thought by some that this movement represented on a higher plane that spirit of revolt and aspiration, which Simmel finds to mark the intellectual and artistic activity of those who are unclassed or dubiously classed in the social hierarchy. Ninon de l’Enclos was not strictly a courtesan, but she was a pioneer in the assertion of women’s rights. As Schurtz has put it: “The cheerful, skillful and artistically accomplished hetaira frequently stands as an ideal figure in opposition to the intellectually uncultivated wife banished to the interior of the house. The Japanese geishas, Chinese flower-girls, and the Indian bayaderas, all show some not noble features, the breath of a free artistic existence.”
Hammerling’s semi-historical romance, “Aspasia,” gives us an interesting picture of Athenian life in her time.
Reference: Famous Women; An Outline of Feminine Achievement Through the Ages With Life Stories of Five Hundred Noted Women By Joseph Adelman. Copyright, 1926 by Ellis M. Lonow Company.