Sunday, October 31, 2010

"Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves" by Sarah B. Pomeroy

Summary: A comprehensive look at the lives of women in Ancient Greece and Rome.

Musings:  Although I think I've always been a feminist, I didn't know the words for it until some eye-opening women's studies classes in college, which led to me being a women's studies major (along with English).  I found that my classes in women's studies easily transferred to my English major, and I became more and more interested in looking at the books I read through a feminist lens, most frequently considering whose voices were missing from a text (often women's and people of color) and how power structures played out.  It was this critical viewpoint that allowed me some excitement in an English major I otherwise did not enjoy.

I've brought my interest in women's voices to my teaching as well.  The Odyssey, the first major piece of literature my students study, is a great text to look at women.  It's unique in that there are many prominent female characters with varying degrees of desires and interests (contrasted with the Iliad, in which women are mainly there for Achilles and Agamemnon to fight over).  However, the Odyssey is also a poem very much of its time, and certainly aspects of it would reflect the restricted lives of women in Ancient Greece.

I chose Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves because I wanted increased background information to present to my students on women's lives in Ancient Greece.  I hoped to be able to answer several questions my students ask.  How could a society create powerful female goddesses while also maintaining a firm patriarchy?  How accurately does a work of fiction like the Odyssey reflect the lives of real women in Ancient Greece?

Pomeroy's book is special because it was the first to truly examine women of classical antiquity.  It was published in 1975, so undoubtedly one of its drawbacks today is the lack of new research that has been done in the area.  Nonetheless, the book is comprehensive in its study of women through several ancient time periods.

I was happy to see that much of what I teach my students is correct.  Women of Ancient Greece were under control of a guardian and had relatively little social freedom.  Marriages were arranged for the purpose of power and childbearing.  Women married young (early teenage years) to men who were much older.  The duties of women were specific and distinct from men's, and upper class women were largely secluded.

The book does spend time on the fictional characters in the Odyssey.  Pomeroy addressees the way in which the major female characters (Penelope, Nausicaa, Calypso) play important roles in the work while also acknowledging the way in which each character reinforces an established archetype of female behavior. A reader can easily see the virgin/whore dichotomy in the epic poem.  The same is true for the major Olympian goddesses.  This way of looking at the female characters is something I can certainly take into the classroom.

Interestingly, Pomeroy suggests that as Greece (Athens, in particular) moved from an aristocratic society to a democratic society, women actually had less freedom.  She argues that without the power structures inherent in a outwardly hierarchical society, men had to find other ways to distinguish themselves.  Pomeroy writes, 'The will to dominate was such that [men] then had to separate themselves as a group and claim to be superior to all nonmembers: foreigners, slaves, and women" (78).  The time period depicted in the Odyssey was likely a time where women had more rights, comparatively speaking, than women several centuries later.

Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves has great background information for anyone interested in the subject matter.  The book does read like a textbook, so from a "pleasure reading" perspective, I would have enjoyed a more lively tone.  The stories told and the examples used are so interesting that the book could have easily been made more reader-friendly.

Pomeroy also tries to straddle the line between a book for the lay person and a book for academics.  The book does rely on some general knowledge of Greek and Roman history, so the person unfamiliar with that (uh, me) may have some difficulty with all the names and events mentioned.

I'm definitely interested in reading more recent studies about women in antiquity, but I know I will be consulting Pomeroy's book throughout my students' study of the Odyssey.


  1. I read this for my Women in Antiquity class in college and remember really enjoying it. It was so neat to see the ancient world from a woman's life pov.

  2. What a neat college class! I wish I'd had that option.