The Classical Quarterly (New Series)

Research Article

Spartan Wives: Liberation or Licence?*

Paul Cartledgea1

a1 University of Cambridge

The neologism ‘sexist’ has gained entry to an Oxford Dictionary, The Advanced Learner's Dictionary of Current English, third edition (1974), where it is defined as ‘derisive of the female sex and expressive of masculine superiority’. Thus ‘sexpot’ and ‘sex kitten’, which are still defined in exclusively feminine terms in the fifth edition of The Concise Oxford Dictionary (1976), have finally met their lexicographical match.

This point about current English usage has of course a serious, and general, application. For language reflects, when it does not direct, prevailing social conceptions. Thus it is not accidental that there is no masculine counterpart to the word ‘feminism’. ‘Male chauvinism’, the nearest we have come to coining one, is more emotive than descriptive and so involves ambiguity; while ‘sexism’, even when it is given an exclusively masculine connotation, is still, formally, sexually neutral. ‘Feminism’, by contrast, unequivocally denotes the striving to raise women to an equality of rights and status with men.

It has been suggested, it is true, that there were inchoate feminist movements or tendencies in the ancient Greek world, for example in the Classical Athens of Aristophanes and Plato (where, as we shall see, they would certainly have been in place). But feminism in the modern sense did not really emerge before the eighteenth century; and in Britain, for instance, it was only with the passage in 1975 of the Employment Protection, Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination Acts that women raised themselves on to an all but equal footing with their male fellows — at any rate in the technical, juridical sense.


* This essay is essentially a shortened and annotated version of a paper delivered before the Oxford Philological Society in November 1976. I am grateful to those who took part in the ensuing discussion, especially P. Vidal-Naquet and S. G. Pembroke, for helpful comments and criticisms.