What did the Locrian maidens know about sex differences?By Seth Sanders
Many believe the classical tradition is a source of what is right with society: Western civilization began in Athens. But others would say the Greeks enshrined the inequality of men and women, making the classical tradition a source of what is wrong with society. In his new book, The Locrian Maidens: Love and Death in Greek Italy, James Redfield challenges both of these views.
Greeks outside of Athens, he said, knew other ways to reconcile the differences between the sexes. Thus, Redfield may have discovered a different classical tradition.
Redfield said a fixation on Athens has distorted society’s understanding of the classical tradition. If Athens celebrated the individual—at least in contrast to the conformist Sparta—it also was warlike, embraced power, and was based in part on the repression and political disenfranchisement of women, for which Athenians were not without anxiety. In fact, the Athenians may have invented the Woman Question, Redfield said. It was when Redfield came across the Greek colony of Locri in Italy that he found a different point of view on how Greeks handled sex differences.
When Redfield, the Edward Olson Distinguished Service Professor in Classical Languages & Literatures and the College, first realized there was something special about the Locrians, it was not from some social theory but from being spellbound by the beauty of their art. Coming across the bronzes and terra cottas in the National Museum in Reggio Calabria, Redfield said the figures radiated what he would describe as “disciplined sensuality,” deeply unlike other Greek art. These people, he thought, must have had something special, and he spent the next 25 years looking for it.
He cautioned that the Locrians hardly viewed men and women as equals. “The ancients, so far as we can tell, rejoiced in sex differences, whereas we tend to see them as an unfortunate fact, something as far as possible to be overcome by technology and social practice.” We think of sex differences as something socially constructed, as “gender,” and “for some reason, it tends in our time also to be assumed that anything socially constructed is somehow illegitimate and oppressive,” said Redfield.
One reason it may be hard to think like the Locrians today is that we tend to be obsessed with overcoming difference. “Difference,” Redfield has written, “the manner in which persons and groups define themselves in contrast to some defining ‘other,’ has become in our time a leading historical topic, and gender has become the leading instance of difference. By historicizing these differences, we can then distance ourselves from tradition. No longer do we have to take it for granted that men and women must have radically different life chances, since we now know that those differences are not dictated by nature, but are culturally and historically conditioned. From this point of view, our classic tradition is one source of what is wrong with us.” But such “liberation” from the past also cuts off resources from the past, Redfield warned.
If the Greeks invented democracy, can we understand why they enshrined gender inequality as a principle of their politics? Redfield said it might have taken so long to see the inequality of the sexes as a problem, and change it, precisely because it is so deep-seated. Despite their questioning of other forms of inequality, the Greeks recognized differences in the biological natures of men and women as a norm.
But if the Greeks accepted sex difference as natural, they also recognized it as a problem. And the Locrians solved the problem in an unusual way, he explained. Women held special religious rights, which men could gain access to only by marrying them. They thus became the vehicles for the transmission of status, and marriage maintained the social order of a traditional oligarchy. Marriage was seen as the perfection of a woman, and the married state as prefiguring the joys of the afterlife. “The mediation of the difference between male and female therefore became a model for the mediation of the difference between life and death.”
In their inward focus and emphasis on the joy and status of married life, the Locrians seem to have rejected power in favor of happiness. It is in this way that they offer a challenge to the view modern-day society inherited from the Greeks, good or bad. “After all,” Redfield wrote, “sex differences do still exist, and we still have to find some way to live with them. Possibly putting them to use is not the worst of all solutions.”