Throughout the known history of the world, females have been underrepresented in almost all professional areas. We have recovered many works from the ancient Greeks and Romans, but out of all these works, there is only one well-known female ancient Greek poet. This woman is known as Sappho, and she was born some time between 630 and 612 BCE.
It is not difficult to understand why women are almost nonexistent in the field of ancient literature; even in the Bible, we can see how women were viewed in ancient times. In 1 Timothy 2:11-13, the author states, “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve.” (NIV 2011)
Now back to Sappho: she was not just good “for a woman”, but she was good for a Greek poet. She’s been described by Plato as such; “Some say the Muses are nine: how careless! Look, there’s Sappho too, from Lesbos, the tenth.” Bliss Carman praises her works here. She wrote love poetry, similar to that of Catullus and Propertius, but with a female voice. It is a very infrequent occurrence that we see a woman speaking in a poem, and even when Propertius portrays the words of Cynthia in Elegy 4.7, we still don’t get a real woman’s perspective because it is her words twisted by a man. In my opinion, he just makes them say what he wants them to say. But with Sappho, most specifically in Sappho 20, we really get to see inside the mind of a woman living in ancient Greece. She describes, in great detail, the effects that catching a glimpse of her lover have on her body. Men, by nature, don’t include such description. (I was unable to find a solid translation of Sappho 20 readily available online, but if you’re interested in reading it in English, you could check out a copy of Stanley Lombardo’s Sappho: Poems and Fragments)
2,000 years later, we are still discussing Sappho. For a woman, this is a great accomplishment in itself. What other women are well-known 2,000 years after their death, other than a select few? Especially for her own works – we remember the Virgin Mary because she gave birth to Jesus, and we remember Eve because she was the first woman in the Creation story, but Sappho we remember because of what she accomplished. Her poetry (well, the fragments that have survived) lives on as a great work of art.
What does this say about modern women? Which women become famous for their accomplishments that are actually worthwhile to society? Many women today, such as the Kardashians or Snooki, are famous for no reason at all. Young girls look up to these famous women as their role models and want to be famous like they are, but will looking up to Miley Cyrus really get them anywhere in life? Now I know that there are many successful women in the world today who are doing great things with their lives, but there are also many girls who don’t even understand the potential that they have. They see how our culture has portrayed women, as objects and as non-productive members of society, and don’t understand that it really is possible for them to have a legacy that lives on, like the many great men of history do. So, girls, I encourage you to look up to those women who don’t necessarily get the recognition they deserve, but are making positive contributions to the world that will benefit future generations.
[Sources: Sappho, Poems and Fragments, trans. Stanley Lombardo (Hackett 2002) – borrowed from a friend. Propertius 4.7 and works we used in class, the NIV 2011 Bible, Bliss Carman’s Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics found as a source to the Wikipedia page on Sappho]