Women: Forever Underestimated (By Ourselves)

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.

-Amber Prins

[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]


4 thoughts on “Women: Forever Underestimated (By Ourselves)

  1. Radha Deitenbeck

    While I most certainly agree that our culture provides poor role models for women in many cases, I must disagree with your use of 1 Timothy. I do not believe that 1 Timothy is indicative of the treatment of women in Biblical or ancient times, nor that it should be used as a model for the current treatment of women, which has become its unfortunate legacy. The use of this verse in contexts such as this perpetuates the interpretation and stigma that women should not take positions of leadership in the church or society.

    Ancient cultures, including the Hebraic culture, were not exactly stars when it came to the equality of women. However, the Bible contains many examples of significant women who played vital roles in the leadership of God’s people, and throughout the stories of scripture. Women without whom neither Judaism nor Christianity would be the same, and their importance is acknowledged by all the men who wrote and compiled the Bible. In the Old Testament we have the prophetess and warrior Deborah who led the Israelites to victory in battle when a man could not, Jael who saved the Israelites by drawing in the leader of the opposing army and driving a tent peg through his head, Esther who single-handedly saved the entire Israelite population in Babylon from genocide, Ruth who presumptuously uncovered a man’s “feet” in a scheme to earn the marriage she should have, the widow who fed Elijah with the last bit of flour and oil she owned even though it would mean her starvation and who was subsequently rewarded with reserves of flour and oil which would never run dry, and Sarah who became the mother of the entire tribe of Israel when she was 100 years old. The New Testament has even more. There are the four OT women listed in Matthew’s genealogy of Christ, the woman at the well, the adulterous woman from whose story we draw the line “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”, Mary the mother of Jesus, Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist who had more faith than her husband did, Mary and Martha who teach us about grief and busyness, Mary Magdalene, Lydia who was part of the formation of the early church, the women Paul (the very man who wrote 1 Timothy) sends greetings to in many of his letters, and Dorcus who was also part of the formation of the early church. Women are also some of the New Testament’s boldest characters: a women approaches Jesus to beautifully wash his feet with expensive oil and her hair even though the men present criticized the action (Jesus defended her), a Samaritan woman argues back against Jesus and convinces him to grant her daughter healing by reminding him that even dogs eat the children’s crumbs (through her we see the equality which Paul later writes about in his letter to the Galations: “through Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”), and it is the women who remain at the foot of the cross during the crucifixion when many of the disciples had fled. After the resurrection, it is the women to whom Jesus first appears. (And those are just the ones off the top of my head; there are many more I am forgetting.)

    Now back to 1 Timothy. For many years this very verse has been used as evidence to suppress women in the church, and even in society. A surprising number of denominations still forbid the ordination of women as priests/pastors/ministers. I have been told a number of times that as a woman it is unbiblical to have a position of authority over a man, even in the secular world or that my place in ministry is as a pastor’s wife, offering hospitality, not theology and leadership. (A male pastor can and should practice hospitality too.) Fuller Theological Seminary offers an exegetical and theological view on the role of women in the church, including this passage. They argue that the Greek words used are more accurately to “settle down” rather than “be silent” and that they refer to prohibitions on the abuse of authority. Here is the site if you want to read more: http://www.fuller.edu/About-Fuller/Women-in-Ministry/1-Timothy-2-8-15.aspx

    Paul’s letter to Timothy was written to churches who were struggling with various distractions and impediments in their worship. This is a passage which was written for a particular time and place and should not be applied to the whole of the society of that time nor to the whole of woman-kind. In a time when women, alongside many other disenfranchised peoples, continue to struggle for equality, the examples of Jesus’ ministry and of the work of the early church should serve as examples for how all can work in unity. Christianity and scripture, including 1 Timothy, should be used to assist in subjugating women. As a Christian, my hope is to live by the commandments of Christ to love my God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love my neighbor as myself. For me, part of this is standing up for those pressed under, especially when scripture is being used to keep them under. In Christ, all have been made one and have been charged with the command to make that healing, unifying light known.

  2. hopeadvancedlatin Post author

    Thanks for that Amber. Sometimes I wonder about in heaven, who the greatest people are going to be. Maybe we think it’ll be great theologians or the martyrs. But I think we are going to be surprised. Some of the greatest people in history have probably been some who we don’t hear so much about. Do you know that saying, “behind every great man is a great woman”? You know, it’s probably true. I like what you said in your last sentence. I think of my mom who is definitely not getting the recognition in accordance with her work, in fact she takes a lot of heat for doing the right thing and so wonderfully contributing to society. But I look up to and admire her so much. Her diligence and humility are to be emulated. Sometimes we can get angry that we aren’t receiving the praise or recognition that we think we deserve, or even that others think we deserve. But is that the point? Do we do everything to show it off and brag about it? Or do we do what we do because it is right, because we are intrinsically motivated? Matthew 6:1-4


  3. hopeadvancedlatin Post author

    I think you make a solid final point. Today, it’s hard to find role models like “us” (young women) who have become renowned for hard work. I think an interesting thing to consider though, is the insane expansion of “celebrity” status, hollywood, and fame of actors/singers today. I think the extent that it has reached is unmatched in history. Certainly, movie stars has overshadowed people who have notoriety due to hard work. We could be looking up to young female entrepreneurs and leaders (such as Maggie Doyne http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maggie_Doyne) but it’s hard to when all we hear about is Miley Cyrus.

  4. hopeadvancedlatin Post author

    An intriguing perspective on Sappho. After my own research on her literature and its perception among ancient circles, I definitely have to agree that she was a woman of incredible accomplishments. A lot of what really makes her stand out is how unique it was for a woman to be so praised in circles that were primarily male-dominated. The respect with which she was regarded is clearly illustrated by the references made to her by Catullus, Ovid, Plato, and many other prestigious authors. The contrasts you pointed out in regard to modern perceptions of women were interesting, and I think you could add some successful female authors to your list of worthwhile role models, such as J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins, or Nicole Krauss.

    -Elaina Damon


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