The Women of Sparta: Athletic, Educated, and Outspoken Radicals of the Greek World
The laws of Sparta were developed and written by Lycurgus, a legendary lawmaker who, in the 7th century B.C. reorganized the political and social structure of the polis, transforming it into a strictly disciplined and collective society. He also developed the stringent military academy of the agoge, where Spartan boys were trained from childhood to adulthood. The law reforms of Lycurgus also included certain rules and allowances for Spartan women. Though these rules made it seem that Spartan women were freer than your average Greek female, they were actually implemented in order to ensure that Spartan society progressed as disciplined, powerful, and threatening. Spartan women were seen as the vehicle by which Sparta constantly advanced.
Unfortunately, there is no real historical documentation that spells out the ways of the women of Sparta. Historians rely on the accounts of Archaic Greek (7th century) poets and other subsequent Greek historians and literary figures to piece together the history, and sometimes the mythology, of the lives and culture of Spartan women.
We do know that Spartan women were known for their natural beauty, and that they were forbidden from wearing any kind of makeup or enhancements. Spartan women were afforded a public education as well. This was very radical - other Greek girls were not formally educated. They could not, however, use their education to have careers or earn money. Their income likely came from land holdings that either they or their families were given through a public land distribution program. Land ownership for women in the Greek world was certainly unheard of.
As part of a Spartan girl's education, she would have been permitted to exercise outdoors, unclothed, like the Spartan boys, which was impossible in the rest of the Greek world. Not only would men and women not have been naked in public together, but a proper Greek woman would not usually set foot out of doors, other than to perhaps collect water from the cistern! Yet Spartan women not only exercised, they also participated in athletics, competing in events like footraces.
The allowance of exercise and athletics for Spartan women, though highly looked down upon by the rest of the Greek world (particularly Athens), was not seen as a freedom per se by the Spartans. It was seen as a guarantee that the strong and fit Spartan women would reproduce, and when they had babies, those babies would be strong warriors in the making. For even though Spartan women were allowed to mingle amongst the Spartan men, they were still seen as little more than baby-makers. Their methods and motives were just slightly different than the rest of the Greeks.
Another freedom that Spartan women had over other Greek women was their ability to fraternize in public with Spartan men. Along with exercising with the opposite sex came the ability to trade conversation and political witticisms with them. In fact, Spartan women were notoriously known for their razor-sharp wit and outspoken natures. This freedom turned heads amongst the other Greeks poleis, and they, of course, disapproved greatly. But if the physical health of a Spartan woman was seen as vital to her ability to produce strong Spartan boys, then her mental and intellectual might have been seen as just as important.
When Sparta deteriorated in the 4th century BC, their fall from grace was blamed in part on the inclusion of their women in public life, their ability to own land, and thus their supposed ability to exert a certain amount of power over their men. It seems that the general consensus was, if you gave a Greek woman an inch, she would take a mile.