“If all Greek religion was about creating and maintaining a state of harmony between mortals and gods, then the role of Athenian women was an integral part of that process. It was women’s essential contribution to share equally in securing and maintaining the divine favor that made Athens great.”
Despite this and other illustrations of female agency in ancient Athens, it would be a mistake to argue that the lot of women there was, after all, a fair deal. The record stands: no citizenship, no vote, little or no control over the use made of your time or your body. But the show is not making that argument. Instead it is using art to survey where, within a system of institutionalized restriction, areas of freedom for women lay.
By doing so it makes a valuable, if by now no longer entirely novel, contribution to classical studies. And it presents art with a thematic focus, a historical tact and a relevance to the present that our museums — I am thinking particularly of the Met, with its beautiful but blandly generalizing Greek and Roman galleries — can learn a lot from. As can we. In ancient Athens, as in contemporary America, true democracy was always an ideal, never a fact.