I have a confession to make to my former students. I detest The Odyssey. In the classroom I tried very hard to hide it, over-compensating to the point that I suspect more than a few of my former students thought I loved Homer’s classic. I had no choice but to teach the text; it was required reading in both school systems where I worked. And I’ll concede that it is one of the mostly widely alluded-to works of all time and that, given the current take on the literary canon, students should have some exposure to it.
But had any student ever asked, I would probably have admitted, in a moment of candor, that I think Homer’s epic may be the most sexist work of literature ever written—though perhaps the Old Testament might also be a competitor for that dubious prize.
It isn’t Penelope’s determination to wait for Odysseus that gets to me. I can understand falling so madly in love that no one else measures up. And it isn’t even Odysseus’ philandering with lesser goddesses that offends me. At least he longs for Penelope and home, and he has the ability to cry. No. The moment I want to fling the book across the room is the first time Telemachus, a “hero” in the making, orders his mother to her room, and she looks at him in wonder and meekly slinks away.
But instead of encouraging a discussion of gender issues in the epic, as I wish now that I had done, I briefly mentioned that the book is a reflection of its time and then focused on Homer’s ability to create a movie of the mind. I had my students analyze all those graphic scenes—more vivid than most R-rated movies—including the brutal slaughter of the suitors and the maids.
Each year I was haunted by the imagery of those maids, their feet fluttering as they died. But what choice did they have, really? In Homer’s time, kings offered their maids up to visitors much as they offered them a cup of wine. They existed solely for the enjoyment of men. And I was even more haunted that this is the scene where Homer intends for Telemachus to come into his own as a hero.
If I were teaching today, I’d insist that my students also read some of Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, told from Penelope’s point of view. And I’d be sure they read Penelope’s account of the maids:
It was not unusual for the guests in a large household or palace to sleep with the maids. To provide a lively night’s entertainment was considered part of a good host’s hospitality, and such a host would magnanimously offer his guests their pick of the girls—but it was most irregular for the servants to be used in this way without the permission of the master of the house. Such an act amounted to thievery.
However, there was no master of the house. So the suitors helped themselves to the maids in the same way they helped themselves to the sheep and pigs and goats and cows. They probably thought nothing of it.
I comforted the girls as best I could. They felt quite guilty, and the ones that had been raped needed to be tended and cared for.
And so it has been since the dawn of time. I feel fortunate to live in a country where women are not treated as the property of men. But I also feel angry that we have a very long way to go. As long as any parents teach their sons and daughters that men are heroes when they are brutal, we will never have peace on earth.
In the fledgling days of our democracy, our second president’s wife wrote to him,
I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.
That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute, but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of Friend. (Abigail Adams)
Even in this country, where women are afforded more rights than in most other countries in the world, women are still often treated as less valuable than men. Witness in just the past week some of the texts written by female journalists on this topic: Alexandra Petri’s “On the New Female Thor and the Black Captain America” and Rebecca Traister’s “I Don’t Care if You Don’t Like It,” a reflection on Amy Poehler’s comment, as recounted in Tina Fey’s Bossypants, when Jimmy Fallon told Poehler to cut it out, that her behavior wasn’t cute. Traister’s headline is a tidied-up version of Poehler’s retort. According to Fey, Poehler “went black in the eyes for a second, and wheeled around on him…‘I don’t fucking care if you like it.’”
Many of us, in the wake of women like Abigail Adams, Susan B. Anthony, and Sarah Grimke, have found men who understand what John Adams came to understand—that giving up control in exchange for equality is worth the sacrifice. But far too many of us are still dealing with men who think our job is to shut up unless we’re being cute.
Thankfully, it’s illegal today for a vengeful man to hang a group of women on a clothesline until their feet flutter to silence. But women who seek to lead—from Sarah Palin to Hillary Clinton—are still evaluated on their clothing and their hair in ways that men are not. And in far too many places in the world, women are still silenced, still denied an education, still denied a place at the feast with men.
And we forget that at our own peril. Let’s find an odyssey where we all f—ing care whether women and men can sit as equals at the same table.