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Greece The Role of Women
Sources: The Library of Congress Country Studies; CIA World Factbook
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    In some ways, the traditional roles of women in Greek society have been differentiated by class. Until the end of World War II, the economic basis of most of society was either agriculture or fishing, activities that were simply passed down through generations, together with the social structures that made them work best. The common view historically was that women were basically inferior, sexually dangerous, and vulnerable. Accordingly, women were expected to exercise authority over others only informally and in specific parts of the extended family and society.

    In the traditional standards for peasant women, honorable behavior, or philotimo, required caring for the family and remaining in a domestic context where they were submissive to the opinions and demands of men. The actual ingredients of that cultural code of honor varied somewhat among regions and even among villages. In general, however, women were taught to restrain sexual impulses because failure to do so would tempt men into improper conduct. Straying from this code brought shame to the woman and social derision to her husband, if the woman were married, because he would be expected to control his wife. Marriage and motherhood transformed a woman's image from that of modest virgin to the dominating force in the household and among her children. Within the private sphere of the family, the opinions of the wife and mother received great respect as she evaluated the behavior of her husband and children. Her role was especially important in protecting the family's honor.

    In both urban and rural society, motherhood remains an important ideal, grandmothers still play an important role in child rearing, and women continue to be the chief social links and organizers of rites of passage--in spite of the variations that urbanization has introduced into the structure of such relationships. Rural life provides a closer-knit social and family grouping, whereas urban wives see their relatives less often and have fewer close bonds with the informal support system composed of neighbors. The faster pace of social change in the cities also shrinks the common ground of understanding between mothers and daughters.

    The Westernizing influence of the nineteenth century brought noticeable changes in the external lifestyle of women in the Greek oligarchy. But, as women imitated the wives of Western monarchs and diplomats, they lost the fundamental economic role and the practical skills possessed by women in rural Greek society. Some experts argue that this development actually reduced the image of women in the Westernized elite, turning them into social ornaments. At the same time, however, the basic prescription for modest virginity before marriage and fidelity and demure behavior after marriage persisted in the elite as it did in the lower classes.

    The active participation of women in the Greek resistance movement of World War II brought about fundamental changes in their relation to men in Greek society. Then, in the postwar years, urbanization, industrialization, and the consequent growth of the middle class led to massive changes in Greek society, and Western alliances internationalized the outlook of Greeks. Women received the right to vote in the early 1950s, and a new class of female wage earners grew rapidly in economic and bureaucratic fields. The growth of participation was slower in politics.

    In two notable periods, military governments attempted to crush women's movements in Greece. In the 1930s, the regime of Ioannis Metaxas had repressed the League of Women's Rights. The last concerted effort to reassert the traditional norms, values, and behavior for women occurred between 1967 and 1974 under the military regime of Georgios Papadopoulos. The Papadopoulos regime's demands for subservience by women, the institution of dress codes for women, and the prohibition of mixed social events for students yielded a sharp increase in women's demands for equality and liberation when the regime was toppled in 1974.

    Despite the repression of women's rights groups, women played an active role in opposition to the military regime, and the Greek feminist movement expanded and diversified during that period. The feminist dialogue already prominent in Western Europe and North America spread gradually into Greece in the 1970s, although women's organizations often lost their autonomy as they and their agendas became subordinate to the leftist political parties that gained strength at the same time (see The Return of the Left , ch. 4).

    The pressure brought by women's movements, combined with economic needs, broadened general support for major social legislation by the first PASOK administration (1981-85) of Andreas Papandreou. Accordingly, the Family Law of 1983 made equality of the sexes the law of the land. Until that time, the husband had formal authority within the family, in representing the family to the world outside the home, and in acting as host and main provider. The 1983 law replaced these familial relationships with even distribution between the spouses of decision-making authority and obligations to contribute to family needs. The husband no longer could legally administer a wife's property or forbid her to work. Naturally, legislation in such private matters had only a gradual impact in a highly traditional society.

    The decriminalization of adultery was another legislative reform of the early 1980s that had resonance in the structure of Greek society. The overturned adultery statutes, whose application followed the traditional sexual stereotypes by falling predominantly on women, had called for fines or imprisonment. Legalization of abortion, a process that had begun in the late 1970s with expansion of the conditions under which the law permitted abortion, brought conflict with the Orthodox Church and conservative elements of secular society. Abortion on demand at state expense was legalized in 1986. The number of legal abortions rose from 180 in 1985 to 7,338 in 1989.

    Between the end of World War II and the mid-1980s, as more women moved to cities and finished rearing their families while still young enough to work, women's participation in the Greek work force increased dramatically. Between 1977 and 1987, the share of women in the work force increased from 32 percent to 43 percent (although growth in that figure stopped for a period in the mid1980s ). The female work force in 1987 included almost 45 percent in agriculture, 22 percent in industry, and 34 percent in the service sector. Experts differed sharply, however, as to whether a given job was now more open to a person of either sex or whether more women-only jobs had merely been created during that period. Women's participation was encouraged by the legal requirement of twelve to sixteen weeks of maternity leave at full pay, a rule strengthened in 1992 by the EC's requirement that all member countries offer at least fourteen weeks with at least statutory sick pay.

    The educational advancement of women paralleled their entry into the work force in the 1980s. The share of female university students grew from about 30 percent in the 1970s to about 53 percent in 1989, although a disparity remained between the sexes in the numbers holding university degrees in the late 1980s. In 1990 Greece lagged in availability of part-time postsecondary education programs, which affected women more than men.

    Women have moved into Greek government circles gradually, although more rapidly than in most other Western countries. The three PASOK administrations, which took office in 1981, 1985, and 1993 respectively, each had a female minister of culture (for most of that time, the actress Melina Mercouri) and several female deputy ministers; in 1993 the Ministry of Justice of the Mitsotakis administration was headed by a woman. In the 1980s and the 1990s the ministries of culture, health, welfare, and social security, and foreign affairs usually had at least a female deputy minister. The first woman was elected to the national legislature, the Assembly, in 1954 and since that time many women have been elected to that body. A political party, Coalition (Synaspismos), was led by a woman for several years in the 1980s. And in 1994 the leader of the Communist Party of Greece (Kommunistikon Komma Ellados--KKE) was a woman.

    Data as of December 1994

    NOTE: The information regarding Greece on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies and the CIA World Factbook. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Greece The Role of Women information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Greece The Role of Women should be addressed to the Library of Congress and the CIA.

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Revised 10-Nov-04
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