William Miller’s “Women’s” chapter in Greek Life in Town and Country (1905)

William Miller’s “Women’s” chapter in Greek Life in Town and Country (1905) 1567 1580 REVICTO

William Miller’s (1864-1945) Greek Life in Town and Country, published in 1905, offers an overview of contemporary life in Greece at the end of the nineteenth century. The focus of the book ranges from “National Characteristics,” “Politics,” and “The Court” to “What the Greeks Read,” “Justice,” and “Material Condition,” while the text is accompanied by twenty-eight illustrations depicting various places of the capital city and the countryside. Leaving Italy in 1923 due to the rise of fascism, and moving to Athens, Miller and his wife became part of the British School intellectual life (Hetherington 153); in Paul Hetherington’s words, Miller’s contribution “particularly to Greek Studies is closely linked to the environment of the School”(154). While in Greece, Miller also continued his journalism, commenting “with unrivalled authority on the turmoil authority of Greek politics in the 1920s and mid-1930s” (Hetherington 157). In his professional and academic capacity as historian, the author wrote a book that is extremely rich in informative material on the country displaying his profound interest and knowledge of his subject. The fourteenth and penultimate chapter of the book, which is of interest here, is devoted to “Women’s Work.”

The chapter begins in a rather dismissive tone regarding the social status of Greek women: “With the exception of the cosmopolitan and Europeanised section of Athenian ladies, who talk French among themselves, and imitate Paris in their dress and manners, the Greek woman is socially almost a nonentity” (265). Miller reads a very clear-cut division between rich Athenian women and the rest of the female population. Peasant women are heavily involved in manual labour and often are “nothing better than the slaves of the family” (265). Miller’s representation of the division of labour within the family clearly shows the generalised cruelty to women: “the peasant girl merely changes her master by marriage. While she toils, her husband smokes and talks politics; while he sits at his ease, she goes out to fetch water at the well, and carries it home on her head with marvellous agility” (265). Similarly, according to Miller’s observation, Greek women rarely join the tendency for emigration to America and their occupation as domestic servants or chambermaids in Athens hotels is very limited.

Yet, the author sees a window of opportunity towards change in the encouraging of handiwork through the 1896 “exhibition of female work” held in Agrinion, Aitolia (266). Having visited the show, Miller comments on the most praised piece, “an extraordinary piece of needlework, called the ‘Othello,’” which represented a scene from the Shakespearean play (267). The creator of the work, the daughter of a doctor at Trikkala, had never studied painting, and yet, in eighteen months, produced a magnificent piece of needlework that was worth 200 pounds. This sort of female accomplishment seems to be heralded by Miller who nevertheless thinks that Greeks are more artistically successful “when they keep to the ancient style of work,” rather than when they “aim at imitating ‘European’ workmanship” (267).

Having declared Greek women as socially non-existent, Miller moves on to thoroughly discuss several social environments where women actually do play a role. The female workforce in the “manufactories” of Kalamata is a case in point:

No less than four hundred and seventy women are employed in the four silk manufactories of Kalamata, a place famous for that industry, specimens of which may be seen at Athens. Silkworms are reared in the houses of the Messenian town, and the silk manufactory is also carried on by the nuns of the convent of Hagios Konstantinos, whose silk handkerchiefs and scarves are worth purchasing, but after a bargain—for the nuns are first-rate women of business (267).

Miller has knowledge of the actual number of the women employed, explains how households partake in the breeding of silkworms, and separately mentions the production by the nuns of the convent not failing to mention their flare for business.

On this note of women’s accomplishments, the author lists several institutions at Athens that “were started by [women] and are under their control” (268). The “‘Union of Greek Women,’ in Academy Street, founded in the year of the war by Mme. Parren, the novelist,” and the “‘Workshop of Destitute Women,’ which is at once a technical school and a manufactory” and whose “branch establishment” can be found at Poros (268) are two such examples. Miller details the function of the latter, mentioning that it employs “more than four hundred women and children” who are taught reading and writing needlework, embroidery, and “the manufacture of silk, lace, carpets, and curtains” (268). The Evangelismos hospital (“about twenty years old”) is also mentioned since its “directress is a Dane, but Greek ladies compose the committee of management” again foregrounding the role of wealthy women in public work (272). Additionally, the “Royal Hellenic School of Needle-work, started by Lady Egerton, wife of our former Minister in Athens” is noted for enabling the “Thessalian refugees to make money by weaving” (272). The rigour of the historian is again seen in mentioning the number of girls employed: “about 500, of whom some 120 are at the Athens school,” the rest added up from the branches at Koropi, Aigina, Corinth, Kephallenia, and Crete.

Miller does not fail to mention by name ladies who “have exercised much influence in politics,” “Miss Sophia Trikoupes,” the most prominent among them, as “a powerful assistant of her brother during his long career;” not surprisingly, Sophia Trikoupes is praised for devoting “her whole efforts to the furtherance of his political aspirations” (273), in other words, for self-sacrificially helping her brother, Charilaos Trikoupes.[1] Within this context of women and politics, Miller swiftly arrives at the unavoidable topic of female suffrage which is altogether dismissed as outside “the range of practical politics” (273). In order to corroborate his own views, the author cites a private discussion with Mme. Parren who had allegedly told him that “what she seeks for her sex is not political rights, but work” (273-4). Callirhoe Siganou Parren—editor of Efimeris ton Kyrion (Ladies’ Journal) and one of the first feminists in Greece championing the academic prowess of women (Offen 157)—was indeed more interested in the professional advancement of women. Regardless of Parren’s views on the subject, the reporting of the conversation indicates how women’s suffrage was, in fact, part of the public discourse in Greece.

All in all, Miller’s chapter on women’s labour is a vivid testimony to what the British historian witnessed and read about women during his almost two decades-long stay in Greece (Hetherington 153). Towards the end of his chapter, he attempts to offer an optimist prospect for the improvement of women’s social status juxtaposing their current Oriental position to the desired Western model: “while the vast majority of Greek women are regarded almost in the light of domestic animals by their lords and masters, and seem to be satisfied with their oriental position, there are, even in Greece, the germs of a movement for their advancement towards a Western standpoint” (275).

Works Cited

 Hetherington, Paul. “William Miller: Medieval Historian and Modern Journalist.”British School at Athens Studies 17 (2009): 153–161. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40960680.

Miller, William. Greek Life in Town and Country. London: George Newnes Limited, 1905.

Offen, Karen M. European Feminisms, 1700-1950: A Political History. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.



Veloudios, Michael. 1905c. “Syntagma Square, Athens.” Fotopoulos collection, ELIA-MIET Photographic Archive, http://www.elia.org.gr/

Léon, Auguste. 1913. “Two Corfiote girls carrying water pots, Corfou.” (original title : Deux femmes Corfiotes portant la cruche, inventory number : A66635). Musée départemental Albert-Kahn, Département des Hauts-de-Seine, https://albert-kahn.hauts-de-seine.fr/

[1] For more on Sophia Trikoupes visit “Sophia Tricoupis, hostess and ‘mistress of socio-political diplomacy’” at https://revictoproject.com/sophia-tricoupis-hostess-and-mistress-of-socio-political-diplomacy/

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