The Role of Women in Antigone

The Role of Women in Antigone

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One of the conflicts in Antigone, is the struggle between men and women. Ismene tells Antigone that since birth, women “were not born to contend with men,” (75) displaying women’s obedience and passivity. In the same passage, Ismene says: “we’re underlings, ruled by stronger hands,” (76) a representation of men’s aggressive and “stronger hands” that dominate women and treats them as second-class citizens. The only woman in Thebes who desires to break free from these chains is Antigone, who stands up against Ismene’s passivity urging her to “submit to this,” (77) and defy Creon by burying Polynices. By breaking Creon’s edict, Antigone challenges the traditional gender roles women and men play. In what ways does the theme of gender in Antigone, demonstrate the passion and choices behind Antigone and Ismene’s decisions?

Ismene believes that women are “underlings” (76) and not “contend[ing] with men” (76) because she knows that men will always control society. This viewpoint of men’s domination of women depicts Ismene to be submissive to males while being fearful of men’s authority. Ismene is unable to have control over her destiny and decisions because she is fearful of men’s power over women, which leads to her refusing to bury Polynices. Later in the play, Ismene questions Creon’s judgment by saying “you’d kill your own son’s bride?” (641) which indicates that she is now aware that woman should have a voice and power in society. Her new understanding of Antigone’s message gives her the strength to query Creon, while additionally highlighting his cruelty. Ismene’s original belief of “submit[ing] to this” (77) and being a proper Greek girl, eventually transforms into becoming an advocate for Antigone. Her transformation defies men’s authority, the opposite of what she used to believe in.

Antigone believes that a woman should be intrepid and strong, even at the risk of challenging men’s authority. When she proposes to bury Polynices, Ismene answers, “we’re not born to contend with men”. (75) Antigone’s response, “that death will be a glory” (86), does not directly address gender issues, but it expresses her fury at Ismene’s passivity. After the burial of Polynices, Antigone defiantly states, “I did it. I don’t deny a thing,” while being interrogated by Creon (492) and later comments that she was “not ashamed for a moment, not to honor my brother”. (572-3) Antigone’s gallant speech and defiance toward traditional gender identities audaciously shows her revolutionary desire for gender equality.

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Antigone wants women to have as many opportunities as men and a woman’s life should not be predestined because of her sex. Antigone starts the play with the idea of disobeying men’s rule over women, and later takes her plan into action, leading to the demise of Creon authority due to his rigidity.

Ismene’s speech in the beginning of the play stating that women “were not born to contend with men,” (75) while being ruled by male’s “much stronger hands,” (76) supports the idea that Antigone and Ismene’s choices and principles are determined by women’s inferior statuts. Antigone’s desire for women to be considered equal to men inspires her to bury Polynices and proudly declare her defiance to the men of Thebes. Ismene’s original ideologies that women are a subpar sex is seen when she desperately appeals to Antigone not to defy Creon’s authority by burying Polynices. When Ismene later understands Antigone’s aspiration of women being treated as equals to men, she questions Creon’s judgment, which demonstrates her character’s development. Antigone and Ismene, are differently inspired in different ways by Ismene’s “underlings” speech, which enables the characters to express their evolving beliefs on gender.
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