Becoming a Leader in the Household: The Wife of Ischomachus as a Model Leader in Xenophon’s Oeconomicus

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This case study aims to bring an unusual text, Xenophon’s Oeconomicus, into an important contemporary discussion. Written around 370 BCE, the Oeconomicus takes the form of a Socratic dialogue and comprises two parts: in the first part Socrates converses with an elite Athenian, Critobulus, about the art of household management and the importance of farming; in the second part Socrates reports a conversation he once had with Ischomachus, who is depicted as the noble Athenian estate manager par excellence. This conversation brings to light the significant role of Ischomachus’ wife in the household and raises a series of questions about the role of women as leaders.

This case study encourages students to compare male with female leadership and to test their assumptions regarding women as leaders both in the household and in the public sphere. Furthermore, since the views on women and leadership are part of an embedded narrative (Ischomachus’ representation of the way he educated his wife), students will also be challenged to evaluate the role of mansplaining. Finally, the material presented in this case study can be linked with modern leadership theories (such as relational, servant, and transformational leadership).

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