Assessing and Continuing the Contributions of Grace Harriet Macurdy, Pioneering Feminist Scholar: Barbara McManus’ “The Drunken Duchess of Vassar”

Judith P. Hallet, University of Maryland, College Park

On February 14, 2017, the Ohio State University Press published The Drunken Duchess of Vassar: Grace Harriet Macurdy, Pioneering Feminist Scholar, by the late Barbara F. McManus — a volume richly meriting attention and accolades by specialists in Hellenistic and Roman history.[1] McManus’ biography of Macurdy does not offer new research on the lives and achievements of the “Hellenistic queens” within the dynasties from Philip II of Macedon to Cleopatra VII of Egypt, during the years from 359 to 30 BCE. Nor does it provide previously unpublished information about or analysis of the so-called “vassal queens,” pro-Roman female monarchs who ruled semi-autonomous client kingdoms controlled by the Roman empire. Rather, as its title indicates, The Drunken Duchess investigates and illuminates the life and achievements of Macurdy herself. The book hence serves as a fitting sesquicentennial, 150th anniversary, tribute to this pioneering feminist classical scholar, who was born on September 12, 1866. Since the panel organized to remember Macurdy, at which this paper was originally presented, took place at the 2017 meeting of the Classical Association of the Middle West and South, in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, it warrants note as well that Grace Harriet Macurdy hailed from a Canadian family: her parents and several siblings immigrated across the border shortly before her birth, first to Maine and then to Massachusetts.[2]

In contextualizing Macurdy’s studies of Hellenistic queens and Roman vassal queens, McManus shares numerous important insights: about what made Macurdy’s work on these topics not only significant for its own time but also of major intellectual consequence today.[3] Furthermore, McManus’ own publications in the realm of feminist scholarship, both in and beyond her groundbreaking biography of Macurdy, embody and continue what Macurdy and her work memorably represented for our global classics community. The publication of McManus’ The Drunken Duchess in 2017 is noteworthy in an additional respect. October 5 marks the semi-sesquicenntenial, seventy-fifth, anniversary of Barbara McManus’ own birth, in 1942, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.[4]

This article focuses on McManus’ own assessment of Macurdy’s books about Hellenistic and Roman vassal queens in “Redefining the Classical Scholar as a Woman,” Chapter Ten of The Drunken Duchess. Prior to discussing the scholarly contributions made by these two books, however, I would like to emphasize, as does McManus, that Macurdy’s research on these intriguing figures in Hellenistic and Roman history ranks as the first effort by a classical scholar, female or male, to recover and document the lives of individual women whose names are part of the ancient Greco-Roman historical record.[5] I would also like to consider how and why these two books marked a dramatic change from Macurdy’s earlier scholarly endeavors. After receiving her PhD from Columbia in 1903, with a dissertation on the dating of Euripides’ plays, Macurdy published widely on Greek literature, and on prehistoric influences on Greek civilization and culture. But she did not venture into the field of ancient history, nor investigate women in the classical world, for decades after that.[6]

Barbara McManus attributes Macurdy’s new research interests in the 1920s to a combination of factors, beginning with Macurdy’s deep involvement in the women’s suffrage movement. Macurdy had marched and campaigned for this cause, particularly in the years before the 1917 bill that gave women the right to vote in New York State. In a 1937 interview, Macurdy described the passage of this amendment as the greatest political change to affect the students at Vassar, then an all-female institution, remarking that these young women were now much more interested in economics and politics than students in the past. She characterized this development in highly positive terms, as “all to the good and unavoidable”.[7]

So, too, Macurdy’s years at Vassar had fueled her strong belief that education had the capacity to empower women. McManus regards Macurdy’s scholarly project on ancient Greco-Roman female rulers as an educational and motivational resource, especially for female students of classics and ancient history. In McManus’ own words, these books aimed to demonstrate “through reliable and unbiased research that some ancient women did play a significant role in government and politics despite the tremendous odds against them. By highlighting the achievements of some ancient women, Macurdy sought to encourage a sense of independent agency in young women faced with what seemed to be socially preordained limits.”[8]

Macurdy’s unhappy experiences serving on the male-dominated Managing Committee of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens from 1925–1929 were, according to McManus, a factor too. To be sure, Macurdy had embarked upon her study of ancient queens before two controversies arose on the Managing Committee: one resulting in the dismissal of Bert Hodge Hill, husband of Macurdy’s former student Ida Thallon, from his post as ASCSA director; the other an initiative to fund a hostel for women students at the ASCSA that went awry. But what Macurdy witnessed on this committee, McManus states, “strengthened her determination to give credit to the ancient women who had carved out some influence within a system that gave all collective and institutional power to males… [She recognized] that women could draw only on their own personal, individual power in such a situation, an insight as illuminating for the queens in Hellenistic times as it was for academic women in the early twentieth century.”[9]

As yet another motivation, McManus adduces Macurdy’s growing compulsion to speak out publicly against injustice generally, and against biased and discriminatory assertions about women in particular, both in her own day and in Greco-Roman times. McManus quotes from a letter Macurdy wrote the Vassar president in 1937, in defense of a young male history colleague forced out of his department because his teaching methods differed from those of senior members.[10] She also cites Macurdy’s response, in 1923, to an article in a British periodical by a woman, Charlotte Cowdroy, which had argued that women should give up paid employment when they marry. McManus views Macurdy’s words in reacting to Cowdroy as “foreshadowing an essential feature of the new approach Grace would pioneer in the study of ancient women.” For Macurdy wrote: “This is all very primitive, treating women as a species and not as individuals. It is very notable in the, as a whole anti-feminist, Greek literature that the expression ‘race’ or ‘tribe’ of women begins to be used very early. I have yet to see the same expression applied to men in that literature.”[11]

McManus observes, too, that: “it was a small step from defending contemporary women to defending ancient ones. Modern studies of ancient women had been marred by the same bias as that found in the writings of the ancient Greeks, in which women were treated as a species rather than as individuals affected by differences of socio-economic class, culture and time. Grace chose to counter this bias by studying the lives of individual women in a context where there was enough evidence to permit meticulous research — ancient monarchies.”[12]

McManus underscores, however, that Macurdy’s motivations were not all altruistic. Indeed, she claims that chief among them was Macurdy’s desire to win distinction as a classical scholar “who spoke with authority as a woman.” Macurdy had earlier adopted the British female classicist Jane Ellen Harrison as a role model, but came to realize that: “Harrison’s field of study as well as her authorial voice did not conform to the established parameters of classical scholarship.” What is more, Harrison did not write about women. Yes, Harrison had “won a place on the periphery of the scholarly community but Grace was seeking a place at the center.” At Harvard’s Radcliffe Annex, where Macurdy had studied as an undergraduate and post-graduate, and in Berlin, where she had spent a year on a research fellowship, Macurdy “had been trained as a careful and exacting philologist, and she was determined to demonstrate that she could effectively use those skills without suppressing or downplaying her gender. She concluded that she could best accomplish this by turning to the study of ancient women.”[13]

So let us now turn to what Barbara McManus regards as distinctive about Grace Harriet Macurdy’s approach to her topic of Hellenistic and Roman female rulers. First and foremost, MacManus emphasizes Macurdy’s determination to judge these historical women as individuals, in the specific context of their culture and time period, rather than as examples of a singular, unchanging species. As we have just observed, Macurdy regarded this mode of generalizing about the female sex as fundamentally unfair, faulting ancient authors themselves for representing women, but not men, as a separate “race” or “tribe”, in a generalizing, stereotyping way. But Macurdy also insisted that ancient kings and queens be evaluated by the same norms, even though these royal women, unlike ancient male rulers, never attained the throne purely by birthright, and hence were at a disadvantage compared to their male counterparts in this important regard

In this connection, McManus stresses that, in Hellenistic Queens, Macurdy also “conclusively demonstrates that queens never achieved independent power equal to that of the kings in Macedonia and very rarely did so in Seleucid Syria. In Egypt, it was not until Cleopatra the Second, who lived from approximately 183 to 116 BCE, that Ptolemaic queens attained coregency with kings, and only Cleopatra the Seventh, with the help of Rome, achieved sole political power in her own right.” McManus continues, “at first glance, this may seem like a negative view of ‘woman power’, but in Grace’s hands it is actually strongly feminist. By showing that women, unlike men, never attained the throne purely by right of birth, she focuses attention on the individual qualities and strength of character that enabled some of these queens to wrest political influence and actual power from an overwhelmingly patriarchal dynastic system. Women, Grace contends, must be viewed as individuals, not as a ‘species’; hence her book relates the individual stories of each queen sequentially through each of the three [Hellenistic] dynasties.” While this narrative structure “entails some repetition,” it avoids sweeping generalizations that erase important differences among these queens.[14]

While McManus observes that Macurdy originally planned to rely heavily on her strong philological training in investigating the sources on ancient Greek and Roman female rulers, she reports that: “as she researched and wrote, Grace recognized the need to move beyond the confines of traditional text-based scholarship. It was clear that women’s lives could not be reconstructed from historical and literary texts alone, particularly since these were all written by males and skewed by various types of bias and stereotypical thinking. Grace had to supplement texts with material evidence, especially coins and inscriptions, but also sculpture, vases, and papyri. Her summer travels now included visits to museum collections in a number of European countries and consultations with numismatists and archaeologists.”[15]

Such evidence looms particularly large in her book on vassal queens, whose goal differs from that on Hellenistic queens. In the later volume, McManus explains: “instead of trying to ‘vindicate’ women’s place in the ancient world, Grace is seeking…to recover the names and lives of the women in these client kingdoms, to view their agency, and to demonstrate once again the difference it makes to view history from the perspective of women.” As Macurdy herself acknowledges in the preface: “The names of most of the vassal-queens are familiar only to the numismatist, the epigraphist, and to those who have made a special study of the little principalities…” McManus singles out one ancient vassal queen whose importance was proven by Macurdy’s scrutiny of coins and inscriptions: Antonia Tryphaena, great-granddaughter of Mark Antony, who ruled in the kingdom of Pontus as regent for her young son Polemo after the murder of her husband King Cotys of Thrace, and mother of three vassal-kings and two vassal-queens.[16]

McManus also remarks upon a distinctive feature of Macurdy’s style of writing: “in general, Grace uses a traditionally objective scholarly tone based on voluminous research and citation, but she occasionally speaks in a more personal voice, as for example when discussing the dynastic murders perpetrated by Laodice, wife of the Seleucid king Antiochus II.” Here Macurdy asserts: “Without wishing to condone the crimes of Laodice,” before stating “I find it a refreshing change from the sentiments of other historians” that one of their number compares her record of misdeeds favorably to that of Alexander. McManus discerns this personal voice, too, in Macurdy’s expression of contempt for “negative and positive feminine stereotypes that interfere with a judicious interpretation of the facts”; here she quotes Macurdy’s claim that John Mahaffy’s “views about the psychology of female love…must surely have been gathered from an extensive reading of melodrama rather than from an experience of the facts of life.” Nevertheless, McManus does recognize that: “in keeping with her goal of presenting a more judicious and balanced account of the characters of individual Hellenistic queens and counteracting the condemnation of them as a group, Grace frequently employs a moralizing tone that was very common in her time but is not typical of modern scholarship.”[17]

McManus accords special praise to Macurdy’s skill at analyzing the individual qualities and strengths of character that enabled some of the Hellenistic queens to wrest both influence and actual authority from an overwhelmingly patriarchal dynastic system. What is more, she argues that: “although Grace’s primary aim in [Hellenistic Queens] is comprehensiveness rather than originality, [Macurdy] does not hesitate to present her own reasoning and conclusions on controversial details” drawing upon “her philological expertise to verify her position” in contending that the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus is referring to Demetrius’ “children and his mother” rather than “his children and their mother”; collecting obstetrical statistics to establish that Cleopatra V Selene bore two sons in her forties. And McManus responds to criticisms of Macurdy’s work with a deeply powerful insight: “by studying Hellenistic monarchies from the perspective of the queens, the subjects of her investigation, by focusing on women as agents and men in relation to them, Macurdy turned historical scholarship on its head.”[18]

The title of Barbara McManus’ chapter in The Drunken Duchess on Grace Harriet Macurdy’s research about ancient Greek and Roman women rulers, which claims that this research “redefined the female classical scholar as a woman” merits reflection for a further reason. It reminds us that both Macurdy and McManus helped transform how women have participated, and been perceived, in the realm of classical scholarship, and done so in similar ways. Both studied at Harvard University: Macurdy earned her BA in classics from its all-female annex; McManus her MA and PhD in comparative literature from its graduate school, writing a dissertation on time in Vergil’s Aeneid. Both taught at all-female undergraduate colleges in New York State — Vassar and The College of New Rochelle respectively — rather than at PhD granting research institutions; both taught full time at these colleges while earning their doctorates. Both occupied prominent positions in the New York City classical community: McManus for her entire academic career; Macurdy, more briefly, during the years she taught summer school at Columbia, the first woman in classics to do so.

Each made important contributions to the Classical Association of the Atlantic States: Macurdy presented a paper at its first meeting in 1907 and several in the years that followed; McManus served as its president and webmaster, was honored by both a CAAS ovatio and a Leadership Award in her name, and organized its centennial meeting in 2007. Most memorably, both Macurdy and McManus produced significant, innovative bodies of scholarship noteworthy for their innovative, interdisciplinary, and feminist approaches to a diversely constituted body of evidence, much of it about women.[19] Owing to these major resemblances between author and subject of her groundbreaking Grace Harriet Macurdy biography, Barbara McManus has not only assessed and continued the contributions of Macurdy to classical scholarship, but multiplied them fruitfully as well.


Cowdroy, C. 1923. “A Study of Mrs. Thompson,” Pall Mall Gazette 9 January 1923, 9.

Macurdy, G. H. 1923. “Shall the Married Woman Work?,” Pall Mall Gazette 11 January 1923, 9.

Macurdy, G. H. 1926. “Blame of Women”, Vassar Quarterly 2: 190–8.

Macurdy, G. H. 1932. Hellenistic Queens: A Study of Woman-Power in Macedonia, Seleucid Syria, and Ptolemaic Egypt. Baltimore.

Macurdy, G. H. 1937. Vassal Queens and Some Contemporary Women in the Roman Empire, Baltimore.

McManus, B. 2016. “Grace Harriet Macurdy (1866–1946): Redefining the Classical Scholar,” in Rosie Wyles and Edith Hall (eds) Women Classical Scholars: Unsealing the Fountain from the Renaissance to Jacqueline de Romilly, Oxford: 194–215.

McManus, B. 2017. The Drunken Duchess of Vassar: Grace Harriet Macurdy, Pioneering Feminist Classical Scholar, Columbus, Ohio.

Mayer, R. 2016. “Margaret Alford (5 September 1868–29 May 1951): the Unknown Pioneer,” in Rosie Wyles and Edith Hall (eds.) Women Classical Scholars: Unsealing the Fountain from the Renaissance to Jacqueline de Romilly, Oxford: 243–59.

[1] McManus 2017.

[2] McManus 2017: 7–15. See also McManus 2016.

[3] Macurdy 1932, 1937.

[4] For McManus’ own biography, see the appendix by Judith P. Hallett to McManus 2016: 212–15 and the foreword, by Judith P. Hallett and Christopher Stray, to McManus 2017: ix-xiii.

[5] McManus 2017: 187, 188; see also McManus 2016: 209–10.

[6] McManus 2017: 54–60, 97–116, 187–91, 262–4. See also McManus 2016: 202–11. Of relevance in this connection are the remarks of Roland Mayer in his essay on Margaret Alford (Mayer 2016: 248). Commenting on the decision of Alford, a British female classicist born two years after Macurdy, to focus exclusively on the Roman prose authors Livy, Cicero and Tacitus, he states: “The issue may be defined as the ownership of philology. [Jane] Harrison and [Eugenie Sellars ] Strong had staked no claim in that traditional territory, for the compelling reason that they would have fallen at the first fence. If women were to be taken seriously as scholars they had to make their mark in the traditional sphere of philological activity. Opening up new territories of research was undeniably commendable and it brought British scholarship up to date, but Greek religion and Roman art were never going to be at the heart of a classical education…”

[7] McManus 2017: 188, quoting from “Vassar Girls Unchanged, Declares Miss Macurdy,” Vassar Miscellany News, 14 April 1937. In n.3 McManus also claims: “According to family tradition, Grace was once jailed overnight for her participation in a suffrage parade…but I have been unable to document this.”

[8] McManus 2017: 188.

[9] McManus 2017: 188–9, for these controversies, see 138–86. Macurdy, who hailed from an impoverished and uneducated working class family, had not benefited from the material advantages and social connections enjoyed by her more affluent female classicist colleagues from elite backgrounds — such as Bryn Mawr College president M. Carey Thomas — involved in ASCSA matters. Indeed, Macurdy had been forced to make her own way in the academic world, on the basis of her hard-won academic achievements. Yet her experiences on the ASCSA board made it clear that even these privileged women from other, private, all-female colleges had little influence compared to that wielded by the men, most of them from prestigious, private all-male PhD granting institutions.

[10] McManus 2017: 189: she quotes from a letter from Macurdy to Henry N. MacCracken, 5 February 1937.

[11] McManus 2017: 189–90, quoting Charlotte Cowdroy, (1923) and Macurdy’s reply in the same periodical (1923). In this context, McManus also cites Macurdy 1926, for demonstrating “how generalizing women as a race apart played out in the history of bitter invective against women in literary works from Hesiod to Strindberg.” For Macurdy’s reply to Cowdroy, “anti-feminist head of the Crouch End High School for Girls”, during Macurdy’s first sabbatical in England, see also McManus 2016: 209–10.

[12] McManus 2017: 190, who adds, “When she sent [the British Greek scholar] Gilbert Murray a copy of her book Hellenistic Queens, she mentioned her intention to liberate these queens from the negative evaluations of earlier scholars.”

[13] McManus 2017: 190–1. For Harrison’s perceived “position on the periphery of classical scholarship,” see again the remarks of Mayer 2016: 248, cited above, n. 6. For Macurdy’s training at the Radcliffe Annex, Berlin and Columbia, see McManus 2017: 23–5, 49–57 and McManus 2016: 200–3.

[14] McManus 2017: 193–4. In n. 15 McManus observes that in his website on “The Genealogy of the Seleucids,” Alex McAuley criticizes Macurdy’s “minimalist view of female power,” because she “considers female power almost exclusively in the same terms as male influence, considering them less influential if their power does not match that of male royals.” McAuley finds “such consideration of feminine influence vis-a vis male influence to be ultimately misleading because it vastly undermines the vastly different expectations and spheres of influence of both genders, making for a paradigm whose equality was neither present not possible”; he “then praises Elizabeth Carney for advancing the notion that…power is not institutional but highly personal, determined more by the gumption and charisma of a particular royal woman than by her status.” McManus argues, however, “that this is exactly the point that Grace’s entire book is designed to convey, that some individual queens acquired power equal or nearly equal to that of kings, but only through their own personal qualities.”

[15] McManus 2017: 192; see also McManus 2016: 210.

[16] McManus 2017: 202, 204.

[17] McManus 2017: 197–8. See, however, McManus 2016: 195, who observes that in her work on women in the Macedonian, Seleucid and Ptolemaic monarchies, and in the later client-kingdoms under Rome, “Macurdy brought to bear all the traditional scholarly methods — objective tone, comprehensive research, copious citation of primary and secondary sources — to challenge the consensus of previous scholars on ancient queens…demonstrating the falsity of generalizations about ‘woman-power’ or ‘wicked queens’. Although she never explicitly mentioned her own sex, it was abundantly clear that Macurdy was speaking as a woman scholar seeking to cut through stereotypes.”

[18]McManus 2017: 196–7, 200.

[19] See, again, McManus 2017: x-xii and McManus 2016: 212–15.