Feminism and Classics Revisited

Fiona McHardy
Jun 19, 2018 · 6 min read

Introduction by T. H. M. Gellar-Goad

2017 marked the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Barbara McManus’ Classics and Feminism: Gendering the Classics. It was also the twenty-fourth anniversary of the publication of Nancy Rabinowitz and Amy Richlin’s Feminist Theory and the Classics. McManus’ book offered concrete data on the state of women in the profession and the state of the study of women and gender in antiquity, and showed the continuing, stark disparities in both areas. (Much of the data McManus reported on has not been renewed, or at least not collected and analyzed as robustly, in recent years.) McManus also showed how feminist academics were essential to opening up the discipline to theory and to methodological critiques to which philologists had heretofore been resistant.

Meanwhile, Rabinowitz & Richlin’s volume offered challenges to scholarly orthodoxies — both political and personal, theoretical and interpretive. Nancy Rabinowitz issued a call to replace the inherently and historically conservative politics of classics with a feminist politics, a call answered by the volume’s contributors with perspectives from Black feminism, radical Lesbian feminism, Native American feminism, French feminism, feminist film theory, Marxism, and feminist epistemology and historiography.

The papers gathered in this issue of Cloelia revisit the enduring questions and persistent problems addressed by McManus, Rabinowitz, Richlin, and their contributors. The papers were delivered at a panel sponsored by the Women’s Classical Caucus at the 2017 annual meeting of the Classical Association of Atlantic States. They assess the current state of and discuss future trajectories for the study of women, gender, and sexuality in the ancient world; of feminist study of the ancient Mediterranean; and of women and feminism in the profession.

Why now?

A big part of the answer is that the profession, or at least a substantial element of it, is currently engaged in a sustained examination of and confrontation with continuing dynamics of sexism and antifeminism. Classicists are no exception to the rule that women public intellectuals must face ever-more-rancorous harassment from misogynists both named and anonymous in their digital and physical lives. The past year alone has seen high-profile gender harassment and digital attacks on Mary Beard, Sarah Bond, and Donna Zuckerberg. Of course, the purveyors of misogyny and hate speech have been empowered by election results in America, Britain, and Europe alike.

And our professional organizations have tended, in my view, to be sluggish and milquetoast in defending and supporting women classicists who have faced harassment, whether that harassment has taken place in the public sphere or in the more private setting of an individual department or college. The Women’s Classical Caucus and the Committee on Gender and Sexuality in the Profession of the Society for Classical Studies have worked hard with SCS leadership (especially Barbara Gold and Helen Cullyer) over the past year to revise the Society’s public policies on harassment and to develop a code of conduct for the Society’s annual meetings; similar work is being undertaken by our peers in Canada, the U.K., and Australasia; and members of the profession have increasingly been drawing attention to issues of harassment at conferences through activism, panels, workshops, and roundtables. This year is the first of a two-year anti-harassment initiative by the Women’s Classical Caucus. This activist undertaking, I hope, will push our profession and its central institution, the Society for Classical Studies, to make its reforms and new policies direct enough and strong enough work more effectively and conscientiously to prevent, address, and redress sexual and gender harassment and persistent inequities and underrepresentation of women and persons of color in the field. We should applaud the substantial gains of recent months, but continued input, pressure, and vigilance from feminist members of the profession will be necessary if reforms are to be meaningful, responsive, and successful.

It is also worth noting that we are about as distant from the publication of Barbara McManus’ Classics and Feminism as that book was distant from the beginnings of modern feminist inquiry in the classics, with the publication of the 1973 issue of Arethusa and of Sarah B. Pomeroy’s Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity.

McManus, synthesizing the approaches to the study of women in antiquity advanced in these foundational volumes, identified six key methodological principles for feminist study of ancient Greek and Roman cultures: (1) do not treat women as Woman, a monolithic undifferentiated construct; (2) pay attention to the biases, conventions, and variation in ancient sources; (3) study the topic from multiple viewpoints, ideally in collaboration with other feminist scholars; (4) study women qua women, not merely as a category or as a lens onto masculinity; (5) engage in debate that embraces a diversity of viewpoints — not, I must note given the political climate of 2018, “ideological diversity,” the false flag of the antifeminist and anti-justice right wing, but rather a spirit of open inquiry and readiness to accommodate honest disagreement; and (6) be conscious of and explicit about the theory and methodology underpinning the study, rather than simply falling back on positivistic pseudo-objectivity. On this last point, it is worth repeating the remarks of Shelby Brown, in a Feminist Theory and the Classics chapter on archaeology: “[s]implistic interpretive models do seem to be more readily tolerated if they are centered in the views of white men.”

It is a sign of the profound influence feminism has had on our field that these techniques are widespread and commonplace, even if not ubiquitous. In the twenty years since the publication of McManus’ book, feminist approaches to the ancient Mediterranean have been extended and refined, and will continue to benefit from further development and reconsideration (as, among others, Lesser’s paper here shows).

This issue of Cloelia looks back at these milestones of classicist feminism and offers some prolegomena for the future of feminism and Classics. Barbara Gold’s paper addresses developments in the field in recent decades and charts directions for the present and beyond. A key point she raised at the CAAS panel is that the field needs textbooks written by feminists that speak to readers we have, not to readers we wish we had or used to have. Maxine Lewis provides a recent history of gender activism in Australasian Classics. And Rachel Lesser offers reflections on her techniques for a new reading of Homer that is based in queer theory and Homeric intertextuality, builds on existing feminist approaches to Homer, and follows the spirit of Barbara McManus’ “Transgendered Moments” reading of Vergil’s Aeneid.

It is our hope that you readers join the retrospection, prospection, and deliberation on these questions — in the comments section, on social media, and in your own postscripts submitted for publication in Cloelia. We continue to ask and to ponder questions such as:

· How much has changed in our field and how much remains the same?

· How do and should feminist research and activism interact? (As Nancy Rabinowitz noted in her introduction to Feminist Theory and the Classics, “[t]he patriarchy is very much in evidence as we diligently cite our forefathers.” Of course, feminist scholars now work very hard at citing their foremothers.)

· What enduring problems are we still facing, both the obvious ones and ones that are more subtle or insidious?

· What promising methodological developments characterize feminist classical scholarship in this century?

· Where should we go from here?

Barbara McManus, in her conclusion to Classics and Feminism, asserted that “Classics does not offer feminists enough ammunition for a true revolution: the subject matter is too patriarchal, the evidence too scarce, the history too long, the traditions too deeply ingrained.” She proposes instead “the concept of crossing a ‘rational frontier’ that leads to a redirection of the discipline and a redefining of professional boundaries.”

There seemed to be a general agreement in the room at the CAAS panel that feminist classicists have been successful in bringing the field across this rational frontier, though more work remains. What, then, lies ahead?


The publication of the Women’s Classical Caucus

Fiona McHardy

Cloelia Editor, University of Roehampton


The publication of the Women’s Classical Caucus

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