Looking at Antiquity From a Feminists Point of View These Classicists Reveal “An All-time Low for Women”

The bar still isn’t high. Achieving their doctorates, they were offered only “underpaid, part-time teaching jobs.”

The Washington Star, December 30, 1975: Athens in the Fifth Century B.C. might have been the time and place where tragedy, comedy, history and democracy were invented, but it was also an “all-time low for women,” according to Dr. Dorthea Wender, assistant professor and chairman of classics at Wheaton College, Norton, Mass. Women were sold in marriage by their fathers or guardians. They couldn’t eat dinner with their husbands, and they only got out of the house twice in their lives — “Once to be matched (married) and once to be dispatched (buried).” added Dr. Valerie French, who teaches ancient history at American University.

Wender and French are members of the Women’s Classical Caucus meeting with the American Philological Association and the Archeological Institute of America in Washington this week. Yesterday, the Caucus heard four talks (the scholars call them papers) on “sexuality and gender differentiation in antiquity,” or, as one member put it privately and more briefly, “sexism in antiquity.”

Afterwards, the Caucus had its fourth annual meeting and voted overwhelmingly to ask for papers on “the family in antiquity” for the next year’s conference. Other possibilities were “men and antiquity,” “commercial sex in antiquity” and “women slaves.” None of these subjects is likely to be on the AIA agenda, at least for a few years, predicted Dr. Froma Zeitlin, of Rutgers University, a Caucus chairwoman. The Caucus, possibly from a desire to maintain its scholarly image, doesn’t go in for words like “chairpersons,” and its feminism while admitted, is far from blazing. Members are reluctant to name the universities where most of them say they suffered their first brushes with sexism and what they call “the old boy system” of getting into academia.

While Caucus members are also members of APA, AIA, or both, the Caucus is no longer officially affiliated with the original “guardian group,” explained Dr. Judith Peller Hallett, assistant professor of classic studies at Boston University, who gave a racy paper, “Rapacious and Licentious.” The Caucus, she explained ironically, “was born four years ago in Philadelphia, the cradle of liberty and the cradle of classicist liberty.”

What happened, recalled Wender, who, like Halleit, received her Ph.D. from Harvard, was, “a few of us were sitting around in a bar fuming about how not one woman had been elected to the AIA board.” It was 1971, when women scholars everywhere were forming caucuses to bolster their bargaining power and to induce universities and colleges to live up to the new legal requirement to come up with affirmative action programs that would give women a chance for jobs and advancement.

That first year the Caucus was under the wing of AIA and even received some money from the organization to make its first mailing, Wender said. Then, according to Hallett, “AIA suggested that maybe we wouldn’t want to be partners with them anymore.” If the women wanted to remain part of an official AIA committee, it was implied, they’d have to accede to AIA directions on elections and subject matter. In fact, to the organization’s old boys’ way of doing things.

So the women went on their own grateful way for being included in the yearly conference bulletin, a bit miffed because their names and individual papers aren’t also listed, and annoyed because, as Zeitlin said, “They always give us small cold rooms to meet in.”

The women Indicate there are probably 50 dues paying members of the Caucus but maybe twice that many involved in it. Most of them, like Hallett and Wender, were feminists first and that interest determined their professional direction. Along with French, they credited affirmative action programs for much of their ascendency.

All three women started out after earning their doctorates in underpaid, part-time teaching jobs. Nobody expected Wender to want a job because at the time she was married — to a physician. French, who received her Ph.D. from the University of California at Los Angeles, refused to continue teaching a course that had become enormously popular under her guidance because she wasn’t given a full-time spot. Hallett’s career went a similar route — it took three years before she could get a full time job.

The Caucus has been a comfortable supportive place for the women. Besides offering a forum for papers on women in antiquity, Wender said that their major achievement has been in talking AIA Into accepting papers on a policy of anonymous submission. This makes it possible for papers to be judged solely on merit rather than sex, age or elevated status, she explained. In 1973, the last year before papers were submitted anonymously, 63 percent selected were those of women scholars.

Unfortunately, Wender said, the Caucus doesn’t know what proportion of women submitted papers now. “The committee said the papers had been thrown out already,” she told Caucus members who were grumbling because they considered this typical behavior. Hallett pointed out later that more than 20 percent of AIA membership is women.

The women believe that the Caucus papers are just as valid and valuable in terms of being published as any given before the entire ALA Conference, and probably they’re a lot more pertinent. “We’re working for the legitimacy of women studies, instead of doing something traditional like the 10th paper on whether or not Antigone did or did not bury her brother for the second time.”

Looking at antiquity from a feminist viewpoint puts many old areas into new perspectives, Hallett said. In her speech she examined the significance of the obscenities inscribed on the lead siege bullets directed figuratively at Fulvia during the Perusian conflict.

“Scholars thought it was great because they knew about these dirty siege bullets,” said Hallett, who found in them new significance. Fulvia, explained Hallett, was a rarity — a real political woman. The references to unnatural sex on the lead bullets indicated, Hallett said, the contempt with which men regarded such a woman. She was insulted and demeaned. She had power, so she couldn’t be a woman.

But Fulvia was hardly a feminist, Wender said. “Plato was the first feminist, he was a feminist because he was gay. He didn’t like women, but he was a feminist in his proposals. He said there was essentially no difference between men and women and that women should have the vote and be freed from the burdens of domesticity.”

“So that women slaves could do the dirty work” said French, who disagreed with Wender’s definition of Plato as a feminist. “I don’t believe a man can be a feminist if he doesn’t like women.”

Generally, the Caucus is pleased with its progress and its potential. But Wender warned members against a new brand of “old girl elitism.” Judging of papers, and other procedures, she said, should be democratic and not based on a system of seniority and exclusivity.

[This article appeared originally in The Washington Star, December 30, 1975 as Who Were Feminists of Antiquity? #197 in a collection of more than 100 newspaper articles by Judy Flander from the second wave of the Women’s Movement reflecting the fervor and ingenuity of the women who rode the wave.]

American Journalist. As a newspaper reporter in Washington, D.C., surreptitiously covered the 1970s’ Women’s Liberation Movement.