“My Sister’s Words are Swallowed by The Next Wave”

Barbara K. Gold
Hamilton College

At a recent feminist poetry reading by our then colleague, Minnie Bruce Pratt, the owner of a local feminist bookstore announced that the owners were changing its name from “My Sister’s Words” to “The Next Wave” in order to become not ”just” a feminist bookstore but a store for all left, progressive people (“a bookstore for all progressive minds”).

This non-classical incident started me thinking about an issue that gnaws at me repeatedly, both in my scholarly, intellectual life and in my real, lived life: in our post-feminist age, in which many have largely shifted their focus from feminist studies and analysis and the study of women, and moved on to other approaches and categories (masculinities, gender studies, queer studies, race, ethnicity), have we (as Nancy Rabinowitz has said) moved on too soon? Have we moved on to post-feminism without ever completing our task as feminists or in feminist classical studies? What has happened in this shift away from the study of women?

Or, does this shift follow the inevitable flow of movements which live a useful life and are then transmuted into something different, something that borrows from earlier models but grows into a new form? For example, consider what Terry Eagleton has to say about theory in his new book After Theory (Basic Books 2004). According to Eagleton’s reviewer, David Lodge, “the very success of Theory . . . has bred a kind of weariness in many of those who struggled on its behalf, and its institutionalization has deprived it of much of its original excitement and glamour. Disillusionment set in . . . .” I submit that yes, we have moved on to post-feminism without adequately examining the assumptions and conditions under which we were practicing feminist studies. I further submit that a primary duality in the way we have practiced and described feminism and feminist studies both embodies and elides the difficulty we have with feminism and feminist studies. That duality is discourse vs. lived systems/social life. Among feminist classicists, there have tended to be—and I am oversimplifying here to make a point—two groups: those who aim to recover women’s lived reality (often but not only historians) and those engaged with analyzing woman as a part of the discourse, as literary constructions, coded into texts. So Phyllis Culham, in a special issue of Helios in 1990 devoted to a 1985 Women’s Classical Caucus panel at the APA (a panel organized by Mary-Kay Gamel), insists that feminist scholars should focus on women’s lived reality and on the study of history, society and culture, and not on literary texts, which are largely authored by men and regarded as “objective, universal and authoritative,” as inherited knowledge (see Culham, “Decentering the Text: the Case of Ovid,” Helios 17.2 [1990] 161ff.). Gamel, in the same issue, counters with the now familiar argument that all “reality” is mediated through and constructed in texts; therefore written texts (of all kinds) must remain our primary sources (Gamel, “Reading Reality,” Helios 17.2 [1990] 171). I, of course, believe this and have myself been engaged in precisely the same kind of scholarship that Gamel is talking about. This way of thinking makes sense.

So what’s wrong with it then? I am troubled by the fact that we have placed too great a focus on “discourse” in the practice of feminist studies. Discourse can be given too much power, too much importance. Gender discourse, like other kinds of discourse approaches to social/political/historical issues, can sometimes overvalue discourse so that all players can be portrayed as equal (although there are in fact power differentials at play) and words are seen to matter. Words do matter, reality is mediated, but words are not an absolute. Discourse, rather, tends to offer systems of evaluation which arise from, influence and purport to displace lived systems. Material realities thus can be effaced or subsumed. We find women used as objects “to think with” (as Nancy Rabinowitz discusses in her contribution here): witness, e.g., a remark on a (for the most part) sophisticated article submitted to the journal that I edit (American Journal of Philology), an article that used some feminist analysis but in a more dutiful than integrated and understanding way. So reviewers remarked: “the paper uses the ideas simply as grist” . . .
“the author clearly understands the terms of the contemporary feminist debates about such issues, but also seems determined not to engage with them.”

What happens when we reduce woman to a sign in discourse? (I think here of Maria Wyke’s work on Propertius; Wyke discusses Propertius’ Cynthia as the scripta puella, the written woman, a “fictive female whose status, physical characteristics, and name are all determined by the grammar of the erotic discourse in which she appears” [The Roman Mistress, 31]; see also Wyke, “Written Woman: Propertius’ Scripta Puella,” JRS 77 [1987] 47-61). The scripta puella is manipulated by Propertius as the object and embodiment of his poetry. Judy Hallett’s work, in particular her work on recovering the lived reality and writings of real historical women like Cornelia, exists as another paradigm. In discourse approaches, women become a function of gender categories in the sign system of their historical moment; an object, a prize, a Marxian commodity to be transferred among men.

Doesn’t this flatten out the three-dimensional aspect of women, strip away political or social agency from women, remove them as actors and agents? Terry Eagleton has exhorted us to “Political Criticism” (Literary Theory: an Introduction, 1983) i.e. criticism that acknowledges its unavoidable involvement in political and social life; Teresa de Lauretis focused on the intersection of women and their positions in relation to shifting interpersonal and political contacts and on the identity of female subjects (Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction, 1987; “Upping the Anti (sic) in Feminist Theory,” in M. Hirsch and E. Fox Keller, eds., Conflicts in Feminism [1990], 255-70; see also B. Gold, “‘But Ariadne Was Never There in the First Place’: Finding the Female in Roman Poetry,” in N.S. Rabinowitz and A. Richlin, eds., Feminist Theory and the Classics [1993], 82). Both works of Lauretis are 15-20 years old, but I believe they offer an important corrective to an overemphasis on discourse that effaces material realities. I hasten to say that I recognize the irony of privileging materiality over abstraction and discourse since this reenacts the old binary linkages between males and transcendence (mên and females and corporeality ( Mark Masterson (in conversation) suggests perhaps a “more supple hermeneutic,” but that still leaves us with an abstracting discourse that comfortably removes us from engagement and agency.

To try to sum up where I am: as is evident from the title of our panel, “Changing Lenses: the Politics and Discourse of Feminism in Classics,” both activism/agency, and the discourse of gender-power are vital for feminism and feminist studies. But I argue that post-feminism and postmodernist practices have taken us too far into the discursive mode of analysis and representation of women and have thus depoliticized feminism and feminist studies. This may all sound old—like you’ve heard it before—and it is; I myself have said it before. But we still don’t have it right. To go forward, we need to go back and reclaim the more political-activist side of feminist studies. Because in some ways, relying solely on discourse is our excuse for hiding behind the text and not having to act.

Suggesting possible ways of taking action is not easy, partly because this will vary for each person and depend upon their different interests and kinds of experience. I will propose a few ideas here, but I caution that there are many others that I have not thought of or am not myself in a position to act on. One thing that academics can do is to write women back into our scholarship (by focusing on women authors, female characters, feminist scholarship, and by giving full credit to influential women scholars and activists before us). We can use our standing as professors to help mentor and guide younger people in our profession (women, in particular, but men as well), and to make sure that they understand feminist ways of thinking, writing, and acting. We can advocate for courses in our curricula that include feminist approaches; for putting women on committees and in positions of authority; for policies that help young women academics (maternity/parental leaves, mentoring, flexible work schedules and methods of recommendation, fair means of assessing teaching that pay attention to gender differences). I can recommend a new book called Grassroots: A Field Guide for Practical Activism (by Jennifer Baumgartner and Amy Richards); the authors of this book are more journalists than academics, but they offer very good and practical advice about how progressive feminists can make a difference in their day-to day existences.

By way of a postscript, let me comment on two practical issues concerning women and classics that convince me further that we don’t yet have it right. First, as I look back over three years’ worth of articles in AJP, a journal I have edited for nearly four years (but most of the first year’s worth of material was inherited), only 19% (14 of 73) articles have anything to do with women or feminist theory (and this is inflated; if one discounts Mary-Kay Gamel’s special issue on the Thesmophoriazusae, which was all about gender, the figure is only 12 % or 9 of 73 articles). Even some of these are more focused on theory and performance, or masculinity, or slavery, than on women, so I am being generous. This is despite my attempts to solicit articles in this area.

Second, Judy Hallett and I collected material for a panel at the Fall ’04 CAAS meeting on “Integrating Feminist Perspectives into Latin Literary Studies and Pedagogy.” Many of the submissions turned out to be about pedagogy: how, among both colleagues and students hostile to feminism, can one (especially if one is a junior, female professor) insert women and feminist analysis into courses? According to a new book on the intersection of masculinity studies and feminist theory (Judith Kegan Gardiner, ed., Masculinity Studies and Feminist Theory: New Directions [New York, 2003]), it seems to be the case that women face much greater resistance when they try to teach about gender than men do (and I am certain that this would be true for teaching race as well for faculty of color vs. non-faculty of color); this is especially true when they make a connection between masculinity and feminism, partly because men have more authority as apparently born experts on masculinity, and partly because women are perceived by students as potential attackers of men’s masculinity and emasculators. See, for example, the essay by Sally Robinson, “Pegagogy of the Opaque: Teaching Masculinity Studies,” in the Gardiner book cited above (141-60). Robinson, as a female teacher of male students in her courses on gender and masculinity, has to deal both with students’ denial of a link between masculinity and feminism, and with a fear among her male students that women professors are potential emasculators, and therefore dangerous and undependable as teachers and guides. The professor in such a course must cope with trying to teach this material on a theoretical and practical level while at the same time dealing with the emotional and personal reactions that these kinds of issues elicit. This is no easy matter, and overcoming gender differences and perceived gender differences in the classroom can be very tricky. A recent study of 141 students in a Sociology of Gender course at a medium-sized university shows that the students in this course, both male and female, rate female instructors as “more biased and more likely to promote a political agenda when teaching about gender than male instructors” (Melanie Moore, “Biased and Political: Student Perceptions of Females Teaching about Gender,” College Student Journal 31.4 [1997] 434ff.). As this article points out, “how students interpret, evaluate, and resist course material may depend on the gender of the person presenting it.”

What can we do? One hopes that, over time, as women are integrated more and more into teaching in all subject areas and as gender studies becomes more and more integrated into college curricula, such biases will lessen. Meantime, it would seem a good idea to discuss the process and problems with students as a part of the course, to alert them to such potential filtering of biases, and perhaps even to pair teaching such courses with one male and one female instructor so as to interrupt the possibility of such a biased set of perceptions occurring. One hopes that the more students understand that there is not a clear binary system of gender differences (in theory or in fact), but rather a complex negotiation of gender, they will be better able to deal with the construction of gender in their readings and in the life of the classroom (and out of the classroom).

Thirty-two years after the founding of the WCC and so many years after first-wave feminism, it is shocking to think that women are still perceived as emasculators, still unable to compete with men on a level playing field, and that we are still having to sneak feminist pedagogy into our classrooms and scholarship. But there is hope for the future: in our research, our teaching, and our lived lives.