Safe as Houses? The Politics and Discourse of Feminism and Classics

Judith P. Hallett
University of Maryland

The problems that I discern in the politics and discourse of feminism and classics center on Homeland Security. Or at least on how secure, how at home, feminism and we feminists actually are in the discipline and profession of classics these days. Like several of these papers, my reflections on our domestic and political wellbeing as feminist classicists venture outside as well as inside our common domain of classics: into our neighborhood and our premises.

Are feminists and feminism truly, and securely, at home in classics? In advocating for more attention to women (and to other, previously overlooked demographic entities), and in championing gender along with race and class as key categories of informed scholarly investigation and analysis, our colleagues in the field of history think household as well as home, referring to their discipline and profession metaphorically, as a mansion, a mansion with many rooms. Now classics, too, may have qualified for mansion-status back in the days when Wilamowitz, and Housman, and Gildersleeve were, literally, household words. But the academic marketplace has long since transformed us into a less desirable piece of real estate.

Admittedly, no one would ever confuse our common domain with a sunny, cozy little ranch house. Or with a hip, edgy, Upper West Side co-op. Figuratively speaking, classics is more architecturally akin to a suburban Colonial with a backyard deck, or to a Victorian with a screened veranda. It’s multistoried (with its distinctive hierarchies of institutions and research specialties). It’s been stylishly extended on the exterior for easier communication with neighbors and passers-by: through the proliferation of texts, and the development of courses, in translation, as well as through interdisciplinary undertakings and outreach endeavors. And over the past thirty years, during my own academic lifetime, women, quite a few of them feminists, have become increasingly visible in, and responsible for the upkeep of, this modest, but by no means humble, dwelling.

Female classicists are no longer restricted to the role-playing options around “This Old Classics House” that greeted me when I entered graduate school back in 1966: the professional equivalents of a) marinating the red meat for our menfolk to barbecue on the grill; b) soothing the egos of our gentlemen callers as they lounged on the veranda; and c) inviting one another to spirited, but socially disparaged, canasta and bridge parties. By which I mean a) researching (and subsequently typing and editing) for our senior male professors; b) earning substantially less while carrying a heavier course load than our male colleagues at the reputedly second-rate co-educational institutions willing to hire us; and c) for the lucky few, reasonably remunerated employment at elite private women’s colleges such as my own alma mater (where the students, though capable and industrious, more often than not preferred male professors).

Nowadays we can, and do, count on our upper digits the classics programs here in North America that do NOT have full-time, tenure-track, and for the most part tenured female faculty members. Many women classicists, and feminist classicists of both genders, hold positions at selective, formerly all-male and unabashedly male supremacist institutions. Or at high-powered co-educational institutions (such as my own) that once barred women from their tenure-track ranks. Or even at top-flight research-oriented departments that award the doctoral degree. We hold senior as well as junior positions, and positions as chairs and deans and even college presidents at these places. Women, several feminists among them, now edit the majority of our U.S. classical journals. Women hold lofty leadership positions in national, and regional, professional organizations as well: in the American Philological Association alone, most of the vice-presidents, the current president and the president-elect are women.

But back to our household metaphor, and on to the discourse of another, kindred discipline. More specifically, on to the words of THE Lord, the late African-American literary scholar Audre Lorde, about the master’s tools, and their inability to dismantle the master’s house. And, a propos of these figurative household tools, on to my own disquieting sense that the increasing visibility and responsibility of women, and feminists, in the domain of classics has not secured us an environment in which we are, truly, at home: an expression which my American Heritage Dictionary defines as “comfortable and relaxed, feeling an easy competence and familiarity.”

As it happens, we women and feminists in classics often employ traditional master’s tools, when we entertain in, and contribute to the maintenance of, our Classics domicile. No doubt about it: if there were a Classics Home Depot, there would be a long wait outside its ladies’ room. Unlike Lorde, I personally have no desire to dismantle our professional and disciplinary dwelling, merely to renovate it, to make it more livable and welcoming for us, and for colleagues and students who have not always been made to feel at home. I applaud the successful efforts by women in our discipline and profession to make good use of those master’s tools as they prove themselves the equals of male peers in publishing and grantpersonship; in teaching large lecture courses to diverse student populations and acculturating their own graduate students; and in shouldering time-consuming administrative burdens on their campuses, for journals and university presses, and within our learned societies.

I am, however, far more impressed by the innovative strategies, altogether different from those traditional master’s tools, that we female and for the most part feminist classicists have developed in refurbishing our residence of choice: our insistence on gender-conscious and gender-inclusive research; on learner-centered pedagogy; on mentoring graduate students and colleagues at institutions other than our own; on accountability within the power structures of departments, and publishing venues, and our professional communities. Thus I ponder why our deployment of these tools is not remodeling Classics more extensively, thereby rendering it more livable and more welcoming. Why are we not yet more fully at home?

Like Nancy Rabinowitz and Barbara Gold, I agree that we classicists have moved on to “post-feminism without completing our tasks as feminists or in feminist classical studies.” Consider, for example, the field of Latin literary studies —in which Barbara Gold and I and Amy Richlin and Marilyn Skinner have been publishing feminist work since BEFORE the Reagan administration. Neither issues of gender, nor an informed concern for the asymmetries and inequities in either women’s fictive representations or women’s historical lived realities, even figure in most of its current scholarly discussions (even those in which less senior, though purportedly feminist, women are asked to take part), The emphasis on discourse, on fictive representation, to the neglect of lived reality must bear some of the blame for this imperviousness to female materiality, experience, and agency, for this indifference to women’s modes of engagement and resistance, in both the texts we study and ultimately in the professional community we inhabit. But even Nancy Rabinowitz, who specializes in a field—Athenian tragedy—where women’s representations and realities do receive close scrutiny, even she voices discomfort with an intellectual and professional environment that avoids taking ethically grounded stands. Why, then, aren’t senior feminist women more effective in shifting scholarly emphases away from ethically disengaged discourse that erases material conditions? Why haven’t we been able to do better at facilitating the wider deployment of these non-traditional household tools?

One reason, I would contend, is that by taking on responsibility for, and visibility within, our classics house, as administrators of various kinds, many feminist classicists like myself have limited our abilities to be advocates for change, the very kind of feminist change that empowered us at earlier stages of our careers. For one thing, the resulting diminution of our scholarly productivity has cost us in professional credibility, at least relative to younger (and usually male) colleagues with minimal, or no, administrative experience. Their lesser accomplishments get excused on the grounds of their scholarly promise and potential.

But advocacy is also by its very nature at odds with household management, classics style. Department chairs and deans (and journal editors, and APA officers) are not, of course, prohibited from taking stands. First, though, they are expected to be fair in quotes and nice in quotes to others in their management sphere (among them others who are seldom fair or nice to anyone else). And I insert these quotes because I am not certain that the displays of fairness and kindness expected of us as administrators are either. Or that they are compatible with challenging and changing the power structures in which we chairs (and even deans) operate: structures which require accommodating the needs and demands of students, and of higher administrators, and especially of those who labor alongside us in our own classics programs. For these structures, too, privilege discourse (notions such as “faculty development” and “career trajectories”) over materiality and agency, often women’s materiality and agency. After all, they privilege those who hold tenure-track, and especially tenured, positions over the adjuncts, clerical staff and often graduate students who toil just as long and just as hard, for less money and recognition and controllable time. At least whenever I, in my capacity as chair, have created allegedly more equitable teaching loads, or travel funding procedures, or research leave policies for my (currently all-tenured) full-time colleagues, I have invariably done so by placing greater and unrecognized and invariably under-remunerated burdens on our mostly female adjuncts and clerical staff as well as our graduate students

For women, and feminists, to be more securely at home in classics, to redesign our premises so that we feel at ease, and in charge, and on top of things, we need to keep on deploying our new household tools. But we also should strive towards making classics an open house in the best sense of the word, more livable and welcoming and just; more attentive and responsive to the differing experiences, and material resources, of all its inhabitants.