Changing Lenses: The Politics and Discourse of Feminism in Classics

Women: Good to Think With?

Nancy S. Rabinowitz
Hamilton College

It is 30 years since the founding of the subfield of women in antiquity and over ten years since I wrote the introduction to Feminist Theory and the Classics. An enormous amount has happened since then, but I think that the volume’s dual goal—to open classics up to feminist theory and to interest feminist colleagues from other fields in what we had to say in classics—has not been fully realized. Modernists to a large extent continue to ignore the classics, and indeed, as others will discuss in more detail later, feminism is in large part still a minority discourse in classics—though at a conference like this one it does not feel that way.

Some areas have been well-researched, however. For instance, a great deal has been written on women and tragedy, one of my areas of study. The challenge here is how to say something new, and how to get out of the old parameters of public/private, and what has been called by Amy Richlin, among others, the optimist/pessimist divide. Looking forward somewhat to Barbara Gold’s remarks, I would say that in working on women in tragedy, one task has been to understand the relationship of the art to the reality. The question is, to put it bluntly, “just how awful do you think ancient Athenian women’s lives were?” In answering this question, one encounters a perceived contradiction between the depressed political/economic status of women (sequestered, under the authority of a kurios, only able to make transactions up to the value of one medimnos of barley) and the position of women in tragedy (active in the public sphere, powerful, eloquent). This contradiction maps neatly onto the so-called (or alleged) public/private dichotomy. How private was private, however? What does the word sequestered actually mean in terms of ancient Athens? The textual evidence from oratory (e.g. Lysias On Eratosthenes) seems to corroborate a view of separation and seclusion, but the archaeological evidence is less conclusive. Lisa Nevett argues that excavations have not revealed spaces identifiable as women’s quarters, though they have revealed what appears to be consistent with a men’s space, the andron. And women clearly were not totally restrained to inner spaces—even upper class, “respectable” women had numerous occasions on which they went out.

Scholars have developed many ways of addressing the apparent discrepancies: some, like Sarah Pomeroy, focus on the difference in the genre of evidence, or, like Marilyn Arthur Katz, find the source of the ambiguity in the ideological orientation of the scholars. In Anxiety Veiled: Euripides and the Traffic in Women (1993: 10), I argued that “Given the masculinity of Athenian society and its anxiety about female sexuality, it makes sense to ask whether and how these representations of women served the male-dominated polis and the male imagination.” I modified my basically pessimistic approach in part at the urging of the manuscript reviewers—to whom I fear that I sounded strident, or as if I had an axe to grind. I attempted, therefore, to find a position that did not simply see women as the victimized; I drew attention to the strength behind the female characters, the strength that required the authorial strategies that seemed like victimization, calling them “strategies of containment.” In short, I tried a practice of reading both as the author might have intended and against that reading (23).

Helene Foley summarized the same debate in her early work (1981) and restates it in her more recent book (2002). She takes a different tack to find new ground. Her point is that the seeming obsession with women is not entirely about them. “Although the gap between tragedy and reality remains critical to evaluating the tragic response to the Attic environment in which it was performed, this focus has ultimately proved to be a less interesting way of getting at the provocative and interesting aspects of tragic women than studies of how the plays use these aspects to think about a range of issues” (2002: 8). In short, women are standing for other questions in tragedy.

Foley’s approach can be very productive in that it places women within the fabric of ancient life. At the same time, this direction that criticism is taking is also disquieting. The phrase “good to think with” in my title is taken from French theorists like Marcel Detienne and Nicole Loraux; Loraux notes that “autochthony is good for thought” (bonne à penser, 9) and points out that “there were great advantages to recounting the origin of Athens without mentioning women.” Of course it is important that we analyze images as parts of a semiotic system, as Francois Lissarrague does with satyrs. Daniel Mendelsohn argues in a similar vein that women stand for everything “‘other’ to the coherent masculine identity” (2). But women are not simply creatures of the imagination; as Lévi-Strauss pointed out years ago, women are used as signs and objects of exchange. At the same time, as he notes, “even in a man’s world” women are “still persons” and generators of signs (496). Men, however, are not taken to be signs; they function only as subjects and generators of signs. When, in his essay on the City Dionysia, Simon Goldhill (107) refers to Jean-Pierre Vernant’s famous analogy (marriage/women as war/men), he goes on to discuss the relevance of war and citizenship to tragedy, but without thinking that men are in tragedy for the purpose of analyzing war and citizenship. Perhaps what is needed then is a de-naturalization of men such as that offered by masculinities studies (see Mark Masterson’s essay). In tragedy both men and women are representations.

But I don’t think that masculinity studies are all that is needed. My discomfort with this critical approach amounts to a dis-ease with functionalism in general, a desire for authors to take a stand. Taking a position, however, is exactly what is unpopular in classics (and elsewhere), but I want to suggest that it is still what makes something “feminist” rather than simply being “about gender” or “about women.” Feminism is a perspective, a mode of analysis that enables practitioners to understand not just what is happening to women but what systems are in place to make that happen. I would like briefly to discuss the following questions: is it a problem to use women to think with? Must we take an ethical position in our scholarship? What does it mean “to do feminist work” on ancient subjects anyway?

To take the last question first: in one sense, feminism involves changing the world by changing women’s lives for the better. In the early days of the women’s movement, there seemed to be no doubt that it was important for women in the academy to work on women in our respective fields; there was a palpable sense of discovery, and the connections between the professional and the political were not far beneath the surface. We fought hard for the establishment of women in antiquity as a worthwhile field of study, and we have seen the establishment of courses in women, gender and sexuality in many classics departments.

But the times they are a-changing. As I write this, I have just emerged from what have been called the Churchill wars (referring to a national debate that arose after the Kirkland Project for the Study of Gender, Society and Culture at Hamilton College invited Ward Churchill to speak as part of a series on Social Class; the visit was cancelled due to threats of violence, but the Kirkland Project and its social justice mission remain under intensified scrutiny), and it seems clear that women’s studies and ethnic studies programs are facing a backlash against engaged scholarship. So, to return to the other two of my earlier questions, it is more difficult but perhaps more necessary that we interrogate the ethics of using women (and others) in the way implied by the “good to think with” model. To do so, we might not necessarily take a stand in a simple sense of being “for or against” something, but, particularly in our teaching, we should commit to opening a space where students can raise their questions about the way things seem to have worked in antiquity. We can also encourage them to think about how different or similar things are today. We can also ask these questions in our writing. In other words, we can put the emphasis more on thinking than on the transmission of knowledge. I would call this feminist work, even if it does not “take a stand.”

There are other ways to approach the problems of writing about the fifth century in Greece. In writing about tragedy, as I said, I have been the pessimist, trying to resolve the seeming contradiction between women’s lives in fifth-century Athens and the plays by putting the apparent dominance of women in tragedy into a perspective that shows how it is still putting women at the service of male domination. I have recently begun writing a dialogue about the vases from roughly the same period with Sue Blundell. Imagine my surprise when I found myself taking a more optimistic view, in contrast to her more negative one. This research has led me to adopt what might be called post-feminist (postmodern, Butler-style feminist) methods; I find a silver lining in what might otherwise seem to be a very reductive or demeaning archive of images of women dressing themselves and their friends. I take these images as signs of a women’s community, with perhaps an erotic subtext, which leads me to emphasize the glass half-full in the lives of Athenian women. Is this just false consciousness or wishful thinking? Do those of us who still work on fifth-century Athenian women have to continue exploring the negative, or is there a way to accentuate the positive, without becoming a cock-eyed optimist? Sue Blundell’s and my strategy has been to keep it dialectical (see also Barbara Goff 2002)—and perhaps that is just a way of straddling the fence, but at least it is one that acknowledges the many sides of the situation. It would seem that as we face the 21st century, we will have to get comfortable with the fence.

Works Cited

Arthur, Marylin [Marilyn] B. “Review Essay: Classics.” Signs 2 (1976) 382-403.

Detienne, Marcel. Dionysos Slain. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1979.

Foley, Helene. “The Conception of Women in Athenian Drama.” In Reflections of Women in Antiquity, ed. Helene Foley, 127-67. New York: Gordon & Breach Science Publishers, 1981.

Foley, Helene. Female Acts in Greek Tragedy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.

Goff, Barbara. Citizen Bacchae: Women’s Ritual Practice in Ancient Greece. California: U of California P, 2002.

Goldhill, Simon. “The Great Dionysia and Civic Ideology.” In Nothing to do with Dionysos, ed. John Winkler and Froma Zeitlin. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990. 97-129.

Gomme, A. W. “The Position of Women in Athens in the Fifth and Fourth Centuries.” Classical Philology 20 (1925): 1-25.

Katz, Marilyn A. “Ideology and `the Status of women’ in Ancient Greece.” In Women in Antiquity: New Assessments, ed. Richard Hawley and Barbara Levick. London: Routledge: 1995. 21-43.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Elementary Structures of Kinship. 2nd ed. Trans. James Bell, John Sturmer, and Rodney Needham. Boston: Beacon Press, 1966.

Lissarrague, Francois. “Why Satyrs Are Good to Represent.” In Nothing to Do with Dionysos?, ed. John Winkler and Froma Zeitlin. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990. 228-36.

Loraux, Nicole. The Invention of Athens: The Funeral Oration in the Classical City. Trans. Alan Sheridan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Mendelsohn, Daniel. 2003. “The Bad Boy of Athens.” New York Review of Books February 13. <www.nybooks.com>.

Nevett, Lisa C. House and Society in the Ancient Greek World .Cambridge and New York: Cambridge UP, 1999.

Pomeroy, Sarah. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. New York: Schocken Books, 1975.

Rabinowitz, Nancy Sorkin. Anxiety Veiled: Euripides and the Traffic in Women. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Rabinowitz, Nancy Sorkin and Amy Richlin, eds. Feminist Theory and the Classics. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Richlin, Amy. “The Ethnographer’s Dilemma and the Dream of a Lost Golden Age.” In Feminist Theory and the Classics, ed. Rabinowitz and Richlin. New York: Routledge, 1993. 272-303.