Women in Antiquity
Review by Mary Harlow
University of Birmingham
Women in Antiquity: new assessments R. Hawley and B. Levick (eds.) Routledge, London 1995 ppxix + 271 hb ISBN 0 415 11368 7 [[sterling]]37.50, pb ISBN 0 415 11369 5 [[sterling]] 12.99
Before you sigh with resignation at yet another edited volume of 'women's history' I should start by saying that if you are going to recommend such a text to students this is as good as any and better than most. This is a collection of papers from a conference held at St Hilda's, Oxford in September 1993 and reflects the international nature of the conference, the first to be held on the subject of Women in Antiquity in the UK. And, I might add, still one of the best conferences I have attended, not once over the four days, was I overwhelmed by the common conference desire to sit out a paper and gossip over coffee. The papers collected in this volume are those that concerned the ancient world as defined by Greece and Rome, though the conference itself ranged wider than this. It is also not a volume that one would read from cover to cover in the normal run of things, though when I did so to write this review I discovered two things: one, that I had already read all of the separate articles either under the guise of teaching 'Gender in Antiquity' courses, or more general outline ancient history, and two, that reading from beginning to end gives a far wider perspective and an insight into one of the strengths of this book, its internationalism. It is well edited in that the papers in the main fit well with each other and there are recognisable repeated themes. What all the papers have in common is a focus on approaches to thinking about women and what is most evident is the fact that we have now moved far from the 'what women did' approach to the far more analytical 'using women to think with' technique.
There is not room in a short review to do justice to all of the papers so this is very much an overview of the whole. The first two papers framed the agenda by examining precedents and influences that have produced the current semi-orthodoxy of the position of women in antiquity. Both Beryl Rawson and Marilyn Katz looked at the state of play for studies of Roman and Greek women respectively and proposed new ways forward. Both suggest a sort of lateral thinking approach, Rawson through the 'cross fertilisation' from other disciplines and a holistic examination of material culture; Katz proposes a shift from women's history to the history of women in society. Katz traces the origins of ideas about women in classical Greece from their
Victorian origins to the present and suggests that we continue to misread the evidence through the misplaced ideological foundations inherited from past historiography and the present terms of discussion. In reading the rest of the volume it was good to discover that many of the aspects addressed by these two authors are followed through.
Another notable point about many of the papers is a move from the study of 'women' to a study of gender. This was also a common subject of discussion at mealtimes during the conference. Part of this move is a reflection of the increasing influence of feminist literary criticism and feminism in general to ways of thinking about women in the past. Helen King refers to this as a shift from 'weren't women treated abysmally' to 'finding women's voices' and finally to 'strategies women used within the system'. HK is talking specifically about Hippocratic texts but a similar theme can be seen in Lucia Nixon's 'The cults of Demeter and Kore'; Lin Foxhall's 'Women's ritual and men's work'; Elaine Fantham's 'Aemelia Pudentilla: or the wealthy widow's choice; S. H. Braund's 'A woman's voice? - Laronia's role in Juvenal Satire 2'. These four also work as pairs: LN and LF concentrating on the centrality of women in Greek religious ritual while EF and SHB also deal with one of the constant methodological problems for the study of women, reading them in texts written by men, and though admittedly working in different genres, they come to interestingly diverse conclusions. The interpretation of stories of women is also examined by Anna Wilson who has studied hagiographic texts of a Byzantine church calendar. Here too, the stereotype is alive and well. The gender oriented approach also rewrites men into women's history with the result of some new readings of old stories in this volume excellently represented by Froma Zeitlin's 'Signifying difference: the myth of Pandora'. Attitudes to masculine and feminine traits are also addressed in the volume, particularly in the contributions by Voula Lambropoulou and Danielle Gourevitch. The 'traditional' domestic aspects of women's power and its relationship with the wider civic world is examined by Sarah Pomeroy for the Greeks and, in perhaps a more traditional way, by Mireille Corbier and Lisa Savunen for the Romans.
Mary Beard's paper, a rethinking of her own 1980 analysis of the sexual status of Vestal Virgins, caused a ripple of anxiety and prompted the question (from Natalie Kampen, I think) 'Are we now going to have to rearrange all our teaching?' On the contrary, not only does MB lucidly address the methodological problems and changes of the past fifteen years but also presents us with a perfectly framed class on women's history and historiography to set students, by having them read both papers and discuss.
In conclusion I think the strength of this book lies in two main areas: that it does raise some new issues and provoke thought and criticism, and that it is a good teaching tool.