Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.10.04

RESPONSE: Roberts on Kochin on McManus

Response by Jennifer T. Roberts,, History and Classics, City University of New York.

I was puzzled and dismayed by Michael Kochin's review (BMCR 97.9.2) of Barbara McManus's Classics and Feminism: Gendering the Classics. The product of painstaking research, the book not only represents an important contribution to our understanding of academe but is also considerably more comprehensive, analytical and nuanced than Professor Kochin would have us believe.

Kochin's preoccupation with disciplinary boundaries would certainly seem to make him an odd reviewer for a book dealing with a field that has historically embraced philology, history, archaeology, art, architecture, and philosophy. It is ironic, moreover, that Kochin should censure McManus for wandering out of her discipline of philology into social science when in fact he appears out of his depth in attempting to make the opposite transition in reviewing a book about classics. For his claim that the book is undermined by its failure to make use of the Arts and Humanities Citation Index shows surprising ignorance of how the field of classics operates. The Citation Index deals with articles, not books. This makes it a helpful tool for the study of disciplines in which the latest research is normally presented in article form but close to useless in areas like classics in which books play the most prominent role. The comparison with Donna Haraway's work is not instructive; naturally scientists rush into print with articles in order to put their imprint on new discoveries as soon as possible. Classicists are different. Our subjects have been dead for two millennia, and we are generally content to let our ideas ferment into books before presenting them to the world.

Kochin claims to summarize the book's contents but in fact misleads readers on this score. His dismissal of chapter 3 as a shallow exercise in ranking scholarship according to crude criteria of political correctness, for example, would lead readers of his review to quite erroneous conclusions about the chapter's contents. Judgments about what constitutes "political correctness" will always be subjective, and I would certainly construe McManus's criteria differently, but what is most misleading about Kochin's treatment of this chapter is the fact that in reality the bulk of it is devoted to defining the distinguishing characteristics of feminist scholarship and explaining its contribution to the study of antiquity. McManus also analyzes trends, principles and methodologies that characterize contemporary classical scholarship on women, and does so with considerable subtlety. This section represents one of the book's most valuable contributions -- something no reader of Kochin's review would guess.

Kochin's view of Europe as the center of feminist scholarship also strikes me as eccentric. In reality, modern feminist scholarship on women in classical antiquity began in the United States and is still dominated by American scholars and publications. As McManus points out, moreover, women became professional classicists earlier and in greater numbers in the United States than anywhere else in the world. McManus does deal with European scholarship. While emphasizing classics in the United States, the first two chapters set the context for the study by looking back to the discipline and profession as they were forged in Europe. Chapter 1, for example, analyzes the disciplinary culture of classics and discusses the characteristics of prefeminist European writing about ancient women. These characteristics are then illustrated with examples drawn from American publications and tracing the evolution of the new scholarly approach to the study of Greek and Roman women that developed in the United States during the 1970s.

As one who claims to have a knowledge of the social sciences superior to that of McManus, Kochin seems willfully to ignore the case history method in his contention that McManus's book will be of interest mainly to those who plan to work in classics departments and not to peripheral scholars like himself who teach, say, in political science departments. In fact, books detailing the dynamics of any discipline have a great deal to tell us about academe in general. A case in point might be Peter Novick's That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge, 1988), a compelling study that carries powerful implications for scholars of all disciplines -- and in all countries.

Kochin concludes by questioning whether classicists should do anything with their brains besides develop and spread knowledge of the ancient languages. McManus has identified Athenian democracy as a key undeveloped area with potential for feminist perspectives. Would Kochin have classicists stay away from Athenian democracy too, leaving it to the political scientists? Here I think his model of classicists as best suited to developing unimpeachable hexameters breaks down rather seriously. The interdisciplinary nature of classics -- a field I like to call the second oldest profession -- is well established, and for good reason. McManus's book is an important case study in the evolution of academe, and in fact portions of it have already been assigned to graduate students at a university in the southwestern U.S. It is a far more responsible contribution to the sociology of scholarship than readers might gather from Kochin's review.