BMCR 1997.09.02

Classics and Feminism: Gendering the Classics. The Impact of Feminism on the Arts and Sciences

, Classics and Feminism: Gendering the Classics. The Impact of Feminism on the Arts and Sciences.. New York: Twayne, 1997. Pp. xv + 201. $28.95.

“Classics” in the title of McManus’s new book refers to the “discipline and profession” of the Classics in the United States, not to the corpus of texts and evidence these women and men claim is their peculiar domain. This is primarily a study of the impact of feminism on American personnel, curricula, institutions—the emphasis is social history, not the history of ideas. We hear a great deal about controversies within the American Philological Association, but the author offers no systematic account, say, of the impact of Foucault on the study of ancient sexual behavior and ideology. As such, the book is mainly of interest to those who make or plan to make their working lives within college and university departments of the Classics, and not to those (such as this reviewer) who pursue the study of ancient things within the institutional structure of other disciplines. McManus, a Vergil scholar, does include an interesting chapter describing how feminist concerns have transformed her own understanding of the Aeneid.

The book proclaims its political purposes frequently: the author leaves us no doubt that she aims to bring more women into Classics departments and to draw greater attention to feminist theory from all classical scholars. As a study of “the Classics” as taught and studied in the United States, Classics and Feminism suffers from two flaws, the first serious, the second, in my opinion, vitiating. The serious flaw is that the author only rudimentarily applies the methods developed in the contemporary sociology of scholarship. The vitiating flaw is the limitation of her study to American departments, journals, and books. Whereas virtually all other areas of science and scholarship are centered today in the United States, it can still be argued that European scholars are the central figures even for American Classicists. A strong case can be made that Bernard Williams is the most influential contemporary scholar of ancient philosophy, and Nicole Loraux, the most important historian of Classical Greece. Central, if not principal, nodes in the network of scholarship, are thus missing from McManus’s account.

Chapter 1, “The Gendering of ‘The Classics'” discusses the entry of ancient women as a subject of study for Americans from Mitchell Carroll’s Greek Women (1907) to Sarah Pomeroy’s Goddesses, Whores, Wives, Women and Slaves (1975). McManus’s survey only confirms one’s impression that very little would be lost if our libraries would pulp all the scholarship on Greek and Roman women written before 1970.

In Chapter 2, “The Gendering of the Classicist,” McManus covers the reception of women classicists in American higher education and the American Philological Association. Others will have to vouch for the accuracy of the author’s account of chauvinism defeated (if not destroyed). I would not hesitate to recommend this essay as mandatory reading for all entering graduate students in Classics departments, though, for better and for worse, they will mostly be too young to understand it.

Chapter 3, “Classical Scholarship” paints a picture of the impact of feminism and gender issues more broadly on the literature itself. McManus relies on a cursory search of the Library of Congress on-line catalog, and a classification of the contents of American classical journals. These methods count items, but do not weigh their impact. It is interesting to know that two of the twenty-nine articles published by Classical Philology in 1981 covered topics related to gender. It is more pressing, however, to know whether these articles had any influence on subsequent scholarship.

The standard method for determining the influence of scholarly currents is the citation study, the mapping of the networks that are given in the footnotes, but McManus does not mention this method, much less apply it. How widely do scholars use Pomeroy? How many contemporary articles refer to the controversy in the 1970’s on the status of women in Plato’s Republic ? Preliminary answers to these questions could be found either by consulting the Arts and Humanities Citation Index or by taking one’s own samples. These methods and others equally fundamental are well applied to the study of the impact of feminism on Primatology in Donna Haraway’s Primate Visions (Routledge, 1989), a modern classic in the sociology of knowledge.

Instead McManus gives us a weighing of journal contacts on the degree of their author’s feminist consciousness, or what can fairly be described as their “political correctness.” She divides articles into four categories (p. 145):

(1) articles that treat feminism, women, or gender studies with flippancy and/or hostility
(2) articles on topics relevant to gender studies that do not employ a feminist approach
(3) articles on topics relevant to gender studies that employ a feminist approach
(4) articles not obviously relevant to gender studies that show significant feminist influence.

The absence of any effort to measure the impact of feminism on European scholars or the impact of European scholars on feminist and other American work on gender is, as I said above, a much more serious methodological flaw than the failure to count citations instead of articles.

In chapter 4, “Transgendered Moments: Revisiting Vergil’s Aeneid,” McManus moves from inadequate sociology to quality classical scholarship. “Transgendered moments, traits, or behaviors are those that have come to be considered appropriate for both men and women but that are still affected by gender expectations and gender power differentials…” (p. 95). From this perspective, McManus sheds light on Dido’s statesmanship, Camilla’s military valor, and Aeneas’s passivity.

Chapter 5, “Communicating Classics and Feminism,” first presents the results of a (non-random) survey of classicists’ opinions on the impact of feminism. McManus’s examples of opinions offered are interesting, but, as she recognizes, a self-selected respondent pool does not straightforwardly illustrate aggregate trends. Unfortunately McManus does not print the actual text of her survey questions, which would be useful in interpreting her results. One also wonders whether advanced methods of data analysis (for example, reweighting the sample to reflect the actual distribution of classicists), could have provided more meaningful statistical results. McManus then moves on to discuss the actual representation of women on classical faculties and in graduate programs. Her most important point is that few women and even fewer men do dissertations under female supervisors, which no doubt both reflects and reinforces the marginality of women scholars. She concludes by noting that feminist classical scholarship has had some but very limited impact in academic Women’s Studies, and still less outside the academy.

McManus’s work is animated not only by feminist concerns but also by an egalitarian passion against the former role of the traditional Classical education as a gatekeeper to positions of power and influence (though pace McManus, the study of Latin and Greek never really performed this function in the United States, as it did in Europe). Yet without this mostly dissipated inheritance, it would be hard to justify social support for the study of Greek and Latin at levels that far exceed that offered for the study of Classical Islamic, Chinese, or Indic civilization.

One might also wonder whether the traditional resistance of Classics Departments to “theory” in general, now including feminist theory, really ought to be deprecated, as McManus contends. As a historian of Greek political thought in a Political Science department, I see the principal usefulness of Classics departments as substitutes for the native speakers who rightly dominate modern foreign language instruction at American universities. Should classicists really spend their limited time and energy on the anthropological, historical, literary, and philosophical scholarship that flourishes elsewhere in the University in approaches feminist, deconstructionist, and genealogical, inter alia ? A classicist who undertakes the serious study of feminist theory contributes less to the preservation of our knowledge of these ancient languages, and in practice also contributes less to a feminist perspective on antiquity than would a feminist theorist with a solid reading knowledge of Greek or Latin. Personally, I would be better served by men and women who could compose acceptable Greek verse, and whose principal scholarly credential was the urbanely written Latin dissertation.