Why Feminism Matters. Reflections on Feminism and Classics 7: Visions


By Carol Atack.

It’s great when a conference keynote sets the tone for the event as a whole. Alison Wylie (Washington) achieved this with her opening address to Feminism and Classics 7: Visions, held in Seattle in May. In exploring ‘What knowers know well: why feminism matters to archaeology’ she made a strong case for feminist approaches to gender archaeology and the study of early societies. From her perspective, non-feminist approaches were the ones that should be challenged, especially when they were importing assumptions about the domestic arrangements of early societies, as she demonstrated with textbook illustrations in which men were the focus and women domestic drudges in the background – one of many ways in which the conference theme would emerge in papers over the coming days. Combining humour, self-reflection and a combative stance, Alison Wylie exemplified a powerful mixture of knowledge and practice, leaving a large audience of conference attendees and the wider Seattle public better informed about both early societies and feminist approaches to studying them.


Feminism and Classics is a well-established conference that now attracts around 200 delegates for three days of papers, panel sessions, and plenary lectures; this, the seventh meeting, was held at the University of Washington in Seattle. Its feminist heritage is evident in the programming, with academic research papers scheduled alongside consideration of academic practice and the politics of campus life, and frequent intersections between theory and practice. Attendees ranged from the doyennes of feminism in Classics to a new generation of engaged and activist graduate students, all eager to learn from each other and happy to share knowledge and experiences. This was a very friendly conference.

The first panel session I attended, ‘Revealing gendered violence in the academy’, opened discussion of international concerns about women’s experiences on campus. After an introduction from panel organiser, Allison Surtees (Winnipeg), Judith Hallett (University of Maryland, College Park) and Fiona McHardy (Roehampton) each presented an assessment of the current climate for women (spoiler: depressing by and large, but we’re working on fixing it). Fiona drew on research carried out with her colleague Susan Deacy, and also presented an analysis of WCC UK’s own survey of the climate for women working in Classics in UK academia. There were some interesting differences both in the problems faced and attempts to respond to them from the USA and UK.

Fiona’s presentation of worries about the dangers of unchecked ‘lad culture’ on the UK campus was particularly compelling; respondent Maxine Lewis (Auckland) brought in experiences from New Zealand, and suggested strategies for tackling hostile climates. Many audience members had much to contribute, both underlining points made by the speakers and challenging them on what constituted ‘gendered violence’ – do micro-aggressions count, for example? For the rest of the conference, UK delegates such as myself found ourselves explaining UK ‘lad culture’ to intrigued Americans; sadly, since the conference, it is the fraternity culture of US the campus that has been in the spotlight. As this first panel showed, the distinctive cultures of academia around the world, and the different student and faculty populations in terms of gender, class and ethnicity, mean that experiences vary from campus to campus and country to country, although we may diagnose the underlying causes to be similar.

The next session, ‘See and be seen’, was a highlight in the way its novel structure engaged all attendees as participants and brought the ‘Visions’ theme to life through discussions of our lived experiences. Organisers Sarah Blake (York University) and Jody Valentine (Scripps College) began by showing an episode of John Berger’s 1972 TV series Ways of Seeing, in which he first displayed the male gaze in action, demonstrating it through camera work, and then discussed it with a panel of women including feminist academics. After this they opened a discussion, inviting the audience to come up and tag the starting panel members, taking their place on stage and sharing their experiences of working under the male gaze. If perhaps we might have gone more deeply into a critique of Berger’s depiction (and instantiation of it), the sharing of experiences felt empowering, almost a return to 1970s practices of consciousness-raising.

The Visions theme also attracted some wonderful explorations of the continuing but changing depiction of classical women in art, theatre and especially film. Rhiannon Easterbrook (Bristol) explored the depiction of Galatea in WS Gilbert’s Pygmalion and Galatea, a theme echoed by Matthew Fox (Glasgow), who explored women’s encounters with classical sculpture in 19th-century fiction. Teaching and being taught in classical sculpture cast galleries will never be the same for me after the clips he showed from Leslie Howard’s 1941 Pimpernel Smith.

There was also a place for straightforward classical scholarship with a feminist stance. Panels ranged over genres from Greek drama, Latin poetry (impossible not to address Ovid) and philosophical prose, periods from archaic Greece through Imperial Rome and receptions from late antiquity to contemporary pop culture, with plenty of material culture along the way.

The integration of discussions of classical texts and scholarship and the social and political context in which that scholarship takes place was informative and inspiring. Sexual violence is a charged topic in our texts and on our campuses. Kathy Gaca (Vanderbilt) has long interrogated the sexual violence within Homeric epic, and here turned her attention to ‘Pretty women as lookers’; she explored the performative and status-generating elements of sexual abuse in war-time, and drew powerful comparisons between militaristic sexual predation and values and hierarchies on campus. Helen Morales (UCSB) argued for the careful deconstruction of metaphorical language in our assessment of gendered language and behaviour, questioning where the boundary between violence and its metaphors lies, and arguing for a scepticism with a British tinge whenever there was a risk of conflating violence and its metaphors.

Outside the formal sessions, the discussion did not stop. With our WCC UK hats on we met committee members from the US WCC and also the team from Eugesta, the pan-European network for gender studies in antiquity. Both those groups generously provided insights from their own experiences which will help us to develop the WCC UK. In turn, we were able to discuss further the data from our survey; Fiona’s presentation made a real impact and was much discussed throughout the conference.

I have rarely gained so much insight and inspiration from a conference on this scale; the only frustration was the impossibility of seeing all the papers and the inevitable clashes that meant I missed talks from Nancy Rabinowitz and others. The organisers had taken some risks in experimenting with topics and formats beyond the standard conference panel. This use of novel formats, including the associated ‘Just One Look’ exhibition of book arts on the theme of women and vision, contributed to the success of the conference and the interesting discussions generated. I look forward to the next Feminism and Classics, and hope that one day we will be able to bring the conference to the UK.

WCC UK members who presented at the conference, along with their paper titles:

  • Carol Atack (Warwick): ‘Feminist Approaches to the Performance of Status and Gender in Xenophon’s Political Thought’
  • Rhiannon Easterbrook (Bristol): ‘Galatea from the Inside’
  • Chris Mowat (Newcastle): ‘First Person, Second Sight: the Sibyl, Apollo, and feminine prophecy in the ancient world’
  • Irene Salvo (Göttingen): ‘Visions of Gender from the Athenian Curse Tablets’

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *