I’m delighted to have been invited here to meet with you all—I was at the Feminist Sandpit in 2016, and have followed your activities with interest. Today’s topic of activism is one dear to my heart, and though I am mostly speaking from my US perspective, I anticipate a lively and informative discussion and look forward to moving forward together. Building coalitions is essential for progress.
First, I would ask what we even mean by activism in this context. Not much of what we do as academics counts as activism in the most obvious and political sense. Participating in world or local politics may even conflict with our professional roles. When I was in grad school in Chicago, for instance, feminist and anti-war demonstrations and meetings were all around me. How engaged could I be, given my time in the library instead of on the picket line? Then there is the question of what we study. The intellectual or academic branches of the civil rights and women’s movements (and later gay rights movement) have attacked the traditional curriculum, and in particular its domination by dead white men. Classics certainly seemed guilty as charged—a canon of works by dead white men taught mostly by (barely) living white men. And the history of the field supports this critique because of the gate-keeping function of the study of ancient languages; classics was a central part of a liberal education, taken for granted for middle and upper class men. It was decidedly not useless knowledge: as Chris Stray and Phiroze Vasunia among others have argued, a classical education helped in the formation of white male elites and led to jobs in colonial management. Women and people of color were excluded.
The construction of antiquity as white and European persists in very troubling ways. In the last year, the web-based right-wing group Identity Europa has emerged and energetically claimed ancient imagery as its “own,” making reclaiming it part of America’s “becoming great again,” posting flyers on campuses in 2016. The former APA, now Society for Classical Studies in the US, replied first by defining antiquity as
“a complex place, with a vast diversity of peoples, languages, religions, and cultures spread over three continents, as full of contention and difference as our world is today.” The statement then turns explicitly ideological: “the Society strongly supports efforts to include all groups among those who study and teach the ancient world, and to encourage understanding of antiquity by all. . . As scholars and teachers, we condemn the use of the texts, ideals, and images of the Greek and Roman world to promote racism or a view of the Classical world as the unique inheritance of a falsely-imagined and narrowly-conceived western civilization.”
Like many others of you, I’m sure, I am suspicious of traditional claims for classics’ importance and transcendent value; that tactic was associated with the denigration of other traditions. We have to find new reasons to study antiquity, especially as we do “outreach,” or “public engagement”; if we are selling the Ancient World, we have to ask why we are doing so (more on that later). In a recent article in Eidolon, Johanna Hanink put it this way: “the hard and rewarding work lies in figuring out how to keep doing what we do — studying antiquity and its legacy — while at the same time acknowledging, and further exposing, the damage done by the old hard line on Classics and “Western civilization.”
Classicists have responded to challenges to the field (the critique from the left, the unwelcome support from the right, and I would include here the nonpartisan attacks on the humanities as useless) over the last thirty or so years. In fact, like other disciplines, we have been mobilized by the women’s movement, civil rights and anti-colonialist struggles, the gay rights movement, and more recently by a growing disability rights movement. In the rest of the paper I’ll be looking first at activism in scholarship and teaching, then at efforts to change the profession, and finally at the ways in which classicists have been using classics outside the profession. Of course, the four social movements don’t fit neatly into the three topics, and there are some overlaps. But I hope you will be able to follow!
Our incoming co-chair, Virginia Campbell, reports on the recent AGM.
In April, the WCC UK held its third AGM, with a programme dedicated to the theme of Activism. This is a topic that brought together different strands of conversations, discussions and criticisms, mostly from previous WCC events. Our focus was how we, as individuals and as a group, can effect change within our discipline, HE generally, and in the wider world. To this end, the programme was quite full – including two speakers, a workshop, a panel discussion, and spotlight talks.
Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz opened the programme discussing her work teaching Greek literature to prisoners. As someone who was one of the organising members of the WCC in the US in the 1970s, has worked in various prison systems creating spaces for education and outreach, and is involved with the committee for Classics and Social Justice, she has spent a large part of her career embodying the idea of activism in combination with the discipline of Classics. She spoke not only about her work as an activist but also as a Classicist, and the importance of using our discipline for good. ‘We are disciplined by the discipline,’ she said, but scholarship can change the way people think if we find new ways to study antiquity whilst simultaneously deconstructing the idea of civilisation as a Western, white male construct. Her ways forward include teaching material that will be problematic to many people in the room, combating the use of ancient history to justify white supremacy, and negotiating the line between doing what we do versus acknowledging the damage done by traditional notions of classics.
Spotlight talks then featured speakers discussing work using aspects of Classics and Archaeology to educate, promote a sense of community and well-being, and give voices to traditionally under-represented or marginalised groups by approaching the ancient world from different perspectives. For example , one speaker addressed the political nature of teaching Virgil’s Georgics, which is not just about philological skills or the appreciation of beauty, but about the most pressing of current social issues and how to challenge the workings of power; and how Roman imperial actions against colonised peoples, including cotton groves in Ethiopia, were used to justify British colonial policy.
Following our AGM on Wednesday, we have some changes to our committee!
First of all, we express our sincere thanks to Elena Theodorakopoulous (co-chair) and Lucy Jackson, whose term as steering committee members has ended; we are incredibly grateful to them for all they’ve done, and look forward to continue working with them as members. We also thank Chloe Hixson for her work as our postgrad disability liaison, and Rhiannon Easterbrook for her work as our graduate liaison. This meeting also marks the formal end of Katherine McDonald’s term as ECR liaison; we’re very glad that she will now be acting as our website and social media coordinator.
When the WCC UK was founded, we co-opted members on to the steering committee for fixed terms; due to personnel change, we found ourselves needing someone to act as co-chair for April 2018 – April 2020. The AGM approved the steering committee’s decision to co-opt Virginia Campbell, who has been working with the WCC UK as our elections officer since we started having elections! Virginia takes on the co-chair role with Amy Russell, and we’re looking forward to working together with them.
Our two new committee members, following the 2018 elections, are Laurence Totelin and Ellie Mackin Roberts; Laurence will be co-chair from April 2020.
In terms of liaisons, we formally welcome our ethnic minorities liaisons, Mathura Umachandran and Sukanya Rai-Sharma; they joined us after the last AGM, but this is the first opportunity for us to formally welcome them. We also welcome Katie Shields, who will be taking on the role of graduate liaison. We are also grateful to Emma Bridges, Irene Salvo, Jane Draycott and Joanna Johnson for renewing their terms as liaisons.
Following the AGM, we currently have the following vacancies:
Disability liaison, postgraduate
Disability liaison, staff and post-PhD
If you would like to volunteer for any of these posts, please do drop us an e-mail at womensclassicalcommittee at gmail.com.
We are delighted to announce that the 2018 Annual General Meeting of the Women’s Classical Committee UK will take place on Wednesday the 18th of April, at the Institute of Classical Studies, Senate House, London, from 10am to 5pm.
Our theme this year is ‘Activism’. What does it mean to be a classicist and an activist? How does activism intersect with research, teaching, administration, outreach? How can we make sure our activism remains mindful of structural inequality and advantage, including our own? How should we approach the risks that come with public activism?
Events will include keynote addresses by Nancy Rabinowitz and Donna Zuckerberg, a panel on outreach as activism featuring Mai Musié and Marcus Bell, and a plenary workshop “Whiteness: privilege, advantage and becoming an ally”, delivered by professional facilitators from the Equality Challenge Unit. More details on the workshop, which is designed for both White and BME attendees, are available on our website, along with a provisional programme for the day.
The day will also feature spotlight talks (five minutes each) on classics and activism. Anyone of any gender and career stage who would like to contribute a spotlight talk is invited to send an expression of interest to amy.russell at durham.ac.uk by Monday 12th March.
Registration details and the final programme will be circulated in March. Registration will be free to members. People of any gender expression or identity who support the WCC’s aims are welcome to attend this event. Further details, including our aims and activities and how to join, are available here.
The WCC is committed to providing friendly and accessible environments for its events; the call for registration will include full details about access, dietary needs, and childcare. We have generous funding from the Classical Association and the University of Oxford’s Craven Committee to enable the participation of postgraduate and early career attendees, including reasonable travel expenses for speakers and travel bursaries for attendees.