57 Richlin, Amy. 2014. “The Ethnographer’s Dilemma and the Dream of a Lost Golden Age.”

The Ethnographer’s Dilemma — Richlin

The Ethnographer’s Dilemma and the Dream of a Lost Golden Age


This chapter belongs to a time when not only feminists but many scholars in the humanities believed that what we wrotewas directly connected with political action in the world we inhabit. That belief has been sorely tested in the past twenty years, especially for those of us who work on the far past; still, maybe not wrong. Specifically, “The Ethnographer’s Dilemma”was in- spired by the concentrated reading and thinking I had been doing on femi- nism and Foucault after moving to theUniversity of Southern California in 1989. My appointment was half in Classics, half in Gender Studies, and for the first timeI was teaching feminist political theory with colleagues in anthropology (Walter Williams), history (Lois Banner),psychology (Carol Jacklin), and sociology (Michael Messner, Barrie Thorne). USC’s program was an unusual one, foundedearly on as the Program for the Study of Women and Men in Society, and always involving a large component of Men’sStudies; I fit right in, and taught in the General Education courses on women’s studies and feminist theory. There I saw at firsthand that teaching really can change people’s lives—true in gender studies in a way it rarely is


290 • arguments with silence

in Classics, as students gain political insight and learn to see the workings of gender systems in history and in their own lives. It was a great experience, and I owe a lot to the wonderful range of students USC had in the early 1990s: inner-city kids, single mothers, returning students, the stand-up co- median Emily Levine who sat in on my senior seminar on ancient sexuality, and always the film school group.

It was team-teaching with the ever-cheerful Walter Williams that taught me to think about the glass-half-empty, glass-half-full perspectives, and how they vary according to the personality of the researcher. Ironically, the material surveyed in chapter 10 brings us back to the insight of chapter 1: depends who you ask—a depressingly relativistic conclusion for someone who believes in theexistence of historical fact. The early 1990s was a time of great intellectual fervor, in Classics particularly centered on Michel Fou- cault’s late work on the history of sexuality, since he chose to start from antiquity. I wrote a series of rejoinders (1991, 1992: xiii–xxxiii, 1993, 1997a, 1997c), impelled partly by the short shrift Foucault gave to women in his history. Foucault found plenty of defenders (see Larmour et al. 1997, Skin- ner 1996), and now the whole debate is itself fading into history (Richlin 2013b), althoughFoucault’s dicta have become a solid part of general knowl- edge about antiquity, impossible to dislodge. But this fade also suggests how chapter 10 might be viewed as an exercise in reception theory, while itself constituting part of the very long history of the reception of classical an- tiquity. Feminists are hardly the first to invoke antiquity in the service of politics, nor were we in the Second Wave even the first feminists to do so (see Henderson and McManus 1985, Stevenson 2005). The study of recep- tion has been booming in Classics for the past fifteen years, and classicists are now going through something of what anthropologists went through in the 1980s, as described in chapter 10: becoming conscious of the his- tory of what we do (Kallendorf 2007; Martindale and Thomas2006). “The Ethnographer’s Dilemma” fits perfectly well with the remarks of Genevieve Liveley addressed in the Introduction: yes, meaning is made at the point of reception. The real point of chapter 10, however, is that scholars’ choices have consequences. Without feminists there would be no women’s history, and writing that history is important for all women, past and present.

In practical terms this essay began with an APA panel in 1990, organized

by Nancy Rabinowitz and me and titled “Feminist Theory and the Clas- sics” (only a cousinly relation to the Feminism and Classics conferences which began in 1992). In the panel proposal, I wrote: “We have consciously organized a panel for the general meeting, rather than one for the Women’s

The Ethnographer’s Dilemma and the Dream of a Lost Golden Age • 291

Classical Caucus, to emphsize our conviction that feminist theory is of in- terest and use to the membership as a whole.These matters need no longer be restricted to the gynaeceum.” The panelists were Marylin Arthur Katz, Marilyn Skinner,Tina Passman, Judith Hallett, and Barbara Gold; most of us went on to put together the collection in which chapter 10appears. A major element in this chapter derives from a letter Marilyn Skinner wrote to her fellow panelists dated October12, 1990:

I’m really looking forward to this session. The “essentialists” and the “constructionists” (or, better, the pessimists and theoptimists) are form- ing battle lines, and from the wealth of brainpower and erudition on either side, it’ll be one hell of a fight.What fun!!

And it really has been a lot of fun. With serious implications.

❧      ❧      ❧

Every oppressed group needs to imagine through the help of history and mythology a world where our oppression did not seem the pre-ordained order. Aztlan for Chicanos is another example. The mistake lies in believing in this ideal past or imagined future so thoroughlyand single-mindedly that finding solutions to present-day inequities loses priority, or we attempt to create too-easy solutions for the painwe feel today.

Cherríe Moraga, “From a Long Line of Vendidas” (1986: 188–89)

Optimists and Pessimists

Why does anyone study the past? That is, what are people’s motives for do- ing this, and what are the possible results?Looking forward to the panel from which Feminist Theory and the Classics began, Marilyn Skinner wrote to me that sheexpected to see some wonderful battles between “the pes- simists and the optimists.” I have been thinking about thisaccurate but odd division ever since. How mysterious: what is there to be hoped for, or de- spaired of, in the past? Do thesehopes relate to our own progress in knowl- edge? Scholars often talk in terms of “getting somewhere,” as if all learning were aquest with a grail at the end of it, or a series of metamorphoses, with a last glorious transformation at the end. Reflecting onthe history of a field

292 • arguments with silence

of scholarship, people tend to divide it into developmental stages, implying, “They were dumb then, but we’re smart now.” “Beyond X” is a common title: after structuralism comes poststructuralism; after modernism, post- modernism. Like Mr. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, thinkers are obsessed with getting past Q to the next letter of the alphabet, and so finally to some ultimate Z. Or does our optimism or pessimism relate to our actions in  the present and our goals for the future? The problem is that the focus on hope or despair, the focus on getting to Z, has obscured political goals and divided writers more and more from any audience outside theacademy. As Cherríe Moraga suggests, it is not good to get distracted from what needs to be done.

I myself am a gloomy writer, included among the pessimists in Mari- lyn Skinner’s assessment. My research began in the late1970s with Roman satire and invective, texts now rarely read outside the field of Classics (see chapter 2). Here is the full text of apoem discussed briefly in chapters 2 and 6 (Priapea 46):

O girl no whiter than a Moor, but sicker than all the fags,

shorter than the pygmy who fears the crane, rougher and hairier than bears,

looser than the pants that Medes or Indians wear, [why don’t you go away?]

For though I might seem ready enough, I’d need ten handfuls of [Spanish fly]

to be able to grind the trenches of your groin and bang the swarming worms of your cunt.

The Songs of Priapus, a group of lyric poems in which the ithyphallic god who watched over Roman gardens threatens to rape intruders, might be dismissed as obscure, second-rate, anonymous. But there is a great deal of material like this in Latin, and indeed in Greek, in later European cultures, and in non-European cultures. The more I looked, the more I found; I soon began to hypothesize that such texts work along with basic social forma- tions, and not only in Rome. This coincided with my growingawareness of violence against women in my own culture, on my own campus, on my own street. Three months after my book The Garden of Priapus first came out, the woman who had been my co-captain on the Princeton crew was raped and murdered; she was thirty-two years old.

The Ethnographer’s Dilemma and the Dream of a Lost Golden Age   •   293

So I write in anger, and I write so that oppression is not forgotten or passed over in silence. Yet I know this is not the onlyway to write. I once team-taught a course with Walter Williams, the historian of gender, whose work has emphasized thefreedom of sexual identity within Native Ameri- can and other non-European cultures. He used to tell me that the glass is half full, and that my gloomy views derive from the cultures I have chosen to study. I know that other feminists in Classics dofind positive things in those cultures. I also know that it is not part of the traditional practice of Classics to care so much aboutthe social implications of texts. As we read Latin and Greek, we distance ourselves, muffling the meaning with layers of grammar, commentary, previous scholarship. We skip things. I think that is not a responsible or honest way to read, and thatreading should be socially responsible; this is one reason classicists need feminist theory—our old way of reading keepsus cut off. As a woman, a feminist, and a scholar, I want to know what relation scholarship can have to social change. Thisquestion seems to me to necessitate serious thought about the attitudes we bring to our work—our optimism or pessimism—and their relation to action.

Thinking about optimists and pessimists and their arguments with each other within the academy, I evolved a taxonomy inorder to describe them. Sandra Joshel, whose work on Roman slavery figures below, objects that my oppositionalcategories obscure overlaps and exclude other possibilities: life is not either-or. You can imagine her saying “But . . .” at the endof each paragraph. The making of such a taxonomy is itself characteristic of one of its own main categories, and herobjection is characteristic of the other. I believe that my neat categories describe something that really exists, and needs tobe addressed in this sort of orderly way; but I concede the overlaps, which indeed give the system its paradoxical energies,and make it possible for us to talk to each other. The chart below groups theorists at two levels: according to theirassumptions about knowledge, and according to their feelings about what they study. For feminist theorists, thesedivisions are already familiar; the consideration of feeling as a motive for theory may be new. For classicists—a group thathas come to define itself as apolitical—the struggle in the new millennium to define our public worth in a marketplace ofideas now urges constant self-examination.1

The first split lies at the level of epistemology: the question of what is knowable, of how we know what we know. Somepeople believe in what is called “grand theory,” a kind of theory which claims validity across history and cultures.2 I wouldcall this an optimistic epistemology, since it takes a sanguine attitude toward the ability of a human subject to view a hugemass

294 • arguments with silence

Fig. 5. Optimists and Pessimists

of information and express it in a meaningful order. Other people pooh- pooh grand theory, and, instead, trace local-historical differences. I would call this a pessimistic epistemology, since it takes a negative attitude: huge masses of information are chaotic,and human efforts to reduce them to “or- der” are futile and self-deluding, because necessarily solipsistic—not only the order but the information itself being invented by the researcher. Thus this group describes the efforts of the first group as “reductionist,” and con- demns its theories as “totalizing theories.”3 The optimists stress similarities and continuities, the pessimists stress difference and watersheds. Though some optimist groups (for example, Marxists) include historical change in their model, the pessimist groups tend to accuse the optimist groups of being ahistorical and stress their own “historicizing” of phenomena. Often models that positvery slow change—in terms of millennia—seem to regis- ter with their opponents as no-change models.

The second split lies at the level of attitude. Optimists see in the past, or in other cultures, good things to be emulated; pessimists see bad things that determine or elucidate our own ills. This split depends on personality as much as on politics. Writers accentuate either the positive or the nega- tive, usually to make a larger point; then the larger point is forgotten or obscured by the dueling details of the positive/negative picture (a major example would be the ongoing debate over ancient sexual identities).

The Ethnographer’s Dilemma and the Dream of a Lost Golden Age • 295

Optimists and pesimists tend to annoy each other and quarrel: those who cel- ebrate “women’s culture” are attacked asromantic; the cheerful, upbeat, and inventive Foucauldians are critiqued as politically naïve; the glum chroni- clers ofpatriarchy are in turn dismissed for their use of grand theory. What is important is what is getting lost, the larger point at stake,the “so what.” “See? Women can be powerful” vies with “See? Women have always been oppressed.” The implied “Then . . .”that connects to action usually remains implicit; whole social programs hover—unexpressed—behind articles on Belgianmine workers or ancient Greek pederasty. Sometimes it is hard to tell the players apart; as the chart shows, an optimisticepistemology often goes with a pessimistic tone, and vice versa. To avoid confusion in what follows, I will use “Optimist”and “Pessimist” to refer to epistemologies, “optimist” and “pessimist” to refer to attitudes.

Feminists in the academy in the 1990s were engaged in a running argu- ment about grand theory (see de Lauretis 1990for overview; Rose 1993). In this case, the issue is cast as “essentialism”—the belief that something (women, patriarchy,sexuaity) exists as an abstract entity that would be rec- ognizably the same across time and cultures. Feminist theorists inthe 1970s built their political analysis on the idea of patriarchy (gender asymmetry in which power tends to reside in malesover females), which they saw as universal, or nearly so. Moreover, whereas a long tradition in Western thought held thatwomen were essentially different from men and inferior to them (Aristotle, Aquinas, Nietzsche), and some feministscountered this by arguing for the equality/sameness of women and men, other feminists countered by arguing that womenare essentially different from men and superior to them (Mary Daly, Adrienne Rich). These feminist essential- ists stress qualities like nurturance, warmth, kindness as inherently female. But the 1980s saw the rise of postmodernist theory, (still)generally hostile to grand theory, alongside the rising consciousness of differences among women themselves acrossclass, race, sexual, and geopolitical lines. “Dif- ference” for women of color meant the assertion of identity; in contrast,postmodernist theory, despite its emphasis on the particular and on local- historical differences, rejects the idea of the“subject”—the independent individual. Instead, each person represents an intersection of fluctuating currents of power, sothat the whole culture makes up a sort of network. Anti-essentialist arguments assert that the female (for example) wouldhave a different meaning in any given culture, even that the category “women” is meaningless (see volume introduction,on Afsaneh Najmabadi); and in- deed that some constructs in culture A would not exist as such in culture B

296 • arguments with silence

(for example, Michel Foucault’s claim that “homosexuality” is a nineteenth- century idea [1978: 43]). The strength of the anti-essentialist reaction seems to come partly from a feeling of revulsion against an idea that was for so long used against women; partly from a feeling that totalizing theories in- volve the theorist in speaking for other people, preempting them (a feeling that canresult in aphasia, see Alcoff 1991; hooks 1990: 26); and sometimes also from the paradoxical belief that all totalizing theory is invalid. Thus some feminists have claimed both that the essentialist concept of gender is a trap for women, and that it is not in fact valid. It is important to note that these are separate claims; too often the first (“trap for women”) is asserted as if it were the second(“not valid”). I will refer to this assertion as the “wrong because depressing” argument. Long duration does not preclude change, andwe have ample evidence that nature itself is an historical entity.

Postmodern ideas have been met by some feminist theorists with in- terest, by others with indignation.4 Without the category“women,” some wonder, how can we have feminism? The disappearance of the subject, they point out, also neatly deletes the materialexistence of oppression, of agency and responsibility; this critique often takes the form of what I have called (1991: 161) the “just-when” argument: “Just when women (people of color, colonial people) finally begin to claim subjecthood, Western elite theorists claim there is no such thing.” Still, “essentialist” is now a bad word, some- thing no one wants to be, while feminism, haingshattered into “femi- nisms” in the 1990s, is now itself in trouble as a label. Each side in the grand theory debate claimed confidentlythat its methodology pointed the way to women’s future, and would usher in profound social change. Fine: how? The title of thevolume Feminist Theory and the Classics invited the ques- tion of what contribution feminists in Classics could make to feminist theory in other fields. How you answer this question depends very much on where you stand in relation to grand theory. If you are interested in a con- struct like “patriarchy” and want to test how long it has gone on, it is helpful to have as much information as youcan get about cultures two thousand years in the past. If you are not—and “patriarchy” itself now sounds very dated as a concept(see Bennett 2006)—the value of Classics changes. If we abandon a model that charts a pattern over long periods of time, if eachculture is distinct, then time collapses into space and Classics becomes a branch of anthropology, investigating its cultures. Nor can Classics offer a special method; whereas anthropology, for example, not only finds out as much as it can about individualcultures but also posits rules explaining how cultures work, Classics stops at finding out as much as it can about

The Ethnographer’s Dilemma and the Dream of a Lost Golden Age • 297

two cultures within a set period (c. 1500 BCE to c. 500 CE), or even just at appreciating them. The rules we have generate have to do with how to find things out more accurately, how to reconstruct our long chain of evi- dence. Our only special claimwas that Greece and Rome themselves were somehow important, either because of their intrinsic worth or because of theirputative status as the origin of Western culture. When such claims are abandoned or rejected, what does Classics have tooffer? One answer is that, to those who stress difference within our culture, it has been impor- tant to stress difference inthe Western past. Those who want to prove that the modern period is fundamentally different from earlier periods need to know something about them. The glamour of antiquity is slow to evaporate. Arguments both optimistic and pessimistic oftendepend on having (or not having) an understanding of what happened in the ancient Mediterranean.

The Ethnographer’s Dilemma and the Dream of a Lost Golden Age

The division into Optimist and Pessimist has taken two special forms within the disciplines of anthropology and history. (1)Feminist and postmodern- ist anthropologists have, for some years now, been increasingly involved with what I call theethnographer’s dilemma. For example: radical feminists early on decried crimes against women, and gave gen talmutilation (cli- toridectomy) as a prime instance (Barry 1979: 189–92; Daly 1978: 153–77).5 They Optimistically assumedtheir values applied to all cultures. But femi- nist anthropologists began to wonder whether it is really incumbent upon Western scholars to view other cultures in light of our own values, among which they placed feminism. Suppose that Otherwomen derive pride and satisfaction from practices we find abhorrent (“oppressive”)? This principle also applies to lessextreme examples, like division of labor (women take pride in weaving, pot-making, tuber-gathering) or religious segregation (the menstrual hut as a source of solidarity, even primacy). Whereas an old-fashioned Marxist analysiswould have called pride in clitoridectomy “false consciousness,” feminists in the 1990s became uneasy about labeling other people’s values false, preferring that each should speak for herself. On the other hand, anthropologists generallyhave become conscious that the observer cannot escape her own values; we see through the eyes so- cially constructedfor us. For a feminist, the combination of these realiza- tions produces an epistemological double bind (we should try to seethings

298 • arguments with silence

through the Other’s eyes, but we can’t) and brings into question the whole purpose of the anthropological project. Maybe the West should stop being so nosy. Maybe we should just stay home. But what about home? Does this mean it’s all right for women to have cosmetic surgery? And what about false consciousness—should we learn to respect clitoridectomy? Are values ever transferable?The problem of reconciling different gender systems has only grown more pressing since September 11, 2001.

The bogging down of the ethnographer coincided with the rise of the field of postcolonial theory and subaltern studies. During the 1980s, theo- rists’ attention turned to the aftermath of the invasion and occupation of many parts of the world by Europeans inthe modern period. Now that these occupations have (at least officially) been over for some time, the people who live in those parts of the world, or who returned to the “mother coun- try,” have been writing about what it means to them to have two languages and two cultures, or a mixed culture. The title of Gayatri Spivak’s classic article, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (1988), refers to the problem of find- ing a voice for those who are outside the structures of power and language in colonial systems (for example, the title character in Mahasweta Devi’s short story “Draupadi”). In what language should s/he speak? What gives people the power tospeak? These issues, long recognized in feminist theory (see Gal 1991 for a review), take on a new dimension when race, gender, and class combine with a colonial history. The voices speaking out of the colonies have turned the ethnographer’s monologue into a conversation, and remind us whose dilemma it is. For  the ancient world, the problem   is that we do have many “native” voices, but we must scramble to find the voices of women, of slaves, and of those who were literally colonized within that world.6 Since ourconversation has to be one-sided, our dilemma rarely troubles us.

One way out of the ethnographer’s dilemma has been suggested by an-thropologist Lila Abu-Lughod. In “Can There Be a Feminist Ethnography?” (Abu-Lughod 1990: 26–27), she talks of the practice of anthropology by indigenous anthropologists and “halfies,” people of mixed cultural back- ground: “Their agony is not how to communicate across a divide but how to theorize the experience that moving back and forth between the many worlds they inhabitis a movement within one complex and historically and politically determined world.” Women studying women, she says, do break down the self/other divide, to a degree. But, unless just being a woman in our field is enough, feminists in Classics can never be“halfies.” We cannot even be participant observers. We  suffer all the drawbacks of being “colo-

The Ethnographer’s Dilemma and the Dream of a Lost Golden Age • 299

nizers” of the past—thousands of years of skewed sources, invasion into cultures that did not ask us to come—without theadvantage of actually be- ing able to go there. On the other hand, we do speak the language, to some degree; and there is noone left to resent us, nor is Messalina here to tell her own story. (Then there is the enormous question of who owns classical antiquity among the modern nations; see Stephens and Vasunia 2010, and ongoing discussion of the phrase “Orientalseclusion” as applied by modern classicists to Athenian women.)

(2) At the same time that anthropologists have been getting nervous about what we do when we look elsewhere,historians have been redefining what they think we are doing when we look elsewhen. Postmodernist historians, at least,have produced a mode of history-writing that is closely aligned with anthropology and exhibits the same paradoxes (seeVeeser 1989 on the New Historicists; Partner and Foot 2013 for this and other va- rieties). Michel Foucault inspired a schoolof critics who look for local dif- ferences in stretches of the past, mapping a terrain of ideas and social mo- res.7 Theepistemological problem on which they focus was formulated by Louis Montrose (1989: 20) as “the textuality of history, thehistoricity of the text” (see chapter 3). That is, as past events are only actually knowable to us through a screen of texts—rather, the screen of texts is all that is knowable to us of the past—so each text must be located in its historical context, and can only be understood within that context. This leaves the historian in much the same position as the anthropologist in herdilemma, able at best to appreciate and understand; value judgments are not part of this method (see Newton 1988 for afeminist critique).

However, ironically, and maybe because appreciation is still part of the method, this school of history-writing falls intowhat I would call the dream of a lost golden age. Societies in the past, especially precapitalist societies, are privileged; thestrangeness of their customs is admired, their emotions seen as free of the dread hand of Freud. This optimistic attitudeshows up, to give a classical example, in the work of the Foucauldian John J. Winkler, who often sets up what he calls“ancient Mediterranean” cultures in fvor- able contrast to what he calls “NATO cultures” (Winkler 1990a: 13, 27, 73, 93). Wesee here how the elsewhere and elsewhen can be combined.

But it is not only the postmodernist historians who look to the past for something to admire. Other kinds of historians wantto use past cultures as a means to redeem the present, or claim the distant past as a charter for future social change. This desire can be seen as a form of what is called in religion studies “chronological dualism”—a belief that there was once a

300 • arguments with silence

time when everything was wonderful; then there was a Fall, so that we have the long expanse (including now) when everything is terrible;but someday there will come a time when everything will be wonderful again. Models like this combine optimism with pessimism, instages. The theorists who have chosen this model make odd companions: (1) Some feminist histori- ans and archaeologists have lookedto the past for instances of matriarchy, high valuation of women, or goddess worship; the implication is that if such a state of things existedonce, it can exist again. (This can be seen to be similar to the feminist anthropologist project of finding models elsewhere: if there isgender equality among the !Kung San, we can have it, too. As an- thropologist Micaela di Leonardo points out, this move was partlyjustified by first claiming that cultures elsewhere represented “primitive” societies, living remnants of the elsewhen [di Leonardo 1991a:15].) Most of the schol- ars looking for matriarchy in the past focus on pre- or non-Indo-European cultures and the traces of theirsurvival; some, however, have even looked to the Greco-Roman world (see Zweig 1993).

(2) Another group, among those historians increasingly seeking to put the rest of the Mediterranean world back into our picture of antiquity, has integrated Greece and Rome with neighboring African and Semitic cul- tures (see Haley 1993). For Afrocentrists,this forms part of a political pro- gram of reclaiming a great past. (3) An early and influential chronological- dualism model was produced by Engels, who was a contemporary of the early anthropological writers on matriarchy; in Origin of the Family, Pri- vate Property, and the State, he posited what he called the “world histori- cal defeat of women,” a time in the distant past when egalitarian societies gave way to male-dominated ones. This time began with the rise of states and would come to an end with revolution in the means of production. Engels’s influence on feminist theory in the 1970s was considerable.8 (4) Finally, and oddlyenough, the romantic view of the golden past also seems to be responsible for the politically conservative discipline of Classics it- self: hence the name. You would not think that the august male philologists Wilamowitz and Gildersleeve had much in common with Merlin Stone or Molefi Kete Asante or Engels, but all of their projects are determined by a belief that certain pasts are especially worthy of study and that such study empowers the student. This leaves us with a sad argument for the arbitrary nature of thehistorical endeavor, since all these romantics have sallied forth into the past and returned with completely different trophies. Even if we agree that all the trophies were there to be found, along with others, there

The Ethnographer’s Dilemma and the Dream of a Lost Golden Age • 301

is still wide disagreement about which ones are worth looking for, and how to establish criteria.

It is my goal here to review the 1990s debates in anthropology, history, and Classics, both (O)ptimist and (P)esimist,ending with some illustra- tions from the history of ancient women. I have picked these disciplines and these illustrations inorder to stress materialities as much as possible, to maintain a focus on women’s lives. The last defenders of grand theoryfight on (Bennett 2006). My own preference is for an Optimistic epistemology that maps a real reality and then doessomething about it; difference is a part of reality, not a sign of its demise.

Anthropology, History, Women in Antiquity


The ethnographer’s dilemma and the dream of a lost golden age were being discussed in feminist anthropology by the early1980s. In an excellent over- view, Judith Shapiro (1981: 119) divided feminist anthropological work into two types, oneseeking “to affirm the universality of male dominance and to seek ways of accounting for it without falling into biologicaldeterminism. Another [denies] the generality of the pattern by producing cases to serve as counterexamples . . . showinghow sexual differentiation may imply com- plementarity as well as inequality.” The chapters above on sexual invective andrape would fall into the first category (cf. Keuls 1993), the chapters on religion and medicine veer toward the second, thechapters on makeup and mourning combine the two. The perception of the division Shapiro out- lined as a choice betweengrand theory and local-historical differences has driven postmodernist feminist anthropologists into quandaries, for exam-ple, Henrietta Moore in Feminism and Anthropology, who begins from the premise that “the concept ‘woman’ cannot stand”(Moore 1988: 7). Moore is then defensive about doing “feminist” anthropology, and states outright that “the basis for thefeminist critique is not the study of women, but the analysis of gender relations,” dismissing earlier work (1988: vii, 6). In this, she anticipated a trend in which women per se went out of fashion; a collec- tion of essays in feminist anthropology, intended(di Leonardo 1991b: vii) as an update on the classic Woman, Culture, and Society (Rosaldo and Lam- phere 1974), was titledGender at the Crossroads of Knowledge, underscoring

302 • arguments with silence

the retreat of feminist scholarship from “women” to “gender” outlined in Tania Modleski’s Feminism without Women (1991: 3–22).

The ethnographer’s dilemma is a specialized form of this grand-theory issue. Judith Shapiro sums up the problem (1981: 117):

Marxist idealizations of sex-role differentiation in small-scale societies bring us back to the Noble Savage; what we are seeing is an attempt   to seek a charter for social change in the myth of a Golden Age. This approach is also a way of avoiding one of the thornier problems that recent sex-role studies have raised for the field of anthropology, which is the question of how we can go about adopting a critical perspective on societies very different from our own.       If we engage in a critique of other cultures   do we risk engaging in what we have generally seen as the opposite of anthropology—missionization?   Do we operate with a theoretical double standard: a critique of society for us and functional- ism for the natives?

Again, the problem throws Moore into self-reproach: feminist anthro- pology, by trying to be inclusive, practiced exclusion;anthropologists were preempting third world women, and thereby being not just ethnocentric but racist (1988: 191). Micaela diLeonardo devotes a whole section of her overview to the dilemma, which she calls “ethnographic liberalism and the feminist conundrum,” and which she rightly sets in the context of anthro- pology’s general political relation to its object of study (1991a: 10): “how could we analyze critically instances of male domination and oppression in precisely those societies whose customs anthropology was traditionally pledged to advocate?” Her formulation points to a way in which this issue is relevant for Classics: classicists are trained to feel a strong love for the ancient world, a duty to cherish its memory. Thus her words bear a signifi- cantresemblance to the way in which Judith Hallett posed the problem in a 1992 conference paper: “How are we to foster a debate aboutancient Greek and Roman constructions of sexuality which acknowledges the shortcom- ings of Greek and Roman societies?”(1992a: 7). The cultural separation of anthropologists from the cultures they study, and the cultural continuities between antiquity and the present that are part of the self-definition of Classics, both leave the feminist in a position that makes it hard to justify her own critique. Indeed, to many classicists, such critiques are not what the field of Classics is about.

Golden age models and origins theories attempt to escape the ethnogra-

The Ethnographer’s Dilemma and the Dream of a Lost Golden Age • 303

pher’s dilemma via the past. Both anthropology and archaeology have de- voted attention to the question of who isresponsible for human civilization, man-the-hunter or the new contender woman-the-gatherer; some want to find woman-centered cultures in the remote past, others at least to make Neolithic women visible (Gero and Conkey 1991). MichelleRosaldo’s clas- sic essay “The Use and Abuse of Anthropology” duly includes a section on the search for origins anduniversals (1980: 390–96; cf. O’Brien and Rose- berry 1991). Best known herself as a formulator of grand theory (so di Leo- nardo 1991a: 13), she nonetheless directs a frown at origins theories, on the grounds that they depict gender systems as“essentially unchanging” (1980: 392–93). This is a version of the “wrong because depressing” argument; note also herethe way “long-lasting” or “slow to change” is read as “unchanging.” On the other hand, Rosaldo more or less concedes that“sexual asymmetry” is a universal, and calls ignoring it “romantic” (1980: 396). A good word to choose; surely thesearguments about the most distant human past exhibit clearly the mythopoeic impulse driving scholarly endeavors—therewriting of Genesis.

The discipline emerges as a battleground for Optimist and Pessimist epis- temologies, incorporating optimist and pessimist attitudes. Di Leonardo lists solutions theorists have proposed to solve the “feminist conundrum”: various typesof grand theory, including Engels’s Marxist model; various optimistic models, in which women are either said to enjoy highstatus in a given culture, or the power of their separate sphere is stressed. Her favorites are the Verstehen method associated with Max Weber, in which the inves- tigator tries to get into the mindset of the ones investigated, and a sort of feminist Marxist theory that stresses the study of political economy. She re- jects postmodernist theory (1991a: 17–27) asnihilistic, incapable of political commitment, and points out that it is possible to see problems in language without throwingthe material world overboard. Even Moore (1988: 10–11) posits a kind of feminist postmodernism that will hang on to realwomen’s real experiences, rather than just listing their varieties.

These issues matter to classicists because we, too, have to worry about dealing with cultures not our own. We need atheory that can define our relation to the people we are studying: what is a writer supposed to do who studies cultures buriedin the past, who reads “dead” languages? If the goal of feminist anthropology is to replace monologue with conversation,we have no possible equivalent. We, too, have to examine our reasons for writ- ing (about) the past; we need a theory thatspells out the relation between “antiquity” and ourselves. Moreover, as we pore over our fragmentary evi-

304 • arguments with silence

dence, it is useful to us to make comparisons with other cultures. Work in Mediterranean anthropology (Brandes 1981; Dubisch1986; Herzfeld 1985) has seemed particularly pertinent (as in Winkler 1990a, and the sources  in chapter 9 above); attention is now turning towards Asia, for example through Walter Scheidel’s Stanford Ancient Chinese and Mediterranean Empires project. Studies of oral forms like fables or jokes often require a comparative lens. So we need a theory that can justify such comparisons.9

But, as feminists, we all need to remind ourselves of why we are doing this in the first place. If the idea originally was to find a charter for social change someplace else, we should not let arguments about how to find the charter keep us from working on thesocial change. We should not wind up talking about women extremely remote from us in time and space, in lan- guage extremelyremote from everyday speech, so that we never have time to talk in everyday words with women close to us. We should hold on to the reality of what we are doing.10


Feminist theory in history has come to focus on problems in dealing with the elsewhen much like those anthropologists have found in dealing with the elsewhere.11 Historians with differing approaches agree on some sur- prising points, particularly that the goal ofwriting women’s history is social change. Gerda Lerner begins The Creation of Patriarchy (1986: 3) with the words, “Women’s historyis indispensable and essential to the emancipation of women.” Judith Newton emphasizes the point in her materialist critique ofpostmodern theory (1988: 94); yet the eminent postmodernist Joan Scott also talks of “feminist commitments to analyses that willlead to change” in her classic essay “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis” (1989: 83). These same critics are willing tobegin from the premise that history is mythmaking (Lerner 1986: 35–36; Newton 1988: 92). Lerner both acknowl- edges the human need for myth and calls on feminists to abandon “the search for an empowering past . . . compensatory myths . . . will not eman- cipate women in the present and the future” (1986: 36).12

Historians, however, are left in an uncomfortable position with regard to grand theory other than golden age models. Accepting the hortatory func- tion of writing history entails a steady reluctance to hear bad news, and more versions of the “wrong because depressing” argument. Thus a model that posits the transhistorical existence of patriarchy is defined by its oppo-

The Ethnographer’s Dilemma and the Dream of a Lost Golden Age • 305

nents as ahistorical (that is, wrong), because it involves something that does not change over time (or has not changed yet;or has not changed for as long as we have records). To Joan Scott, patriarchy watchers are pessimists: “History becomes,in a sense, epiphenomenal”; against varieties of grand theory, she sets “my hopeless utopianism” (Scott 1989: 86–87, 91), aninter- esting oxymoron. More resourcefully, Gerda Lerner suggests that totalizing theory can comprehend change:“anatomy once was destiny” (1986: 52–53, her emphasis). Such a position seems to me to be both more productive and moresensible than the wholesale rejection of grand theory. Here Classics has something to contribute: a long view. We are used tonoting trends over the two-thousand-year period which is our own domain, along with the fif- teen hundred years that cameafter. In this perspective, capitalism is a flash in the pan. On such a large scale, local-historical differences do not seem sosignificant, or so different. Rather than serving as an end in themselves, surely their best use is to modify grand theory, notvitiate it.

To solve their problem, some historians fashion a combined model that will let them describe both women’s oppressionand their agency—the fact that women were not always just victims (Lerner 1986: 4; Newton 1988: 99; Schüssler Fiorenza 1989: xv, 25, 85–86). These two concepts, “oppression” and “agency,” correspond with “pessimistic” and “optimistic”expectations on the part of scholars. Linda Gordon (1986: 23–24)—inspiring “Pliny’s Brassiere”—sketched three similarpessimist/optimist oppositions: between “domination” and “resistance” models; among Marxists, between structure andagency; and, among feminists, between political history and scial his- tory. The social historians who recover women’sculture are accused by the gloomy political historians of “romanticization of oppression.” Here we have a historical versionof the ethnographer’s dilemma: is women’s separate culture, women’s special world, a thing of beauty or part of the problem? This is where the category “women” begins to vanish down the rabbit hole. To reconstruct Greek or Roman women’sseparate culture requires years of painstaking research, putting together tiny fragments; we long to know more; and yetalmost everything we get is filtered through male texts and a culture that favored the male in many ways. A combined modelwould take into account the male nature of the sources while keeping a firm grip on the women hidden behind them.

An approach like this would be able to test the model of the “world historical defeat of women” tied, by Engels, to the riseof the state as an institution, a model which should be of interest to classicists (see Harper 2011 on law, the state, andsexuality). Rome in particular developed from

306 • arguments with silence

a small-scale pastoral culture to a large-scale empire, turning other small- scale cultures into colonies as it went along. We might look at Irene Sil- verblatt’s work on the Inca (Silverblatt 1991), in which she takes a strongly optimistic view of women’s position; Judith Hallett’s work on Roman elite women leads in a similar direction (Hallett 1984, 1989), as does the new work on Romanreligion that posits a gender-integrated model (e.g., Dolan- sky 2011a, b, c; see chapter 7). The challenge, for all periods of history, isto avoid restricting our gaze to the elite, or adopting a strong identification with the studied culture as elite sources portray it. Inmany cases Verstehen all has been to forgive all.

The ethnographer’s dilemma is also noted by historians of women as a problem they themselves face; there is the same Self/Other difference, the same imbalance of power between observer and observed. Here, where elsewhere and elsewhen merge, so do the ethnographer’s dilemma and the dream of a lost golden age. As Judith Shapiro remarks of the use of the noble savage in anthropology, the distance between now and an imper- fectly known then allows for all sorts of wishful projections. The search forvalidation in the past haunts even those writers who are critical of such searches. Nazife Bashar, arguing against the usefulness of the concept of “the status of women” cross-culturally, surveys a group of English historians of women, all of whom structure their history as a progression—or regres- sion: the bad old days or the golden age. Yet Bashar concludes that, for feminists, without agolden age, “we cannot have our myth of the past as . . . an inspiration for the future” (1984: 46). Those who seek matriarchy in the past have come under attack by historians (Lerner 1986: 16, 26–35, 146–48), archaeologists (see Brown 1993; Talalay 2012; Zweig1993), and historians of religion (Eller 2000; Schüssler Fiorenza 1989: 18, 21–31). Yet many of these in turn are themselves seeking validation in the past. Lerner’s history is a search for a charter: if patriarchy has a historical beginning, it can have a historical ending. Some archaeologists just substitute woman-the-gatherer for the Goddess. Church historians are looking for some Church Mothers. The mythmaking function of history seems inescapable.

But possibly there are other functions. For a classicist, an exciting, and

surprising, extra set of motivations comes from Elisabeth Schüssler Fio- renza’s In Memory of Her, a feminist history of the earlyChurch that devotes three lengthy chapters to theory. There is no doubt in Schüssler Fiorenza’s mind about the historical relevance of the first century; to her, the Bible is a living document. Most classicists pay no attention to Christians, a minor

The Ethnographer’s Dilemma and the Dream of a Lost Golden Age • 307

cult before the late Roman Empire, or to Jews; yet, all the time, flourishing beside us, large numbers of feminist historians ofreligion are writing about the periods we regard as our own, and by necessity, many of them, writing about nonelite culture.Feminist biblical scholars often think in terms of salvage, of fining women in the sacred text, but Schüssler Fiorenza recog- nizes the operation as dangerous: “the source of our power is also the source of our oppression” (1989: xviii, 35). Feministsin Classics should compare our problematic relation to our own canonical texts, and the controversies over “reappropriating” beloved male authors (Helios 17.2 [1990]; see volume introduction, chater 5). Yet Schüssler Fiorenzamakes a claim for writing history as activism: remembering the sufferings of women in the past is a way of reclaiming them,for it “keeps alive the suffering and hopes of Chris- tian women in the past but also allows for a universal solidarity of sister-hood with all women of the past, present, and future” (1989: 31, cf. xix–xx, and hooks 1990: 43, 215). In this optimistic model,we are helping, not hurt- ing, when we speak for these dead others. We are actually doing something for them.

Women in Antiquity

If anthropology and history are perhaps overly embroiled in epistemologi- cal questions, the study of women in antiquityhas been preoccupied with empirical ones. What can we find out from our material? Feminists in Clas- sics are only toofamiliar with the textuality of history, and have made a business out of reading gaps and silences. We can attest that studyinggen- der doesn’t mean not studying women. The nature of our sources has forced us to think in terms of gender systems fromthe outset; feminists in Classics began working on gender, the body, and sexuality in the late 1970s (Richlin 1991). Mostancient women are outside literary texts; is history, we have asked, a more feminist project than literary criticism? But, inour work, we have rarely paused to worry about the ethnographer’s dilemma, and, from the 1970s into the 1990s, we tookgrand theory for granted. That certainty is pretty much gone.

A 1991 interdisciplinary collection presented the reader with the un- usual sight of a feminist epistemologistcommenting on a survey of feminist work in Classics (Harding 1991, on Gutzwiller and Michelini 1991). Sandra Harding asked (1991: 103)

308 • arguments with silence

what are the feminist assumptions that permit contemporary women to identify with other women across two millennia, across the vastcultural differences between Antigone’s culture and ours, across the class, race, and sexual identity differences between contemporary female feminist readers and the imagined female audiences for these literatures.13

Harding used our praxis—Optimistically—to suggest that the ethnog- rapher’s dilemma can be overcome, that all kinds of differences can be bridged. But it’s a good question: what are our assumptions, anyway? And why do we study the past?

A look at major surveys on women in antiquity in the 1980s shows a narrow range of motives and assumptions, among which it is hard to find Harding’s question. The field may be dated to a special issue of the classical journal Arethusa in 1973 (carried forwardinto Peradotto and Sullivan 1984; see Sullivan 1973 for an account of the making of the issue, which shortly preceded a conferenceheld at SUNY Buffalo, April 25–27, 1973). Surveys and collections followed: Sarah Pomeroy’s Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves (1975) is still the best known outside the field and, after almost forty years, still in wide use as a textbook, but during the 1980s waves of brave pioneers pushed the frontiers onward (see list in Rabinowitz and Richlin 1993: 306–7; overview in McManus1997). In accord with the empiricist bentof Classics, some of these justify themselves by the modest claim to be pre- senting new research results to the reader. Most also refer to the basically optimistic women’s studies goal of making women visible in history;Mary Lefkowitz and Maureen Fant (1982), in the most stripped-down version, stop with these two assertions. However, from the beginning a tacitly pes- simistic grand theory justification from origins is present; thus Pomeroy (1975: xii):

The story of the women of antiquity should be told now, not only be- cause it is a legitimate aspect of social history, but because the past il- luminates contemporary problems in relationships between men and women. Even though scientific technology and religiousoutlook clearly distinguish ancient culture from modern, it is most significant to note the consistency with which some attitudes toward women and the roles women play in Western society have endured through the centuries.

Similarly Helene Foley (1981: xii): “In studying these literary texts care- fully we examine, in effect, the origins of the Western attitude towards

The Ethnographer’s Dilemma and the Dream of a Lost Golden Age • 309

women.” John Peradotto and J. P. Sullivan open with an explicitly gloomy version (Peradotto and Sullivan 1984: 1):

Prejudice against women . . . goes back to the very beginning of western culture . . . we are prone to idealize [Greek and Roman]cultures. . . .

Without belittling their achievements and their contributions, however, we ought not to blind ourselves to the seamier legaciesthey left us.

They go on to say in so many words that they are writing a history of gen- der oppression, likening the history of women to “thehistory of slavery and the origins of racial prejudice” (1984: 4; compare Sullivan’s similar remarks in the original journalissue, 1973: 5). This is ironic in a collec- tion that barely mentions slave women; the connection stems from the rise ofSecond Wave feminism out of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s (Echols 1989), where the analogy took a while tocome to grips with re- alities. The strong consciousness of oppression in Second Wave feminist history-writing comes fromthe experience of the writers on campuses and in activist groups in the era of Martin Luther King and Vietnam.

The field was looking for paterns rather than differences. A striking in- stance is the statement by Averil Cameron andAmélie Kuhrt (1983: ix) that “although the societies under discussion vary greatly the questions which

suggest themselves are remarkably constant.” This seems odd in a collection that includes articles on Greek, Persian,Assyrian, Egyptian, Hittite, Celtic, Hurrian, Hebrew, and Syrian women, from cuneiform tablets and hiero- glyphics, papyrusand codex; many of these cultures are not Indo-European, and the time span covered within antiquity is greater than thatbetween late antiquity and the present. The table of contents is broken down into the fol- lowing sections: Perceiving Women,Women and Power, Women at Home, the Biology of Women, Discovering Women, The Economic Role of Women, Women inReligion and Cult. A postmoernist might argue that the remark- able constancy of the questions that “suggestedthemselves” belonged to the Ancient History Seminar of the University of London rather than to the cultures studied. A fanof grand theory would counter that the constancy inhered in the cultures themselves, and was discovered, not invented.

A similar faith in unified theory was manifested by Ross Kraemer in the first edition of her sourcebook on women in ancientreligion (1988: 4):

I approach the sources primarily as a feminist historian of religion: I seek to recover and understand the religious beliefs ofwomen and to

310 • arguments with silence

integrate that knowledge into a revised, enriched appreciation of human religion. . . . The texts here . . . are where we must begin to reconstruct women’s religion in antiquity, to inquire about the differences between women’s religion and men’s as well as about thesimilarities, and to revise our models and theories accordingly.

In other words, while she assembles an immense amount of particular knowledge about particular cultures, Kraemer’s project involves the cat- egories “women’s religion,” “men’s religion,” and “human religion,” and the ancient religions studied form part of these possibly transhistorical entities.

In the teeth of these disciplinary, epistemological, and political appeals to grand theory, and of her own oath of fealty to “the basic postulates of feminist theory” including a belief in patriarchy, Marilyn Skinner (1987b: 4) suggested there had been a “far-reaching intellectual shift within our own discipline,” which she called “postclassicism”:

most readily characterized . . . by its denial of the classicality of the an- cient cultural product, its refusal to champion Greco-Roman ideas, in- stitutions and artistic work as elite terrain, universally authoritative and culturally transcendent, and therefore capable of only one privileged meaning. Instead, it subscribes to the idea of all cultural artifacts and systems as broadly accessible “texts” open tomultiple and even conflict- ing readings.

Skinner’s move here conceals a step which undercuts grand theory much as in the critiques of essentialism outlined above: somegrand theory is repug- nant, therefore grand theory itself is bad. Skinner was talking about refus- ing the privilege accorded toGreco-Roman ideas by conservatives, those on the political right (in the 1980s–90s, Allan Bloom, Camille Paglia). Because of the history of right wing, anti-woman use of Greece and Rome in grand theory, Skinner, and many others, wanted to strip Greece andRome of their privileged status. There is more than one way to do this: the feminist grand theory approaches listed above make antiquity the oldest trace of some- thing bad rather than the origin of all things good. Skinner describes an alternate way, which pulls the rug out from under the right by doing away with grand theory altogether. “Denial of classicality” is the key element.

In the event, this move proved surprisingly successful, as the 2000-year grip of classical education lost hold of the curriculum; the resulting con- servative backlash, in which feminists were blamed for “killing Homer,”

The Ethnographer’s Dilemma and the Dream of a Lost Golden Age •           311

was countered perhaps most eloquently by Page duBois (2001, 2010), who loves to explore what lies across whatVirginia Woolf, in “On Not Knowing Greek,” called “a tremendous breach of tradition” between the Greeks and us.14 Meanwhile, like Skinner, David Konstan and Martha Nussbaum, in a collection influenced by Foucault, and focusing on sexuality rather than on women, criticized the tendency of grand theory to see (or construct) patterns, in quite Woolfianterms (1990: iii): “The appropriation of classical Greece and Rome as origins and models of a so-called ‘Western’ tradition has helped to obscure some of the deep differences between ancient and modern societies.” In order, then, to reject a rightwing claim on Greece and Rome as full of things the right wing likes, this group chooses to say not “those things were therebut they’re bad” but “values are arbitrary” and “different things were also there.” Things, as it turns out, that we like: differentsexualities, different attitudes towards knowledge, women writ- ers. Greece and Rome remain models, sources ofinspiration, for “post- classicists” just as they were for conservatives. The difference is that post- classicists look to the pastfor liberatory models rather than for those that preserve the status quo.

The collections in which chapters 3 and 5 first appeared returned to grand theory assumptions. Stereotypes of Women inPower (Garlick, Dixon, and Allen 1992) asked why the same kinds of negative images are used against politicallypowerful women across cultures and time (see Dixon’s “Conclusion,” ibid., 209–25). The collection traces what it names as asingle phenomenon through Egyptian, Roman, Byzantine, medieval Scandina- vian, Ming Dynasty, Renaissance Italian,Victorian, and modern Austra- lian cultures. A related premise initiated Pornography and Representation in Greece and Rome,which takes the pornographic to be a transhistorical cat- egory. Both collections share a focus on images that are arguablyharmful to women, some extremely harsh. In contrast, a recent collection on ancient prostitution, although it explicitly rejects any rosy fantasies (Glazebrook and Henry 2011: 8–9), and includes a lexicon of derogatory terms for pros- titutes,begins with a refusal to engage in grand theory. Allison Glazebrook and Madeleine Henry write in their introduction (2011: 4):

We do not claim to present a unified or unitary point of view. Some contributors definitely see prostitution as an unalloyedform of social oppression; oters consider the theoretical aspects more than the expe- riential. The span of time and spaceand the nature of the evidence do not permit a grand synthesis.

312 • arguments with silence

Prostitution in antiquity is and is not a women’s issue: female prostitutes are very visble in our evidence, but male prostitutes frequentlyshow up along- side them, and in the same brothels. Like other big structures—the family, labor, war, all of which shape prostitution—this one would seem to call out for a grand synthesis, but in 2011 that was less possible than in 1991, and much less so than in 1979, when Kathleen Barry published Female Sexual Slavery. This state of affairs seems to be a byproduct of the political slow-down within feminism itself, as it has grown less and less possible to speak out against gender bias as systemic. Yet it is hard to seean upside to sex trafficking, and hard not to recognize that it is everywhere and everywhen. Between the pessimistic grand-theoristsand their more optimistic op- ponents, Harding’s question—what are our assumptions?—got left a little in shadow in the 1990s, andmight well be revisited now. The final discussion at “Feminism and Classics 6” in 2012 asked what makes research feminist; do weneed some common framework? Is women’s history necessarily a feminist history, and vice versa? And what kind of feminism?

It would certainly be a feminism that unsettles the nebulous, class-free world in which scholars could say “women” and mean“free citizen women.” David Schaps’s useful Economic Rights of Women in Ancient Greece simply wrote off slaves and prostitutes in the introduction (1979: 2), despite his title. Such a prefatory disclaimer was much disparaged, around 1990, by theorists of difference.15 Just as critiques by women of color and postcolo- nial women changed the face of feminist theory, we might have expected work on women in antiquity in the late 1990s through the 2000s to in- corporate the subjectivity of slave women and colonized women. Sandra Joshel’s work on Roman slave child-nurses (1986) might serve as a model; she went on to co-edit a collection, with Sheila Murnaghan (1998), which traced the overlapping sets {women} and {slaves}. Thomas McGinn’s work on the built environment of prostitution (2004) integrates these marginal people into the unzoned streets of the Roman city. The latest, and largest, overview of women in antiquity (James and Dillon 2012) incorporates a wide array of cultures outside Athens and Rome (with maps), meshes tex- tual with material evidence (including skeletons), and spans the millennia from the third BCE (Mesopotamian time-bytes, remarking on the impos- sibility of the task) well into the first CE (Byzantium); the contributors rig- orously interrogate their own methodology, the question of matriarchy and goddess worship is conscientiously reexamined, and, despite a disclaimer (“our decision to focus on genres of evidence means that we have had, for the most part, to overlook the great majority of women in antiquity,” 2012:

The Ethnographer’s Dilemma and the Dream of a Lost Golden Age • 313

3), the social purview is pretty wide.16 When you compare the collections from the 1980s to this one, you see the result oftwenty years of legwork btween then and now, and the difference that makes to our understand- ing of women’s livedreality. Nobody is ever going to get to Z, if that means shutting down any further arguments. But, even if we cannot arrive atexact knowledge of any woman’s life, we can get closer, as a hyperbola approaches its asymptotes.17

Pliny’s Brassiere: Still Life with Absent Objects

How (O)ptimism and (P)essimism play out in the study of ancient history depends on temperament. The examples thatfollow might be used to show the longevity of patriarchy, or the ability of women to resist by means of their own culture. Theymight be used to show the horrors of the Roman colonial system, or to recover the voices of the colonized. The tone of the picture depends on the attitude of the painter, but painting at all is a good trick when the model is just out of sight. That we nowhave a whole gallery is cause for celebration.

To stress difference, an anthropologist or historian will often stress the strangeness of the studied culture; NewHistoricists like bizarre anecdotes (Darnton 1984: 3–7). Hence the subtitle of this section, which looks back to the story inchapter 8 in which Pliny says, “I find that headaches are relieved by tying a woman’s brassiere (fascia) on [my/the] head” (HN28.76). This example exemplifies also the problems of transhistorical interpretation and translation. The word fascia isconventionally translated “breast-band” (Ox- ford Latin Dictionary s.v. 2.a), a word with no connotations in English. The oddity of Pliny’s behavior is lessened or intensified depending on whether we translate “breast-band” or “brassiere.” Tounderstand how various Ro- mans would have seen this action, we would have to know more about Ro- man attitudestowards women’s breasts, and investigate the usage of the word fascia (does it appear in Roman dirty jokes? No). The pictureof the dignified polymath laboring away late into the night at the Natural History with a brassiere on his head can serve themodern reader in different ways. For a New Historicist, it is a reminder of the uniqueness of Roman culture, and a correctivefor homogenized pictures of the Romans: not just like us, not just like white marble statues. For a feminist, it raises manyquestions about the significance of the female body in Roman ideology. Are you an optimist? Pliny valorizes the femalebody by using it to cure himself: there

14 • arguments with silence

is no limit to it, he says (HN 28.77). Are you a pessimist? This is part of an ideology in which the female body is colonized for male use (look at what Ischomachus said about his wife, chapter 6); or described as filthy (look at the poems in chapter 2, or the makeup in chapter 6, or the story of the pol- lution of Juno’s temple in chapter 7); or feared as monstrous, as in Pliny’s discussions of the fearful powers of menstrual blood.

As seen in chapter 7, Pliny also tells us that Roman women chewed gum. The historian, rummaging happily through the volumes of Pliny and other encyclopedists, picks up, here and there, more indicators that Ro- man women had what ethnographers call “foodways.” Women (mulieres) are said to have preferred certain sweet drinks; again, we can translate this into Diet Coke and white wine spritzers, or we can refuse to be so misled, and Verstehen further, constructing a map of Roman women’s tastes. Opti- mistically celebrating women’s culture, we can connect this map with other indicators that matronae had a subculture of their own.The texts—not only elite literary texts but laws, anecdotes, and inscriptions—tell us plenty about Roman women’s active lives in public and private. Maybe Roman women had a group identity.

Pessimistically, we might ask, which women? Is this identity or the face of oppression? Roman lesbians are lost behind a screen ofinvective (Hallett 1997), and, as Bernadette Brooten has shown, women suspected of same-sex inclinations are viewed in some medicaltexts as mentally ill and might have been subjected to clitoridectomy (1996: 143–73). Roman women’s sexuality in general is very hard to recover (see chapters 3, 4, and 8). Nor, as seen in chapters 6 and 7, do most sources tell us about all women, and, when we find material about slave women and their female owners, sisterhood is not what we find. (The rites of Mater Matuta: women’s culture?) Yes, there are many stories of slave women who helped their owners, stood up for them, even died for them; whose stories are these? Not many stories go the other way; but then there are all those tombstones “for myself, my husband, and our freed slavemen and women,” and others set up by freed slaves for them- selves and their former owner (see Carroll 2011: 135–41). What didSulpicia Petale think of Sulpicia?

Similar distinctions between classes of women according to their sexual accessibility seem to have existed in Greek cultures aswell; the whole point of the prosecution of Neaira, for example, which tells us so much about the miseries of a prostitute’s life inclassical Greece, is that she had tried to pass her daughter off as fit to carry out certain ritual roles.18 In Theocritus’s Idyll 15, from Hellenistic Egypt, two happy, bourgeois housewives go off to the

The Ethnographer’s Dilemma and the Dream of a Lost Golden Age • 315

queen’s festival, abusing their maids and leaving the baby home with the nanny. This poem used often to be read incourses on women in antiquity to show how the power of the Hellenistic queens raised the status of women in Hellenisticculture; we might, however, compare Audre Lorde’s criticism of white bourgeois feminists whose attendance at feminist conferences de- pends on houshold work by women of color.19 The ancient tchatchke in- dustry, which produced hugemasses of terracotta figurines, seems to have included old nurses along with pretty girls (and old men, dwarves, actors) assuitable decorative objects; shades of the Aunt Jemima salt shaker. The pessimist will find further examples of inter-classoppression in art, like the ancillae holding mirrors for their owners discussed in chapter 6. This is a good test case for Engels’stheory of the world historical defeat of women with the rise of the state; clearly, the institutions of imperialism and slaveryare better for some women than for others.

Undaunted, the optimist can turn around and start constructing a sub- jectivity for the women of the under-classes,about whom the literary texts give us such a small and biased view. Maybe the terracotta figures are the- ater souvenirs,marketed to the same old women who led the ritual at the Feralia. We know there were slave women in the audience atRoman com- edies, who might have found much to inspire them onstage (see chapter 1). The essay by Natalie Kampenfrom which I abstracted the Gallic toilette scene begins with a full-page photograph of a relief sculpture from Ostia, showing a woman selling vegetables, facing the viewer, her hand extended in what is known as the “speaker’s gesture” (Kampen1982: 62). Whether she is saying, “Buy some asparagus,” or “I’m the best vegetable-seller in the Forum Holitorium,” thiswoman made her mark, and had the money to do it. The two workers who stamped their feet on the still-wet roof-tile (seevolume introduction) made their mark for free; the hairdressers in chapter 6, the midwives of chapter 8, had their skill carvedin stone; the Amiternum grave relief (chapter 9) shows the praefica in her position of leadership. San- dra Joshel in a large scale study (1992b) reconstructed a voice for the slaves and freed slaves of Rome from the inscriptions they placed, usuallyon their tombs, that talk about their occupations; here we see men, women, kin networks, the interrelationships betweenowner and owned. We find slave women and freedwomen among the religious inscriptions in chapter 7, and these are just theones who could afford to commemorate their devotion.20 Outside of Italy, there are papyrus letters from Hellenistic andRoman Egypt that often speak to and for women—some even penned by the women themselves; these have much to tellus about women’s lives. For example, a

316 • arguments with silence

soldier’s letter home to his wife calmly advises her to keep the baby if it is a boy, and to cast it out if it is a girl. Another letter gives an account of how a peasant woman arrested a bath attendant who had scalded her with hot water. One gives what seems to be awoman’s shopping list.21 Wooden tabel- lae preserved at the Roman fort of Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall indicate a network ofrelationships among army wives (Greene 2011, 2013).

The records of ancient empires constitute in themselves an argument for the transhistorical nature of the colonial mindset—indeed, they formed a sort of bible for European colonialism. For that matter, they establish the pedigree of the involvement of ethnography with empire. Page duBois es- tablished the intersection of this version of Self/Other with that of gender in Centaursand Amazons (1982a). As we turn to the next decade, we might contribute to the public consciousness of how Orientalism predates Islam; how women wore veils before Islam (see Hughes 2007, Llewellyn-Jones 2003); and how Christendom and Islam grew out of the same Mediterra- nean matrix. We can show what this meant for women.

Beyond Optimism and Pessimism

In the end, I come back to my original question, Why study the past? If feminists—optimists and pessimists alike—are all really hoping for better days ahead, how can we best use our study of the past to make that dream come true?

The one thing of which I am sure is that we cannot contribute to a revo- lution if we speak only to each other, and only in scholarlylanguage. Nor is it likely that such writing will change any laws, or feed anyone. Meanwhile, many people outside the academy do want to know about the past; we can write for them. As classicists step up to remind the marketplace what we do, we can see to it thatwomen are at the table—not just in it, as in the parable that opened this book.

What are we trying to do? Describe truth? Contribute to a revolution? Achieve immortality through the brilliance of our work?Get tenure? Prove that we’re right and the other people are wrong? Sometimes I think that scholarship is just an art form, a weird esoteric art form that often plays to an audience of one or two people; but then I think that this is the ultimate pessimisticepistemology.22 Sometimes I think that scholarship is just a job, like plumbing or typing; something we do all day, in our radical or con- servative way. Revolutionary activity mostly happens outside our working

The Ethnographer’s Dilemma and the Dream of a Lost Golden Age • 317

hours, assuming we leave time for it, and most revolutionary activity is car- ried on by people who are not scholars. Butsometimes I do think that there is something revolutionary about knowing the past; that when we recover long-gone womenfrom oblivion we are really shifting some balance; that what is taught in the classroom, what is written in the history books,makes a difference. This cheers me up. Feminists in Classics, however, are going to have to take action to connect thescholarly journals and the streets, at a time when the field of Classics itself is practicing outreach. The Commit- tee onAncient and Modern Performance publicizes productions of ancient plays almost daily; Nancy Rabinowitz spent a recentyear sitting in with Rhodessa Jones on the Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women. Twenty years ago, bell hookswrote: “We must actively work to call atten- tion to the importance of creating a theory that can advance renewed femi- nistmovements, particularly highlighting that theory that seeks to further feminist opposition to sexist oppression” (1992: 81).Our future depends on keeping faith with our past.


Gender and Sexuality in Ancient Rome Copyright © by Jody Valentine. All Rights Reserved.

Share This Book