‘Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves’ Revisited in a New Book About Women in the Greco-Roman World

Unknown, Woman with wax tablets and stylus (so-called “Sappho"), c. 55–79, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Naples.

Close to 50 years ago, Hunter College and Graduate Center Distinguished Professor Emerita Sarah Pomeroy published her landmark study, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves, introducing scholars and general readers to the study of women in classical antiquity. Now Professor Ronnie Ancona (GC/Hunter, Classics) and her former student Georgia Tsouvala (Ph.D. ’08, Classics), a professor at Illinois State University, reflect and build upon Pomeroy’s work with their co-edited volume, New Directions in the Study of Women in the Greco-Roman World. The book includes essays that focus on subjects as far-ranging as women’s roles in activism and legislation, the social power of non-elite women, and women’s achievements in athletics. 

Ancona recently spoke to the Graduate Center about the inspiration behind the new book:

The Graduate Center: Your introduction refers to “current discussions of how the field of classics intersects with current social and political issues, such as the #MeToo movement.” What are those connections?

Ancona: While the focus of the book is the Greco-Roman world, the contributors’ interests and perspectives are deeply shaped by the present time. Several chapters deal with issues that intersect with current concerns, from issues of rape, marriage, and adultery, to women’s economic and legal status, to power exerted by women from outside of the formal political structure as well as within it, to women’s participation in activities thought to be primarily the province of men. Some of the best engagement with Greco-Roman antiquity has emerged from contemporary questions.  

Readers of the book will also learn of the Melani class action suit against CUNY and the ways in which women, like Sarah Pomeroy, a named plaintiff in the case, were impacted by discrimination. When we read scholarly work, like Pomeroy’s “Goddesses,” we often have no idea of the professional circumstances under which the work was accomplished. Those interested in learning more about Pomeroy’s career can consult the “Sarah B. Pomeroy Papers” at the Archives and Special Collections of the Hunter College Library as well as my introduction to our book.   

New Directions in the Study of Women in the Greco-Roman WorldGC: Pomeroy’s “Goddesses” has been described as one of the first English academic books on women’s history in any period. What led you to revisit this book now?

Ancona: Several factors contributed to our deciding that this was the moment to edit such a book. Georgia Tsouvala, my co-editor, had been pondering for a while the possibility of producing an edited volume in honor of Pomeroy, one of her major mentors. We decided that we would very much enjoy working with each other on such a volume to honor her former teacher and my colleague at Hunter College and the Graduate Center. We felt it was a timely project, as no book had yet been published that consciously looked to Pomeroy’s legacy and simultaneously to the future. In addition, we are heading towards the 50th anniversary of “Goddesses,” and so some kind of celebration seemed in order.  

GC: How has the field of classics changed since Pomeroy’s book was published? Has it become more diverse, in terms of the students it attracts?

Ancona: I would say that despite a lot of work that needs to be done in the areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion, the field has become more inclusive, especially in terms of who is teaching and engaging in scholarship, as well as in terms of what is being studied, at least with regard to women. Women in Greco-Roman antiquity is now a long-recognized specialty within classics. There are courses offered on this topic (Sarah, Georgia, and I have all taught such courses), articles and books written, and conferences organized. The Women’s Classical Caucus, an affiliate of the Society for Classical Studies, was founded in the 1970s to support research and teaching on women and gender as well as to support women (and men) classicists in various professional ways. Sarah was a founder of the WCC, while I served as a WCC co-chair in the 1990s. 

The last few years have made it increasingly clear that the field of classics has a lot of work to do in terms of racial, ethnic, and economic diversity, as well as diversity in other areas. We have been fortunate to have had more BIPOC students and/or first-generation college students involved in classics at both the undergraduate and graduate levels at CUNY than have many other institutions. At the Graduate Center, the MAGNET Program certainly helped to make this racial diversity possible, and the Bluhm Scholars Program at Hunter, with its financial support and enhanced opportunities for majors in their final two years, has aided efforts at making the study of classics more broadly accessible. This year, at both Hunter and at the Graduate Center, students will have the chance to take a course that examines race and classics. That said, there are many ways in which the field still needs to work to embrace a wider cohort of students and eventual teachers/scholars. 

GC: How would you like to see the field continue to evolve and move forward?​

Ancona: I hope that the topic of women in the Greco-Roman world continues to engage teachers, scholars, and students. I think the ongoing and future success of the field, generally, lies in breadth and in connections, both in terms of who our students are, who we are as classicists, and how we engage a larger public. This term I am reading with my upper-level Latin class at Hunter a Latin text about women in the Greco-Roman world I knew virtually nothing about until a year or so ago (Boccaccio’s De Mulieribus Claris, About Famous Women). Reading later Latin (in this case from the 14th century CE) can provide a fascinating window onto classical antiquity as well as onto how it is perceived by later authors. Similarly, my current book project deals with how a 20th century American choreographer and dancer, Martha Graham, re-envisioned female figures from ancient Greek myth, thus exploring in another way the classical tradition and what others have made of it. 

One positive development within classics in these difficult times of COVID has been the opportunity for people from around the world to Zoom in at no (or little) cost and with no need to travel to a wide range of conferences, lectures, and other events. This is one of the best ways of making our field more open and accessible and for those of us in the field to develop a wider perspective.  

GC: How did you and Georgia Tsouvala decide to work on this together? Did you know each other from the GC?

Ancona: Sarah and Georgia and I have known each other for a long time. Sarah and I both taught Georgia when she was an undergraduate at Hunter and when she was in the Graduate Center Ph.D. Program in Classics. Georgia’s research focus on women’s history began when she was still an undergraduate. Sarah played a big role in that. And Georgia was a student in my class the first time I taught, Women and Slaves in Classical Antiquity, a course Sarah had originally developed. I still have some notes in my course file that Georgia sent me after she looked up answers to some questions that had arisen in that class! Her very keen intelligence and her research-oriented persistence were noteworthy even at that early stage. I directed Georgia’s dissertation, but with close collaboration from Sarah, who remained on the committee but could not be the director because of the number of years elapsed since her retirement. 

Things have really come full circle as Georgia, Sarah, and I work together now in newer ways. Georgia has become a co-author with Sarah and others in writing popular textbooks on Greek history. And I have had the pleasure to work with her on this volume. Sarah helped to mentor me when I was a new junior faculty member and both of us have mentored Georgia. It is exciting to have these roles change and shift over time. 

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Submitted on: SEP 20, 2021

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