Lucy Jackson and Victoria Leonard introduce the Australian Women’s History Network to a new ancient history initiative in the United Kingdom, the Women’s Classical Committee.
In April 2016 the Women’s Classical Committee (WCC) held its official launch at the Institute of Classical Studies, London. Inspired by the Women’s Classical Caucus, established in the United States in 1972, the WCC UK has similar aims in striving to support women in Classics, promote feminist and gender-informed perspectives in Classics, raise the profile of the study of women in antiquity and Classical reception, and advance equality and diversity in Classics. The launch event was a great success, hosting over seventy participants on the day, promoting lively discussion in a dynamic but inclusive environment, and showcasing some current research projects.
On the day of the launch, people from (at least) twenty different UK and EU institutions gathered in London. Many more have been working within Classics (broadly defined) from beyond the confines of the university. A range of career stages and genders were represented and heard.
After a welcome from Liz Gloyn (our indefatigable Administrator), Irene Salvo presented a report on the questionnaire ‘Women in Classics in the UK: Numbers and Issues’, circulated in the UK Classics community prior to the launch event. The report is now available. Members of the committee (headed by Co-chair Victoria Leonard) constructed the questionnaire for any and all to answer. The questionnaire covered a range of issues relating to the Aims of the Women’s Classical Committee: gender in professional environments; gender in professional interactions; parenting and caring; mental health and disability issues; and a final ‘state of the field’ section.
The results revealed some depressing trends about employment in Higher Education generally, particularly for early career researchers, as well as highlighting areas where the Committee could provide some much-needed support. But the launch event was not intended to be an exclusively sedentary and passive transfer of information from speaker to audience; we wanted to encourage discussion and productive responses as much as possible.
Our ‘break-out’ discussion tasked each group with providing one large-scale solution, alongside two immediate action points, to pertinent problems organised around four topics:
- Women and postgrads, early-career researchers and casualisation;
- Women, mental health, disability, and additional need issues;
- Women and implicit bias;
- Women and parenthood/caring.
A series of Spotlight Talks, where participants had a strict time limit of five minutes, featured the feminist and gender-informed perspectives of some current research. Topics included: the teaching of feminism and Classical reception through The Brilliant Club; the study of Classical Civilisations in community education and beyond; feminism in twentieth-century stagings of ancient Greek plays; gender-aware approaches to the history of Roman warfare; sociolinguistic approaches to women’s speech in Greek drama; and the discussion of ancient and modern whorephobia.
The penultimate event was a Roundtable which brought together established academics to reflect on the day and offer their experiences and advice for women in Classics and the WCC. In this discussion, the WCC launch was described as a ‘culture-changing event’. Positive change since the 1970s was highlighted, when there was no recognition of gender-related work. But the rise of short-term and unstable employment contracts was underlined to show that not all change is progress. The need to re-focus feminist, female, and gender-orientated Classical scholarship was emphasised, and for these kinds of scholarship to be used in the creation of broader pressures on individuals and institutions for a more diverse and fair environment for scholars.
1. Experiences are diverse:
The WCC launch event gave us all the opportunity to talk in real life to people at a range of career stages and with a thoroughly diverse set of experiences. The time and space granted by the event to share these experiences, to listen as well as tell our own stories, made the event exceptional.
The event highlighted the challenges particular to any given academic career stage and how that affected the experience (and determined the focus) of participants during the day’s discussions. As a result, solutions advocated for the gendered issues affecting a Ph.D. student were not effective for an early-career academic, for example.
The perspective of mid-career researchers seemed to be that positive change is happening, but at rates that vary significantly from institution to institution. Beyond institutional variability, individual experience depends on any number of factors and profoundly shapes how members see the issues and problems facing Women in Classics today.
It was particularly wonderful to have a recurrent emphasis on those who had eschewed ‘traditional’ routes through, into and around academic institutions, and how their experiences cast important light on the potential goals of the WCC.
At its very inception, the WCC focused on inclusion – inclusiveness in terms of how we define Women and Classics. It was heartening to see this inclusiveness reflected physically in those who came to the launch – those working within universities and beyond, a good mix of genders, a range of ages, and all career stages represented from undergraduate onward. But what emerged at this event was that the same inclusiveness was even more vital in thinking about how we tackle the variegated picture of gendered experiences within Classics and within the Academy more generally.
The variety of experiences may be a challenge in forming cohesive strategies, but it is also a strength. Ours is, and must be, a flexible, responsive body that sets at its heart the experiences of its members, and those we work with. It is with this in mind that we look forward to next year’s annual meeting, to be held in April in Oxford, UK, where the theme of ‘Diversity’ will be our focus.
2. Resources are out there to be shared:
The new WCC has provided a focal point for the impetus and energy to instigate change. But further to this, the discussions during the launch showed just how much overlap there is with other organisations, organisations that have been tussling with the same kinds of institutional or bureaucratic road blocks, the same insidious forms of bias and prejudice. We can and should be forming alliances with these organisations, across the world.
Some of the suggestions made at the launch had been thought about by colleagues elsewhere in the humanities (such as the Royal Historical Society’s Report on Gender Equality and Historians in Higher Education, the Report on Gender and Career Progression in Theology and Religious Studies, the Hortensii project, and the Women in Philosophy Blog ‘What We’re Doing About What It’s Like’). Some suggestions were already being put into action – for example, stories in the Cambridge Latin Course, a popular textbook in schools, were already being revised to include more female figures. Whether it’s talking about the WCC to colleagues (in all disciplines), getting involved in online discussions, or sending a new report or piece of research on gender inequality to an email group, we need to be proactive in sharing our resources.
3. The importance of finding support:
The physical coming-together of over seventy people in support of the Aims of the nascent WCC was indicative of the will to act, as well as the pressing need for support. But the provision of support must be flexible and multiform.
Since the launch, online interactions with those who attended, together with those following along on Twitter, have increased – an online community bolstered by real-life interaction. For those seeking support from others in achieving research and publication goals, there are discussions underway to set up online writing groups. A mentoring scheme, too, is in its early stages. We will be continuing to seek ideas for further ways to support our members.
Institutions Represented at the Launch
University of Warwick; Royal Holloway, University of London; University of Oxford; King’s College London; University of Roehampton; University of Wales Trinity St David; University of Bristol; The University of Manchester; Kingston University London; University of Reading; University of Cambridge; The Open University; The University of Nottingham; University of Notre Dame; University of Exeter, University of Göttingen (Georg-August-Universität Göttingen); University of Birmingham; UCL – London’s Global University; The City Literary Institute; and Cardiff University.
Many more participated online, including: Swansea University; The University of Edinburgh; Combined Universities in Cornwall (West Cornwall), and beyond.
For more information about women in Classics and ancient history, check out the following:
- Women’s Classical Committee: website and Twitter @womeninclassics
- Women’s Classical Caucus (US)
- Storify of tweets from the Launch of the WCC UK
- Photographs from the WCC UK’s website
- The full report from the Launch of the WCC UK
Lucy Jackson is a postdoctoral fellow at King’s College London. Her research focuses on ancient Greek and Roman theatre and its reception in early modern Europe and Britain during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Lucy is a member of the Steering Committee for the Women’s Classical Committee (2015-17). Lucy is half-Australian and tries to visit her family in Canberra as much as her stipend allows.
Follow Lucy on Twitter @LucyMCJackson.
Victoria Leonard is an early career researcher and tutor at Cardiff University, Wales. Her research focuses on late antique historiography, late ancient religion, and gender, sexuality and theories of the body in antiquity. Victoria is a founding member, former co-chair, and Steering Committee member of the Women’s Classical Committee.
Follow Victoria on Twitter @tigerlilyrocks.
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