Women’s writing in the ancient world

Although most of the literature that we have from the ancient Mediterranean and Near East was written by men, we do also have compositions by women – most famously the Greek poet Sappho, as well as other Greek and Roman poets (e.g. Corinna, Nossis, and Sulpicia: for more, see this list of ancient women authors); an ancient Mesopotamian priestess called Enheduanna, who lived in the 23rd century BCE, is often referred to as the first known author in history (although at least some of the hymns attributed to her actually seem to have been composed several centuries later). Similarly, most of the inscriptions that actually survive – including letters, archival documents, grave markers, public or legal texts, and religious dedications – will have been both commissioned and physically written/inscribed by men; even in cases where the text makes it clear that a woman is ultimately responsible for it, it is not necessarily the case that she actually wrote it (e.g. stone inscriptions would be carved by specialist craftspeople, probably men; letters were frequently dictated to scribes, mostly ditto). But we do have some ancient texts which show evidence of literate women actually engaging in the practice of writing, and it’s those – or at least a small selection of them – that I’d like to look at for this International Women’s Day post.

The most famous example from the Roman world comes from Roman Britain, specifically from the fort of Vindolanda near Hadrian’s Wall, where a large number of  wooden writing tablets, with letters and administrative documents written in ink, have been found, mostly from around 100 CE. Amongst them is this letter, sent by a woman called Claudia Severa – the wife of an officer at another fort – to her friend Sulpicia Lepidina, the wife of the commander at Vindolanda, to invite her to a birthday party:

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Vindolanda Tablet 291. Photo © The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

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International Women’s Day 2019

Happy International Women’s Day! To celebrate, I’d like to share a quick round-up of a few relevant blogposts and articles about women (and more broadly about gender and sexuality) in the ancient world, as well as about women classicists and archaeologists.

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“Sappho and Erinna” by Simeon Solomon (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Sententiae Antiquae has been sharing ancient literary texts written by women, such as Erinna (shown with the better-known Sappho in the painting above) and Nossis – keep following them all month for more!

Eidolon published a great piece a little while ago by LKM Maisel about transgender people in ancient literature (content warning for discussions of misgendering and transphobia), and another one by Rachel Herzog on retellings of the Iliad focusing on the experiences of women, particularly Briseis, and particularly regarding issues of sexual violence (content warning applies). I also recently wrote a review of one of the novels this article discusses, The Silence of the Girls.

I’ve written before about the #WCCWiki project, which aims to improve the representation of women classicists and other scholars of the ancient world on Wikipedia – why not check out some of our recently-created articles, such as Frazelia Campbell, a black classics teacher in the late 19th/early 20th century US; Raksha Dave, an archaeologist and TV presenter who featured on Time Team; Véronique Dasen, who works on ancient magic and medicine; and many others. We’re also always looking for new people to join the project – no previous Wikipedia experience required!

Fig. 2 Alice E. Kober
Alice E. Kober in 1946 (Image: Brooklyn Public Library)

And finally, I wrote a post last International Women’s Day about Alice Kober, who made incredibly important contributions towards the eventual decipherment of Linear B, and whose story is well worth a read!

Please do share any other articles you’ve enjoyed reading lately (or have written!) in the comments 🙂

Women classicists on Wikipedia

2018-09-21 21.48.19Wikipedia, according to its tagline, is “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” – and yet according to the most recent survey only around 14% of the people who actually do edit the English language version are women, and the percentage of its biography pages which are about women is only slightly higher, at c.18%. Increasingly, projects are trying to address this gender imbalance by getting more women involving in editing and by creating and improving more pages about notable women: “Women in Red“, for instance, aims to turn “redlinked” references to women – for pages that don’t yet exist – into existing “bluelinked” ones. To improve the representation of women classicists in particular, the UK Women’s Classical Committee has been running a project called WCCWiki. I thought getting involved would be an interesting way of learning about women in Classics I might not know much about (as well as being a productive way of procrastinating from other writing…), so yesterday I went along to one of their training sessions to find out more about the project.

WCCWiki session photo
Dr Emma Bridges explains Wikipedia’s gender imbalance. Photo courtesy of Claire Millington.

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