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Celebrating Women in Classics

Celebrating Women in Classics
Celebrating Women in Classics. Photography by Greg Smolenski

‘Inferior to us God made you: and our inferiors to the end of time you will remain.’

J. W. Burgon, in a sermon preached at New College (1884) on the subject of the students of the women’s colleges being educated ‘like young Men and with young Men’. Quoted in Jan Morris, The Oxford Book of Oxford (1978) 286-7

Change began with the foundation of Somerville and LMH (1879). It continued with St Hugh’s (1886), St Hilda’s (1893) – all four later given royal charters (1925-6) ---and the Society of Oxford Home Students, later St Anne’s Society (1942, chartered 1952). Women became full members of the University in 1920, although numbers were limited until 1957. In 1959, all five institutions became full colleges. When men’s colleges gradually went mixed (1974 onwards), opportunities began to increase.  Numbers reading Lit. Hum. were long restricted because few girls’ schools taught Greek. Nevertheless, earlier days produced figures as distinguished as Hilda Lorimer, Isobel Henderson, Margaret Hubbard, Anne Jeffery. Developments in the teaching of classical subjects in the last generation have made an enormous difference to women in the field. Yet it is only about a decade since the appointment of  women as tutorial fellows in classical subjects at former men’s colleges was a rarity.

Burgon would be shocked at the numbers of women now teaching and researching at Oxford in Greek and Latin language and literature (including mediaeval Latin), Ancient History and Classical Archaeology. When the munificence of the Oxford Classics Conclave offered an opportunity to these women to get together for a meal in their honour, we too were surprised to discover that the total (last spring) was 62. Exactly half of them were able to attend a dinner held on 5 October 2013.

The Conclave, founded in 2009 and based in Boston, Mass., provides funding for teaching and research, the IRIS Project, the Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents, the teaching of epigraphy at Cambridge, and now excavations and conservation in Herculaneum. Its guiding spirit is Roger Michel, who is concerned to promote new technologies used in classics and has been active in supporting women working in the subject. The Conclave has held three social events in Oxford intended to promote collegiality and discussion, including a lunch held at Trinity in 2012 for a group of women classicists. This was such a success that Roger asked a small steering committee to organise a similar event in 2013. The members of the committee were Miriam Griffin (Somerville), Josephine Quinn (Worcester), Susan Treggiari (LMH) and Gail Trimble (Trinity). Thanks to Miriam, we were able to hold the dinner at Somerville, and the committee is grateful to Erin Simmons, who helped with all the practical details.

Invitations were greeted with surprise. One guest said ‘it seemed very surprising that anyone in Oxford would be celebrating women in classics!’. Erin commented, ‘I think there is a myth that the discipline is mostly older white men.’ In fact, the group which attended reflected the broad mix of ages, skills and interests in Oxford Classics. Barbara Levick, a  pupil of ‘Tom Brown’ Stevens and Ronald Syme and formerly Ancient History tutor at St Hilda’s, the last college to go mixed, was among the emeritae. A handful had known the women’s colleges before 1974, when, being more selective than the men’s colleges because of the limited number of places, they were high in the Norrington table. Stephanie West had been Classics tutor at Hertford since 1966, Miriam Griffin Ancient History tutor at Somerville since 1967. Dame Averil Cameron, historian of later antiquity and Byzantium, currently President of the Féderation internationale des associations d’études classiques, had come back to Oxford as Warden of Keble 1994-2010.  Others had flourished under the new dispensation, held JRFs at former men’s colleges or posts in other universities before finding an Oxford post. Elizabeth Jeffreys (a St Anne’s postgraduate) had returned from Australia to become Bywater and Sotheby Professor of Byzantine and Modern Greek (1996-2006) at Exeter. Irene Lemos is Professor of Classical Archaeology at Merton. Several are tutorial fellows: in Ancient History Jo Quinn (Worcester), Katherine Clarke (St Hilda’s), Beate Dignas (Somerville); in literature Rhiannon Ash (Merton), Gail Trimble (Trinity). Others are lecturers or JRFs or teach languages or work for the Dictionary of Mediaeval Latin from British Sources, the Ashmolean, the Beazley Archive or the Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents. Several, like Jo Quinn, had trained abroad; others, like Beate Dignas, were born abroad, but took their DPhil at Oxford.

Somerville provided a congenial setting, a warm welcome and excellent food and wine. We all learned what was happening in other areas of the subject and how various classicists saw the future of the subject. In case anyone thinks differently, women clearly very much enjoy each other's company and engage in serious talk. Conversation was lively from beginning to end. The evening provided a rare opportunity for intradisciplinary discussion and for getting to know one another.