The state of the question: from women’s invisibility to their visibility

In about forty years, feminist historians involved in women’s liberation movements in the 1970s accomplished, along intellectuals and committed citizens from other fronts, a true historiographical revolution [Bach 2001]. In France, borne by the editorial undertaking of the History of Women in the West [Duby and Perrot (1990-1992) 2002], the main stake of these historians was to denounce the “silences of history” (Les Femmes ou les Silences de l’Histoire, Perrot 1998) by bringing to light the mechanisms that produced, from the recording of the facts until the narration of a past so often centred solely with the objects deemed worthy of history (political and military institutions in particular), a history that only seemed to be realized under men’s actions. Women of the past simply had no name, as was underlined by Pauline Schmitt Pantel’s eloquent article title “Autour d’une anthropologie des sexes. À propos de la femme sans nom d’Ischomaque” [Schmitt Pantel 1994-1995, see also Schaps 1977]. The only name the women in question have, she writes, is only that of their father or husband. Assessing the critical output in the field of history (of any period), she makes a case for the practice of a “historical anthropology of the difference between sexes” in the study of ancient societies. She framed the perspective of a “vast worksite, still very much open” consisting in “working to understand how observing and thinking on the difference between sexes historically constructs a society; that of the Ancient as well as ours.” [Schmitt Pantel 1994-1995, p. 305, in French in the text].

Besides, after two centuries of studying texts from the manuscript tradition (what is inexactly referred to as “literary sources”), Antiquity scholarship took an interest in documents that had an archaeological nature and, attractively, came from different parts of the ancient Mediterranean region. After heavily pointing out and criticizing the athenocentrism of their predecessors, academics gave epigraphy and archeology pride of place by promoting inscriptions (epigraphy on stone, bronze, lead, or ceramic) and, in exceptional cases, particularly in Egypt, papyrus. Regional actors, cities of lesser significance from the point of view of the political and military events retained by tradition, as well as fields of activity notorious for being minor or unappreciated (local cults, magic practice, land leasing, manumission…) have enabled us to reveal women who acted namely in the political field (dynasts), in the economical field (estate management), or in the field of self-expression (headstones, offerings and dedications in sanctuaries) (on these publications, see Boehringer/Sebillotte 2011). Several examples of heroines who are unknown by the manuscript tradition but enjoyed a local cult were also brought to light (Larson 1994, Lyons 1997). Working with new material and perspective, the Eurykleia undertaking consists in locating women’s names and their individual inscription in documents so as to gauge their place in society. Catalogues of “women” have always taken part in the representation of the past. Whether these portraits are positive or negative, the societies that produced them could use them to praise or denounce a set of behaviours around which they seemed to partly organize themselves. Ancient history is no exception if we consider the treaties of Plutarch (e.g. Concerning the virtues of women) and the anonymous treatises that became so popular as early as in the Hellenistic era (Gera 1997). We should remember that this tradition around renowned women dates back to the Catalogue of Women, which the Ancients attributed to Hesiod (see Hunter 2005 and Most 2007).

However, given the conclusions drawn from epigraphic or archaeological studies concerning later periods, and after a careful reading of sources pertaining to the Archaic and Classical periods, it appears that the mention of women is not limited to these “catalogues”, these “outstanding” examples of virtue or excess, but that women left the trace their her names in all of the events that constituted social life in Antiquity. Far from contenting itself with “famous” women, the Eurykléia project aims to make an inventory of any mention of a woman named in the documents available to historians, without concern for their status or degree of renown. The women who are “named” do not represent a homogenous group, since the matter of the nomination of women goes beyond the celebration of women (their repute). The Eurykléia base takes an interest in any of the women who left, through any physical support, the trace of their name in their society. These women may have been cited during a trial, worked on a construction site, freed one or several slaves, been honoured by a city, been contractor to a lease of land or to a marriage, offered a dedication to a deity, or been celebrated by those close to tem in an epitaph. This choice when it comes to names directly has to do with the problematics of women’s invisibility, which is our central thread.

Most studies on Ancient women—which mostly concern the period coming after Alexander’s conquest—proceed thematically and provide data in an accumulative, dispersive way. The resulting material has thus never been explicitly taken advantage of so as to feed the debate on the construction of historical knowledge and on what constitutes the traces of the past; and even less on gender, a term that remains very limited in the writings of scholars of the ancient world. This rich archaeological documentation has allowed to accumulate new data on women in ancient and Mediterranean societies in which the practice of epigraphy was already developed, which is to say essentially the societies of Hellenistic and Imperial eras, excepting the societies of ancient Mesopotamia (archives of cuneiform tablets) for which important decryption works are underway). On this subject the works of Riet van Bremen and Elizabeth Carney, as those of Anne Bielman, are exemplary (van Bremen 1996, Carney 2000, Bielman 2002). Yet the works on women and gender from the 1980s and 1990s had mainly been developed by analysing the discourse regarding Classical and Archaic Greece (epics, tragedies, philosophical or technical treatises). The much-inspired Nicole Loraux was the best interpreter of this discourse (Loraux 1989); here again, however, gender scholarship faces a methodological impasse: the data provided by archaeology does not interact well with the data we gathered from the manuscript tradition, as though it were impossible for such different and mismatched discursive registers to meet productively.


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