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Gender: A Transatlantic Perspective

Giulia Sissa

In North American universities, gender studies rapidly received academic recognition. The social construction of gender in different cultures and historical contexts in its intersecions with race, ethnicity, or ability; the representation of multiple gender identities in various forms of knowledge; the normative discourse on femininity and masculinity; the history and anthropology of sexuality have found a robust institutional legitimacy here. What became the Gender Program at my own institution, for instance, grew from a Women's Studies Program in 1975; becoming an interdepartmental degree program in 1987, it developed into a PhD program in 1999.In 2008, Women's Studies became a full-fledged Department (200 undergraduate majors, 50 minors, and 24 PhD students).

Such an acknowledgment is far from exceptional. There are around 500 similar programs ( and Classics shares in this success story. To complement the presentation about the emergence of gender studies as a new discipline, within the field, I will convey my own perspective, of both admiration and critique, highlighting two points.

1. The study of ancient societies, an intrinsically interdisciplinary field, incorporates the many approaches needed to understand gender, from poetry to archaeology.

2. There is potential for even greater integration, if only we question the trains of thought we have acquired in the process.

  The academic recognition of gender studies in the United States is politically framed: the subject exposes the cultural contingency of norms and roles, challenging what we mean by equality. As classicists, working on the making of ideas about sex and gender in the western past, we reconstruct a genealogy of those ideas. But what we say about our beloved texts and artifacts is always, and already, part of contemporary conversations. The focus on power in sexual relations, and the postulate that there is no sex, only gender, predominate in Classics. This frame is French, as readers of Foucault know very well, and it perfectly suits the North American discourse on sexuality, in its institutional incarnation. By doing gender studies, we contribute to democracy.

But contextualizing Foucault's project of a History of Sexuality within the French conversation with psychoanalysis and phenomenology in the seventies and eighties reveal the limits of an approach that was profoundly polemic, strategic and reductive. Already then, a number of classicists working on gender "in the French fashion" took a different path, political, but not in the same, straightforward and institutionally compatible, fashion. It was an approach attentive to the ambiguities of power, and to the metaphorical games that undermine any form of binary thinking. I will try to do justice to the critical resources of that approach, exemplified by the work of Loraux, Cassin, Fabre-Serris and Sissa. I will also question, however, its weakness as a ground for the creation of gender studies programs.

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EuGeStA [European Gender Studies in Antiquity] Workshop

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