Skip to main content

Women’s associations are often studied in the context of philanthropic efforts for social reforms (Scott). These groups, despite their centrality in movements from Reconstruction through the Progressive Era, have largely not been studied for their usages of Classical antiquity. While American women’s Classical education is better-studied (Winterer, Prins, Malamud), at present there is a less cohesive historiography of women’s engagements with ancient material culture in Reconstruction. Our paper aims to shed light on the Women’s Art Museum Association (WAMA) and Women’s Anthropological Society of America (WASA), two prominent women’s associations active in the Reconstruction period that engaged both Classical material culture and Classical frameworks to develop, reinforce, and complicate racial and gendered sociocultural hierarchies. In the late 1870s WAMA, based in Cincinnati and instrumental in founding the Cincinnati Art Museum, developed a loan exhibition that explicitly placed the work of Cincinnati’s women potters in a lineage that descended from Classical pottery, employing an identifiable value structure to elevate their gender and promote women in the arts (Remmel). The broader implications of the language used in exhibition materials and the constructed hierarchies of value with the Classical at the center requires further consideration of the ways in which women involved in WAMA deployed the Classical to demarcate racial boundaries while uplifting their gender in a material environment that had the potential to radically decenter the Classical.

The case of WAMA also reveals deep intersections with the construction of post-Civil War nationalisms that sought to heal division in favor of a unified settler, colonial, and imperial country. In Washington D.C., Matilda Coxe Stevenson, after undertaking early fieldwork in the New Mexico pueblos with her husband, a US geologist, established the Women’s Anthropological Society of America. WASA, overlapping with WAMA’s existence, boasted of members studying Classical antiquity in Athens, but the WASA women’s diverse interests reflect a common interest in possessing the knowledge of a range of Others, past and present. Through a trade with the US national museum in DC, WAMA acquired New Mexico Pueblo pottery obtained by Stevenson and her husband for their own collection, which remains in the Cincinnati Art Museum today. The cultural heritage of Classical antiquity and the past, present, and future cultural production of peoples hierarchically studied point to the structures of valorization of material culture within these intersecting networks of women, where collection expressed their refinement while also reifying structures of dispossession.

By analyzing these intersecting groups, we will demonstrate the complexities of the culture of Classicism that existed outside of traditional male-dominated academic frameworks. Examining the ways in which these women employed Classical material and values to construct hierarchical meanings that were legible to the broader population, the utilitarian aspects of the Classics for these groups and their potential motivations for contributing to its enduring value are revealed. We will also indicate potential ways forward to utilize this research for informing public history efforts engaging with the complicated legacies of Classical reception, including the work of these associations, that persist in heritage spaces today.