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Blog: Women in Classics: Barbara Gold

Barbara K. Gold is Edward North Professor of Classics at Hamilton College, Emerita. She received her B.A. at the University of Michigan in 1966, her master’s degree in 1968 and her doctorate in 1975, both from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research focuses on Greek and Roman literature, particularly Roman elegy, lyric, and satire; medieval literature, culture, and history; Roman social history; women in the ancient world; and feminist criticism. A prolific author and recipient of numerous grants and awards, Professor Gold was the first woman editor of The American Journal of Philology from 2000 to 2008 and is currently Vice President for Professional Matters of the Society for Classical Studies. She has also served on numerous college committees and was Associate Dean of Faculty at Hamilton College (1997-2001). Her most recent book is Perpetua: Athlete of God (2018).

Figure 1: Barbara Gold, 1990. Image used by permission of Dr. Gold.

CC: How did you come to Classics? 

BG: I grew up in in Brooklyn, and I went to Packer Collegiate Institute from second grade through high school. I had a wonderful Latin teacher. Her name was Rose Maguire Smith and she had gone to Randolph-Macon College. The administrators at Packer expected fully that after I graduated from college, I would come back and take over Ms. Smith’s position and teach Latin. But that wasn’t really what I had in mind.

CC: What was your family culture like around Classics?

BG: There wasn’t any. My mother was from Vermont, and she graduated from Middlebury in 1928. My father worked in the stock exchange. He thought that I should be taking stenography, so that I could become a secretary and do something practical that would let me earn a living. He gave up completely when I started taking Sanskrit! Neither of my parents encouraged reading or higher education, particularly. I was not from a wealthy family, and they sacrificed a lot to send me to Packer, even with help from a scholarship.

CC: What was your experience like in college?

BG: I enjoyed studying at the University of Michigan, but it took a while for me to find my footing. Coming from a small school, I suddenly found myself at a university with 50,000 students, very far from home. Back then people didn’t fly around the country the way they do now. It was good that I majored in Classics, because the department was small, and people knew me. I didn’t have many female professors. There was one, Gerda Seligson, in charge of the Latin program. She was wonderful. Otherwise Michigan was a very male department, as was Chapel Hill when I got there. I had some professors that took an interest in me, but I certainly didn’t have anybody who taught me anything that was even vaguely feminist. No one focused on the role of women in the texts we were reading. But now, it dominates everything I’ve written and thought about for the last thirty years.

CC: How did you decide to apply to graduate school?

BG: I just loved the subject matter. I went to UNC in 1967. There I had Berthe Marti as a professor, who was a rather well-known medievalist. She was Swiss, and she was tough. At one point, Miss Marti (that’s what she was called) was up in an apple tree and she fell down and broke her leg. So, my friend Janet toted her around in her car. I remember Miss Marti was very upset later when Janet got married. She told Janet it was extremely unprofessional, and that it would wreck her academic career. I do not regard Miss Marti as a feminist, because she did not encourage feminist ways of thinking. She did encourage independence, in her own way, by which she meant an academic career which did not rely on a husband.

Figure 2: Berthe Marti. Image from Database of Classical Scholars, Rutgers University.

CC: What were you interested in during your time at UNC?

BG: I liked Medieval Latin, Christianity and late antiquity, and social history. My earliest work was on literary patronage. I had some wonderful professors, like Kenneth Reckford, with whom I took many, many courses. I probably would have done my dissertation with him, but I really wanted to work on Latin, and he was working more on Greek at that point. I ended up writing with Larry Richardson at Duke, who was terrific. In graduate school, I took courses in things like Greek tragedy where you would almost certainly have to talk about women, but we never did. I only started working on women in antiquity later, after I finished my PhD. I left Chapel Hill after only a few years, moved to the West coast with my husband, began teaching at the University of California, and then had my son. It took me a while to finish my Ph.D. because nobody was breathing down my neck, nobody was wagging their finger at me. I finally did finish it, but it took me a long time.   

CC: What was your first job like?

BG: In 1976 we moved to Charlottesville. At that time, the UVA department had never hired a woman, in any teaching capacity. All the professors were called “Mr.”, so they couldn’t figure out what to call me. They couldn’t decide out whether I was a “Ms.” or a “Mrs.”, and the people who taught there were all older men who found the whole thing rather awkward. People were very conservative. Their scholarship was very conservative. And mine never was, really right from the get-go.

CC: How did you become interested in feminist scholarship?

BG: After a year as an assistant professor at UVA, I was offered a tenure-track job at the University of Texas. Everyone kept telling me not to go there, because it was a horrible place and it was full of terrible people. But I ignored them all and took the job. And it was really a horrible place. Professors did in fact sleep with their students, and there was no sense of morality in that department. I worked at Texas for seven or eight years, and then was denied tenure. I filed a lawsuit, which was long and arduous. In the end, it turned out that the judge for my case was a tennis partner of the President of the University of Texas. It was just the worst. I ended up leaving. I thought about staying in Texas. I was offered a job at another university there, but I hated Texas. I just hated the whole place. Everything about it, from the weather to the politics.

CC: Did feminist scholarship play a role in your tenure case at Texas?

BG: Absolutely. Texas did not like my scholarship at all. But the WCC had been founded in 1972, and they were very much allies of mine. They came to my aid during the law court case. They went to bat for me, and they helped me a lot, in so many ways. They helped my self-esteem. They helped with the lawsuit in whatever ways they could. On the WCC table at the annual APA meetings, they would have a stack of pamphlets about my lawsuit. My colleagues at Texas would have people come and steal all the pamphlets off the table, which was shameful behavior. It was really unbelievable, the stuff that went on.

CC: How did you end up at Hamilton? 

BG: My second husband and I were commuting at that point, because he was still at Texas and later in Annapolis, MD. We thought we would never get a job together in Classics because the field is too small. He was thinking of other things he could do. For instance, he’s a passionate wine collector and wine expert. We thought maybe he could move to California with me and get a job in the wine industry. But then two jobs at Hamilton came up. I had never heard of Hamilton, and I had never worked at a liberal arts college. We both applied for the jobs.

Nancy Rabinowitz, who is a wonderful feminist scholar and now one of my best friends, was working in the Comparative Literature department here. She was head of the Hiring Committee, and they ended up hiring my husband and me to share the senior position, and my colleague Shelley Haley for the junior position. We were the entire Classics department, and we were all new when we came in 1989. When I got to Hamilton and started working with Nancy, I really blossomed as a scholar, and that’s when I started writing books and articles focused on women.

Figure 3: A watercolor of Hamilton College in the early 1900’s. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

CC: How do you think that the field has changed for women in the last thirty years?

BG: It’s changed in huge ways. Representation in positions of leadership is one example. Currently I’m on the board of the SCS, and we’re working on issues of diversity and on the balance between liberal arts colleges and universities. During our last meeting, I realized that there were more women in the room than men, by one person. That’s amazing! It would have been unthinkable thirty years ago. I think women are succeeding. Starting with the foundation of the WCC, I think academics have been forced to take women more seriously. And, of course, women deserve to be taken seriously!

CC: In our conversation you’ve mentioned the value of literary theory, collaboration, and interdisciplinarity in scholarship. Do you think there something about those approaches that is of particular interest to women?

BG: Women in all cultures are “bilingual,” because they have to be able to speak in two different ways, or even more than two. For instance, I just wrote an article on Plautus’ Casina where I talk about slaves and women as “bilingual.” Like ancient women, modern women who write about these texts are “bilingual,” because they have to fit in with the dominant male culture and yet they also have private ways of thinking and speaking. I think women are used to seeing both sides of an issue, and then introducing a third, new way that transcends the two, a kind of tertium quid for approaching a text.

CC: That’s very well put. What challenges face women coming in the profession today? 

BG: There are challenges and opportunities. There are new approaches in the discipline now. People are paying much more attention to diversity, particularly sexual and racial diversity. I just came back from a conference where I gave a paper that explored whether medieval martyrs were “transgender,” in some sense. That was very interesting to work on. 

Figure 4: Mosaic of Saint Perpetua. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

CC: You’ve also been an advocate for preventing harassment in the workplace.

BG: Yes, I have given papers on this topic at the SCS. Obviously, it is an important issue for me personally because of what I experienced at Texas. A large part of my lawsuit was about sexual harassment. I also learned about these issues at Hamilton, as a Chair and as a Dean. Many women in academia have had experiences of harassment in the workplace. The SCS did a survey in 2018, and we were astonished by the results. Many, many people filled it out, and they reported on the many individual instances of sexual harassment that they had endured.

CC: Have you spoken publicly about the harassment that you experienced at Texas?

BG: No. I wanted to forget about it. I wanted to forget about the whole experience. Over time, the notoriety faded away, and I was grateful for that. Now if someone knows me it’s because they know my books, which is what I want. When I was asked to do the panel on harassment at the SCS, I was wary. I didn’t want to open it all up again. But then I said to myself, “I really should.” That was the first time I had talked about it in many years. I guess in the meantime I’ve tried to use my knowledge to support other women, without making a big deal about what happened to me.

CC: Is there anything you’d like to say about it now?

BG: I am still appalled that men are not punished for doing the kinds of things they do. Everybody knows about this kind of behavior, and it still happens, but these men continue to hold positions of leadership. The chair at Texas when I was denied tenure continued to run the department for years. In order to win the lawsuit, they couldn’t admit that he had done anything wrong. It’s shameful that men still are not brought to account for transgressions like these. That is one of the things I found out from reading the data in the SCS harassment survey: almost 90% of respondents said that the people who had harassed them were never punished for it.

This is an issue that I will continue to work on. Since I was elected Vice President for Professional Matters at the SCS, I have had an opportunity to change some of the things that still bother me about the field. It’s been hard, because as soon as a problem presents itself everybody expects you to react immediately. Actually, it is important to take time, to gather all the facts, to formulate a plan, and to put it into action. This is as true for sexual harassment as it is for the conflict about racial discrimination at the SCS in 2019. Every solution takes careful work.

Figure 5: Barbara Gold and Bob Connor at Hamilton College for Dr. Connor’s Honorary Degree ceremony, 1990’s. Image used by permission of Dr. Gold.

CC: What advice would you give to your younger self?

BG: In retrospect, I would advise myself to get into interesting feminist approaches and theoretical approaches earlier than I did. But I had no models. I wish I had found women to help me earlier than I did, but they just weren’t around. My advice is impossible: look into the future and take care of yourself better! I do think, given the situation that I was in, I wouldn’t change anything that I did. Filing a lawsuit was a big deal. It had consequences for me. People didn’t hire me because I was regarded as litigious. But I think I did the right thing. Somebody had to take on the fight.

CC: What are you excited about right now in Classics?

BG: I’m excited about martyrs! I’m a fairly religious person. I’m a Quaker. I’m interested in religion, especially offbeat religion, and in early Christian martyrs like Perpetua. I want to know what it takes for a woman who has a nursing infant to give up her life for what she believes in, for God. How could Perpetua do that? Why did she allow herself to be arrested? Why would she rather be a martyr than a mother? I still don’t quite understand it, even after spending four years writing a book about this woman. There’s always more I want to find out.

Claire Catenaccio's picture

Claire Catenaccio is a scholar of ancient drama and its modern reception. She is currently writing her first book, which explores monody, or solo actor’s song, in the plays of Euripides. She has published on the imagery of dreams in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, on singing heroes in Sophocles’ Trachiniae, and on the transformation of the myth of Orpheus in the Broadway musical Hadestown. As a dramaturg and director, she has worked extensively with modern stagings of ancient texts. She teaches as a member of the faculty at Georgetown University.

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