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Blog: Women in Classics: A Conversation with Judith Hallett

Judith Peller Hallett is Professor of Classics and Distinguished Scholar-Teacher Emerita at the University of Maryland, College Park. Judy was born in Chicago, grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and earned her B.A. in Latin from Wellesley College in 1966. She received her M.A. in 1967 and her Ph.D. in Classical Philology in 1971, both from Harvard University. Her research focuses on women, the family, and sexuality in ancient Greece and Rome, particularly in Latin literature. She is also an expert on Classical education and reception in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Her publications include Fathers and Daughters in Roman Society: Women and the Elite Family (1984) and a special edition of the journal The Classical World, entitled “Six North American Women Classicists,” with William M. Calder III (1996-1997). A lifelong feminist, she has edited or contributed to numerous collections that focus on women in the ancient world and in the discipline of Classics, such as Roman Sexualities (1997), the Blackwell Companion to Women in the Ancient World (2012), and Women Classical Scholars: Unsealing the Fountain from the Renaissance to Jacqueline de Romilly (2016).

CC: How did you come to Classics?

JH: In my generation, if one wanted to be competitive and credentialed for admission to a selective college or university – which in my case then meant the Seven Sisters, the women’s colleges – it was highly desirable to have taken Latin. In fact, when I entered Wellesley College in 1962, they didn’t even offer beginning Latin. The assumption was that you’d taken it in high school, and you were just picking it up where you left off. You were expected to have read the first six books of the Aeneid before you could enroll in the Wellesley freshman Latin course. That was the world in which I was educated.

The public junior high school that I attended, outside of Philadelphia, had as its principal a Jewish man who was worried about the quotas then operative that kept Jews and Catholics out of elite, selective colleges. The principal did a talent search in the seventh grade and chose around thirty students, approximately twenty boys and ten girls – it was much easier for the boys to be selected! He decided that this “talented” group would take Latin as their foreign language in the 8th grade and all their other classes with one another. It was called the Latin Section. Admission was very prestigious. So that’s how I got started.


Figure 1: Judy Hallett with Olympic decathlete Rafer Johnson at Delphi, 1972. Image used by permission of Dr. Hallett.

When I got to college, the people over in the Latin and Greek Departments at Wellesley were extraordinarily welcoming and wonderful teachers. The marvelous thing about the Wellesley Classics program was that, even though most of the faculty members were not heavy-duty researchers themselves, they really encouraged engagement with research in our undergraduate courses. We read scholarly articles and books, and the faculty would bring in incredible scholars such as Michael Putnam and Charles Segal for talks. I got caught up in all of that scholarship. I had thought I would just get my M.A.T. and become a secondary school teacher, because in those days high school Latin programs were very strong throughout the country. But as an undergraduate, I was really encouraged by my Wellesley professors to go on and get a regular M.A. and a Ph.D. in Classics.

I want to contrast my experience at Wellesley with that of students at other colleges. I think it was very much the tradition at the time – and it’s still the tradition in lots of places – that what one did in an advanced undergraduate Latin or Greek course was merely to translate. There was no engagement with secondary scholarship, much less effort to do research of one’s own. And I arrived at Harvard feeling underprepared, because there were these guys who’d gone to Catholic schools, and they’d had four years of Greek in high school, and then four more years in college, and they had memorized whole books of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and I had only taken three years of Greek in my life. And I first felt very fragile about my preparation, but in fact because of the research element at Wellesley my background was much stronger than what many others had received. I think that may be a reason that some of these men left graduate school. They didn’t have enough intellectual preparation, and they didn’t really have any investment in producing their own work.

CC: Growing up, what was your family culture around Classics?

JH: I grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia. My family was Jewish, and ostensibly more supportive of my education than the families of the other Jewish girls who were my friends. We were also a very cultured family, on my mother’s side in particular. The academic expectations of me as a girl were a bit complicated. I do think that one reason my mother was supportive of my going to a place like Wellesley is that it was socially going to connect me with what she viewed as a better class of people and help me find a prospective husband. She probably was right, but that wasn’t why I wanted to go there. I wanted to go to a women’s college. I wanted to get out of the co-ed academic environment of my high school, where the real value was placed on the boys’ learning. The women that I grew up with, as I just said, were not encouraged to be serious students. And my own mother was always afraid I wouldn’t find a husband, and wouldn’t have dates, if I studied too hard. I did not want to continue my education under those circumstances. Going to Wellesley was a really terrific thing for me.

CC: What was Wellesley like when you went there, in the mid-1960’s?

JH: There are so many things I could say about Wellesley. Unlike many of the other women’s colleges, Wellesley has never had a male president, and most of the faculty when I went were women. We benefited a great deal from being in the greater Boston area. The professors and students at Wellesley had a real commitment to social engagement and social justice. People there had great senses of humor. Wellesley women could smile and laugh and have a good time, but they studied really hard. And the professors were wonderful. They demanded a great deal of us in ways that I can’t even begin to describe to students today. I did a Latin course my senior year on Vergil. We read everything. We read the Eclogues, the Georgics, and the Aeneid, and tremendous amounts of secondary literature, and did our own research. You went to class and you were prepared to translate, of course, but you also had to be able to discuss, analyze, and critique and respond to all kinds of scholarly literature. It was just terrific preparation. Many of my female contemporaries in the Latin classes went on to become Classicists. In my own year alone, there was Debby Dickmann Boedeker, who ended up at Brown, and Christie Elliott Sorum, who became a major administrator at Union. Dee Lesser Clayman was the class below me. Ann Bergren was the class ahead of me. Wellesley really ran a major academic operation, that’s all I’ve got to say. It was great.


Figure 2: Judy Hallett in front of the Persephone statue at Katharine Lee Bates Hall, Wellesley College, 1964. Image used by permission of Dr. Hallett.
 

CC: How did you decide to pursue a Ph.D. in Classics?

JH: As I said, I was strongly encouraged to do so by my Wellesley professors. I went straight to graduate school at Harvard in 1966. Harvard was totally different from Wellesley. Radcliffe at that time was “integrated” into the Harvard undergraduate scene, whatever that meant. The women at Radcliffe lived a good distance away, and they had to come down to Harvard Yard to take their classes, and there was nowhere they could eat. In 1966 they let women into the undergraduate library for the first time, would you believe it! I mean, what if they damaged the books? At my husband’s 50th Harvard reunion, there was one session for the Radcliffe women. I heard several women say that they calculatedly acquired boyfriends, whom they later dumped, just so that they could have somewhere to eat lunch in Harvard Yard.

CC: What was it like to be a graduate student at Harvard?

JH: What I couldn’t get over about Harvard was how it was a very unaccountable academic environment. At Wellesley, you walked into class, and you were prepared to the gills. You were quizzed every week, and you had to perform in class. At Harvard, you went to lectures, and nobody knew if you were there or not, and the professors read from their dusty notes of twenty years ago. I didn’t think it was a particularly productive learning experience. If nothing else, there was a lot of talent and a lot of knowledge among the students, and we never really shared our ideas with one another. In my career one of the big things that I’ve gotten involved with is collaborative learning and collaborative research. That was probably in reaction to what was going on at Harvard back in my graduate school days. You just walked into the classroom, and the professor said stuff, and then you left. I don’t know how much that’s changed.

CC: How did you start on your own research? 

JH: At Wellesley, I took an amazing class on Roman religion. I was also taking linguistics courses on phonology and morphology at Harvard. And I came up with a research project on the etymology of the Latin word pontifex. It’s from facio, “to make,” and pons, pontis, “bridge.” So a pontifex is a “bridge-builder.” If you believe in Indo-European linguistic lore, there are different words for bridges, and the word pons is cognate with a Sanskirt term for a special, magic bridge. And the original Roman bridge, the Pons Sublicius, was under all sorts of ritual prohibitions. There couldn’t be any kind of metal in it, it had to be built a certain way, it had to be consecrated. And the Romans threw images of old men off the bridge. So that was my argument, that this was an especially sacred bridge.

I had an idea about the pontifex, but it was just a graduate paper. Now, one of the ways you could get free beverages and a seat at the table when eating your lunch in Harvard Yard was that every Monday, Professor Sterling Dow would host a luncheon, and Classics students and faculty would come and present their research. You sat in the Union, the dining hall, and ate your sandwich, availed yourself of the free water and coffee, and listened to presentations. I asked Sterling Dow if could I share my research, because at Wellesley that’s what we had done all the time. After I presented, he said, “Well, I hope you’re going to publish that!” That was a real confidence-booster. And it was published in TAPA in 1970. I was twenty-five years old.

CC: Tell me about your first job.

JH: I taught as an adjunct at Clark University in Worcester. I introduced a course there on Women in Antiquity. Everyone who taught a course on women in antiquity in those days was a pioneer. For all of us it was a huge break from our previous training. Many of us had studied at Harvard – Froma Zeitlin, Dorothea Wender, Helene Foley, Larissa Bonfante – and had had very conventional philological training. In philology you never discussed history or material culture. It was a big leap for us to bring in art, inscriptions, historical context in general. We all collaborated. In those days before the internet, we couldn’t have done it without collaborating.

CC: When did you move to the University of Maryland?

JH: I came in 1983. I had not gotten tenure at BU, where I was teaching. That’s an interesting story. One of the things that all of us pioneering women scholars wanted to do – because we didn’t want it said that we were only being hired because of our gender – is to undergo strict peer review of our scholarship. And my work, which has done fine in the world at large, was not well regarded by conservative men, or a couple of conservative men. And in a tenure case all you needed was one or two people who said, “This is not mainstream scholarship, it’s marginal, it’s not distinguished, these aren’t major issues that we should be discussing as Classicists.” Of course, it was infuriating and upsetting. I was doing this kind of work when they hired me, so they should have known I was interested in it! Then I came to Maryland, which in those days had a strong, interdisciplinary Women’s Studies program staffed by feminist scholars working in different humanities departments. It was very exciting.


Figure 3:Poster designed by Luca Graverini for a talk by Judy Hallett at the University of Siena, 2017. Image used by permission of Dr. Hallett.

CC: How do you think that Classics has changed as a discipline in the last forty years? 

JH: One major development is the diversity of knowledge that’s now required of everyone. Except in a few really specialized programs, if you’re going to be hired as a Classics professor, you need to be able to teach both languages, and the literatures, and the history, and the material culture. You need to be able to take students abroad. And you need to do reception. Much more is demanded of the new, aspiring professoriate, and I think that’s great.

CC: What challenges remain for women?

JH: There need to be more dissertation advisors who are women. I think some of the major Ph.D. programs could do a better job in hiring scholars – not necessarily women, but it would help to have them – who are in fact feminists and working on gender issues. I think the reason that certain places are doing better at placing all their students is because they offer a much more comprehensive exposure to Classics, including gender, history, culture, and critical theory. There needs to be more thought about the kind of graduate training future Classicists will be getting.

CC: Given where America is now and where the world is now, what do you think is the importance of Classics?

JH: Classics is very polarized. We need a public presence for the progressive, inclusive aspects of Classics, just as we do for the regressive aspects. It’s a challenge, because many spokespeople for the regressive side of Classics are belligerent, and there’s no way to argue with them. They’re not interested in facts. They haven’t informed themselves of what the evidence or the arguments are. Then there are people such as myself, who are interested in Classics as a model for multicultural understanding. But even if we get more involved, there’s no way we can have a conversation with these people on the other side. So that really worries me.

And I’m very worried about what’s going on in secondary school Latin curricula in classrooms. At the 2018 CAAS meeting I learned some statistics. Even at the strong Latin program in the high school I attended, the administration has been reluctant to hire more Latin teachers despite high Latin enrollments. The reason is that it is one of many American high schools with a majority/minority population. But when they hired their current Latin teacher in 2007, their Latin program was is only 10% minority. Although it is now roughly 30% black, 30% Asian and 40% white, So Latin is was in danger of being viewed as a program for privileged white kids. The textbooks for Latin are part of the problem. In the Cambridge text, for instance, slaves are portrayed as lazy and worthless. The issue of slavery is not problematized. Now, especially where I work, in the South, you can’t ignore the issue of slavery in a high school classroom like that. I do think that there’s a lot of insensitivity to a whole demographic that might benefit from Latin.


Figure 4: The British Classical Association meeting, Royal Holloway College, April 1997. From left: Barbara McManus, Shelley Haley, Barbara Gold, and Judy Hallett. Image used by permission of Dr. Hallett.

CC: You’ve brought up a number of serious inequalities in the American system: racial inequality, class inequality, gender inequality. Is there a way that Classics, if it were well taught, could actually explore and address these issues?

JH: Totally. If you can find bright kids at an early age and teach them the ancient languages in programs that are not only linguistically rigorous, but open to broader perspectives, then the sky’s the limit. And courses in translation are great, at the college level or even before. A class on myth and civilization, even if it just fills a requirement, can be a good introduction to the complexity of what’s out there. But I still think that getting started with the languages early encourages students to make a bigger investment.

CC: What advice would you give your younger self?

JH: Be flexible. Recognize that the field is going to change. Keep thinking about how to present Classics to different audiences in different forms without losing that hardcore basis in language. We have to keep diversifying the demographic of who takes Classics courses, because that will determine who teaches them. And we have to go out of our way, I think, to make these classes relevant. They should be open not only to undergraduates, but to lifelong learners – that is, folks who go on to become lawyers, or doctors, or data analysts, but who still love the Classics and want to keep studying.

CC: What do you think is the value of Classics?

I began Latin sixty years ago. I was thirteen years old. The major thing that Classics did for me is to show me how to think. The way in which I was taught Latin was very systematic. As a child I had a mind that was all over the place. I was imaginative and interested in lots of things, but somehow having to concentrate on the ends of the words, and the equivalencies, and the different possibilities for translating Latin words into English, made me focus. Philology was just a great thing for me as a thinker. And I’m hoping that rigorous language pedagogy will continue, in high schools and in colleges, because it’s invaluable training for young minds.

** For more on Professor Hallett’s career see “Judith Peller Hallett: An Introduction to a Force of Nature” by Donald Lateiner and Amy Richlin, in Donald Lateiner, Barbara K. Gold and Judith Perkins, ed., Roman Literature, Gender and Reception/Domina Illustris (Routledge 2013) 1-9.

Nota Bene: This post was modified from its original on February 20, 2020 in order to amend and address a portion of the interview regarding high school statistics for underrepresented groups.

Header: A Roman wall painting from the Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii depicting bridal rites (Image in the Public Domain).

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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