Anthropology and the classics currently enjoy a fairly good relationship, but one which has never been stable. In the 19th cent. the interest of evolutionary anthropology in a ‘savage’ period through which all societies must pass meant that studies of contemporary simple societies began to be used to illuminate the classical past. After the First World War, classicists reacted against what were perceived as the excesses of the work of Jane Harrison and the Cambridge school, in which it was claimed that knowledge of ‘things primitive’ gave a better understanding of the Greeks. Meanwhile, in social anthropology, the rise of the static structural-functional paradigm and an insistence on an identity as ‘the science of fieldwork’ combined to cause a rejection of history. In the last 50 years, the divorce between the subjects has been eroded from both sides, with comparative studies increasingly valued as enabling us to escape from our intellectual heritage and the specific—though, to us, self-evident—ways it has formulated questions and sought answers.
Feminism does not refer to one coherent theory, doctrine, or political movement. The range of movements and ideologies that thrive under the term feminism, however, are all committed to political and social change. Feminism recognises that we live in a patriarchal world, that is to say a world in which women are, and have historically been, oppressed by and unequal to men. It opposes this, and strives to change existing power structures so that people of all genders and races have control over their own bodies, have equal opportunities and value, can participate fully in community life, and are allowed to live with dignity and freedom.
What has this to do with ancient literature? There are several significant ways in which feminism and ancient literature interact. Ancient literature, particularly ancient Greek tragedy and myth, has played a formative role in shaping feminist theory. Feminism encourages scholars to uncover and reevaluate a tradition of women’s writing. Feminism has provided the tools for us better to understand how ancient literature functioned to promote, and sometimes to challenge, the misogynist practices of ancient Greek and Roman societies. Scholars have detected feminism, or proto-feminism, in ancient writing. Queer theory and feminism join forces to mine ancient literature for alternatives to hetero, cisgender, and gender binary models of identity. Feminism has changed the field of ancient literary studies by valuing authors and genres that are sensitive to the perspectives of women of all ethnicities and statuses. Finally, ancient literature is used to serve contemporary activism: Greek and Latin texts are used by modern feminist authors who rewrite and creatively adapt ancient literature, and classicists resist the use of ancient literature to promote misogyny and white supremacy.