16: Helene Foley
women in antiquity professor

photos by Emma Noelle

I conducted this interview with Professor Foley in October of last year, just about two weeks before the 2016 election. I've only gotten around to publishing it now because the photographer disappeared on me and we had to reshoot it, which Emma did generously and beautifully. Therefore, this piece has become a sort of accidental relic of the hopes and fears that many of us had for our country in those final days. Much of Professor Foley’s life has been spent doing the slow, hard work of legitimizing women’s place in academia, both as subjects worthy of study, and professionals worthy of equal pay. As I edited this, I began to feel that her overriding concern is that, without maintaining sufficient historical knowledge of women’s lives, "there's a danger of relapse at all times...this whole campaign has made me feel that things could backslide in certain directions very quickly.” 

Now that we are in such a different historical moment, reading over our conversation made my heart twinge, and provided grounds for reflection on the past, present, and future of women’s rights in our country. I hope it does the same for you.

Helene Peet Foley is a Professor of Classics at Barnard College and Columbia University, and pioneered the development of the academic field, Women and Gender in Antiquity. Professor Foley regularly teaches courses on Greek literature at all levels as well as Classical Myth, Gender and Sexuality in Ancient Greece, and Tragedy and Performance. She is the author of Ritual Irony: Poetry and Sacrifice in EuripidesThe Homeric Hymn to Demeter; Women in the Classical World: Image and Text, co-authored with Elaine Fantham, Natalie Kampen, Sarah Pomeroy, and Alan Shapiro; Female Acts in Greek Tragedy; and Reimagining Greek Tragedy on the American Stage. She is editor of Reflections of Women in Antiquity; co-editor of Visualizing the Tragic, and of Antigone on the Contemporary World Stage. She has been the recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship and the Emily Gregory Award for outstanding teaching, amongst many other awards.

Emma Noelle is a student and photographer who lives and works in New York City. Specializing in portraiture and documentary photography, Emma works with analog mediums to tell stories and evoke poetry through her images. Emma's work is largely influenced by her lifelong love for art, music, and literature. Through portraiture and documentary photography, she is able to unite her constant desire to return to the past with her ability to observe and engage with the world around her.

This interview was conducted by Sophia Richards on October 21, 2016, in Helene's Manhattan apartment. Emma Noelle photographed the conversation.

SOPHIA: Talk to me about your experience of girlhood.


HELENE: I honestly don't think I thought so much about being a girl until I was in high school. I sort of sailed through with all my friends until I got to high school. I was class president and all of those things, and then all of a sudden they decided to have an honor roll, which meant that they published who was getting the best grades. And that changed my relationship to my class quite a bit. Then I gravitated toward the people in my class who are not particularly social.


[both laugh]


HELENE: I began to feel that there was a group of "other girls" who were much more popular than I was, so I began to really focus on close friendships with a limited number of girls who were really important to me. That's when I started thinking more about being a girl.

In my last two years of high school, my parents sent me to a girl's boarding school, which I totally detested. This school was completely oriented towards women, and I felt that the education was very much aimed towards producing a certain kind of product, who was a suburban housewife with no ambition to have a career. Math and science were just terrible in this school. I had really liked math and science before, but felt like we were being geared in a certain direction [in which] we weren’t “supposed to” be good at math and science. 

So that was when I started really thinking about how I did not want to be steered in [the housewife] direction as a woman. So I chose to go to Swarthmore college, which is co-ed, and was an incredible relief.


[both laugh]

HELENE: [After I graduated,] I decided that I wanted to be high school English teacher, so I did a [Master of Arts in Teaching] in English at Yale, which pushed me back in the direction of feeling very [conscious] that I was a woman, because at the time, there were no female undergraduates and very few graduate women at Yale, so every time you went into the library, you felt like you were walking down a gauntlet.


SOPHIA: [laughs]


HELENE: People would leave little candies and gum for you on your notes when you went to the ladies' room. There was a guy across the dorm I was living in who had binoculars and would spend his life sitting in his office trying to look through the windows of the girls' dorm. I don't think that I felt that the teachers I had really were unambitious for us as women in the program, so that was good. But it was definitely an overall atmosphere of heavy masculinity that I really had never encountered before, and I just felt so physically visible in the situation. 

I [eventually] switched to the Classics department. Then I got married, and I transferred to Harvard because my husband had a job at MIT. [Classics at Harvard] was an area in which I felt very strongly that women were treated as a second-class group of students. Certain women in my graduate classes were treated in a very condescending way. And it was certainly the case that the old boy network in terms of jobs was still very much at play. When women in my program started to get good jobs, the faculty was totally shocked. They expected that we would get jobs at women's colleges or maybe state universities, but not in elite schools. 

I joined a consciousness-raising group, which was fantastic and a very diverse group of women of different ages and professions. We were all pretty active in feminist politics, and it gave us an enormous amount of time to think through our lives and our choices and be very open. I also joined the Graduate Women's Organization, and we spent a huge amount of time trying to make the different professions at Harvard who were producing graduate students share all job information openly, so that it was [formally] posted and not just handed down from one professor to a favorite student. We actually succeeded in doing that, and after a couple of years we got the [entire] Harvard faculty to agree to it. 

At the same time, we became more and more conscious that what we were succeeding in —to get positions in different kinds of professional contexts— was obviously not working for people in different class and economic situations. That was upsetting because although we felt like we were making progress in some areas, it wasn't working in other areas. 

When I got my first job, which was at Stanford, I put most of my energy into developing the field of Women in Antiquity. Intellectually and professionally. There were eight or nine of us in the country who were emerging with the same interests, and we immediately met each other, collaborated with each other, organized conferences, organized sessions, and started to publish things in order to make [the field] a legitimate academic subject. We had expected that there would be a lot of hostility to the development of Women and Gender Studies in [Classics,] but actually, the field was fairly accepting of it, partly because it's fairly historically oriented, and Classics tends to be uncomfortable about Literary and Theoretical approaches to historical subjects. It was really helpful to have my first job in California, because it was so much more relaxed and low-key than Harvard and Cambridge.


[both laugh]


We eventually bought a house in Palo Alto with some other faculty, so [it was] like a continuous seminar running all the time.


HELENE: Everybody was so much more open to new approaches. It was actually called Feminist Studies, as opposed to Women’s Studies, which never would've happened on the east coast. There were not that many women on the faculty, so we all knew each other immediately. We eventually bought a house in Palo Alto with some other faculty, so [it was] a continuous seminar running all the time because we were in different fields. We all cooked for each other and had organized seminars in which you could join in the conversations with experts in other fields, if you wanted to. It was a really weird house.


SOPHIA: [laughs]


HELENE: I think that the nicest thing about that experience was that I was living with my husband, but I was also living with other women. Having them there every day and being able to share all kinds of issues was almost like continuing my consciousness-raising group in Cambridge in a new place. Even when couples started to have children, the children were all of our children in a way. I think one of the hardest things about being a professional woman whether you’re married or single is that no one is taking care of you. But in this house, we were taking care of each other. We didn't have to cook more than once a week, and shared cleaning so we didn't have to clean all the time, either.

I was sorry to leave that, but my husband got a job in New York, so I started working at Barnard. A lot of women in that period didn't get tenure and didn't stay, so few [members of my original peer group] actually survived that process. And there was no Women's Studies program, so a group of us had to found it. One of the nicest things about the Classics department is that it has a lot of female faculty members. And as far as senior faculty goes, there's more senior faculty women than senior faculty men in the department.



SOPHIA: Can you talk more about your experience in the consciousness-raising group —how it felt when you were just starting and then later when you started to feel a bit disillusioned?


HELENE: It's hard for students to imagine this now, but although there was a history of feminism, none of us had learned about that in school, so some part of [the purpose of the group] was to reconstruct a sense of feminism and women's history. We spent a lot of time talking about ways in which we needed to develop a greater sense of autonomy, authority, and self-definition, which was tremendously helpful. There were some women in the group who were in heterosexual relationships that were quite damaging to them, so we worked with those delicate sorts of areas, and I think it also definitely changed my relationship with my husband. We started to share a lot more household things. People hadn't really figured out where they wanted to go as women, so that was the more individual [benefit] of it. 

Although lot of stuff was happening in terms of the Equal Rights Amendment and attempts to legislate better support for women and families, we weren't being terribly successful. The ERA didn't pass. Support for women and families is still in a very rudimentary pace in this country in comparison to what we know is happening in Europe. I still feel frustrated about it. Hopefully if Hillary gets to be president there will be a revival of interest in these issues and improvement will become more immediately possible. Certainly changing the minimum wage, given how many women are working in jobs where they're making very little and have families to take care of. We have huge numbers of problems that are just hanging around out there.


SOPHIA: Can you talk about building the Women’s Studies Program at Barnard from the ground-up? And also, because you’ve remained here since then, how it has developed and how have its concerns changed?



HELENE: It was difficult to hire people in the early stages. For a long time, Women’s Studies was just a program and the faculty came from different departments. So when we were attempting to develop the actual department, the original appointments we made were all half in Women's Studies and half in another field.

When we finally hired faculty, the tenure cases were also fraught because Columbia really wasn't accepting the idea that Women's Studies was a field. Natalie Kampen was the head of Women’s Studies for a long time, and I conducted her tenure case. When I went over [to Columbia] to have a discussion about her tenure case the ad hoc committee wanted to discuss whether Women's Studies was a field.


SOPHIA: [laughs]

When I went over [to Columbia] to have a discussion about her tenure case the ad hoc committee wanted to discuss whether Women’s Studies was a field.

HELENE: I was fortunately able to say, "Well actually this is Barnard appointment and Barnard decided that this is a field, so we can't discuss that. We have to discuss the qualifications of the candidate.” That was the kind of delicate negotiation that you had to go through with every appointment. The Women's Studies program at Barnard helped Columbia develop their Gender Studies program because they had so few women faculty. And a lot of [the professors,] especially the older ones, had had such a difficult career experience that they were not very optimistic, and it takes optimism to achieve some of these things. Now, of course, it's there. But I still think it's difficult.


SOPHIA: Can you talk about how you came to devote yourself to translating the Homeric Hymn to Demeter?


HELENE: I've always liked the poem a lot, but I specifically wanted to do the project because there are a lot of colleges and universities that have Great Books courses, and in general, the courses did not represent either female authors or issues that were important to women in different periods. I did the book on the Hymn to Demeter as an attempt to invite people to teach that poem in Great Books courses, as well as in other classes, so that people would get engaged with a myth and set of experiences that were important to ancient women, even if Hymn to Demeter was written by a man.


SOPHIA: In the hymn, there seems to be something timeless in the story of gender conflict as well as generational conflict. Can you discuss that, and the forms in which that intersection manifests itself in women's lives today?


HELENE: Well one of the reasons that I included the essay by Nancy Chodorow in the book was to incorporate work by somebody who was a sociologist, psychologist, and anthropologist, and obtain her perspective on the fundamental relationship between mothers and daughters. Her article there was focused on more traditional societies, but her other work has been on contemporary American mother-daughter relationships, and one could move from reading her essay there to more of her work if desired. 

Another reason why I was interested in the text is that if you look at Western literature as a whole, only really in the 20th century did people start representing events in literature from a mother's point of view. It's really really rare in Western literature. The Hymn to Demeter at least primarily represents Demeter's point of view on the situation and her relationship with her daughter. I thought it was really important to focus on the mother's perspective in the situation, because it's very difficult to write. People have such strong expectations about what mothers are supposed to think. And if they're angry or frustrated, then it makes them bad mothers. I think it’s still a very relevant issue. I actually taught a first-year seminar for a while called "Missing Maternity," which is about how literature and culture constructs the image of the mother.


Only really in the 20th century did people start representing events in literature from a mother’s point of view

SOPHIA: Can you talk about your relationship with your mother?


HELENE: Yes. I would like to say, however, that the most important woman in my life was probably my grandmother rather than my mother.


SOPHIA: Please talk about them both to the extent that you feel comfortable.


HELENE: I had actually lived with my grandparents for the first couple of years of my life, so I became very close to them. When I moved to Connecticut, my grandfather died and my grandmother moved next door to us. I was the oldest of four, so there were always things that my mother wanted me to do that I wanted to escape from, so I would go up to my grandmother’s. She was behind every one of my ambitions in a sort of un-ambivalent way, and she was also crazy about theatre, which I was, too. She had vast numbers of passages of Shakespeare memorized that she used to recite to me. I would stay overnight with her and look through all of her old photos and go back over her old life and all of those things.

My mother had gone to college and had ambitions to be a doctor, but then she got married instead of doing that. Her ambitions for all of her daughters were to go to college…but then to get married, have children right away, and start a family. That wasn't my plan for my life, so there was always tension, especially because I was the older one and I wasn't producing grandchildren, and my younger siblings were not married, so there was more and more pressure. She was very much against my getting a PhD. And unfriendly about it. She never read a single word that I ever wrote.


SOPHIA: In Female Acts in Greek Tragedy, you wrote about the huge influence that binary oppositions had in early Greek thought —the most obvious ones being like, male-public/female-private, or male-reason/female-passion. How has dwelling on these incredibly deep-rooted and essentialist theories for so much of your life influenced your understanding of the essence of femininity?


HELENE: I wish I could say that those binary oppositions had disappeared from the public scene, but I think they haven't. And I think they're clearly big issues in the current election, which relate exactly to these issues. The idea that Hillary Clinton has to prove that she is qualified for this job when she's so ridiculously qualified is…


SOPHIA: [laughs]


HELENE: I think it's rarely been the case that anyone has been more qualified to be president. I also think that people have been rather hard on her for not being more touchy-feely and traditionally feminine. I think it's not something that she’s comfortable doing except in private. Because I have known people who know her fairly well and apparently she's quite a different person in private. Much more relaxed, funny, joking…much more warm. 

I have an interesting story about her from this summer. [My husband and I] have a summer house up in Vermont and we have a guy who mows our lawn and takes care of things when we're not there. He had done some work for somebody in New Hampshire who was a big Hillary supporter. His wife needed an operation and was having a very difficult time trying to find a doctor who would be able to perform it. One day, all of a sudden this woman called him and said "I have somebody on the phone who'd like to talk to you." And it turned out to be Hillary who was campaigning in New Hampshire. She had apparently told him about this guy and this problem, and Hillary managed to find somebody to do this operation for his wife within something like forty-eight hours. 

Since I've been doing more reading about her, she has a big history of being that kind of person in private. The people who've known her over the years in a more intimate way say that she stays concerned, she remembers you, she supports you. I don't know exactly why, but she doesn't bring it up. Politically she seems reserved about that other side of herself. But she has it. So I think those [gendered] cliches are still there.


SOPHIA: Can you speak about what women or female-moments in ancient literature or historical texts have stuck with you throughout the years?


HELENE: Certainly Sappho is one of them.


[both laugh]


HELENE: Sappho is an incredibly, if very fragmentary, very brilliant poet. She very clearly has a female sensibility in my mind, and one that she’s very conscious of. She's also very conscious of writing as a woman in a tradition in which there were not very many women writing, which you can see in her poems when you do a close reading. 

Then I find certain fictional figures interesting; for example, the Onassis Center in New York just had a big festival called Antigone Now, and it was using the figure of Antigone based on Sophocles' play to talk about a lot of different issues, including celebrating teenagers who stand up for concerns that are important to them as Antigone-figures. Don't forget that Antigone is an adolescent. Actresses who play her tend to be very mature, but actually she's a teenager. 

Then there are very interesting historical figures like Cleopatra, for example. It’s interesting to look to her when exploring the problems of a female ruler. Particularly as she’s somebody who I can assure you would have been a summa cum laude student if she'd had the chance to go to college.


[both laugh]


SOPHIA: Wasn't she really into the sciences?


HELENE: She was incredibly smart. She knew something like eight languages. She manipulated her whole situation in an extraordinary way. 

There were other Hellenistic queens and Roman empresses who are also very interesting figures. The Roman stuff is interesting because you get better historical information on women's lives than [you did] before, and there were women doing all kinds of things. They were involved in businesses. They played important roles in politics, though not directly. There are a lot of letters from the Hellenistic period, so you really get to experience what actual women were saying to each other and what kinds of struggles they were dealing with. It's really satisfying. [laughs] And burial inscriptions often also give you very valuable information about a woman's life.


SOPHIA: Like what?

HELENE: There's one extremely long one that's just amazing. It's an inscribed speech by a husband who had this incredible admiration for his wife and everything that she did for him in a very difficult political period. He goes on and on about how he wouldn't have survived without her in all kinds of different ways. It's called "Laudatio Turiae." It's really true, too. And the fact that she couldn't have children and he still stuck with her, that was particularly moving. [Read the epitaph here.]


SOPHIA: What do you believe that women in the world need or can do for each other presently?


HELENE: There are a huge number of small things. For example, at this Antigone Now conference, there were two women [who illustrate this well.] One was from Iran, and talked about the issue of enforcing the wearing of headscarves. She's fine with people wearing headscarves, but she feels that it should not be legally required as it is in many Middle-Eastern countries, and that that issue is important because it can radiate out to a larger set of issues about all kinds of ways in which legislation can prevent women from making personal choices. And there was another wonderful woman from Gambia who is very active in the female genital mutilation movement, and those are the kinds of things that I think, without making a major life commitment, that one could really participate in in important ways. But in a larger sense, I think the most important thing in the U.S. is really to support family life in terms of better childcare, better salaries.

Furthermore, I think it's very important for people to continue to know something about the history of the lives of women and the women's movement in every generation, even as problems get solved. It does seem to me that there's a danger of relapse at all times. It's really important for people to be aware of what the problems were because I'm afraid it can go back there. In the U.S., this whole campaign has made me feel that things could backslide in certain directions very quickly. People are saying things publicly that…I had felt that we had reached a level of public discourse in which it would not be appropriate to say. But it's happening. So what can I say? One hopes it's not going to happen.

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