THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“It was quite clear to me as an adolescent, that girls were not taken as seriously as boys when it came to learning and various educational opportunities.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, September 2022
JH: I’m Judith Peller Hallett. I am in Bethesda, Maryland. I was born on April 4, 1944. So, 4-4-44 at 4:24 in Chicago, Illinois.
JW: Tell us what your life was like before you understood about the women’s movement.
JH: I come from a Philadelphia suburb which had an excellent public school system, and I benefited tremendously from its academic opportunities. But it was quite clear, even to me as an adolescent, that the girls were just not taken as seriously as boys when it came to learning and various educational opportunities. What really first brought it home to me is that I went to an all-female summer camp, and experienced the pleasure of not having to deal with this male agenda, getting oneself dressed, and groomed to please men, and was just able to function and pursue one’s own interests. This was not a totally athletic camp where we wore sports uniforms and focused on physical fitness. In fact, it was a French camp where we allegedly spoke French all the time.
Once I returned to public high school after this all-female camping experience, I realized that I was being short changed. What intensified that feeling for me was that during the summers I worked at an engineering firm where my father was employed (he died, in fact, while I was there). And while I was very attuned to the anti-semitism in this firm. My father was the only Jewish engineer. Every Christmas, they would have this big event at the Philadelphia Union League Club in which the engineers got their bonuses and their recognition. He had to go through the back door of the building. And was sort of on tiptoes in this firm for being Jewish.
There was another Jewish woman who worked there each summer. Her father also was with the firm, but as a draftsman, not an engineer. And she was a student at Girls High. This is an all-female school in Philadelphia, and I got to know her and her friends very well and was very envious of them because they weren’t somehow sidelined. It was kind of imperceptible, but the whole message that I got at my high school was, the boys come first. We do not have to invest the same kind of energy and attention in you.
I was one of the lucky ones, because most of my female friends were totally discouraged from serious academic ambitions. I went to a women’s college, and that was great – although now that I look back upon it, there was a good deal of sexism there, too. But at least again, we women students were the center of the learning community. We were taken seriously. I was especially lucky because I went to Wellesley College, which has never had a male president. I went on scholarship, and that was very eye opening to me because Wellesley tried to minimize the economic differences among the girls.
There was a good deal of veiled, I shouldn’t say anti-semitism and anti-Catholicism, as Wellesley was a very Protestant school. We non-Protestants felt marginalized but I knew I was getting into that situation, and I accepted it, because I had mostly all female teachers and a peer group that had very serious academic interests and ambitions.
However, that had to come to an end when I graduated. I went to Harvard graduate school, and that was where I was really flummoxed by the gender inequities. Because in addition to the ones that were already in place, for example, only in the year that I entered Harvard graduate School were women allowed to enter the undergraduate library.
JW: I thought you were going to say enter as an undergraduate, but no.
JH: I was able to go to the undergraduate library. Yet again, I was lucky, because I was taking courses that also included undergraduates as a first-year graduate student. But otherwise, women were expected – even women like me who was not an undergraduate at Radcliffe, but a Harvard graduate student – to go up to the Radcliffe campus a mile and a half away and use the Radcliffe undergraduate library. Sometimes I went there because it was very quiet and you could study without disruption. But the real issue at Harvard when I arrived was that the Vietnam war was forcing all kinds of situations where the already privileged men were getting even more special treatment.
JW: What year was that?
JH: I started in 1966, and I got married while I was there, and the Classics Department took my fellowship away. The argument was always, men need this more than you do. They’re going to get drafted. They deserve to be in this limite enrollment class. They deserve this teaching fellowship. And so, after my second year at Harvard, the women’s movement started to percolate through its premises. I think it mostly emanated from the Radcliffe students because they were just incredibly short changed. They had to come down to Harvard Yard for their classes, but there was nowhere for them to eat, unless they had a male escorting them into a male dining hall. They had to bring their lunches and sit in the basement of the classroom building.
It was much harder to get into Radcliffe than to get into Harvard. I think the women graduate students at Harvard, some of whom had been Radcliffe undergraduates, really took a very powerful step in forcing Harvard to take account of its gender inequity. I continued my women’s movement activity mostly through my department. I was a Classics graduate student at Harvard, although I was involved in some general activities that took in the whole campus.
I’ve stayed very, very active in the women’s movement, in my professional associations of classicists and I was one of the founders in 1971-72 of the Women’s Classical Caucus. I can tell you more about that. I’ve stayed extremely involved, extremely active, in a number of women’s organizations. I was a professor for 35 years at U of Maryland, and worked assiduously on gender issues there. And for the most part, it’s been very gratifying. But the past few years have disappointed me tremendously. We will talk about that later.
JW: Tell me about the association.
JH: It was called the American Philological Association when I joined it, and subsequently, and partly because I was involved in leadership and transformational initiatives, we changed the name to make it more accessible to the Society of Classical Studies. Very much like Wellesley College where I had gone, the American Philological Association was basically a Protestant operation. Jews and Catholics were seriously marginalized. Catholics more so than Jews.
The organization had its first Jewish president and its first woman president in the 1890s. He was a German Jewish, upper middle-class educator, named Julius Sachs, and he ran a very prestigious private German gymnasium for “our crowd” and other boys of Germanic background on New York’s Upper West Side, and he also operated a similar institution for girls. In the late 1890s, he left classics behind, and he joined the faculty of Columbia Teachers College. He was from the Goldman Sachs family and the Tay-Sachs disease family, and he was a great progressive. He’s responsible for the comprehensive U.S. public high school and for the free system junior colleges in California. A very interesting man. The first women presidents, however, did not tend to be as progressive, although one of them was lesbian.
This is the other thing about my profession. There have been all these important gay scholars who really weren’t out. That was a very sad development. But to get back to the Catholics, my organization did not have its first Catholic president until 1976. It was a woman, a very conservative woman, who actually taught at Swarthmore, which was one of the two places that hired women and who benefited tremendously from the feminist movement but would not align with it at all. Interestingly, the Women’s Classical Caucus was (I want to get back to the theme shortly) spurred to form by a left-wing working-class British male, who was a Roman Catholic. And the five women, myself and others, who were the nucleus, who were the founders, were all Jewish or married to Jews.
And I think this is not uncommon. You look at the demographic profile of the women on these larger scale political movements in the U.S., such as Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And Jews are heavily overrepresented. I think it’s because we’re committed to justice. We had nothing to lose by speaking out. We had no trouble recruiting most Catholic women, with the exception of the one from Swarthmore I just mentioned. But it was the privileged, Protestant women, in my recollection, who agreed with us philosophically but found our political activism – and we were talking openly about sexuality and doing things that rocked the boat – lacking in decorum.
Many of these Protestant women were from Bryn Mawr, which was the last place from which I would have expected resistance to feminism because it was the one all-female undergraduate and graduate program in our field of classics. But there was a real heavy resistance to feminism by many of the Bryn Mawr women.
So, when we got started, we had several major issues we wanted to address, and one had to do with scholarship on women in Greek and Roman antiquity and to mobilize for greater attention to it, both in professional talks and publications. We wanted to see more justice for women and fairer inclusion. And there we ran into some problems because some women said, “Well, I don’t want to do research on women, but I want to be competitive for a job.” And we had to reassure them, “We don’t care if you don’t do women’s history or focus on ancient male and female sexuality. We’re here for everybody. We’re here to address all these different kinds of inequity.” And we enjoyed incredible success.
When I got started, jobs were not openly advertised. One learned from one’s graduate advisors that such-and-such an appointment was emerging. And if it was at a woman’s college, they might inform a woman, but they might tell a man too. There was no kind of transparency or meritocracy or accountability in job hiring, and we changed that, and all jobs were advertised. We got the conditions for hiring made much more professional and fair. When I started, it was not uncommon for these places that were reluctantly told “you’ve got to interview women,” to interview them in bedrooms with alcohol around and the guys in their pajamas. I mean, that hiring practice ended. So that was good.
We instituted anonymous peer assessment of submissions not only to the big annual meeting, but also to various publications. And the minute we introduced this blind refereeing, the number of women just leaked up.
It wasn’t that there were more women in the field at that point, because starting in the ’60s I think, there were quite a few. Women just did not have the kind of professional horizons in the ’60s that they do now. As I always said, my choices were to be a secretary, a social worker, maybe a nurse, although the nice Jewish girls didn’t do that anymore, or to be a teacher.
And so, once I went to college, I had this thought, “Well, maybe I could be a university teacher.” At that time there wasn’t this kind of encouragement for women to go into science, to go into medicine, to go into all kinds of STEM fields, or to go into other professions. Then, to get into selective colleges, Latin was often required. We had this incredible demographic base of talented women back in the ’60s and early ’70s, who were continuing to get doctoral degrees. We made some major changes and I’m very proud of them.
JW: Wow. Absolutely. Well, how did the research go? Did you find prominent women in the classic years?
JH: When I got started, I was very interested in various issues surrounding women, family, gender, sexuality. And the work that had been done in this area was really pretty minimal. We basically founded a field. We started asking new questions of ancient evidence, and that’s transformed the way the whole profession operates. It wasn’t only women who were doing this. There were a lot of men who shared our investigative concerns. A lot of gay men. There was soon a Lesbian and Gay Caucus along with this Women’s Caucus. So that was very gratifying. But there was a lot of resistance in the beginning.
And I’ll keep coming back to the same theme, which is in order to get, I don’t know what you want to call it, legitimated credentials, aka respected as professionals, we needed to be on the good side of male champions and advocates. And some of them had ulterior motives. Quite a few of them were just horrendous sexual predators. Even if you said no to them, and you worked out some kind of arrangement where they knew you were sexually off limits, just being associated with these guys didn’t help one’s professional name. Two of my Wellesley professors begged me not to be involved in a project with this man that was one of the Women’s Caucus founders, because it would just ruin my reputation, and people would think I was one of the women that he boasted about sleeping with. So that was an issue.
I think one of the results of our concern over these male champions was that we were very fierce advocates for what used to be called meritocracy. And we didn’t want people to think we’d made it on the casting couch. We wanted anonymous refereeing, and we wanted peer reviewing, and we wanted people judged by their work objectively because we didn’t want it to be thought that we were demanding special favors, and being hired and being given opportunities owing to our sexual availability.
That has changed tremendously, for all kinds of very sad reasons which we can talk about. One of the big themes is, in the beginning, to get all kinds of operations off the ground, we needed male allies, even in all female institutions such as Wellesley and Bryn Mawr. The people that really changed Bryn Mawr were men who were hired to the faculty. Men with daughters, men with sisters, men who were not threatened that women would take away their jobs. And so, we had to accommodate certain kinds of male behavior because these men were going to be on our side as opposed to the ones that weren’t.
The other thing that I’ve only now realized that there’s a whole generation of men, mostly White, Anglo Saxon, Protestant men, who now feel that my generation of women stole opportunities from them. I don’t know if you’ve encountered this perception before. I’m sure they wouldn’t have been hired at Princeton if there had been no women competing with them, but that’s how they feel. That somehow, they were owed greater privilege, and again, opportunity, that the presence of women and the presence of competitive standards which require them to do things they wouldn’t have otherwise really blighted their careers.
So that’s something I’m seeing the results of, very sadly, in my field, nowadays. I think this began with spousal hiring, which was fueled by this notion that women with successful academic male partners also deserve jobs. Even jobs for which they were not necessarily qualified, and that certainly weren’t going to be open and competitive, to keep them and their partners, usually older males, together and happy. And that was the thin end of the wedge. There are a whole bunch of women, a couple of men too, I should add, in my profession, who never would have been hired, or appointed, or given certain kinds of professional rewards, if it weren’t that they came with this other powerful partner.
And so that was the beginning of certain kinds of privileges. Now there’s this notion that if you identify as an ally or advocate of those from historically underrepresented groups, even if you are a white person who’s enjoyed immense advantages denied to many of those from historically underrepresented groups, you deserve special privileges too. You shouldn’t have to submit your work for peer review. You should be invited to a conference to speak on something on which you’ve never published, and people who publish the definitive work should be excluded. That particularly White, and mostly Jewish women, who’ve worked on issues of gender and race and sexuality, are really the problem. Because somehow, even though we didn’t have that many people of color to support and foster back 20 years ago, we should have found them.
I’m seeing a lot of this now, which is very unfortunate. Especially because most of those from historically marginalized groups themselves in my field of Classics richly deserve prestigious jobs. To some extent, it is because some of them have enjoyed all kinds of opportunities that almost no one else has. There’s been this incredible effort to recruit talented, mostly Black, but in some instances Latino or even Asian students, to these very high-powered prep schools and Ivy League colleges, where they get this incredible background in Classics, and certainly much better than the one that I had at Cheltenham High School.
To repeat, some of these students from historically marginalized groups are really well trained and equipped. This matter of providing training has always been a priority for me: I’ve tried to foster and encourage a great number of “minorities” of all kinds. I was instrumental in founding what was at the time called a “minority scholarship program” in our Classics organization because it was thought in the early 90s that only women were getting all these advantages. I thought, well, we women should show we’re not the only people that want to open the doors. And it was very, very difficult to convince most of these students from historically underrepresented groups to make a professional, vocational commitment to being academic classicists. This happened not only with students I taught, but people I ran into through other connections. There are so many professional opportunities now for “women and minorities,” and they opted for these other opportunities. You can’t require them to foresake these opportunities and become academic classicists.
JW: Can you talk a little about how the substance of your profession changed?
JH: That’s a very important question, because when I started at Wellesley College, I had had really, five years of Latin in high school. I hadn’t had any Greek because I went to this public high school that wasn’t as high powered as some male prep school like Exeter or Andover. At Wellesley it was assumed that you would have at least two or three years of Latin before you entered. The majority of my class came with some Latin, but there was no introductory Latin class. The lowest level Latin class you could take at Wellesley in 1962 assumed two or three years of Latin already. In fact, for the real freshman Latin class, which counted for credit in the major, you were supposed to have had four.
That started to change and more students came, especially as the Catholic Church got rid of the Mass – without Latin, and college-level language requirements were dropped in the name of relevance by the end of the ’60s. By the early ’70s, most of us were doing most of our teaching in translation. I developed courses on women and on sexuality and on gender and they were very successful.
Luckily, Latin has hung in there in the public schools and it’s number, I think, four in the ranking of popular world languages. Spanish is way, way up, but French has just plummeted in terms of high school enrollment. Latin was packaged in different ways to help people master the complications of English. And so, there’s still a pretty lively secondary school Latin teaching scene. It’s very different in most ways from the one that I experienced as a junior high and high school student. The problem is that Classics does not attract the same kind of numbers in colleges and universities as other fields.
Especially now, because STEM is so privileged, and many colleges and universities such as the one that I taught at, don’t have a language requirement, don’t have a literature requirement, don’t have a history requirement. That was where we used to pick up all these students who then got interested and would take more Classics courses. They might major in Classics, but probably wouldn’t go on to get advanced degrees, though some of them did. So, our field in terms of whom we teach, what we teach, how we teach, totally transformed in my lifetime. I played a role in it. I’ve had one job really, since 1966, but the job has changed.
JW: I see. One title, but the job changed. On your courses you created, what can you tell us about briefly, about women, not who are studying it, but who were part of what was in the learning.
JH: The first thing you need to know is that in crafting and creating these courses on women and antiquity, the Women’s Classical Caucus and mostly, but not only, women classicists engaged, and this is before we had the internet or anything, in amazing collaborative activities. And that was a real delight. That instead of just being given some textbook and told to teach it, which is what usually happened even in a course like in ancient history, we created these courses, we created these teaching materials.
There are challenges in talking about women in ancient Greece and ancient Rome because we don’t have that much actual evidence from women themselves. And that which we do has been challenged by male authorities saying, “Oh, this is an excellent poem. So, this woman who claims to be the poet must have had a ghost writer.” That kind of thing. Merely studying the different ways that different male sources represent women, and putting these representations in works of literature, like plays and epic poems and love poems, history chronicles, putting everything into the context and seeing how gender was defined has been a great delight. Talking openly about sexuality and homosexuality, which was not being done, when I came on the scene, has created a very lively discourse.
Of course, another wonderful aspect of our field is that the Classics have influenced so much else in later thinking. Particularly literature, and art and government, and philosophy. That there’s a whole new field that’s immersed in what’s called Reception Studies, which is how later fields represented the classical world, imaginatively and factually. I’ve done a lot of work on people like Edith Hamilton. You might have heard of her. She was a very important bestselling author who popularized classical antiquity. So much interesting work is going on about how in different countries, at different times, in different social classes, on how the Classics were reinterpreted, and a lot of these important reinterpreters are women.
I don’t know if the name Maxine Winokur Kumin means anything to you. She graduated from my high school 20 years before I did. She became what was basically the poet laureate of the U.S. She’s best known as the female Robert Frost. They call her Roberta Frost, because much of her work had to do with her farming up in rocky New Hampshire. She was also a very engaged feminist and political activist, and some of her most important poems are about Classics and about studying Latin back in Cheltenham High. I have some work that I’m doing on her. She’s just someone that I feel special affinities with.
There are big names among the world of female artists. Let’s just start with, Margaret Atwood for example: a big name, who’s been heavily influenced by the Classics. We’ve done a lot to expand the field and to make women, both women of classical antiquity and those who interpret them, both as artists and as scholars, more visible. And that’s been great, so I’m pleased with that. Again, I do think that all in all, the landscape for women who want to be classical scholars or teachers is much more equitable. But there are still a lot of problems. There’s a lot of pushback from a whole generation of, several generations of men, my own contemporaries, who feel we’ve defrauded them.
And the way in which, often this, I don’t know what you want to call it, this resentment, I guess is what it is. This resentment is voiced. And when memorial tributes are written for women who died, these men who kind of control the commemoration racket just write about them in horrible, sexist, unfair ways. The first Jewish woman to direct PhD theses in Classics actually was at Bryn Mawr. She was probably not an outspoken feminist. I didn’t know her, but she died recently, and the memorial tributes by these men who control how she’s represented have been horrible. I mean, they attack her as being socially inept and not as popular as the other teachers at Bryn Mawr. And having been a social dud, when she had this big prestigious fellowship in Rome, and she won a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Rome Prize and had all these PhD students, and this stuff isn’t even mentioned in her commemorations. Her name was Myra Uhlfelder.
I’ve been working on recovering a number of these women, particularly those that fled Nazi Germany, who were originally Jewish (although they converted to Christianity, it still didn’t help with the Nazis) and successfully made it to the U.S. I’ve worked on the lives of several of such women, because at women’s colleges and certain coed places like Brooklyn College, Hunter College and Swarthmore, women were hired in university and college positions in Classics from the ’20s onward, and I’ve been investigating them and they really had a hard road to hoe. It’s been fascinating to find out what struggles they had.
JW: Well, how would you say your life would have been without the women’s movement?
JH: Oh, I can’t imagine how dismal it would have been. My father died when I was 17. I think my family would not have even sent me to college, much less a woman’s college, if I hadn’t been able to get a full scholarship. And people in my family say to this very day, “Judy never should have gone to college.” I think there was always a fear that I would end up, quote, unquote, an old maid, like one of my aunts, Aunt Becca, who was a very successful teacher in both Boston and Chicago and never married.
I think one of the reasons people were willing in my family to send me off to Wellesley, was not only that I had this scholarship money backing me up, but they thought I’d find a better class of husband. I married a doctor, so that should have shut them up. They were very resentful. Maybe I shouldn’t say resentful, but suspicious, of the fact that I wanted to have a career. Probably if I were ten years older, even five years older, I wouldn’t have had the career possibilities that I had.
So no, my life would have been very, very different. I might have become a schoolteacher and other people, ideally other Jewish people, might have fought for the rights that opened doors for women over the past 50 years, but I wouldn’t have been on the front lines.
JW: Yes, well, it’s amazing. And we have a way to go, still.
JH: Well, in my field, there’s been a big anti-semitic backlash. There’s also been a sexist backlash that I’ve told you about. These younger people, not that you want them to be eternally grateful to the women that open the doors, but they’re really resentful, and partly of the labor and equity practices that we insisted on guaranteeing. And of course, in other fields outside of Classics, such as science, one would never say, “Oh, she’s never published an article, but she’s married to so-and-so, and let’s give her a job because her husband won’t come otherwise.” This is going on in my field all the time.
JH: A lot of resentments on all sides. Also, resentments if you had an Ivy League education. That’s going on throughout academia now. The notion that maybe you had to work hard to get this education, and that you’re not a privileged person to begin with to have gotten this education, that’s sort of out the door.
JW: That’s really sad. Well, do you have some final comments you’d like to make?
JH: I have many final comments, and the first is, I want to thank you for asking us to reflect in this way. I think it’s important that we tell our stories, and probably, I’ve been a bit too frank and outspoken about where I see resistance coming from. But I think it’s important to acknowledge those that not only don’t appreciate, but still stand in the way of full inclusion and equality for women. So that’s something I want to thank you for, because we need more opportunities like this to share our stories.
I don’t think many of these younger women in my profession have a clue as to how hard we have had it, and they don’t understand why we allied with men that were known sexists. And the answer is, they weren’t as bad as the other sexists. They were on our side. We had to compromise to fit their little stereotypes, but we had our eyes on the prize.
And something else: I do think that lesbians are being short changed in my field. I think that there’s been great openness to, and welcoming of gay men, but not lesbian women, and I’m troubled by that. I don’t know why that is. Because we shouldn’t be in this situation: we have the Greek poet Sappho as a great inspiration. I think it’s hard to be a gay woman classicist. We have only a few transgender people in my field, not as many as in some others. The irony is that some of the major popularizers, mostly in England, but to some extent here too, who have really brought attention to the field, even though it doesn’t translate into people getting PhDs in Classics, have been women.
Mary Beard is probably the best-known name: she’s a British academic who’s constantly on the radio and in the news, and she’s done so much to open the field up. But I think a lot of what I’m having trouble with now is happening here in the U.S., regardless of one’s professional situation. I just think that really, the defeat of Hillary Clinton and the election of Donald Trump were to me, whatever you want to call it, a watershed.
All kinds of bad feelings were allowed to be expressed and legitimatized, and I think the guardrails are down. I just hope women are going to be able, at the ballot box, especially in view of the loss of our rights bodily, to do something to stop this horrible tide. I’m really worried about Florida in particular, where there’s this incredible homophobia: state sanctioned homophobia, and now there’s this censorship.
Which makes it impossible to talk about racism, sexism, slavery, all kinds of things, both in the ancient world and in the history of our profession. At a professional meeting that’s going to be hosted by Florida State, this particular panel on which I’m going to be presenting on the history of our profession, is going to be on Zoom. And the Zoom address is going to be in Illinois. So we don’t run afoul of what’s happening in Florida. It’s really sad.
JW: Yes. Well, like I say, we’ve come a long way, and we have a long way to go. But I so appreciate your contribution to the progress in your field and generally. It has been a pleasure to speak with you.
JH: Oh, it’s been great to speak to you. I’m going to be seeing you in some of the all-familiar places, and I look forward to doing that in person.