Mary Lefkowitz was a faculty member at Wellesley College for forty-six years, teaching courses on classical mythology and women’s lives in Greece and Rome, as well as ancient Greek and Latin language courses. Her books Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth As History, and History Lesson, which deal with controversial theories about the origin of ancient Greek civilization, were widely reviewed and discussed in public media during the 1990s. Her book Women's Life in Greece and Rome came out in its fourth edition in 2016. She is a trustee of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens.
Q: You’ve been writing about women in the ancient world since the 1980s with your 1981 publication Heroines and Hysterics, and even before then. What was it like to focus on women then? How is it different now?
A: I think the real difference is in how people see the scholarship. Now women are mainstream in scholarship, even men study women in antiquity. When I started working on this in the 1970s, men particularly said it wasn’t an important subject, there wasn’t enough information. It’s true in literature there isn’t that much about women’s lives. There is of course Medea but she isn’t quite an average woman. But there is a lot of information out there in inscriptions, and papyri, and art, and if you start putting these things together there is a lot more information than if you just look at Homer and the dramatists.
Q: Your book Women's Life in Greece and Rome has been a seminal textbook on the lives of ancient women, and it recently came out in its fourth edition. What materials and sources did you use for this text?
A: We use any sources we can find. At first we didn’t put literature into Women's Life in Greece and Rome and then we did because people use this as a textbook. So Medea saying she would rather stand in the line of battle three times than give birth once— which I can understand—was included. But largely these are materials that aren’t on the reading list for undergraduates or even graduate students.
Much of what is included are inscriptions. Looking at what grave inscriptions say about women is incredibly revealing— the number of people who died in childbirth is staggering. There are very few women who lived to be very old. And papyri, which are very limited to Egypt and the Hellenistic period, give you an impression of what women might say to each other and to their families.
In the latest edition I was looking at inscriptions from Asia Minor, there was one about a young woman whose father honored her for having accomplished a sacrifice to Artemis. So it was really thrilling to see that— these pagan cults were still being practiced after the time of Jesus, and women played a role in this. In many cults women played a significant role.
Q: Some would say you are best known for your book Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth As History, arguing against the idea that all classical civilization started in Egypt. This is a bit of a departure from your other scholarship. How did this change the course of your academic career?
A: In a way it isn’t a departure from my other scholarship. I’ve always been interested in how people get things wrong, so it wasn’t totally a detour. Though it was a detour to learn a lot about Egypt and Afrocentrism, which is a concept white people can zoom along and never know about.
In the '90s Afrocentrism had this moment. There were linguistic efforts to show that Egyptian was the same as other African languages which it’s not. But Martin Bernal’s work had a moment of chic among people who didn’t know much about archaeology and Ancient Egyptian history— there was this idea that 'isn’t it wonderful, now classics can be so relevant, we can be connected to African civilization'. Not that I have any objection of classics being connected to anything. If we ever discover a large body of Egyptian philosophy very similar to Artistotle and Plato, that would be just fine with me. I just don’t think we will. The Egyptian philosophy of that time was very metaphysical, very hard to understand for us.
The other thing that threw me about Bernal’s work was he would always throw in false etymologies of words or places. He argued the word Parthenon came from Egyptian, Pr thn meaning 'house of crystal'. But the Parthenon has no crystal in it. It doesn’t make any sense on any etymological level. What etymologists have come up with is a very good list of loan words from Egyptian into Greek from even the 8th century, but these are just occasional loan words. Bernal didn’t know all that, and he just made up etymologies. And so few classicists even knew about linguistics that they believed the stuff.
The reason I got into the whole thing was I was asked to do a review by the New Republic and there was the concept of Afrocentrism, and I had known nothing about it. I remember writing this review and thinking maybe this was the most important thing I’d ever done. There was a whole mythology there that wasn’t recognized as mythology. It’s very interesting in it’s own right as way of gaining a kind of foundation myth. Just like in the early stages of the women’s liberation movement the Goddess Cult idea was very popular. But to say there was a matriarchy in classical religion to begin with is just false.
Q: This week you are giving two talks at the ASCSA. They’re quite different talks—one on the Trojan horse, the other on women in democracy. Do you see a connection in these topics?
A: There is a connection because they’re both about the things that matter in democracy. In the case of the Trojan horse the question for me is how people make bad decisions. The Trojans could have refused to take in the horse, they could have let it stay there, they could have set it on fire, or opened it up, but instead they did the one thing they shouldn’t have—taken it without asking any questions. And you can see the subtext here— we voted for Donald Trump. (Not I of course, but we as a country.) So the question is: why do groups make such terrible decisions? In ancient literature those group decisions are characterized by wishful thinking, failure to look at all the evidence, and being easily persuaded by a clever speaker who says the things you want to hear, whether or not he knows what he’s talking about. So it is a talk about democracy.
The other talk is about women in democracy, and the question is did women have any role in the Athenian democracy? They couldn’t vote, they couldn’t do much outside the home. But I try to talk about the things they could do. In literature we see the men in the family had to report to the women in a sense, so they could get their opinion across in that way. The other things I talk about it about women in religion, which is I think a topic that is often neglected, the importance of women in religious ritual. Women were considered very important in getting the right relationship with the divinity. But I conclude by saying that women might not have even made any difference in what the Athenian democracy decided to do, because women in democracies seem not to vote for women’s interest in any way. And we can see that in the US today.
Q: You’ve been coming to the American School for many years now. What has the School meant to you?
A: I’ve been on the board of trustees since 2004. I find it very interesting to be on the other side of the discussion than I usually am as a member of faculty. I think I’m the token philologist on the board. But I hope I bring some perspective on some things. I’ve been the chair on the publications committee since about 2007, and my main function on that is to see that everyone remembers how important publications are to the work of the School. It’s important that we support the work of archaeologists everywhere through Heseperia’s publication, and even beyond that to promulgate learned works about the ancient Greek world and the ancient world. I find it every interesting generally just know more about the school, get to meet more people, and have an excuse to get here more.
The American School has been so important to me and my life. I was a summer session student 62 years ago. It meant so much to me to have such an education about the main monuments in Greece, and to know what to look for in a museum, and understand something about ancient art. Greece has thus become an important part of my life for all this time.