How Women Became Poets - A Review

By Owain Williams

As it is Women's History Month in some parts of the world, I thought I would review a recent book that examines the place of women in ancient Greek literature: Emily Hauser's How Women Became Poets: A Gender History of Greek Literature.

Sappho, “the most famous woman poet of ancient Greece… had no words with which to talk about who she was, and what she did” (p. 1). This idea forms the basis of Hauser’s study of ancient Greek literature, from Archaic Greece to the Hellenistic period. According to Hauser, much like how there are gendered expectations surrounding occupations in the modern world, being a poet in ancient Greece was imagined as being an entirely masculine occupation. In fact, Hauser argues, there was a conscious effort to actively seclude women from being poets by, for example, referring to women poets as animals rather than apply feminine terms for poet to them. In one poem, Alcaeus is called a poet, while Sappho is “hidden behind the metaphor of the nightingale” (p. 277).

As Hauser demonstrates, the ancient Greeks were, themselves, conscious of the potential dissonance between the grammatical gender of words and the social gender those words applied to. The philosopher Protagoras, according to Aristotle, believed that the words for ‘wrath’ (menis) and ‘helmet’ (pelex) should, in fact, be grammatically masculine, as they pertain to an emotional state and an object, respectively, that are associated with men and masculinity, despite being grammatically feminine (Sophistical Refutations 173b; see also Aristophanes, Clouds 661–692). Hauser explores the Greeks’ application of this idea to their idea of what it meant to be a poet, with the assumed male gender of poets conflicting with the various grammatically female terms associated with music in ancient Greece, as well as the terms that women poets adopted to refer to themselves. 

The chapters on Aristophanes and Plato were the most illustrative of the discourse surrounding the language of poets in ancient Greece. Hauser demonstrates how both writers were certainly conscious of grammatical gender and the gendering of poetry in ancient Greece, utilising these concepts in their writing to engage with the discourse. Together, the two writers offer an interesting contrast in their approaches, and Hauser notes how Plato may have been responding to Aristophanes’ work, or at least had it in mind (p. 147). Unfortunately, the rest of the book is not so convincing. However, this may be due to the importance of the ancient Greek language for the analysis. Readers with only a passing familiarity of ancient Greek at best, like me, might find parts of this book a struggle.

While it is important to recognise that women were not celebrated as poets in ancient Greece, with the exception of Sappho – we know of only 100 women poets, but over 3200 men poets (p. 4) – and how many women likely did not have the opportunity to even compose poetry, I believe Hauser offers an incomplete picture. Hauser does acknowledge that there were areas of song that were typically associated with women, such as the lament and work songs, that have largely been lost due to the gendered expectations of song, but Hauser’s reliance on literary evidence makes women poets seem like an anomaly, particularly when using numbers. The artistic evidence from Attic vases, for example, suggests that women had greater access to music. While not a dominant feature of Greek vases, women with musical instruments is a decoration that does appear fairly frequently. When we consider this in addition to the literary evidence, it lends even more credence to what Hauser terms the “the prevailing culture of female silencing” (p. 4).

This was a very interesting book, if a little dense, at times, that offers a provocative reading of ancient Greek literature. While people unfamiliar with either Greek literature or ancient Greek might find it a struggle to read, I believe it will be an important addition to our understanding of ancient Greek society.

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