Intimations of Feminism in Ancient Athens: Euripides’ Medea

Terry Collits


The monumental cultural achievement of the Athenians in the fifth century BCE is so commonly taken to contain the origins of our modernity (“we” being “the West”) that it is reasonable to enquire whether that culture included the beginnings of feminism. But to put the question of whether there was an actually existing feminism in Athens raises obstacles and resistances at many levels. Short of the unlikely event of the discovery of a hitherto lost library of new evidence, the empirical data for answering the question is likely to remain as limited and unyielding as it is now. The alternative method is re-reading the existing texts, subjecting them to new methods of analysis and different perspectives for interpretation. As Fredric Jameson defined this difference:

the historicizing operation can follow two distinct paths, which only ultimately meet in the same place: the path of the object and the path of the subject, the historical origins of the things themselves and that more intangible historicity of the concepts and categories by which we attempt to understand those things.

The paucity of the available evidence means that the paths identified by Jameson will never meet: conclusions will remain hypothetical, judgments controversial. This does not mean that the enquiry is entirely quixotic or simply arbitrary. It can take its place in the realm of the provisional and the relatively persuasive which is the familiar home of literature, theory and politics. It is obliged to live with an old anxiety about authentic knowledge and preserve a decent reticence about imposing on the past anachronistic values of the present. Such concerns are especially potent when one is negotiating the ancient classics, a field which until recently was the preserve of a special clerisy. Contemporary literary theory can help ease such difficulties.

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