- The Drunken Duchess of Vassar: Grace Harriet Macurdy, Pioneering Feminist Classical Scholar by Barbara McManus
Barbara McManus’s discussion of Grace Harriet Macurdy’s book, Vassal-Queens and Some Contemporary Women in the Roman Empire (Baltimore 1937), includes a review by M. P. Charlesworth in which he says: “To sum up: the book is thorough and detailed, comprehensive and careful. . . .” That evaluation also applies to McManus’s biography of Macurdy (1866–1946).
McManus has done a prodigious and awe-inspiring amount of archival research. She includes appendices that cover a timeline of Macurdy’s prolific publications as well as a genealogy of her descendants (none direct, as Macurdy never had children of her own). McManus’s writing is erudite and engaging. Whether through the contretemps with Abigail Leach or when she rebuffed a customs official on her return from Greece with artifacts (219), there are moments when the reader feels they are right beside Macurdy (I use the “singular” they to be inclusive of gender-queer, gender non-binary readers.) [End Page 592]
Through McManus’s treatment, Macurdy lives on as a visionary professor of Hellenic Studies. In chapter 10, “Redefining the Classical Scholar as a Woman,” McManus chronicles how Macurdy expanded Greek studies at Vassar College through collaborative development and team-teaching with a variety of departments, and the introduction of Greek literature courses in translation (211).
On every page, McManus’s respect for Macurdy shines through. However, one wonders, since this respect is so evident, why McManus agreed to make prominent in the title the endearing—no doubt—but still-debasing sobriquet, “The Drunken Duchess of Vassar.” This reader would have preferred Grace Harriet Macurdy: Pioneering Feminist Classical Scholar as the main title. McManus also undermines her project by referring to women scholars nearly always by their first names and men by their last.
For all the eloquence of her prose, McManus has some unfortunate word choices. The most striking comes when she discusses how Macurdy dealt with the “biased nature of the evidence” (205) while maintaining a woman-centered focus in her work on vassal queens. Yet, on 204, McManus writes “ . . . one of [Herod the Great’s] sons, Antipater, tried to blacken (emphasis mine) Salome’s name through a forged letter to Livia.” After 44 pages of excruciating detail to establish Macurdy as “Fighting for Justice” over a tempest in a teacup at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA), and after a mere page and a quarter (46–47) devoted to Vassar’s first Black graduate, Anita Hemmings, McManus’s use of “blacken” is jarring and unsettling, given the racial insensitivity and bias of the term.
For a reader familiar with Black women’s struggle to obtain a classical education, particularly in the nineteenth century, McManus’s treatment of the Hemmings episode is problematic. There is no evidence that Hemmings went to Macurdy for support, only that she went to her favorite Greek professor. McManus assumes that to be Macurdy, but it could well have been Leach. In many ways, McManus conflates Macurdy and Hemmings with the later exemplum of Otelia Cromwell and Julia Caverno at Smith College.
McManus is harsh in her critique of M. I. Finley’s review of Vassal-Queens, calling it “highly condescending” (206). Finley’s negative review, in which he pointed out Macurdy’s “racialism,” distressed Macurdy and so distresses McManus. However, from the standpoint of critical race theory, Finley’s critique is fair. Consanguinity, steeped as it is in scientific racism and white supremacy, dominated and still dominates Cleopatra studies. Macurdy was not immune.
There are other criticisms to be made. There is too much detail about early Macurdy family history; the same can be said about the ASCSA debacle. McManus herself writes this about the pamphlet composed to support Bert Hodge Hill: “But its length, detail and complexity diluted its impact” (167). The same can be said about McManus’s chapter 9...