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  • Material Girls:An Introduction
  • Sarah Levin-Richardson

You know that we are living in a material worldAnd I am a material girl

Madonna "Material Girl"

In the music video for her 1984 hit "Material Girl," Madonna commands the stage in the guise of a glamorous movie star wearing a strapless pink gown with matching full-length gloves. She is bedecked with elaborate diamond jewelry (necklace, bracelets, earrings), while a band of identically dressed, tuxedoed male suitors regale her with more jewels (ring, bracelets, armband). In studying women and gender in ancient Greece and Rome, dress and adornment figure as a major category of material evidence. Remains of actual clothing are rare, but scholars can look to the archaeological record—pins, jewelry, and weaving equipment, as well as visual representations of dressed bodies (including sculptures, vase paintings, and frescoes)—plus textual references to the ideological and social associations of various types of dress.

The household is another material realm often probed in discussions of gender and women. Scholars study architectural features, furnishings and objects, and the decoration of various types of housing; they can also explore the social and ideological functions of the house as represented in literature. The material culture of death and burial provides further evidence when studying ancient women and gender. Information is gleaned from the type, size, and location of funerary monuments, the text of epitaphs, the decoration of the tomb (e.g., representations of the deceased and/or objects), and whatever was deposited with the deceased's remains. These spheres of evidence can overlap in numerous ways, providing parallel forms of evidence for the same phenomenon. The production of cloth, for example, [End Page 61] can be identified in households by clusters of loom weights, while the ideological associations of domestic production are traced in visual art and in funerary epitaphs. Hence we are able to discern a long-lasting association between weaving and proper femininity. We also find evidence that reality and ideals did not always line up: the discovery of significant numbers of loom weights in building Z3 of the Athenian Kerameikos suggests that prostitutes, too, were involved in cloth production (Ault 2016).

Recent scholarship in these areas has brought critical attention to women's engagement with their material world in antiquity. Kelly Olson (2008; see also Olson 2017) and Mireille Lee (2015) show how dress and adornment articulated social differences (especially gender, but also class, ethnicity, age, and morality), while allowing women to actively take part in self-fashioning (for example, in their choice of cosmetics, jewelry, and hair style). Careful study of household assemblages by Lisa Nevett (1999) and Penelope Allison (2004) shows that women were omnipresent throughout the house (with the exception of andrones in housing of the Greek classical period, though we assume female entertainers were more than welcome) and that most spaces were multifunctional, with different activities and groups of users cycling in and out according to the time of the day, the presence or absence of guests, or other factors. Natalie Kampen's (1981) assessment of visual representations of workers (often funerary reliefs) remains influential in finding that lower-status patrons expressed pride in female workers, while middle- and higher-status patrons preferred to depict scenes of domestic industry and femininity (on the latter, see also Shumka 2008). In more recent scholarship, Leslie Shumka (2017) highlights how enslaved and freed Roman women deployed depictions of feminine toiletry objects—and the practice of self-care to which they allude—on their funerary monuments in order to exercise control in the face of economic and social marginalization. In addition, Maureen Carroll (2013) draws our attention to women in the provinces using depictions of local dress to proclaim their ethnic affiliation, in addition to participation in Roman norms of proper femininity.

The three essays in this special issue of Arethusa continue this exploration of women's engagements with the material world—engagements made particularly potent because of women's restricted access to many spheres of cultural production and power (e.g., literature and politics). Sherry Ortner (building on Simone de Beauvoir) famously brings attention to the ubiquity of such restrictions across cultures and historical time periods, suggesting that women are...


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