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Classicist helps today's students examine views of women in antiquity.

image: Coursework headerClassicist Laura Slatkin leads her students in a discussion of ancient Greek gynecology.

The reading for the November 4 class session of Women in Antiquity is enough to drag anyone, giggling and squirming, back to those awkward days of high-school sex ed. This week's topic is "women's bodies and where they belong." For today, the 25 undergraduate and graduate students have read medical writings by Aristotle, Hippocrates, Galen, Plutarch, Pliny the Elder, and more. Among other knowledge gleaned, they have learned that the ancient Greeks believed women's wombs wandered, that this condition caused the majority of female physical problems, and that pungent pessaries were the cure for what ailed. The students seem a bit stunned, but thankfully no one reverts to the crass jokes and gestures of the teen years.

Instead, they trickle into Classics 26, a seminar room dominated by a large wooden table encircled by chairs. Small desks line the walls beneath blackboards and maps of the Roman Empire, France, and Italy. When most of the seats are filled, teacher Laura Slatkin takes her place at the head of the table. Wearing dark-rimmed glasses, a sage-green shirt, and navy vest and skirt, she looks relaxed but focused, ready to work. "Last time we were talking about how gender roles have a spatial dimension," she begins in a soft voice. A gray-haired man in jeans walks through the door behind her, removing his bike helmet as he finds a chair. "The way women's behavior is determined and regulated makes a kind of physical and geographical statement."

Slatkin, an associate professor of classics and a 1998 Quantrell Award winner, asks a woman wearing a light blue knit shirt if she has any lingering questions from Tuesday.

"I had a problem with the Berber House article," she replies, referring to Pierre Bourdieu's explanation of the gender divisions in Berber society, in particular within the home. "I couldn't visualize it. I went back and read it and still didn't get it."

"Does anyone have thoughts on it?" Slatkin asks. Silence. "That wasn't a trick question." Laughter. She turns back to the puzzled student. "What did you take away from it?"

"A woman's place was home, and she was the master there....The man had everything to do in public life and she had no part in that," the student says. "There was no real communication between the two of them. It seemed like they had no interaction except to produce children."

"No sharing," Slatkin nods.

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  DECEMBER 1999

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