Invisible Women and How They Make History
In the season’s first episode we talk to Dr. Sarit Kattan Gribetz about ancient women and anonymity: history’s nameless faces, the news negativity bias, and how to raid ancient texts to find women.
How were women named and anonymized in Jewish and Christian texts? When did bene Yisra’el mean “sons of Israel” in the Hebrew Bible, and when did it include the daughters too? What do we know about female scribes in antiquity? Who was Rav Hisda’s daughter? And how do biases shape what scholars find?
“The real question we ought to ask is not necessarily whether women were there, whether they existed, participated and contributed to society because it’s so obvious that they did…. The real question is why do so few of our ancient sources — or so few of our modern historical accounts — incorporate them?”
Dr. Sarit Kattan Gribetz
Dr. Sarit Kattan Gribetz is an Associate Professor in the Theology Department at Fordham University. She completed her BA, MA, and PhD at Princeton University. Her first book, Time and Difference in Rabbinic Judaism, explores the conceptions of time within rabbinic literature. In addition to her work on time and temporality, Sarit’s work broadly focuses on ancient Judaism, gender and sexuality, and material spaces. Her current book project explores Queen Helena of Adiabene, and following that she will write a gendered history of Jerusalem.
Rebekah Haigh: Welcome to Women Who Went Before, a gynocentric quest into the ancient world! I’m Rebekah Haigh
Emily Chesley: …and I’m Emily Chesley…
Rebekah: …scholars, friends, and fellow text-raiders!
Emily: In Episode 1, “Invisible Women and How They Make History,” we talk to Sarit Kattan Gribetz about history’s nameless faces, the news negativity bias, and how to raid ancient texts to find women.
Rebekah: Early in first-century Palestine, somewhere around the Sea of Galilee, a desperate woman forced her way through a crowd eager to meet a local holy man. For twelve years she had suffered constant internal bleeding, which made her something of a social outcast. Prohibited from sacred spaces and certain ritual activities. She had spent all her money seeking medical help, and was now at her wit’s end. She managed to touch his garment and her bleeding suddenly–…finally!…–ceased. “Who touched me?” the holy man demanded. But the New Testament doesn’t tell us. Over the centuries, the Christian tradition made her famous, memorializing her in late antique preaching and art. But her name was not remembered. She is known to us only by epithets: “the hemorrhaging woman” or “the woman with the flow of blood.” (Mk 5:25-35, Lk 8:42-48, Mt 9:20-22)
History knows her story–at least the part where her life intersected with the famous Jesus of Nazareth. But, like thousands upon thousands of other ancient women, she herself remains nameless.
Emily: “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” Before it emblazoned coffee mugs and t-shirts, before it became a feminist battlecry, this was an observation in a 1976 academic article by the Pulitzer prize-winning historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.1 When she originally penned the phrase in her analysis of Puritan women’s funeral messages, Ulrich described a phenomenon we likewise see in ancient literature. It was the unusual ones – disrupters, the women who departed from society’s expectations that they be home-makers, whom we know about. These women weren’t troublemakers in the sense of pursuing a social crusade, but they disrupted the fabric of society by departing from so-called “respectable” behavior. Their presence was only noted when they acted badly, or socially unacceptably, or exceptionally different from the average.
Rebekah: It’s first-level erasure. Later this season we’ll see editorial erasure, where centuries of copyists and interpreters reinterpreted women in stories in negative ways or diminished their significance to the narrative. But perhaps the greatest moment of erasure, numerically speaking, came when a scribe sat down to pen a narrative of his empire’s history, and did not think to include women at all. His chronicle would mention the world-changing events: the emperors who ascended the throne, perhaps earthquakes, or sieges, or burdensome new taxes. Real women made it into his story, but they were typically the outliers: queens and saints on the positive end, prostitutes and traitors on the other. The vast majority of women–the ordinary, “normal” ones–never got written in, in the first place. In rabbinc literature, a corpus also written by men, scholar Tal Ilan estimates that about a thousand men are named compared to only 52 women.2
Emily: When I was a girl, I devoured the Dear America books. They’re a series of fictionalized “diaries” of young girls who lived through famous periods of US history. There was one about a girl who sailed on the Titanic,3 one about an enslaved girl who escaped a Virginian plantation,4 one about a Triangle Shirtwaist Company employee.5 The books were successful because they allowed young female readers to imagine ourselves into the past; we learned history along the way because we could see ourselves in it. (They also played into a form of nationalism, but that’s a conversation for a different day.) One of the books had this line that has stuck with me. It repeats in my head, like a bell tolling doomsday. The young character complained about having to sew delicate cross-stitch samplers and hem dresses with miniscule, invisible stitches. She lamented, “Our work is only visible when we do it badly.”
Rebekah: This episode, and indeed the whole season, we explore two sides of the same coin. On the one hand, women were often expected to be silent and invisible. They belonged in domestic space, sequestered at home, not in the civic spheres of the courts and markets and schools. Plutarch’s advice to a newlywed couple exhorted the bride to keep both her body and her speech out of the public eye (Advice to Bride and Groom 31). He also included this extremely helpful nugget: “The women of Egypt, by inherited custom, were not allowed to wear shoes, so that they should stay at home all day; and most women, if you take from them gold-embroidered shoes, bracelets, anklets, purple, and pearls, stay indoors” (Advice to Bride and Groom 30).6 Despite being 50% of the population, history’s ledgers document them in occasional marginal notations.
Emily: On the other hand, in the meta narratives of history, women’s bodies became metaphors that framed its stories–particularly dark moments like conquest, social failure, and moral collapse. In the Bible, prophets like Ezekiel and Jeremiah spoke of the nation of Israel and its capital city Jerusalem as God’s straying wife, who prostituted herself to surrounding nations. “She” embodies Jewish history even as this meta-narrative can overshadow the stories of the real women living, working, and troublemaking within her walls. In Greek and Roman mythology, women often show up in the stories as violated by both men and gods. They are a plot device for a larger story. Even as real women were erased from the historical record, their gender becomes a mechanism for understanding it.
Rebekah: Texts don’t tell the whole story of women. Or even the real story. Plutarch’s ideal of a wife sequestered at home didn’t play out in practice all the time. Working-class women helped their husbands with the family business, worked as midwives or cooks, and labored in the fields. A Roman stone relief carving from the second century CE depicts a butcher’s wife adding up the day’s receipts on an abacus while her husband chops a piece of meat nearby.7 Lower-class women in particular would have had to work to support the family. Prostitutes, whom we’ll learn about in Episode 5, often found themselves forced into the work by economic circumstances. And the church historian Eusebius tantalizingly tells us that the theologian Origen employed female calligraphers (HE 6.23).
Emily: In literature–when men had free rein to write their perfect scenario–good women were often silent and invisible. It was the society-crossing, troublemaking women who got written about at length: sex workers, sometimes left as salacious antagonists, other times turned holy like Mary of Egypt and Pelagia. Young women who had spiritual awakenings and then defied societal expectations, abandoning their fiances at the altar like Thecla and Macrina, also found their stories passed around.
Rebekah: It’s similar to the news negativity bias: how newspapers today report on shocking and unexpected events rather than the usual baseline.8 We don’t get many news stories saying, “99.98% of New Yorkers made it to work without falling onto the subway tracks or getting hit by a taxi!” In the ancient world, “normal” women who abided by socially-prescribed rules and avoided public notice were boring and usual. There was often little point (in the eyes of male authors) to write about them.
Emily: Good women often showed up as mothers, daughters, and wives. But they were also known for founding monasteries and churches, like Helena the mother of Constantine. Politicking with the best of them like Cleopatra and the queens of Meroe. Or stepping into the role of legal sage, like Beruriah. By the end of the season you’ll know who these women were!
Rebekah: Let’s welcome our season’s first guest. Dr. Sarit Kattan Gribetz is an Associate Professor in the Theology Department at Fordham University. She completed her BA, MA, and PhD at Princeton University. Her first book, Time and Difference in Rabbinic Judaism (2020), explores the conceptions of time within rabbinic literature. In addition to her work on time and temporality, Sarit’s work broadly focuses on ancient Judaism, gender and sexuality, and material spaces.
Emily: Rulers often shaped the political and religious history that got recorded. Ancient chroniclers, the men who wrote histories, political narratives like chronicles, lives of Saints, often focused on men simply by virtue of writing about the major power players—kings, bishops, generals, holy men and so on. But this has often meant that marginal folks like women, enslaved people, rural folks, impoverished people didn’t get included in those, quote-un-quote “main” histories. So do historians—you—have any guesses about how many people got written out of history? To start with, a very easy question! [laughs]
Sarit Kattan Gribetz: [laughs] Well, so it is a very easy question because most people have not been included in historical writings. In our sources we have a tiny, tiny fraction of the past, and that’s especially true of antiquity. But also of later periods, also of the history that’s going to be written about today. So our sources tell us so little about the complicated lives of individuals and the complexities of communities and societies.
I sometimes think of the past as a massive three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. There isn’t one structure that can be built from all of those pieces. There are many different kinds of structures that we might build. And the problem with ancient history is that most of our puzzle pieces have been lost. We’re missing them.
So on the one hand, a big part of writing history is simply acknowledging how little evidence we have and how much we don’t know. Not only about women, but almost—about almost everything. And then on the other hand, writing history is also an inherently creative, imaginative, constructive process.
So we only have a few fragments left. And they can be assembled in many different ways. And what do we do as historians? How do we acknowledge the missing pieces? How do we put the remaining pieces together? And how do we make sense of the parts that don’t connect? So finding the pieces, experimenting with what they can and can’t teach us—that’s what makes history so fun.
Emily: So, we know that there are missing puzzle pieces. We don’t necessarily know how many pieces are missing or necessarily what colors are on those pieces. But we know that there are pieces.
Sarit: You know, imagine a thousand-piece puzzle. We might have thirteen pieces, or we might have 75, or we might have 550! And the exercise of writing history is putting those pieces together in a way that resembles what the, the full picture might have been. But there are many ways of doing that.
Rebekah: So when students learn Greek and Latin for the first time, we’re taught that men are like food coloring. If there were any men in a group of people that group would take the masculine pronouns and the masculine endings. There could be 25 women and one man, and the writer would still use the masculine forms of they and them. And this is true of Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic. So do we have any ways of recovering those women that were excluded from stories thanks to grammar. A different kind of exclusion. Not puzzles, but language!
Sarit: Yeah, so that’s a great question. And as you mentioned, modern and ancient Hebrew, like Greek and Latin, have masculine and feminine singulars and plurals. But then as soon as one male joins the group, the language becomes exclusively masculine. And that’s true also of Arabic which has a dual form as well.
But it’s not true of all languages. So that’s important to acknowledge as well. And not even all ancient languages. So Armenian for example, is a genderless language. It doesn’t have grammatical gender for nouns nor for pronouns. And Persian is similar; and in fact, when Arabic loanwords are incorporated into Persian they lose their gendered ending. So we see the malleability of language.
And English of course has gendered pronouns, but only in the singular, and then verbs and nouns aren’t gendered. We have all sorts of combinations.
And then languages develop and transform too. So I’m living in Jerusalem this year for research, and I’ve noticed here and there in both written and spoken Hebrew, a subtle linguistic shift. So instead of saying bruchim haba’im in the masculine or bruchot haba’ot in the feminine you can now say bruchiot haba’iot, which combines both engines into one. And there is even a new font that I’ve seen that merges the gendered endings into a gender inclusive or gender neutral form. So it’s really new and niche; I’ve only seen it a handful of times. But it reminds us that languages evolve.
But what you’re asking is a methodological question. When a masculine plural, for example, is used to describe or address a group, how do we know whether the texts mean a group of men or a group that includes others as well? Right, like how do we make sense of the presence of grammatical gender and its relationship to history and to text?
So let’s use a concrete example. The Hebrew Bible frequently uses the term bene Yisra’el. Do we translate do translate that term as children of Israel? As in all the people of Israel, including the women. Or do we translate it as sons of Israel? In other words, a group of men. So the ambiguity arises from the fact that the term banim means both children and sons.
And for the most part, I think when we read the biblical text the term usually refers to the people of Israel writ large, right? Like the people including everyone. In such cases the term’s grammatical gender which is masculine doesn’t indicate that the text addresses only men. Banim means children or people.
But sometimes that same phrase is used specifically to mean or is interpreted to mean by later readers sons, that is, the men of Israel rather than all of the people. There’s one well-known interpretation in rabbinic sources, for example, that reads a passage from Exodus 19 where Moses ascends to God on Mount Sinai, and God instructs Moses to teach the people of Israel and it says koh to’mar levet Ya‘qov vetaged livne Yisra’el. “Go, instruct the people. Tell the people, the house of Jacob and the people of Israel.” And rabbinic sources like rack their brains around how to understand these two categories of people. House of Jacob and people of Israel. And so on a simple read, it’s just two ways of saying the same thing. “Talk to the people of Israel.”
But what the rabbinic first does is it says the house of Jacob refers to the women of Israel and then bene Yisra’el, which is the grammatical masculine, means the men of Israel. And so this really interesting way of reading the term people of Israel narrowly to mean men, and in order to include the women through the house of Jacob. Later readers read grammatical gender hyper-literally, but in order to include women into the narrative story.
I’ll give you another example which is even more interesting in my opinion, which is the rabbinic reading of Deuteronomy 6. This is a famous passage in which God instructs the people to declare their love of God each and every day and also to teach God’s commandments to their children. And so it uses the same ambiguous term, banim sons or children. And rabbinic readers wonder, is the obligation to teach the commandments applicable to all children or only sons. And what they ultimately decide is that it actually only refers to sons. And they say it means to your sons and your son’s sons, but not to your daughters. Right? So they say the term banim was specifically chosen in order to teach that it’s only the men who have to be instructed in the law and not the women.
We don’t have to go into the specifics of why this reading is preferred to others, but what we see is the ambiguity of grammatical gender and how it opens up all sorts of interpretive possibilities for later readers. And then they could read those later interpretations as a window into their own understanding of gender. And each of these interpretations is not ever neutral, but it, it highlights I think the messy possibilities of gender and reading gender into and out of our texts.
I’ll mention that my colleague Liz Shanks Alexander is currently writing a book about this phenomenon in particular in biblical and in rabbinic texts. And she’s interested not only in the phenomenon of grammatical and legal exclusion and inclusion, but also how the interplay shifts over time and in different communities and contacts. So for example, how do rabbis interpret grammatical gender from the Bible differently from how those same passages might have been read in earlier periods or by other readers.
Then there’s also another dimension to the question of gender in our sources. And that’s common sense, which is, I think, an underappreciated historical methodology.
Rebekah: Underappreciated methodology in general!
Sarit: Exactly! And one of my favorite articles of all times is called “Gazing Upon the Invisible” written by Melanie Johnson DeBaufre, and it’s about women in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. So I’m just going to read the opening lines of that article.
She writes, “I have taken students to archaeological sites in Greece and Turkey many times. On every single trip, after perusing museums, statuary, funerary reliefs, pottery, mosaics, and innumerable small finds of the ancient every day, someone has said something like this: ‘There are so many women here!’ It is true. Despite the uneven and accidental nature of ancient remains, archaeology often provides a visible and material confirmation of a basic dictum of feminist historians. Wo/men were there. But this statement also raises a question: Why are students surprised by this? What is it about our everyday narrative of the past that (still) leads to ‘eureka’-like discoveries of something obvious?”
Though for me what this article pushed me to see is that the real question that we ought to ask is not necessarily whether women were there—whether they existed, they participated, they contributed—because it’s so obvious that they did, and that they did in diverse ways. That they’re so frequently absent or excluded in our sources is the surprising part. Not that they were there. And the real question is why do so few of our ancient sources and so few of our modern historical accounts incorporate them? And that’s a question about erasure which you’ll get to in later episodes of your podcast.
But it’s hard work to tell a story and to exclude so many main and supporting characters from that story. So why and how that happens in the past and continues to happen today is an important story, but it shouldn’t lead us to think that women weren’t important parts of society, nor that they were expected to remain silent or invisible, nor that they did.
Just because the text doesn’t mention women doesn’t mean that they weren’t there. It just means that they were omitted from that text. And that’s I think, an important point.
Emily: I hear a theme coming out in your answer, which is that the ways– that history is an interpretive discipline based on the ideas and approaches and thoughts of the historian. It’s not just, you translate a text and you immediately know what it means. You do a lot of analysis understand what does it mean, what conclusions can we draw. And multiple historians might come to a different answer from the same set of evidence.
But something that also emerges I think from your answers is that our own assumptions, the assumptions of modern scholars, impact what we find in the texts. So I’m wondering what are some of the ways that our own assumptions about the past erase women? What can we do about it? How can we be more responsible or maybe look with different eyes?
Sarit: So historians tend to think of our work as grounded in empirical analysis of primary sources, whether they’re literary or documentary or theological, material, oral.
What we don’t talk about as readily is that history writing is also an inherently creative act, right. It’s an act of imagination. In our scholarship we aren’t exactly reconstructing the past. What we’re doing is we’re constructing a story about the past. And in the best cases, in the best history, we ground our constructions of the past in solid evidence, right. We use appropriate historical methodologies. We look at texts and evidence.
But even so, I think the first thing that we have to do is to be upfront about how much creativity and imagination goes into the historical work that we do.
So you asked about assumptions that we bring to the past and how those have the potential to erase women. Another way of asking this question is, what do we allow ourselves to imagine about the past? And what do we assume is possible about the past. What do we assume must have been impossible? And then to ask ourselves why we allow ourselves to imagine some things and not others. So often what we allow ourselves to imagine—in other words, our assumptions—are grounded in our own experiences or in more recent history or in stereotypes that we have about the gendered past rather than necessarily the evidence that we have from the period that we study.
So I’ll give you an example. I often encounter the assumption that ancient women were for the most part illiterate. But we also have plenty of evidence in the form of poetry that women composed, letters that they wrote, documents they signed, that at least some women were very literate. And there are whole volumes of correspondences between women, letters on papyri and so on. So does this evidence change our assumptions about the gendered history of literacy? Or do we instead erase those women authorial contributions by claiming that they must have had help from brothers or fathers or husbands or scribes when they composed those letters.
And do we ask the same questions about male literacy, right? Do we scrutinize sources purportedly written by men in the same way? Do we ask, “Is it really possible that that man could have written that letter? Or did he get help from his brother or father?” And if we’re not willing to ask those questions, I think we have to do the introspective work in in addition to the historical work.
When I analyze texts with my students, I remind them that we need to hold all of our sources and assumptions to the same critical standard, right? So if we question whether a woman could have written such a text, we have to ask the same question about whether men could have written it, and holding ourselves accountable I think is an important part of the historical process.
Rebekah: That reminds me. A few years ago I was doing some research on Coptic letters and I don’t remember the book but I stumbled across this argument that a particular letter written in large, apparently less elegant handwriting, whatever that means, must suggest a woman wrote it. As if a man couldn’t have poor handwriting, or as if most men were literate in the ancient world. So it’s again kind of getting at that same assumption.
Rebekah: If we’re thinking about literary texts, maybe we can pivot to the way that women are described within literary texts. So when scholars read the Bible or other historical texts, we pay attention when women are named because they are so rarely named. When they were included in this story, it’s typically in relation to men. So famously, David’s lineage with Ruth. Or Jesus’ lineages as well. Rather than referring to these women by their names the narrators would write “the sister of so-and-so” or “so-and-so’s wife” and “the daughter of so-and-so”.9 I wonder if you could talk about this phenomenon and how it plays out in the texts you study, how women are named, or if they’re not named described by the authors. What relationships are important to highlight?
Sarit: So it’s true that far fewer women are named than men in most of our sources and also that men generally play larger narrative roles in those sources. But still we have so many named women, even in biblical sources. And stepping back, that’s a big deal that we shouldn’t overlook or dismiss.
So I, I had a quick look at the list of women in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament because I was curious how many named women are there. There are over 150 named women. Everything from Abigail to Zipporah. The first important point that I think we need to remember that there are often more women in our sources than we assume, and more to say about them than is often assumed about, about women.
But then of course, many women and also many men are not named, and there are also, as you mentioned, many examples of women who are either named or unnamed who are mainly described in their relationship to male family members or others in the society.
And by the way, this happens today, as much as it did in antiquity.
And the same is true of rabbinic literature. There are quite a few named women in rabbinic sources, and each one is presented in her own way in the rabbinic corpus. So for example, we have Beruriah who is a feisty woman who knows a ton of Torah and rabbinic law and speaks back to rabbinical students who know less than her and try to mansplain to her. And she is regarded as Rabbi Meir’s wife and/or Hananiah ben Teradion’s daughter, and there are discussions about is this the same Beruriah or a different Beruriah because she’s mentioned in relation to two different men. And that’s a whole story for another time.
We have another woman, for example, Rachel, who is Rabbi Akiva’s wife who is this like self-sacrificing figure who gives up all of her wealth and prestige and time with her husband so that her husband can study. And we have Imma Shalom who’s this really protective figure who’s described as Rabbi Eliezer’s wife. And then we have Yalta who is this independently-minded woman but described as Rabbi Nahman’s wife. And so these are all cases in which we have named women, but their persona is so often defined in relationship to their male relative, in this case a rabbi.
But there are also some exceptions. So I’m writing a book right now about Queen Helena of Adiabene, who in rabbinic sources is called Heleni haMalcha. And one of the surprising aspects of this figure in particular is that rabbinic sources relate to her as an individual even though they know about and mention her sons in other texts. So it’s not an exclusive phenomenon of relating women to their partners.
And then there are other unnamed women who are mainly known in their relational dimension. So one fun example is a character known as Rav Hisda’s daughter, who’s described in the Talmud as being from a well-known rabbinic family from southern Babylonia. She’s described as being an expert on Sabbath cooking laws. So much so that she is able to do things that most other people aren’t allowed to do because she knows the law so well, and the rabbis can’t imagine that she will transgress those laws. She discusses the merits and drawbacks of pulling all-nighters while studying Torah with her father. She tries to convince him it’s not healthy to stay up too late. She protects her husband from bathroom demons she. Like, she’s this formidable legal mind, and she finds herself in rabbinic courts of law and so on. And she doesn’t have a name, she’s just Rav Hisda’s daughter.
And even though they’re not given proper names, they have these like colorful, scandalous personalities. Even if the stories aren’t real, they’re developed characters even though they’re unnamed.
But I think that named and unnamed women in rabbinic sources are a tiny minority of the women that we find in our texts. And that’s because women appear extremely frequently in rabbinic discussions related to marriage and divorce and menstrual purity. And all of these discussions have whole tractates devoted to them.
And for the most part in those sources, women are objects of discussion. They are not the audience. They’re not talking to the women in particular. They’re not addressing them. But they’re, they’re talking about them, and they’re imagining how do women engage with the world? How are they supposed to engage with their bodies, with other people? And also importantly, how men are supposed to engage with them?
We might find that surprising but of course it’s not because— We mentioned earlier women were there, right? Rabbis didn’t live in monasteries. They weren’t celibate; they lived in family units for the most part and in a world that was filled with women. And so of course their sources also talk about gender and about the women in that world.
And then I think the most invisible women in the rabbinic corpus are those that contributed to the tradition in that corpus and who participated in the transmission of those tradition but who are invisible because they’re not mentioned in the texts, and because we as scholars haven’t seen them in the texts. So one scholar, Judith Hauptman, has pointed out, for example, that there are many instances in rabbinic sources where the laws of kashrut (of kosher food) or other domestic worlds are adjusted because a woman has given input about them. Right, that there’s a story she tried something in the kitchen and some law had to be adjusted. And it’s usually women in rabbinic households. And what Hauptman argues is that such stories give us a lens into how rabbinic rules were developed not only in the study houses, but also in the fullness of rabbis lives, including at home and with their family and in conversation with mothers and sisters and daughters and wives.
And the last thing I’ll say on this topic is that each corpus and each context differs. What the stories tell us is not necessarily about a particular historical woman, but it tells us something about a story that was told about women in this corpus and in this community.
Rebekah: So while women are invisible in some ways and spaces and to various degrees, they’re not completely invisible. And the un-naming or the lack of names in some cases isn’t true invisibility. Right, like some of the stories that you brought up where we actually have a fully fleshed out or rather fleshed out picture of these women, which tells us a lot more than if we just get a name in a genealogy or not a name in a genealogy.
Emily: I would love to pick up on a thread that came up in your previous answer, which is these women who appear in the sources anonymously. We have stories about them as you say, sometimes fully fledged characters, but don’t always have a name. How do you in your own scholarship refer to these women? Whether that be, say, “the woman at the well” or “the woman with the hemorrhage” that we see in the New Testament Gospels. In the texts of terror in the Hebrew Bible we meet Jephthah’s daughter, women who are— Again, have fully fledged stories but don’t have names.
And some scholars will take the tack of referring to them in roundabout ways. The roundabout ways that the sources do like “Peter’s mother-in-law,” “the hemorrhaging women.” Whereas others I’ve seen use pseudonyms, sort of select a name that might have been common to the period like Melania or Maria and use that in quotes to acknowledge that the name has been lost to us by us, but this woman did have a name. What are the pros and cons of each and where have you landed?
Sarit: So I have never named an unnamed woman in my scholarship, but that’s an intriguing suggestion! All the more so because I recently examined inscriptions from the region of Jerusalem in the first few centuries CE. And what struck me after looking at several dozens of inscription is how some names appeared over and over again and how few other names appeared at all. So in a sense, it’s totally reasonable to pick a common name if you want to name an anonymous woman. And in my reading the most popular names that I found were Shalom (Salome) or a variation of that, Shlomzion, Maria, Mariame, Martha, and Iohana. So that, those are the names that I would choose if I were picking a name.
But I also think that there is a lot to be learned from examining which terms are used and what they mean and why they were chosen by ancient authors, right? So anonymity in itself is an important data point, and I would be cautious to name an anonymous woman for the simple reason that the anonymity itself tells us something.
I co-wrote an article with my colleague Mika Ahuvia about the term benot Yisra’el, daughters of Israel. The term benot Yisra’el, the daughters of Israel, appears a handful of times in biblical sources, but more so in Second Temple marriage documents and rabbinic texts and in incantation bowls. And so we were curious to ask, under what circumstances might an author use the term daughters of Israel to indicate women instead of another term, for example nashim which also means women. And we’re curious, is it an arbitrary choice? Are you just as likely to use one term or the other? Or did the term daughters of Israel carry with it particular resonances that made it more appealing or appropriate to use in certain contexts?
So that’s all to say that I think anonymity and general terms used to refer to groups of people can actually be a fruitful angle to think about gende,r and can also teach us a lot about how gender operated in antiquity. And like, we have to work with what we have. And we have to make sense of the sources on their own terms, and sometimes that just means grappling with the terms that they use.
Rebekah: So you mention inscriptions. How can cityscapes or physical spaces give us clues into the women who once inhabited them?
Sarit: So I think that the cities or space in general, so I wouldn’t want to limit it to cities but also rural spaces, help us a little bit get out of typical ways of thinking about the past and narrowly thinking about, let’s say, space and sacredness and expanding outward to all spaces, right? So what happens when we think beyond just temples, synagogues and shrines? When we think about religion in antiquity? What do we learn and how can we expand the subjects of our study when we also think, for example, about ritual spaces such as mikvaot (ritual baths that were used for purification) or agricultural fields, which were not only places where people grew food but also performed practices of charity. What about houses of study and academies, or domestic spaces where the Sabbath and other family rituals would have taken place, where babies would have been born, where healing and protective rituals were performed? Or what about courtyards or alleys or roads or intersections or crossroads, which were likely viewed in rabbinic sources and also in ancient Roman sources as ritual and sacred spaces. And then finally, cemeteries and catacombs and other burial sites. So all of that is included in the ancient landscape.
When we think outside the box or in our case outside the walls of the temple or beyond the walls of the temple in which women were prohibited from entering beyond the outer courtyard, we find ourselves in spaces inhabited by women and sometimes with more evidence about them.
We have other archaeological remains—domestic and public buildings, objects that are found in those spaces, and also visual images. So for example, mosaics and frescoes from synagogues, homes, spaces of gathering. And some of those mosaics even depict women’s faces and bodies. So for example, the zodiac mosaics in synagogues in Hammat Tverya and Sepphoris and Beit Alpha depict the four seasons at the four corners as women, and other mosaics from those sites and elsewhere also represent other feminine figures whether from classical mythology or other stories. And of course, these aren’t historical women. And yet they are physical representations of women in places of worship, in gathering species. And those are important to pay attention to.
The question is what do we do with these sources? So, I tend to think of this evidence whether it’s textual or material or visual, not primarily as reflecting their context, but rather constructing it. So do buildings, images, material artifacts, texts reflect reality, or do they construct norms for their world, or some sort of combination of those two?
An analogy to our contemporary times might be to look at something like fashion magazines or Instagram feeds, right? Do they reflect reality? Not really. Or at least I hope not! But they participate in it, right? They’re a part of how we need to understand this particular moment in history.
And also so many of those images function in certain ways towards certain ends, whether it’s advertisement, whether it’s projecting a particular image of oneself, whether it’s participating in a conversation. And I think the same is true of our ancient sources. Right, they never simply reflect the period. But they also contributed to making the world what it was, and so they help us understand how that world came to be what it was, what was important to the people in that world, what values were trying to be communicated in those spaces by those very images that we now see.
Another example would be to turn to contemporary street signs. So, so many streets whether in New York where I live or Jerusalem where I’m spending the year this year so many streets are named after men and so few after women, though even that is starting to change now. Those street names don’t necessarily accurately reflect the city’s history. In fact, we know from the history that we know that they distort history because the past actually did include more women than there are streets named after them.
But what the street names do is that they construct and they perpetuate a distorted history. They make the men, after whom those streets are named even more well known, while at the same time obscuring or erasing the names and the memories of important women whose stories have already been repressed and therefore have no streets named after them.
Right, and so we see that play out in many different contexts, for example in debates about monuments and statues in the US, right? Those are debates about the history of the United States. About race and about gender and about the legacy of the past and possibilities for the future. And these monuments like street signs don’t reflect reality. Right, they construct particular narratives of history, whether they’re gendered or raced or some combination of the two.
And so I think that we can regard ancient sources in a similar way. We might not be able to say whether they reflect reality, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t use them to understand why someone produced them in that way, and what purpose they might have played in the past.
Emily: Absolutely. And I mean, I think the monument example is a really helpful one, too. Not only for the reasons you mentioned, but because so many of these monuments that we’re talking about, at least in the South in the US, were not constructed in the 1850s or 60s, but decades later, during this project of trying to re, reshape and rewrite the history.
Sarit: Yes, and so many of our ancient sources that we rely on to tell us about the past also are retrospective.
Sarit: Right, whether we’re talking about Josephus who’s writing several decades after the revolt against Rome or rabbinic sources that are writing about the temple in a period in which there was no temple, we also are reading sources that are themselves participating in constructing a narrative of their past, rather than contemporaneous with the past.
Emily: So we’ve talked about characters who show up in text as anonymous: Jephthah’s daughter, the woman at the well. But a lot of texts from the period, this period are also anonymous. Whether those be rabbinic responsa, hagiographies (lives of saints), and chronicles. And I think traditionally scholars have assumed—speaking of assumptions—that anonymous just meant male. But there’s been a lot of excellent work, including by yourself, that there were female scribes and readers in late antiquity. Kim Haines-Eitzen in 1998 had the famous article showing that there were female scribes.10 So, is it possible that some of these texts that to us are currently anonymous that these were actually written by women?
Sarit: As historians, I think very strongly that we need to treat our sources and our subjects with integrity and humility. And sometimes that means simply acknowledging the limits of our sources and our knowledge about the past. And so if a source is anonymous—in other words if a text is of unknown authorship—it means that we don’t know who wrote it. And if we don’t know who wrote it, it probably also means that we don’t know the gender of the person who wrote it.
So let’s take an example from biblical texts. Do we know who wrote most of them? I don’t, at least! And if we don’t know—
Emily: [joking] Moses, obviously!
Sarit: Moses! So if we don’t assume that either God or Moses wrote the Bible, we don’t know who wrote the Bible. And if we don’t know who wrote the Bible, we don’t know who wrote the Bible. So we can claim, for example, and many scholars have done this, that we don’t know who wrote the Bible but it was written by men. That’s probably a reasonable assumption or a guess, even setting aside ancient literacy statistics and whether or not those can be trusted. But okay, maybe we can assume that we don’t know anything about the biblical authors except we know that they were men. Other scholars have argued that certain biblical books, for example the Song of Songs or the book of Micah, might have been authored by women. So I think wome’sn authorship is also possible and even an intriguing possibility.
Pointing to particular misogynistic aspects of a text does not prove anything about a text’s authorship. We know that women are just as capable of writing sexist characters or legislating laws that are harmful for women. So for me, that is not a persuasive argument. And likewise men are perfectly capable of writing about women in glorious and respectful terms. So I think it’s hard to know from an anonymous text or a text of unknown authorship who the author is. At the end of the day we just don’t know who wrote most of the biblical texts, and we need to be humble enough to acknowledge that.
And that’s even more true of pseudonymous texts that are written in the name of someone else. Why is an author deliberately concealing their own identity? Scholars have proposed many compelling answers to that particular authorial mode, and we don’t have to go into all of those, but in terms of the identity of the actual author we simply don’t know who wrote many of the pseudonymous texts.
And then we have anthological texts and in collectively authored works that are at the same time of unknown authorship, how can we possibly assume that it was composed only by men and that women played no role in the collaborative composition process, right? Again, we encounter the limits of what we can know about our texts.
And so as rigorous historians, and I think this is really the most rigorous position that we can take, we simply have to say that we don’t know who wrote the Bible or other pseudonymous, anthological, or anonymous texts.
Does it matter who wrote these texts? Right, you might think, oh how frustrating that we can’t know. But for me that uncertainty can be a really beautiful thing because it can be generative in its own way. It allows us to play around with the options, entertain all the possibilities—including the theoretical possibility, even if it’s not historically likely that some women might have authored some of those texts.
And then that opens up all sorts of new questions we can ask about the texts that might have been written. Right, why were they written? By whom? For whom would they have mattered? And it’s just another way of approaching our sources from new perspectives and with novel questions, and that can be a really wonderful intellectual exercise.
And I’ll mention also being careful about double standards. So you mentioned Origen’s scribes. Eusebius describes Origen’s writing staff as young women skilled in fine writing. They produce these elegant editions of texts in good book hand, and there is an abundant amount of evidence from Egypt and from across the Roman Empire that both enslaved and free women worked as copyists and scribes and also as teachers of writing. And what Kim Haines-Eitzen’s work demonstrates so beautifully is not only that women served as scribes, but also that scribes played active roles in the composition and transmission of texts. Right, so her work on scribes pushes us to think more broadly about authorship.
In a recent lecture that I heard by Mika Ahuvia, she applies the work of Oded Zinger on letter writing practices in the Cairo Geniza from the medieval period to the world of late antiquity. And what Zinger does in his work is wonder whether an illiterate woman who dictates a letter to a literate scribe ought to be considered the author of that letter or whether we attribute authorship solely to the scribe. And in offering these two juxtaposed possibilities, Zinger undermines the inherent connection that we often draw between literacy and authorship. And towards a more collaborative mode of authorship that includes both the person who dictates and the person who writes.
And what Ahuvia does in her lecture, is she encourages us to apply those ideas to other contexts. For example, the agency that women might have played when they commissioned amulets and incantation bowls. Even when those women would have turned to experts who, as for example, the work of Avigail Manekin has really persuasively shown, used existing legal formulae to write those amulets on their behalf. Right, so it’s this really complex project of rabbinic legal formula, expert scribes, women who ask for the texts; and together they produce these texts.
We can notice I think similar trends in recent attempts to rethink the history of archaeology and how knowledge is produced. Right, who’s doing the archaeological work? Is it the head archaeologist who overseas the dig? is it the paid workers or the volunteers who are actually doing the digging? Where does or where ought everyone fit into that project? So I think if we think about all the contributors to any given project, we’re probably telling a more accurate story about how a text or a building came to be. And those stories are far more likely to include women in them.
Rebekah: You wrote an article about how women were also readers of the collection of texts we’ll talk about later in our season, the Nag Hammadi corpus, and that there is evidence for women readers in late antiquity.11 Can you tell us a little bit more about this evidence and how we know about women’s literacy, women as writers, etcetera?
Sarit: So I think that a text’s audience is an important part of the story. After a text is copied or, or composed, we can ask the question of who heard it? Who read it? In whose lives was it incorporated? What impact does it have on those lives? And again, these aren’t necessarily questions that we can answer definitively, but I still think that they’re worth asking.
So I first started thinking about this in relation to the Nag Hammadi codices which were discovered in Upper Egypt because previous scholarship on those books tended to place them among the monks at the nearby Pachomian monastery, which was really confusing to me because there is a convent in that area as well, and we know that the institutions borrowed books from each other.
And so in an attempt to understand whether it mattered that women could have read these texts, I asked right, was it, is it possible for monastic women to have been reading these texts? And does it matter for how we understand these texts and the collections that, that they became when they were put into these codices?
And that motivated me to expand beyond and to really think a little bit more broadly, how texts are received and the audiences of texts more generally, including in rabbinic sources. Right, what impact did rabbinic sources and rabbinic laws and norms have on women’s lives, and on women’s experiences in the market, in the synagogue, and so on? Shifting our gaze from authors to audiences is another way of further incorporating women into our histories. And those stories are just as important to tell.
Rebekah: So here’s our elevator pitch question. What do you want your listeners—or our listeners—to take away about women in the ancient Mediterranean?
Sarit: It’s impossible to generalize about women or essentialize about women, past or present, and I don’t think that we should try because all we would do is flatten what is a rich and complicated story.
Women can be lots of things. They can be intellectual, bookish, impoverished, feisty, conforming, marginalized, celebrated, exhausted, hilarious. And women also change over the course of their lives in response to local and global events, personal tragedies, and joy. And women in different communities and cities and neighborhoods and social groups and backgrounds experience the world in so many different ways each day.
And so I hope that in our study of the past that we afford the inhabitants of antiquity the same diversity and complexity that we see in our own world rather than trying to simplify the story in the broadest strokes possible.
Rebekah: Sometime in the fourth century CE, the back of a papyrus petition was recycled to pen a letter: “To my dear lady sister in the Lord, greetings. Lend the Ezra, since I lent you the Little Genesis. Farewell from us in God” (P.Oxy.LXIII 4365). The note was found buried in a trash heap of papyri fragments in the Middle Egyptian town of Oxyrhynchus. Ezra and Little Genesis were not wayward children but texts, popular ones for early Jewish and Christian communities. Just like eager readers today try to get their hands on bestsellers, these two friends shared their books with each other. (This is why I never lent my books as a kid. Somebody always wanted to borrow one of my treasures in return!)
Emily: Both the letter writer and addressee are nameless. But we know the addressee was a woman. She was clearly literate, pouring over the very same texts that Rebekah and I decipher today. Some have tantalizingly speculated that the writer, too, was a woman.12 After all, we presume that women wrote to other women, and the petition on the back of our note was signed by one Aurelia Soteira. But this presumption could also emerge from modern assumptions about how ancient society was gendered. Anonymity allows for the possibility of female authorship. It equally allows for a woman to be reading buddies with a man. Anonymity is a great equalizer.
Rebekah: Not all nameless women were invisible, as this note reminds us. Besides texts, they also show up in art. At least two wall paintings from Pompeii, from around 50-79 CE, depict women seated and painting.13 These glimpses leave us with new questions–were these portraits of real women? Did women work as professional artists in Pompeii, as they occasionally did in the Hellenistic Mediterranean?14 Those who were once visible can be made invisible by later generations. Such invisibility does not reflect a fault in the people being gazed at, as if there was something lacking in these ancient women that caused their names or stories to be lost. It can be our fault as gazers, if we look but overlook.
Emily: It’s perilously easy to put up blinders in our analyses that leave whole groups of people completely out of our stories. Throughout the twentieth century, white middle-class feminists in Europe and North America generated a vast movement to get women into the professional workforce with full equality to men.15 But working women weren’t actually a new phenomenon. Completely blind to race and class, these twentieth-century campaigners ignored the fact that Black and low-income women had been working outside the home for centuries.16 Their families couldn’t survive without their wages as maids, nannies, seamstresses, cooks. They had to work, and so they did. They were there at work, even if wealthy white women didn’t see them. In this podcast, we want to interrogate our own biases as we delight in unearthing the past with you. If we change our questions or our angles of looking, how might our view of history change? And might we find more women than has traditionally been assumed?
Rebekah: History is littered with anonymous women who were never named. We’ll never recover all their names. But they lived and worked and even read and painted. We can recover women within the stories of the past, even the unnamed ones. Perhaps we should see in the anonymity of many of our texts, the possibility that women were there.
Emily: If you enjoyed our show, please rate and review us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Audible, or wherever you get your podcasts. Check out our website womenwhowentbefore.com, or find us on Twitter @womenbefore.
This podcast is written, produced, and edited by us, Emily Chesley and Rebekah Haigh. Our music is composed and produced by Moses Sun. The podcast is sponsored by the Center for Culture, Society and Religion, the Program in Judaic Studies, and the Stanley J. Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies all at Princeton University.
Rebekah: Thanks for listening to Women Who Went Before. And don’t forget: women were there!
- See, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “Vertuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature, 1668-1735,” American Quarterly 28, no. 1 (1976): 20-40; and Ulrich, Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History (Knopf, 2007). See also, Megan Marshall, “The Women’s History Boom: Transforming a profession from the inside,” Slate, 4 September 2007.
- Ṭal Ilan argues that what more intriguing than why women aren’t named is why women are named. She suggests named women are likely historical rather than invented. Mine and Yours Are Hers: Retrieving Women’s History From Rabbinic Literature (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 279.
- Ellen Emerson White, Voyage on the Great Titanic: The Diary of Margaret Ann Brady, RMS Titanic, 1912 (New York: Scholastic, 1998).
- Patricia McKissack, A Picture of Freedom: The Diary of Clotee, a Slave Girl (New York: Scholastic, 1997).
- Deborah Hopkinson, Hear My Sorrow. The Diary of Angela Denoto, a Shirtwaist Worker, New York City, 1909 (New York: Scholastic, 2004).
- Plutarch, Advice to Bride and Groom 30, trans. Frank Cole Babbitt, in Plutarch, Moralia Vol II, Loeb Classical Library 222 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1928), 321.
- “Roman Woman. A woman calculates the day’s receipts on an abacus while her husband cuts a piece of meat,” tomb relief, Roman, second century CE, Bildarchiv Preussischer Kultturbesitz/Art Resource, NY, in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome, vol. 1, ed. Michael Gagarin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 250.
- Chris Bailey, “The News Negativity Bias,” A Life of Productivity, September 20, 2021.
- Matthew Kinloch, “In the Name of the Father, the Husband, or Some Other Man: The Subordination of Female Characters in Byzantine Historiography,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 74 (2020): 303–328.
- Kim Haines-Eitzen, “‘Girls Trained in Beautiful Writing’: Female Scribes in Roman Antiquity and Early Christianity,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 6, no. 4 (1998): 629–646.
- Sarit Kattan Gribetz, “Women as Readers of the Nag Hammadi Codices,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 26, no. 3 (2018): 463–494.
- AnneMarie Luijendijk, Greetings in the Lord: Early Christians and the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, HTS 60 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), 71n47. Jane Rowlandson, however, thinks that the letter P.Oxy. 63.4365 may also have been written by Aurelia Soteira; see Jane Rowlandson, ed., Women and Society in Greek and Roman Egypt: A Sourcebook (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 78.
- Jessica Nitscheke, et. al., “Women Painters in Antiquity,” The Ancient Art Blog, March 8, 2022.
- Natalie Kampen, “Hellenistic Artists: Female“, Archeologia Classica 27, no. 1 (1973): 9-17.
- On the growth of women’s work into wage labor, see Alice Kessler-Harris, Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982). On the economic value of household labor and the women’s movement’s slow advocacy of wages for housework, see Silvia Federici, “The Restructuring of Housework and Reproduction in the United States in the 1970s (1980) and “Putting Feminism Back on Its Feet (1984),” both reprinted in Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle (Oakland: PM Press, 2018).
- On women’s labor trajectories divided by race and class, see Alice Kessler-Harris, Women Have Always Worked: A Concise History (University of Illinois Press, 2018),13–18.
- Chris Bailey. “The News Negativity Bias.” A Life of Productivity. September 20, 2021.
- Silvia Federici. “The Restructuring of Housework and Reproduction in the United States in the 1970s (1980)” and “Putting Feminism Back on Its Feet (1984).” Reprinted in Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle. Oakland: PM Press, 2018.
- Sarit Kattan Gribetz. “Women as Readers of the Nag Hammadi Codices.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 26, no. 3 (2018): 463–494.
- Kim Haines-Eitzen. “‘Girls Trained in Beautiful Writing’: Female Scribes in Roman Antiquity and Early Christianity.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 6, no. 4 (1998): 629–646.
- Deborah Hopkinson. Hear My Sorrow. The Diary of Angela Denoto, a Shirtwaist Worker, New York City, 1909. New York: Scholastic, 2004.
- Ṭal Ilan. Mine and Yours Are Hers: Retrieving Women’s History From Rabbinic Literature. Leiden: Brill, 1997.
- Natalie Kampen. “Hellenistic Artists: Female.” Archeologia Classica 27, no. 1 (1973): 9-17.
- Alice Kessler-Harris. Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.
- –––. Women Have Always Worked: A Concise History. University of Illinois Press, 2018.
- Matthew Kinloch, “In the Name of the Father, the Husband, or Some Other Man: The Subordination of Female Characters in Byzantine Historiography,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 74 (2020): 303–328.
- AnneMarie Luijendijk. Greetings in the Lord: Early Christians and the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. HTS 60. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008.
- Megan Marshall, “The Women’s History Boom: Transforming a profession from the inside,” Slate, 4 September 2007.
- Patricia McKissack. A Picture of Freedom: The Diary of Clotee, a Slave Girl. New York: Scholastic, 1997.
- Plutarch. Moralia, Volume II: How to Profit by One’s Enemies. On Having Many Friends. Chance. Virtue and Vice. Letter of Condolence to Apollonius. Advice About Keeping Well. Advice to Bride and Groom. The Dinner of the Seven Wise Men. Superstition. Edited and Translated by Frank Cole Babbit. Loeb Classical Library 222. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1928.
- Jessica Nitscheke, et. al. “Women Painters in Antiquity.” The Ancient Art Blog. March 8, 2022.
- Jane Rowlandson, ed. Women and Society in Greek and Roman Egypt: A Sourcebook. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
- Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. “Vertuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature, 1668-1735.” American Quarterly 28, no. 1 (1976): 20–40.
- –––. Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History. New York: Knopf, 2007.
- Ellen Emerson White. Voyage on the Great Titanic: The Diary of Margaret Ann Brady, RMS Titanic, 1912. New York: Scholastic, 1998.