A feminist Sulpicia

One of the themes that came out of writing my manuscript on the Sulpicia poems was the fear I have of being hated by other feminists for my stance on their authorship. Specifically, my questioning of the existence of a Roman poet named Sulpicia, and thus my potential/supposed ‘destruction’ of both a talented woman and all extant female-authored poetry from ancient Rome.

From 1979 until today, the poems have been praised for being female-authored, and for being good. The dialogue around the poems largely (and understandably) comes from feminist scholars. Anyone who has dared argue or merely suggest that they may not be female-authored has been accused of being a misogynist (note: until me, all such people have been men.)

But from their writing until 1838, the poems were either assumed to be male-authored, or were ignored completely. Then in 1838, the poems were decided to be female-authored, because they weren’t very good.

In other words, it is believed today – and vehemently argued by feminist scholars – that we have the poetry of a Roman woman, because a misogynist decided these poems weren’t good enough to have been written by a man.

Contrary to the pages devoted to this over the last 40 years, the topic at its core is not about feminism and feminists, who is and who isn’t. But the world that has been created around the topic – the spectator stands that surround the actual stage and from which come the only sanctioned commentating, the stage having been empty for hundreds of years – this world is controlled by (a small group of) feminists. Well-meaning feminists, yes, but:

All ages. No cameras allowed. No outside food.
You must be this feminist to enter.

Yep, I know the rules. Here’s my bag, feel free to search it. One ticket, please.

As far as I know, I am a feminist.

But, because I’m writing this, I’m not.

I’m not allowed in.*

The main reason I was drawn to this topic was my personal driving force of discovering why we believe what we believe. This topic had the metaphorical piscine odour. It didn’t make sense how a + b somehow = c. And, well, it was a topic I could write a large term paper out of to get my Honours BA in Classics, and still have words left over to write a graduate thesis and get my MA in Classics.

But to actually publish my research on the topic, to have feminist scholars read my work but not meet and talk with me to realize that I’m not some female misogynist, brainwashed little twit, that was a scary thought. It is a scary thought.

I’ve always had weird relationships with other females. I’ve had many close girlfriends, but they are nearly all gone, none by my active choice. Many probably due to growing up, changing schools, moving away, changing jobs. But some, I worry/suspect, because I’ve never been a very feminine person, or have at least always rejected the stereotypical things a feminine person is supposed to like/do/be. I wasn’t into makeup, wasn’t into boys, wasn’t into frilly pink things, wasn’t into Brad Pitt. And, as long as I can remember, I’ve never wanted kids, have never wanted to even hold a baby. That latter one, I think, has had a bigger role in ending some of my girlfriendships than was immediately obvious at the time. At any rate, I didn’t have much in common with other girls, and the little I did wasn’t enough, I guess, to continue our relationship.

I’ve also always found the definition of feminism to always be out of my grasp. I was raised in a patriarchal, religious environment where women had particular roles. I was encouraged to go to university, but was also expected to get married and have kids early. Feminism in that context was a bad word, and only referred to heathen bra burners. When I took Intro to Women’s Studies as an undergraduate student, my amazing prof, an African woman, tried to teach us that being a feminist means fighting for equal rights for everybody, regardless of sex, gender, or race. But my (white) classmates argued against her, citing their unshaven legs as evidence for hating men being the key skill she should be teaching. And then I started wearing makeup, I got married, I got into fashion, I understood the appeal of Brad Pitt, I shaved my legs. I believed in equal rights for everybody, I bought a copy of The Feminine Mystique, I sought out manual, physical jobs over administrative work, I still didn’t want kids. What did that make me?

So, I was/am used to being a bit of a loner in the world of women. Perhaps because of this, 10+ years ago I felt (kind of sort of) comfortable enough with the challenge of taking on an argument that would have me butt heads with other feminists. What did I have to lose, really?

And now, in 2018, in the era of female artists being bullied off of social media, tennis rulers vs. Serena, MeToo, the world becoming a huge dumpster fire…I don’t really want to butt heads with other women over a few silly poems. I am a woman, I am a feminist, I believe women, I look up to women, my favourite writers, artists, and researchers are women.

In my view, Sulpicia probably wasn’t a woman. And so, to me, I’m not actively working against the existence of a woman. But my theories happen to clash with those of women who believe in her existence, who think it’s a matter of being feminist or not. However that is viewed by the few women who have heard of or read my work, it has thus far largely gotten me the silent treatment.

But if I publish my thoughts on the poems, I’m not sure which would be worse from women readers, the silent treatment, or being called an anti-feminist. Either way, I don’t want to be closed out once again by other women, and for reasons I don’t actively choose. Sulpicia’s existence isn’t my choice, and neither are my conclusions to years of research, really. Publishing my conclusions, however, is my choice.

Is there ever a good time to publish research as a woman that argues against other women? Is there ever a bad time? I just don’t know.

What I do know is that a feminist Sulpicia might just possibly mean, well, no Sulpicia at all. What do I do with that?

*Quote from my manuscript, in its current form anyway.


2 thoughts on “A feminist Sulpicia

  1. I have never thought of you as an anti-feminist nor even a bad feminist. I think you are giving yourself too much of a hard time. Honesty about the world is one of the key features of feminism and for me that is what you have brougt to the discussion about Sulpicia.

    • Thank you for this! I definitely have some baggage around this whole thing, but based on the comments/silence I received during conference presentations, emails with feminist/Sulpicia scholars, etc., I can’t help but think some of my fears are warranted. Small sample size, sure, but it’s all I have to go on so far.

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