Mirror of Antiquity – Caroline Winterer (Review)

The mirror of antiquity : American women and the classical tradition, 1750-1900Mirror of Antiquity: American Women and the Classical Tradition, 1750-1900 by Caroline Winterer
Age: Adult
Genre: History, Women, Greek & Roman History
Publisher Cornell University Press, 2007
ISBN: 9780801441639
208 pages + bibliography and notes section
Find this at your local library

Caroline Winterer was one of my college professors at SJSU when I was a part of the Humanities Honors Program. Under her tutelage, I learned a lot of Greek and Roman history, and its impact on our lives today. She was one of 5 professors who alternatively held lectures and seminars during the two-year program. In a fit of nostalgia, I looked her up on the SJSU website, remembering that she had written a book or two.

One of those books is this one, Mirror of Antiquity, although this was written after she left SJSU for Stanford. Her remarkable insight and knowledge of Greek and Roman influences in the US is very apparent in this book. She focuses on the influence of antiquity on women, predominantly elite women who had access to tutors as well as educated parents. Although she does discuss slaves who had been educated and had been able to use their knowledge to shed light on the horrors of slavery.

The book covers the history of US women from 1750 to 1900. The first  century or so was actually a bit dull, at least until 1830. I think that is mostly because women had no outlets, no rights, and no public voice. The discussions were somewhat limited to: what art works they owned, what outfits they wore, and what Greek works they studied under their parents guidance. The best they could do would be to hold salons, or show off their knowledge through collected works of art and literature. It wasn’t until the 1830s when American women were able to use their knowledge and obsession with the Greeks and Romans to use, to promote the abolition of slavery, to promote the suffrage movement of women in politics and also to promote the education of women to be equal to that of men attending colleges. Chapter by chapter, we see how slowly women gain small rights and small improvements in their lives, all under the guise of an homage to the Greeks and Romans of time past. The influence ranges from that of Roman dress that pulls women away from the constraining corsets, to the influence of American women writing under a Greek/Roman pseudonym to get their point across to the public via broadsides, pamphlets, letters and novels.

One thing I noted was that it seemed like American women were merely copying French women who were emulating the Greek/Roman lifestyle. I felt like there was more of a French presence in American women’s lives than a Greek or Roman presence. The work also includes a number of prints of paintings and  magazine photos that span throughout the book. It would have been nice to see these images in color, rather than black and white, but that’s a criticism more for the publishing company than the author.

Overall, this is a great introductory book to the topic of the history of American women and the influence of Greek and Roman art, culture, mythology and major leading figures in propelling women out of their homes and into the public, into college and casting a voice for themselves in the public sector of society.

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2 responses to “Mirror of Antiquity – Caroline Winterer (Review)

  1. This sounds like an interesting history. I would just like to bring to your attention Mercy Otis Warren, who wrote one of the first accounts of the revolutionary war: A History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution’ (1805). She also wrote poems and plays, which were apparently forgettable. I tried to read her revolutionary history and did not get very far with her turgid style, but it was a big seller in its day.

    British-American novelist Susanna Rowson wrote the first American bestseller, Charlotte Temple, published first in England but after its publication in the US in 1794, it became a huge bestseller. It has gone through over 200 editions. A tear-jerker about a seduced and abandoned girl, it is a good read today.

    Maybe Winterer downplays the literary accomplishments of these women because they did not fall within her main sphere of interest?

    • I don’t think her intention was to discuss the literary aspiration of women throughout time. Only how knowledge of the Greeks and Romans became such a vital function of their lives through the centuries. As long as it relates to the Greeks and Romans in some way, she highlighted the literary connections.

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