Wednesday, March 21, 2018


Barbara McManus, The Drunken Duchess of Vassar: Grace Harriet Macurdy, Pioneering Feminist Classicist Scholar. Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press, 2017. Pp. xxii, 282. ISBN 9780814213278. $99.95. Contributors: Foreword by Judith P. Hallett and Christopher Stray

Reviewed by Amy Richlin, UCLA (

Version at BMCR home site

In my heedless schooldays, I would see Grace Macurdy's Hellenistic Queens on the shelf and wonder if it had a sequel, Hellenistic Brooklyn. Even then I would have been fascinated by the story Barbara McManus tells about the author, although only able to understand it long years later, after some hard knocks.

For this is the story of a hard life; inspiring, as Macurdy wins through to respect and recognition. Doubly inspiring, due to the story-teller, who finished the book on her deathbed after a life in which she herself won through to victory. Polio could not keep her from a Harvard degree; from distinguished service to Classics local, regional, national; or, in her work as well as in service, from the pursuit of truth and justice for women.

Indeed, this book is also a riveting detective story of academic intrigue and injustice; the spectacular chapter 9 should send a shock wave through the ASCSA. McManus was always a gifted collector of data; here she has interviewed family members and found unarchived memorabilia, but also dug deep into the archives, so that the footnotes showcase a remarkable nose for the still-smoking gun.

The book begins with a message in a bottle, a poem Macurdy wrote which found its way to McManus from the family, and which McManus kept by her as she wrote: an ode on a Greek vase in the Vassar collection. Pictures of the manuscript and the vase itself, side by side, stand as fig. 1 of 25 well-selected images, some taken by McManus herself, who clearly enjoyed the legwork this project entailed. Chapter 1 explains the book's title ("the Drunken Duchess" was a Vassar nickname based on Macurdy's White-Queen-like appearance); chapter 2 traces her family and childhood, from the Canadian maritimes to Maine, where the family lived "in one of the small rented cottages near the tannery in South Robbinston," where Grace was born in 1866 (13). One of nine children of a "freelance carpenter" (18), she nonetheless enjoyed a rigorous public education once the family moved to Watertown, MA. From there she was accepted into the "Harvard Annex," which became Radcliffe, graduating with one of the early classes of women in 1888. Chapter 3 takes her from the Annex, through five years of schoolteaching and graduate courses at the Annex, to Vassar, where she was hired as an Instructor of Greek by department chair Abby Leach in 1893. This first part of the book is brief and somewhat dry; you don't smell the tannery. But then the plot thickens.

Chapters 4-6 chart Macurdy's long fight to hang on at Vassar over the dead body of her department chair—literally so, in the end. Macurdy started out shouldering a four- and sometimes five-course load, but in 1899-1900 won a grant to study with Wilamowitz in Berlin. She was then hired back at Vassar; Leach had just served as first woman President of the APA. Macurdy, still with a full teaching schedule, started commuting to New York to work towards a PhD at Columbia, and managed to finish her dissertation in 1903. She was promoted to Associate Professor and started giving papers and publishing articles, something Leach was to do only twice in her career. Now Leach snapped: she took Macurdy's courses away, she hired someone junior and less qualified, she tried to get Macurdy fired, she started writing letters to the President of Vassar urging that he fire her, she criticized Macurdy's teaching and her scholarship, she recruited students to spy on her, she set up the course schedule to keep students out of Macurdy's classes, she took Macurdy's classes away altogether and then complained Macurdy was teaching too few students, she advised students out of Macurdy's courses into hers, she wrote to the Columbia professors to join her in dismissing Macurdy's work, she spoke against Macurdy in class to the students. The records lie festering in the Vassar archives: a familiar picture to anyone who has been through this, but rarely so well documented. McManus spares no details, and speaks sharply about the selective quoting from student letters by Leach's biographers (91-92, 94 n. 38). Finally a new President came in, and Macurdy was promoted to Full in 1916, which gave her job security (although not the pay raise commensurate with this rank). Leach, still chair, continued to torment Macurdy until she died in harness in 1918. And so Macurdy was made chair in Leach's place, and finally got her raise. Lucky thing; jobs elsewhere, as McManus points out, were hard to come by for women; chances existed mainly at the women's colleges, with Vassar and Bryn Mawr leading (72). Indeed, as I discovered, although the University of Michigan, for example, began admitting women in 1870, the first female professor was not hired until 1896 (in Hygiene), and the hiring of women remained slow and grudging through the 1960s.1

Back to Vassar in 1919: now, you would think, things could really take off, but trouble soon arose again, and here McManus is at her archive-digging, committee-hardened best. Chapters 7-9 chronicle the late-blooming intellectual Bildungsroman in which Macurdy finds a home with the Cambridge ritualists (especially Gilbert Murray, whom she idolized), enters into high-profile committee work for the American School, and there becomes embroiled in two huge scandals that politicized her for good.

As Macurdy plunged into publishing from 1907 through 1918 (twenty-one articles!), she began engaging with Murray and Jane Harrison. She became a Harrison fan and friend, although McManus, contrasting Macurdy's work with Mary Beard's account of Harrison, cannot see in Harrison Macurdy's true professionalism (109, 191). In 1922, enjoying her first sabbatical in 29 years of teaching, Macurdy parked herself in the British Museum Reading Room and turned out Troy and Paeonia, much in the Cambridge vein. Meanwhile, however, and oddly enough within six months of Leach's death, Macurdy had been stricken deaf—a disability, McManus points out, that was stigmatized at the time and could have cost Macurdy her job (116). Instead she used an ear trumpet and a succession of primitive hearing aids, learned to read lips, and soldiered on.

Chapter 8, "Unconventional Families," explains what sustained her. She adopted her sister's daughter and two teenaged sons; she developed a sort of mariage blanc with the Scottish classicist J. A. K. Thomson, thirteen years her junior; and she kept up a strong friendship with a group known as "The Four": the archaeologist Ida Thallon, her Vassar colleague; Elizabeth Pierce, Thallon's student and, eventually, her colleague and lover; Bert Hodge Hill, director of the American School; and Carl Blegen, Hill's assistant. Blegen fell in love with Pierce, who did not wish to leave Thallon, who agreed to marry Hill on condition that the four of them live together: 1924, anything goes.

Yet friendship with The Four took Macurdy into dangerous waters. In chapter 9, McManus breaks the double story—first fully told here!—of the outrageous maneuvers taken by Edward Capps to remove Hill from the directorship in 1925-1926, and of the further shenanigans whereby he stole the ASCSA Women's Hostel from M. Carey Thomas. Ida Thallon Hill wrote Macurdy, "You also are accustomed to the ways of the unrighteous" (143), and Macurdy emerges here as the (defeated) hero of the resistance.

Edward Capps of Princeton was chair of the ASCSA managing committee from 1918 to 1939, and also served as director of the executive committee; Macurdy was on the managing committee from 1919 onwards. Capps based his efforts to oust Bert Hill in the executive committee, and did not bother to conceal or destroy the paper trail. There it all is: Capps conspiring, lying, trashing Blegen and Hill. McManus passes magisterial judgment: "Like Abby Leach, Capps apparently chose not to examine his own motivations. It is abundantly clear that he wished to micromanage affairs at ASCSA and wanted a director who would always defer to his authority and respond to his every command with alacrity" (149). Through the old files McManus tracks the moves Macurdy made to try to block or depose Capps, alongside Capps' expressions of contempt for "the ladies." Macurdy was one of nine women among 82 committee members; still, as McManus puts it, "she was prepared to go into battle, armed only with her Acousticon and her strong sense of justice" (156). Surrounded by faint-hearted unwillingness to confront Capps, who controlled ASCSA professorships, Macurdy forged on, writing to Ida Thallon Hill, "And the bully sat there, intent, outwardly smiling, but swift to down every decent man" (159). Hill was forced out, and Blegen, demoted, resigned. Capps glossed it over in the annual report, wishing them well; Macurdy wanted to set the record straight, and McManus finishes the job for her.

Moving on, Capps misappropriated the funds painfully scraped together by women professors from the women's colleges to build a Women's Hostel at the American School, which had had limited space for women. This despite a growing presence of women in the field, rising from initial exclusion to 29% of students in 1923-1924 and 59% in 1928-1929. Not to Capps' taste; he wanted to initiate a quota on women, and wrote to a (male) committee member, "There is a dearth of men archaeologists and a superfluity of women. The latter can't get jobs; we can supply the institutions that are on the watch for able men" (173). The redoubtable M. Carey Thomas of Bryn Mawr organized the Women's Hostel campaign and went after Rockefeller money; Capps cut her out of the funding loop and got the Hostel redefined as co-ed. As Macurdy observed, without Thomas and her committee, it would not have housed any women at all (184). Committee life, McManus argues, taught Macurdy that she was capable of fighting in the larger world, but still she "recognized the marginalized position of women in the academic world" (186). I note that no one thought of putting Ida Hill in charge of the School.

Chapter 10, "Redefining the Classical Scholar as a Woman," argues that Macurdy's move from the mists of Troy to the hard realities of Hellenistic history was related to her activism: an effort to put real, documented women into a history that was then generally devoid of them, as Virginia Woolf observed in A Room of One's Own (1929). McManus points to Macurdy's involvement in the suffrage movement, her "compulsion to speak out against injustice" (189), with many op ed pieces. Hellenistic Queens appeared in 1932, followed by Vassal-Queens … in the Roman Empire in 1937, a book that demanded reconstruction of the lives of persons known mainly through coins and epigraphy. (Her work on the ASCSA committee must have been good preparation for the domestic lives of the Ptolemies.) McManus emphasizes that Macurdy was recovering women as subjects, not objects, of history; she was writing "woman-centered" history and debunking then-common prejudices (205). She did not wholly escape her temporal matrix, however, and although McManus says Moses Finley was wrong to dismiss Macurdy for "racialism" in a passing comment on the superiority of Macedonian "blood," I think Finley was right.

The final chapter follows Macurdy into her retirement, when she began to lose her eyesight but, undaunted, took up new research. She earned a medal for her war work; she wrote The Quality of Mercy to muster classical literature against the forces of inhumanity, and her invocation of Aeschylus' Suppliants on the issue of taking in refugees "as it faces every civilized country in the world today" has a familiar ring these days (231). She wrote biographical entries on women for the Encyclopedia Britannica, part of a project of the other Mary Beard, a project which, as far as McManus was able to trace it, the Encyclopedia simply threw away. Indeed the shortage of separate entries for women persists in the OCD and elsewhere. With no pension from Vassar and no medical insurance, Macurdy had to pay all the bills when she needed cataract surgery, when she developed cancer; her assets at death came to $579.84, or about a month's pay when she was still paid. Yet, in 1973, there stood her book in the Yale Classics Library, and there we were to read it.

The book ends with two appendices: thumbnail biographies of the Macurdy family tree, and a chronological list of Macurdy's publications in five pages of small type. The editors who saw the manuscript through the press, Judith Hallett and Christopher Stray, both experts in the history of the academy, supply a foreword comparing the lives of Barbara McManus and Grace Macurdy, and Hallett adds a postscript. They were good friends to the author. It is heartbreaking that McManus is not here to see her book read, as her previous books are (I assign Classics and Feminism regularly in the UCLA graduate proseminar). Yet her voice rings through these pages, speaking out for justice.


1.   See "A Dangerous Experiment": Women at the University of Michigan, under "Struggles Faced by Women Faculty".

1 comment:

  1. This biography has not in fact sent a shock wave through the ASCSA (American School of Classical Studies at Athens). We have long known and been open about the antagonistic relationship between the Managing Committee Chair Edward Capps and the School Director Bert Hodge Hill. Interested readers can find this material in two articles: Robert L. Pounder, “The Blegens and the Hills: A Family Affair,” in Carl W. Blegen: Personal and Archaeological Narratives, ed. N. Vogeikoff-Brogan, J.L. Davis, and V. Florou, Atlanta 2015, pp. 85-98; David W. Rupp, “Mutually Antagonistic Philhellenes: Edward Capps and Bert Hodge Hill at the American School of Classical Studies and Athens College,” in J. L. Davis and N. Vogeikoff-Brogan (eds). Philhellenism, Philanthropy or Political Convenience? American Archaeology in Greece, Hesperia 82:1, 2013, pp. 67-99. As for the controversy between Capps and M. Carey Thomas of Bryn Mawr over a women’s hostel and the construction of Loring Hall, see the Archivist blogs:


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.