Anne Johnakin

Dartmouth College

TW: Discussions of rape and sexual assault.

Feminist Pedagogy as Applied to the Classics Classroom

Classics is sometimes seen as (and taught as) a field by white men, for white men. In the past few decades, the field has broadened its scholarly range and started offering classes about women in antiquity. Those who study the field are diversifying as well. Still, many classicists believe that issues such as rape and sexism do not fit in the curriculum of introductory mythology, history, and archaeology classes.1 Some professors think it is too difficult to dive into these topics with students not majoring in classics, who may not have a necessary background in the complexities of these stories and societies. Other professors worry that introducing these conflicts so early would discourage students from further studying classics. I argue, however, that the opposite is true. Not discussing sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. alienates potential scholars. Texts that abuse and objectify female characters leave readers uncomfortable and upset. Not touching on the impact of these texts, particularly for those with similar experiences, is negligent on the part of a professor. The widespread avoidance of discussing rape comes from a prevailing pedagogy in academia— one that does not prioritize individual students’ well-being.  As the academy updates its pedagogy, the goal should shift to creating and maintaining a liberatory classroom for all students.

“One does not liberate someone by alienating them,” says educator and philosopher Paulo Friere. “Authentic liberation — the process of humanization — is not another deposit to be made in a person. Liberation is a praxis: action and reflection upon the world in order to transform it.” 2 Those who practice critical pedagogy, established by Friere, recognize learning as a process of co-creation, rather than  deposition of knowledge. Instead of upholding the typical power structure of the classroom (teacher vs. students), they strive to empower those in the classroom. 

Feminist pedagogy goes one step further and examines how gender can play a role in liberatory struggles.3 We can investigate issues through an intersectional lens, understanding how differences in race, ethnicity, and class impact our study. Author and professor bell hooks practices what she calls engaged pedagogy, which prioritizes the well-being of students and teachers. Her approach is holistic and encourages students to bring their full selves into the classroom. Each of these new approaches builds on the previous and brings something that is missing from most classrooms in academia today. Professors in the past have rarely seen students “as whole human beings with complex lives and experiences rather than simply as seekers after compartmentalized bits of knowledge,” according to hooks.4 But this shift towards understanding students as complex beings allows for  more meaningful and nuanced dialogue, as well as a classroom culture that prioritizes well-being. 

The academy of classics has a long way to go in terms of revamping its pedagogy. In a field with such a male-dominated past, it is easy for female and marginalized students to fall through the cracks. Applying engaged pedagogy to the study of classics can take place in many forms: shifting the power dynamics of the classroom, creating a community of care, and/or understanding how factors like sexism, racism, and homophobia affect how students perform in class. When it comes to content, there are many ways to better examine systemic issues in ancient and modern societies. In this paper, I focus on the challenges in discussing the problematic treatment of women in classical myths, as these often are the introduction to the field for many students. 

The Texts

Ancient Greek and Roman texts are pervasive in a way that most other canon is not. They formed the basis for Western liberal education5 and persist as story structures that are told and retold today. This wide, persisting audience for classical mythology demands a more critical lens when learning and teaching these stories. Today’s college students grew up learning simplified, unproblematic versions of the original myths — take Disney’s film Hercules and Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. In retellings like these, the story of Persephone becomes one of teenage rebellion and true love, rather than rape. When engaging with these texts in a rigorous academic setting, it is important to explore the much more graphic original stories and their implications. Implications not only for classical society, but for the modern audience as well.

The most basic challenge with Greek and Roman texts is their authorship by men. Male writers, particularly those writing before the advent of feminist movements, are not reliable sources for the true experience of women. In her book The Callisto Myth from Ovid to Atwood, Kathleen Wall says, “The social restrictions traditionally placed upon women, and hence upon the heroine, result in a radical difference between the nature of her existence and that of her male counterpart, the hero.”6 Therefore, myths following the hero are not accurate regarding the heroine. Women in myths are presented in a simplistic, archetypical fashion. “If the hero has a thousand faces, the heroine scarcely has a dozen,” says Carol Christ, quoted by Wall. 7 Two of these archetypes —motherhood and rape-trauma — are some of the only things we get to see of women. 8 And because of the far-reaching impact of classical mythology on the canon, these caricatures of women persist today. There is a clear gap in the literature, leaving female audiences without much to grasp on to. It can feel as though these texts were written against women, not for them. 

Not only are women in myth often simplistic and inaccurate portraits, but they are subjected to rape and sexual assault frequently. Amy Richlin calculates Ovid’s Metamorphoses contains “more than fifty tales of rape in its fifteen books (nineteen told at some length).” 9 Ovid is not the only perpetrator of this. Over and over again classical authors tell stories of rape. Take the myth of Callisto, which is described in five classical texts.10 The details vary, but at its core the story is about Callisto, a member of Artemis’s huntresses, who is raped by Zeus in disguise. As punishment for her rape, Callisto is turned into a bear and hunted by Artemis. There is also the myth often called “The Rape of Persephone.” Some scholars argue this is only a story of Persephone being kidnapped, as Ovid’s description of the event is not explicit. However, at the very least, this story is an example of the lack of consent and agency afforded to women. Persephone’s story is perhaps one of the most egregious examples of modern retellings glossing over the story and painting it in a romantic light. The myth of Philomela is perhaps the most graphically described example of rape, wherein she is raped and has her tongue cut out by her brother-in-law. These examples are numerous and form the foundational texts of Classical Mythology classes. 

Discussing These Texts with Appropriate Care

The word rape was not used to describe these texts until the 1960s, according to Gloyn.11 But by our modern definition, these events can be classified as sexual assault or rape, or at the very least a stripping of agency of the female characters. It is important to call it like it is. Richlin explains why: “A class of students, among whom in all likelihood there is at least one person who has been raped, cannot be expected to regard these texts as unproblematic. When this happens it is a reinscription of rape, an endorsement of it.”12 Nearly 1 out of 4 undergraduate women have experienced sexual assault at America’s top 33 universities.13 At Dartmouth College, 34% of female students have experienced assault since coming to college, most at the hands of fellow students.14 The parallels between the women Ovid describes and the women sitting in the classroom are hard not to draw, especially as one of those women. The only mirror women are offered in the classical mythology classroom is that of our darkest moments. Reading these events can be traumatic for students, and that discomfort deserves to be recognized. The first step in handling these texts with care is an acknowledgement of the wrong, rather than skirting around it. Moreover, the public condemnation of sexual assault in all settings of the university is important in creating a campus culture that does not breed more assault. 

Before embarking on the difficult discussion of sexual violence in myth, there must be a strong classroom foundation. At the beginning of the term, it should be established that the classroom is a safe space, although not always a comfortable one. Fostering honest and vulnerable dialogue is something that should be well in the works. Gloyn says she specifically scheduled her test-lesson about Ovid and rape for once the class had gotten comfortable with each other.15 In addition, it is important that a class, or week, dedicated to sexual violence in myth is present on the syllabus from the beginning of the class. Not only does this set up expectations for the lens the class will take, but also lets students know when they will be dealing with difficult topics in class. “Adding trigger warnings for readings and class days that will deal explicitly with sexual violence and providing information about counseling and reporting resources on campus are also powerful, yet low-stakes, ways to support survivors and raise student awareness,” says Yurie Hong.16 Additionally, it is important to make it known that if students feel unable to attend these classes for the sake of their mental health, they do not have to attend. For those who have been affected by sexual violence, discussing it in an educational setting is often not productive and only leads to more emotional distress. 

Rape is about power, and the classroom does not hide its power imbalance. The professor stands behind a lectern: the dispenser of knowledge and the dispenser of grades. In classes with men and women, studies show that men dominate the conversation.17 Instead of upholding the existing power differentials, egalitarian classrooms facilitate better learning. Students begin to feel comfortable sharing thoughts and experiences they wouldn’t otherwise, and the professor opens themself up to learning as well. “Education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students,” says Friere.18 When power structures are dismantled, the classroom becomes a space where knowledge is created together, and difficult topics are investigated with care.

Madeline Kahn’s book Why Are We Reading Ovid’s Handbook on Rape? offers an in-depth account of her experience teaching classes where the question of sexual assault in myth is explored. Kahn applies many of the pedagogical principles we have discussed. Her attempts are imperfect, as any real-world application of theory often is, but they provide some valuable takeaways. As expected due to the sensitive nature of the topic, tensions run high and the classroom is heated. Traditional pedagogy insists we keep our wits about us, not letting emotions seep into our analyses. Feminist pedagogy pushes back against the notion that emotions do not belong in the classroom, but rather can steer us in the right direction. Kahn explains that at first she was tempted to direct students back toward strict literary analysis, instead of letting them explore their instincts. Later in the lessons, she let the discussions flow naturally, which 1) dismantles power systems in the classroom and 2) expands our view of so-called academic pursuits. Kahn’s classroom dialogue is a detailed case study worth reading, and the students raise questions that may be worth pursuing in other classrooms. For example: Is one to read with or against the author? Does an author writing about something automatically condone it? Why are we reading these texts, anyway?

In “Talking about Rape in the Classics Classroom,” Hong offers some potential lesson plans that professors could use to structure their class discussions. The first problem she addresses is deromanticizing rape, undoing the work of the modern retellings. Instead of viewing things as romantic, she asks students to read deeper. For example, the Daphne and Apollo myth in Ovid’s Metamorphoses can first be seen as sweet, but reading further, there is a haunting lack of consent. In A.S. Kline’s translation, Ovid writes: “ Even like this Phoebus loved her and […] he kissed the wood. But even the wood shrank from his kisses, and the god said ‘Since you cannot be my bride, you must be my tree!’”19The last line of the story implies a form of coerced consent, “the laurel bowed her newly made branches, and seemed to shake her leafy crown like a head giving consent.”20 To me, this line is haunting; Daphne resigned to a life as a tree to escape Apollo’s pursuits. But this story has been traditionally read as an unrequited love story, because it follows the point of view of love-struck Apollo. As Hong says, “narrative emphasis on the perspective of the pursuer, in combination with the absence of the victim’s voice or experience, often leads to a tendency to sympathize with the perpetrator.”21 As discussed earlier, recognizing and condemning the problematic aspects of this story are crucial to teaching the text with care. This exercise can be swapped with many other texts, such as the kidnapping of Persephone. Hong offers another lesson to illuminate rape as power, historically. She points to Livy’s Rape of Lucretia and rapes of the Sabine women, which show “the ways in which the violation of the female body is subordinated to ‘more important’ issues such as the founding of the state.”22 These stories, as well as the treatment of Helen in Homer, show how the abusive treatment of women, particularly in wartime, is seen as a necessary means to an end. This is a good avenue to discuss how the texts of ancient Greece and Rome relate to their real-life societies.

These are just a few ideas, but a less-structured approach and letting the students take the reins may work as well. There are a few things to be wary of, however. Discussions about issues such as sexual assault can leave women students with the burden of explaining their trauma to others. In Gloyn’s test lesson, she has students share their personal experiences with a small group, but even this is unnecessary pressure. No student should have to carry the conversation on their shoulders, but it should be abundantly clear that no one has to share anything or participate if they are not comfortable. Gloyn also includes comment cards for students to reflect on after the class, which is a useful tool to better cater to the exact needs of students down the line.23 It may also be worthwhile to have students do this before class, to anticipate any challenges that may arise.


Hong closes her article with the reflection: 

[Professors are] responsible for our students’ well-being, for their intellectual development, and for fostering an environment in which that development can take place. In that regard, drawing students’ attention to the role of rape in both ancient and modern societies can be seen not only as an ethical duty but as a professional one as well, the experience of which will no doubt remain with students long after their final exam.24

A classroom discussion about sexual assault and sexism is a worthwhile academic pursuit, and should not be relegated only to Women’s Studies departments. There are things to be learned for all students, particularly those who may focus solely on classics and history courses and have not yet read feminist theory. Women are not fully welcome in the field of classics, and never will be, so long as we continue to read texts that rape and abuse them and then refuse to acknowledge it. 


Freire, Paulo. 1972. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder. 

Gloyn, E. 2013. “Reading Rape in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”: A Test-Case Lesson.” Classical 

World, 104 (4), 676-681. 

hooks, bell. 1994. Teaching to Transgress: Education As the Practice of Freedom. New York, 

NY: Routledge.

Kahn, M. 2005. Why are we reading Ovid’s handbook on rape?: Teaching and Learning at a 

Women’s College. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.

McClure, L. 2000. Feminist Pedagogy and the Classics. The Classical World, 94(1), 53-55. 

Richlin, A. 2014. Arguments with Silence: Writing the History of Roman Women. Ann Arbor: 

University of Michigan Press.

Wall, K. 1988. The Callisto myth from Ovid to Atwood: Initiation and Rape in Literature. 

Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Hong, Y. 2013. “Teaching Rape Texts in Classical Literature.” Classical World, 106(4), 669-675. 

  1. Gloyn 2013, 676.
  2.  Friere 1921, 79.
  3. McClure 2000, 53.
  4. hooks 1994, 15.
  5. McClure 2000, 55.
  6. Wall 1988, 3.
  7. Wall 1988, 3.
  8. Wall 1988, 4
  9. Richlin 2014, 134.
  10. Hesiod’s Astronomy, Apollodorus’s The Library, Hyginus’s Poetica Astronomica, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Pausanias’s Descriptions of Greece
  11. Gloyn 2013, 679.
  12. Richlin 2014, 155.
  15. Gloyn 2013, 676.
  16. Hong 2013, 671.
  17. McClure, 53, 2000.
  18. Friere 1921, 72.
  19. Ovid Metamorphoses Book 1, Lines 553-567,
  20. Ovid Metamorphoses Book 1, Line 567
  21. Hong 2013, pg. 673.
  22. Hong 2013, pg. 673.
  23. Gloyn 2013, 680.
  24. Hong 2013, 675.
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