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  • Writer's pictureSkye Shirley

*Content warning* I will try to keep the content on this blog appropriate for sharing with high school students, so I want to warn that the post below contains discussion of explicit slurs. I will be ***ing them out in the hopes that this can, if in a small way, lessen the violence and impact of them. However, I should let you know that this post involves a discussion of hate speech that is racist, ableist and sexist.

Yesterday, when I opened Twitter, I was faced with something that happens all too often-- an attack against me for being a feminist. It happens more frequently when I use feminist hashtags. It goes like this: first, you see you've been tagged by an account with one follower (!) and that had the words "f**k feminism" in the username. The photo icon is a woman cowering, shielding herself from a male fist with the words in all caps: "CELEBRATE TOXIC MASCULINITY." Then, you see that your account along with several other accounts of women and especially women of color have been tagged. Some of these accounts have posted questions like "wtf is this?" and then you click (though you know you shouldn't) on the tweet itself. It's pornography-- four images each of a woman of color-- so degrading and revolting I won't even honor it with a description. Perhaps even worse than these is the language, which attacks us using the r-word, n-word, and c-word. The images have phrases like that we are "desperate for attention and to be humiliated by a strong white ****" along with... more and worse things not deserving repetition.

Sara Ahmed

I wish this was unusual. I also wish there was a happy ending to the story. Feminist scholar Sara Ahmed has taught me so much about the demands of happiness, and its cost. But this incident is anticlimactic-- worthy of a shudder or a yawn, a report to Twitter, a blocking.

What kept me thinking about it all day was that I was looking for something good that could possibly come out of it. Without this joy, I was left with the feeling of being beaten. Ultimately I realized that thanks to this awful attack, I basically got free networking to other feminist scholars and thinkers, because everyone who was tagged was pretty amazing! Went back to the tweets, found the women tagged and clicked follow, follow, follow. As messed up as this all was, and as much as I wish it hadn't happened, I'm grateful that now I know about the brilliant work these women are doing.

Kimberlé Crenshaw

Also, it was a moment of seeing so clearly how interconnected all of these issues are, and how essential Kimberlé Crenshaw's concept of intersectionality is to actually tackling this network of control. I identify as bi and a woman, which meant some of those words were attacks against my own identity groups, but I didn't need to identify as a person of color or as a person with an intellectual disability to see how all these hatreds were linked. To learn more about intersectionality, click here.

I'm reminded of a woman Latinist who had her own trolls in Renaissance Italy. Laura Cereta (1469-1499) was a humanist who in her short life (she died at the age of 29 of unknown causes, possibly the plague which had claimed her husband years before) penned countless letters, a humorous dialogue, and proto-feminist arguments.

For daring to be a learned woman calling for better education for women, by the age of nineteen she was regularly harassed in the streets. In a letter to Cardinal Ascanio Maria Sforza, she writes that her humilis oratio multorum sibi, conflavit invidiam, qui livoris dentes tanquam gladios in me. ("humble oration stirred up the envy of a number of men, who cruelly sharpened the teeth of their spite against me") (37). As she left, they spat upon her- sputis non sunt veriti dedecorare me ("These men did not hesitate to dishonor me with their spittle"). (39)

A few months before, she had called out her haters and depicted them as animals. Her letter "Bibolo Semproni" ("To Bibulus Sempronus") addressed a hater by giving him a fake name which means "drunkard." She ends her long defense of women with the sentence, īnfāmātissimī quīdam introeuntes; furiōsīs in muliebrem, dignam venerātiōne Rempūblicam infestius mordāciusque dēlātrant. ("Certain insane and infamous men bark and bare their teeth in vicious wrath at the republic of women, so worthy of veneration"). (80) You can read more of Cereta's incredible defenses of women translated by Diana Robin in the English translation of her works here.

But Cereta was not alone in turning the dehumanization of women on its head by depicting a man as a savage beast. In a myth from Homer's Odyssey, the sorceress Circe was said to have transformed men into pigs. They seem clearly to be the victims of this story, which prompted modern feminist retellings like Madeline Miller's brilliant novel Circe and the poem "Circe's Power" by Louise Glück. In these versions, Circe turns them into pigs in self-defense or, most damningly, because they already were pigs. "Some people are pigs; I make them/ Look like pigs," Glück's Circe explains.

We may not have magic spells handy, but there are ways we can "make them look like pigs--" by seeing even in the most violent and hateful tweet the potential for positive intersectional feminist growth, and by connecting with those attacked and strengthening our bonds.

Please show support by following the Twitter accounts which were the targets of this attack:

Cereta, Laura. Letters of a Quattrocento Italian Humanist, Trans. Diana Robin. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1997.

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  • Writer's pictureSkye Shirley

Salvete! Hello! Thanks for taking the time to explore some women's Latin with me today.

One goal in this project is to make sure that I show how deeply (if unfortunately) relevant the issues relating to 17th century women Latinists are to our own lives. Today's poem provides us with a perfect example of this.

This morning I had the incredible opportunity to find a Latin poem at the British Library by Anne Lauban. She lived in Szprotawa (then Silesia, now Poland) from 1574-1626 and seems to have had a friendship with Aemilia Melissa, the wife of the famous Paul Melissus who corresponded with Queen Elizabeth I. That poem led me to the book it was originally found in, "M. Laubani Musa Lyrica" (377). There, just above an expanded version of Lauban's poem, was the following poem from Aemilia Melissa herself:

Annae Laubanae

Quam mihi transmittis Laubana casaria mappā

Ut decoret mensae prandia rara meae,

Est operis miri; sicut mantile, quod ipsam

Arguerit Lyden, Palladiasve manus.

Obtinet ante alios hanc vestra Silesia palmam:

Rhenanae laudant linea texta nurūs.

Inscribam limbo: "Dedit hanc Laubana Melissae"

Coerulus* ornabit picta elementa color.

Te penes interea grates sint Anna repostae,

Si non par munus munere penso pari.

-Aemylia Melissa

*Coerulus = caeruleus/blue

This is an epistolary poem, which is a letter in verse, thanking her friend Anne for the gift of a cloth napkin or handkerchief. What's extraordinary about this is her words: "Inscribam limbo" ("I'll write in the margin"). In some ways, those two words encapsulate so much of women's writing: it is in the margins, of our curriculum, of our culture, and even of many women writer's lives, between naptime and dinnertime, researching and grading. Where is the time, the space, to squeeze it in? Why isn't the same asked of men's writing, and of men?

When she says "I'll write in the margins," Aemilia promises her friend that she'll personalize this special gift even more by embroidering the Latin words saying, "Laubana gave this to Melissa," and that she'll decorate it with blue patterns. This touching gift just became even more meaningful because the recipient chooses to repay the giver in embellishments and this Latin poem. She says it ought to be equal to the gift she received.

Poems like this make me wonder-- where are all the texts we have lost? Some probably grew moldy, moth-eaten, or were fed to fires long ago. Others may be in private collections or undigitized archives. But I think with women's Latin, we need to look in unexpected places. We need to expand our search to explore outside of genres used by men, even away from paper. Could a napkin carry a Latin message by a woman? What about a portrait, like the one to the left by Catherine van Hemessen? The words in the upper right say "Ego me pinxi" ("I've painted myself") and are as authoritative as the artist's own steady gaze.

Genre has always been a feminist issue, as genre is one way of keeping women in the margins, in "limbo." Few women had access to schools of philosophy and scientific circles, so our language does not always look the same as men's language. Our philosophy might be captured in a nursery rhyme we sing. Our Latin might be captured on a cloth napkin. Or our scientific experiments might resemble those of 17th century nun Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, who "even when ordered to put her books aside, found herself studying natural phenomena in the kitchen or by observing children at play" (A Woman of Genius, p. 177). Policing genre is one way of policing women, and questioning the very boundaries of genre is one step toward balancing the canon.

This issue isn't one just for Latin bookworms like myself. Take this modern example: I recently found out that Jessica Simpson wanted to have a career in Christian music. She came from a Christian family and took part in her mother's exercise program called "Jump for Jesus." She originally got into singing as a pre-teen to overcome a car accident that left her with a stutter, and through music she found her voice. She wanted to sing the songs she had been raised with— Christian songs— and to become a Christian singer. Her new career took her to numerous churches at first, but she was forced to give that up because of the feedback that her breasts were too big for the genre. Notice how even this article (from 2009!) puts the blame on her breasts, which "caused" the men to "lust." It's a strange inversion of female pop singers being told their breasts are too small! What do we miss when we fall into the trap of genre? A napkin of Latinate female attachment? The beautiful voice of a pre-teen girl connecting to her faith?

When you next go to a bookstore or library, ask yourself where women fit within genres. Are men's biographies being categorized as "philosophy" or "politics" whereas women's are resigned to "memoir?" What of writers like Audre Lorde and bell hooks, who are black lesbian scholars and who risk being placed in Women or Sexuality or Race, when there should be no "or" at all? In what way does genre keep some voices out and amplify others?

For those who might think Latin isn't relevant to today's teens, maybe it's not that it's not relevant, but that we aren't looking in the right places— for who's to say this humble poem about embroidering a napkin promotes less discussion, less introspection, and less academic rigor than an excerpt from Caesar's Gallic Wars?

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  • Writer's pictureSkye Shirley

Updated: May 21, 2021

Project Nota, an initiative at Lupercal focused on making women's Latin more accessible, is running a Women's Latin Week right now, so it felt like the right time to refresh my old blog and start sharing Latin by women with you all!

Many of you know that my PhD research project now focuses on women Latin writers of the 17th century, but that's kind of a clunky way of talking about the reality of my life, which is spent binge-reading incredible Latin poetry over innumerable coffees, smiling with excitement under my face mask while I pore through archives, and handing over far too much of my student loan money to used bookstores. In short, although I face frustrations and challenges just like everybody else, I wake up every day absolutely certain of one thing: that I love what I do, and that this work is so, so worthy of love. There are few things more valuable to me than sharing that passion with others and watching it catch like a spark.

Whenever I share a Latin resource, I want to tie it to a bigger issue in the human condition, an issue that perhaps especially has resonance for marginalized groups. Issues of underrepresentation, of being the brunt of jokes, of tokenization and erasure. Also I'll be sharing these Latinist women's remedies for this, ones that have been used for millennia to rectify these exclusions. Above all, I aim for this to be a curriculum resource but also a life resource— one that gets us (and our students) to think more deeply about the issues that arise in our own lives via encountering Latin by women.

The blog posts here may not be polished— I do, after all, tend to stretch myself thin at times— but they will be a behind-the-scenes look at what feminist scholar Gerda Lerner in the 1960s called "compensatory history." This kind of history is undertaken to right a wrong, while knowing that that wrong will outlive me. I don't think the longevity of that wrong— the enduring exclusion of "merely the private lives of one-half of humanity" is an excuse for inaction (Kizer). Rather, let's add our own voices to the long history of fighting to balance the canon so that everyone's Latin gets an equal shot at inclusion in curricula.

Carolyn Kizer, "Pro Femina," in No More Masks, ed. Ellen Bass and Florence Howe (Garden City: Doubleday, 1973), p. 175.

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