Foley on Julia Ward Howe’s *Hippolytus*

From the Columbia Spectator:

Julia Ward Howe, with her forward-thinking ideals and intense creativity, could have been a student at Columbia. At a time when female domesticity was the standard, Howe, a 19th-century American poet and author, published literature that challenged gender issues and their inevitable implications.

On Monday, Oct. 3 at 12 p.m., Helene P. Foley, professor of classics at Barnard College, presented a lunchtime lecture, “Julia Ward Howe’s Hippolytus: Remaking Greek Tragedy for Nineteenth-Century America,” exploring the issues prevalent in Howe’s work. The courage found in her work developed into full-fledged activism addressing women’s rights. She exposed the intricacies of gender issues throughout her life, from her revolutionary writing to the development of the Association of American Women, for which she served as founder and president.

Foley has published several books, including “Ritual Irony: Poetry and Sacrifice in Euripides,” “The Homeric Hymn to Demeter,” “Women in the Classical World: Image and Text,” and “Female Acts in Greek Tragedy.”

In the lecture, Foley focused on Howe’s revision of Euripides’ “Hippolytus” as a point for further exploration into the context within which Howe wrote. Foley connects the elements of the “American stage” and the play’s main actors Edwin Booth and Charlotte Cushman to signify Howe’s interest in the ambiguity of acting conditions and how that translates to perceptions of gender. Howe looked to Booth, describing him as “sensitive,” “youthful,” and “beautiful,” to bring androgyny to the stage, thereby balancing “masculine nobility” with “feminine purity.”

To further explore the theme of androgyny in Howe’s work, Foley presented an image of the “Sleeping Hermaphrodite” sculpture, which Howe had seen at the Villa Borghese. Foley contextualized the hermaphrodite’s influence by highlighting the ancient Greek’s reverence for the image as a spiritual figure free from gender boundaries, liberated from the confines of masculinity and femininity.

Howe’s fascination with the symbol of the hermaphrodite developed from her dissatisfaction and discontent, Foley explained, in the boundaries imposed by her husband. Samuel Gridley Howe’s staunch, traditionalist beliefs kept Howe restricted to mothering six children. Howe’s domestic unhappiness helped her turn to writing as a means of overriding gender limitations.

In a socially constrained environment, Howe had only the written word to express her true emotions. “She is most herself when she feels,” Foley said.

Despite the expectations for women and despite boundaries set by her husband, Howe never balked from addressing gender expectations and their consequences through her version of “Hippolytus.” Today, Foley continues Howe’s project of questioning gender identities. Through her work on Greek tragedy in American theaters, she maintains Howe’s legacy, keeping her works and her then-radical ideas alive.

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