To Live Alone and Like It: Women and the American School of Classical Studies at Athens Between the Wars.Posted: August 5, 2019
“But it is not education only that is needed. It is that women should have liberty of experience… to idle and loiter, the mental space to let your mind wonder,” wrote Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own in 1929. The work was based on lectures she delivered in October 1928 at Newnham College and Girton College in Cambridge (both for women). She further advised her female audience “to drink wine and have a room of their own.” I will not dwell on the issue of wine because women of all classes had access to alcohol, at least privately, but for a woman to have a room of her own was highly unusual before WW II, especially for women who had not inherited wealth. Woolf would be eternally grateful to her aunt for leaving her a lifelong annual stipend of 500 pounds.
That a woman could live alone by her own choice was almost unheard of. Young women who moved to the big cities in search of work were usually sharing apartments with others of the same sex, for a few years at most, until they got married. However, WW I upset traditional demographics by creating a population imbalance in the western world: more women than men. To put it bluntly, for these extra women it meant that the prospect of marriage was less attainable (Scutts 2017). If Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was fighting her own battles in ultra conservative England, Marjorie Hillis (1889-1971), an American writer and contemporary of Woolf, was sufficiently daring to publish in 1936 a book that encouraged single women to take control of their lives and Live Alone and Like it. “A Lady and Her Liquor,” “Pleasures of a Single Bed,” and “Solitary Refinement?” were some of the chapter titles. Her book became an immediate best-seller and remained popular for many years.
In the Main Reading Room of the Carl and Elizabeth Blegen Library in Athens, on the narrow side of one of the old bookcases, hangs a heavy bronze plaque inscribed: “In Memory of Robert L. Stroock: A Lover of Ancient Greece. MCMXXX”.
Unlike other commemorative plaques at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter) which have often changed locations or even have been withdrawn from public view over the years, this one has remained in the same spot since it was dedicated shortly after Stroock’s death in 1930.
In early October of 1924, Elizabeth Pierce Blegen, together with Ida Thallon Hill, was planning one of their first (perhaps the first) official dinners in the Director’s House at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (hereafter, the School or ASCSA). They were both new brides. In July Elizabeth (Libbie) had married Carl Blegen at Lake Placid, New York. Blegen was then assistant director of the School. Within a month, Ida, her lover and former professor at Vassar College, married Bert Hodge Hill in England. Hill had been the director of the School since 1906. Robert L. Pounder has recently written about the complicated nature of the Blegens’ and Hills’ relationship (or partnership as they themselves described it) [“The Blegens and the Hills: A Family Affair” in Carl W. Blegen: Personal and Archaeological Narratives, edited by N. Vogeikoff-Brogan, J. L. Davis, and V. Florou, Atlanta 2015, pp. 83-96]. Libbie kept a social diary recording the activities of the two couples during the academic year 1924-1925. Read the rest of this entry »
Posted by Vivian Florou
Vivian Florou here contributes to the Archivist’s Notebook an essay about high-society Greek women in the decades between the two world wars. The traditional festive costumes that they wore on their social outings defined the aspirations of their class. Florou explores this fashion trend within the intellectual context of the period and the so-called “Generation of the Thirties.” Vivian, who studied archaeology and cultural heritage management, co-edited with Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan and Jack L. Davis, a collection of essays, entitled Carl W. Blegen: Personal and Archaeological Narratives (forthcoming later this year). In that volume she explores the social life of two American couples (Carl and Elizabeth Blegen, and Bert and Ida Hill) who lived in the neoclassical mansion that now houses the J. F. Costopoulos Foundation on 9 Ploutarchou street in Kolonaki, Athens.
On Sunday evening, the 25th of October 1931, Antonis Benakis and his wife received representatives of the International Council of Museums in the grand ballrooms of the newly established Benaki Museum, his former residence. A page of the daily newspaper Πρωΐα (Proia) the next morning preserves forever in a caption to a sketch the particular event that distinguished that reception: “Κυρίαι και δεσποινίδες της κοινωνίας φέρουσαι διαφόρους ελληνικάς ενδυμασίας επέδειξαν εις τους ξένους την χάριν και την αρμονίαν των ελληνικών αμφιέσεων.” (Madames and mademoiselles of society in Greek costumes of various kinds demonstrated to foreigners the joy and harmony contained in Greek apparel.)
From their names on the sketch we learn that these were women of the Greek elite of that period. What were they doing dressed in clothes so foreign to the experiences of their daily lives? Why were they swirling the heavy fabrics of their garments amidst the foreign representatives? Did their behavior simply reflect a folkloric movement or was it an expression of “committed art” set against an historical backdrop? This clipping from Πρωΐα of 1931 inspired me to look for photographs that shed light on the appropriation of folk art by the Greek bourgeoisie in the interwar period (1919-1938), but also earlier, in the 19th century.
After the foundation of the Greek state in the 1820s, the spirit of romantic nationalism that had earlier inundated the rest of Europe would prevail in Greece too and would bring with it a broader interest in the folk cultures of the newly constituted nation states. An example of behavior characteristic of this period was the formulation by the Greek Queen Amalia (1836-1862), and then by Queen Olga (1867-1913), of a conventional language of dress inspired by folk tradition, which would operate as a unifying symbol for their subjects and would visually inscribe in apparel the aspirations of the elite of that era (Macha-Bizoumi 2014, 48-55; Politou 2014, 56-63). For these reasons Queen Olga decreed a new attire for Ladies-in-Waiting at the Royal Court, one that was based on traditional garments of northern and eastern Attica. Read the rest of this entry »