To Live Alone and Like It: Women and the American School of Classical Studies at Athens Between the Wars.

“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.

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Living Like Kings: When the Palace of Prince George Was the Annex of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens

Immediately after the destruction of Smyrna in 1922, a sudden influx of hundreds of thousands of Asia Minor refugees created severe housing problems for all those arriving in Athens, including the incoming students of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (hereafter ASCSA or the School). Its female members could not find any accommodations, whether rooms in a boarding house or a hotel. Until then, only the male students were allowed to board in the School’s facilities. Plans for a female dormitory on a plot of land on the other side of Speusippou Street had been in place since 1916, but construction delays sprang up after communication problems between the School’s Managing Committee, headed by the mighty Edward Capps, and the Women’s Hostel Committee, led by M. Carey Thomas, the dynamic president of Bryn Mawr College.

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The palace of Prince George on Academias Street as Annex of the ASCSA, 1926 (American School of Classical Studies at Athens)

To cope with the situation, the School allowed women to live “on campus” for the first time since its establishment in 1881. Elizabeth Pierce (Blegen), Natalie Gifford (Wyatt), and Dorothy Cox were among the female students to stay in the School’s bedrooms in 1922-23 and share bathroom facilities with the male occupants of the building. Not surprisingly, the Managing Committee, unhappy with the solution, expressed its “earnest hope that the emergency arrangements of the year 1922-1923 might not recur….” It was suggested “that an annex might be rented which could be used for the accommodation of the women” (Louis Lord, History of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Cambridge, Mass. 1947, 163). Read the rest of this entry »