Summary of the ’Imagining the Ancient World’ AMME Seminar

This fall’s seminars kicked off on September 21st, when we considered imagined gender in both ancient authorship and current academia.

Beginning the seminar, Assoc. Prof. Dr. Hanna Tervanotko talked about how we imagine gender in the authorship of ancient Jewish texts. Up to the present day, the spouses of researchers have played key roles in the research process, often being credited in the acknowledgments-sections of books. For the longest time, helping in their husbands’ work was the primary way for women to contribute to research due to barriers restricting direct participation in academia. Women like Norma Dever (1933–2018) would type and edit everything their spouses published, work which today we might consider coauthorial. And yet we would not know of their work were it not for the acknowledgments given out of these researchers’ own initiative.

A similar phenomenon affects the way we study female scribes in the ancient world, where such acknowledgments were not made. Because scribal work in these societies is thought to have belonged to a male elite, researchers tend to dismiss ancient women authors completely. Female authorship is reduced to an insignificant minority and left to footnotes. Even when it is accepted that women might have been authors, their intellect is restricted to fields which are seen as inherently female, such as women’s experiences, love, and the domestic sphere. Often, this dismissal is done with no particular evidence being cited.

It is also commonly assumed that scribal work was professional, salaried work. Non-salaried work is often considered not to be ‘real’ work at all, which excludes much of the work done by women, who still today perform most of the world’s unpaid labour. In actuality, we have evidence showing that scribal work could be non-salaried. As just one example, Pola of Rome, a 14th century Jewish woman, is identified in several manuscripts as their author and the daughter of a scribe. In scribal families, women like Pola often learned to write so they could help in their male relatives’ work. If the money for this work went to her father, would that make her less of a professional? If the text was dictated by someone else and written down by her, would that make her contribution less valuable?

Dr. Tervanotko asks us reconsider why we imagine the genders of ancient authors as we do and how we value different kinds of scribal work. What defines an author versus a collaborator? Should we only consider women’s authorship when it is explicitly referred to, even though ancient Jewish text often lack such references? After all, that something is not referred to in texts does not mean it did not exist outside of them.


After Dr. Tervanotko’s excellent talk, Prof. Dr. Saana Svärd turned our reflections inwards, towards modern academia and how gender affects us as members of academic communities. She looked at the statistics of four academic associations and workplaces to see how membership and resources were divided between genders. The Centre of Excellence in Changes in Sacred Texts and Traditions (CSTT) and the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) are in the field of Biblical studies, while the Centre of Excellence in Ancient Near Eastern Empires (ANEE) and the International Association of Assyriology (IAA) represent Assyriology, allowing us to also compare statistics between fields.

The greatest gender disparity was in the SBL, where especially the highest ranks – full-time lecturers, tenure track and tenured professors – were predominantly male, with up to 77% men.  Other types of faculty did not skew as strongly, but in every category, men made up at least 60% of respondents. The CSTT, on the other hand, had quite equal gender distribution in both junior and senior categories. Considering that only a third of professors in Finland are female, the CSTT’s achievement is remarkable. A similar pattern appears in Assyriology: the IAA is noticeably more male, while ANEE is much more equal, even leaning towards having more women than men. In both fields, gender equality in membership was better realised in Centres of Excellence than it was in academic associations.

Of course, equal membership statistics isn’t the only component of gender equality in an academic community. Even in the CSTT, where women made up about half of the faculty, women were still by far in the minority when looking at short papers and panel appearances presented at their annual meetings. While the data can’t tell us why this is the case, the phenomenon is widespread in academia. It seems that the more unofficial the context, the more likely men are to get an edge over their women peers. What is clear is the need for continous vigilance and work towards equity in academia. There is also a need for qualitative studies into the causes of the patterns seen here.


The talks were once again followed by much fruitful discussion on the subject, for which we thank all the attendees and both speakers! We hope you will join us again on Tuesday, October 24th, when we will convene on the theme of Built and Grown Environments.