Katharine Dow: Can surrogacy ever escape the taint of global exploitation?

making the good life jacket dowSurrogate motherhood has a bad rep, as a murky business far removed from everyday experience – especially when it comes to prospective parents from the West procuring the gestational services of less privileged women in the global South. So while middle-class 30- and 40-somethings swap IVF anecdotes over the dinner table, and their younger female colleagues are encouraged by ‘hip’ employers to freeze their eggs as an insurance policy against both time and nature, surrogacy continues to induce a great deal of moral handwringing.

The Kim Cotton case in 1985 was the first attempt to arrange a commercial surrogacy agreement in the United Kingdom. It set the tone for what was to come. Cotton was paid £6,500 to have a baby for an anonymous Swedish couple, and her story provoked sensational press-fuelled panic. British legislators, too, saw surrogacy as likely to lead to exploitation, with poorer women coerced into acting as surrogates out of financial need, and with intended parents taken advantage of by unscrupulous surrogacy brokers. Their action was swift: within just months of the Cotton story breaking, a law was passed banning for-profit surrogacy in the UK.

With the growth of an international surrogacy industry over the past two decades, worries over surrogacy’s fundamentally exploitative character have only intensified. Worst-case scenarios such as the Baby Gammy case in 2014, involving an Australian couple and a Thai surrogate, suggest that surrogacy frequently is exploitative. But that’s less because paying someone to carry and bear a child on your behalf is inherently usurious than because the transaction takes place in a deeply unequal world. The Baby Gammy case was complicated by other unsavoury factors, since the child, born with Down’s Syndrome, seemed to be rejected by his intended parents because of his condition. Then it turned out that the intended father had a previous conviction for child sex offences, which rather overshadowed the potential exploitation experienced by Gammy’s surrogate – and now de facto – mother.

I am not arguing for a laissez-faire approach to regulating surrogacy, but for thinking more deeply about how surrogacy reflects the context in which it takes place.

We need to step back and think critically about what makes people so driven to have a biogenetically related child that they are prepared to procure the intimate bodily capacity of another, typically less privileged, person to achieve that. We should also listen to surrogates, and try to understand why they might judge surrogacy as their best option. Intended parents are not always uncaring nabobs, and surrogate mothers are not just naïve victims; but while the power dynamic between them is decidedly skewed, each is subject to particular cultural expectations, moral obligations and familial pressures.

As for the larger context, we increasingly outsource even the most intimate tasks to those whose labour is cheap, readily available and less regulated. If we think of surrogacy as a form of work, it doesn’t look that different from many other jobs in our increasingly casualised and precarious global economic context, like selling bodily substances and services for clinical trials, biomedical research or product testing, or working as domestic staff and carers.

And surrogacy is on the rise. Both in the UK and in the United States, where some states allow commercial surrogacy and command the highest fees in the world, increasing numbers of would-be parents are turning to the international surrogacy industry: 95 per cent of the 2,000 surrogate births to UK intended parents each year occur overseas. With the age at which women have their first child increasing, more women are finding it difficult to conceive; and there’s now greater access to fertility treatments for single-sex couples and single people. In addition, surrogacy has become the option of choice for gay couples, transgender people, and single men wanting a biogenetically related child.

For me, as someone who has studied surrogacy, the practice is problematic because it reveals some of our most taken-for-granted assumptions about the nature of family. It also tells us much about work, gender, and how the two are connected. This is why it is so challenging.

At a time when parent-child relationships often appear to be one of the few remaining havens in an increasingly heartless world, surrogacy suggests that there might not be a straightforward relationship between women’s reproductive biology, their capacity to produce children, and their desire to nurture. The usual debates that focus simply on whether or not surrogacy is exploitative sidestep some of these uncomfortable truths, and make it difficult to ask more complicated questions about the practice.

There is a parallel here with abortion debates. Trying to define and defend the sanctity of life is important, but this also obscures highly problematic issues, such as the gendered expectation that women should look after children; the fact that women typically bear responsibility for contraception (and the disproportionate consequences of not using it); the prevalence of non-consensual sex; and the pressure on women to produce children to meet familial obligations.

Surrogacy is a technology. And like any other technology we should not attribute to it magical properties that conceal its anthropogenic – that is, human-made – character. It’s all too easy to blame surrogacy or the specific individuals who participate in it rather than to ask why surrogacy might make sense as a way of having children at all. We should give credit to intended parents and surrogate mothers for having thought deeply about their decisions, and we should not hold them individually responsible for surrogacy’s ills.Aeon counter – do not remove

Katharine Dow is a research associate in the Reproductive Sociology Research Group at the University of Cambridge. She is the author of Making a Good Life.

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This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
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Rogers Brubaker on understanding “transracial”

Brubakers Mainstream society has grown increasingly accepting of various ways of reimagining gender. But what about someone who identities as a different race? Is the concept of “ancestry” losing its authority? In Trans: Gender and Race in an Age of Unsettled IdentitiesRogers Brubaker explores the controversial idea that one can be transracial and the ways ethnoracial boundaries have already blurred. Recently, Brubaker took the time to answer some questions about his book and shed light on what transracial means.

This book has taken you into new territory. What drew you to the subject?

RB: In the summer of 2015 I became fascinated by the intertwined debates about whether Caitlyn Jenner could legitimately identify as a woman and Rachel Dolezal as black. The debates were dominated by efforts to validate or invalidate the identities claimed by Jenner and Dolezal. But at the same time they raised deeper questions about the similarities and differences between gender and race in an age of massively unsettled identities. I had planned to spend the summer months working on a completely different project, but this “trans moment” afforded a unique opportunity to think systematically about sex and gender in relation to race and ethnicity as embodied identities that are increasingly – yet in differing ways and to differing degrees – understood as open to choice and change.

You begin with the pairing of “transgender” and “transracial” in the debates about Jenner and Dolezal. One common trope in the debates was that transracial is “not a thing.” Do you disagree?

RB: Of course transracial is not a “thing” in the same sense as transgender: there’s no socially recognized and legally regulated procedure for changing one’s race or ethnicity comparable to the procedures that are available for changing sex or gender. But I do think the term “transracial” usefully brings into focus the ways in which people do in fact move from one racial or ethnic category to another or position themselves between or beyond existing categories.

The second part of your book is called “thinking with trans.” What do you mean by this?

RB: The idea is that one can use the transgender experience as a lens through which to think about the instability and contestedness of racial identities. I distinguish three forms of the transgender experience, which I call the trans of migration, the trans of between, and the trans of beyond. The trans of migration – the most familiar form – involves moving from one established sex/gender category to another. The trans of between involves defining oneself with reference to both established categories, without belonging entirely or unambiguously to either one. The trans of beyond claims to transcend existing categories or go beyond gender altogether. I argue that each of these can help us think about race and ethnicity in fruitful ways. Racial passing (including “reverse passing” like Dolezal’s) exemplifies the trans of migration, the multiracial movement the trans of between, and indifference or opposition to racial or ethnic categorization the trans of beyond.

Doesn’t sex have a deeper biological basis than race?

RB: Exactly, but this presents us with a paradox. Morphological, physiological, and hormonal differences between the sexes, although not as marked in humans as in many other species, are biologically real and socially consequential. Nothing remotely analogous can be said about racial divisions. Yet as the debates about Jenner and Dolezal showed, it is more socially legitimate to change one’s sex (and gender) than to change one’s race.

How do you explain this?

RB: The distinction between sex and gender – a distinction that has no analogue in the domain of race and ethnicity – has made it possible to think of gender identity as an inner essence that is independent of the sexed body. Yet according to the widespread “born that way” narrative, this inner essence is understood as natural – as unchosen and unchanging. Changing one’s sex or gender does not mean changing one’s identity; it means changing the way one is recognized and classified by others. This usually involves changing one’s self-presentation and may also involve transforming one’s body to bring it into alignment with one’s identity. We have no cultural tools for thinking about racial identity as an inner essence that is independent of the body and knowable only by the individual. A key part of what is understood as constituting racial identity – notably one’s ancestry – is located outside the self and is open to inspection by others. An individual who identifies with an ethnic or racial category to which she is not entitled by ancestry cannot intelligibly make use of the “born in the wrong body” narrative to justify changing her racial classification.

The broad sympathy toward Jenner seemed to suggest that transgender, unlike transracial, had achieved a remarkable degree of mainstream public acceptance. Were you surprised by the more recent controversy over transgender access to bathrooms in schools?

RB: Not really. The shift toward public acceptance of transgender has been astonishingly rapid, but it has been uneven across regions, generations, institutions, and milieux. As transgender claims have moved from insulated settings like liberal arts colleges to mainstream settings like public school systems, and as courts, civil rights agencies, and legislatures have taken action to establish broad transgender rights, it’s unsurprising to see a backlash. Controversy has focused on access to bathrooms and locker rooms, tapping into public anxieties about vulnerable children, sexual predators, and the presence of people with penises in girls’ and women’s spaces. It’s also worth noting that to cultural conservatives, especially religious conservatives, preserving sex and gender boundaries is much more important than maintaining racial and ethnic boundaries. So while Dolezal’s claim to identify as black provoked fiercer opposition than Jenner’s claim to identify as a woman, transgender rights are likely to be far more controversial in the coming years than practices associated with choosing or changing race.

Rogers Brubaker is a sociology professor at the University of of California, Los Angeles. He also is the UCLA Foundation Chair at the University. He focuses on topics such as social theory, ethnicity, citizenship, immigration and nationalism. Brubakers is the author of the books Ethnicity without Groups, Nationalist Politics and Everyday Ethnicity in a Transylvanian Town and Grounds for DifferenceHis most recent book is Trans: Gender Gender and Race in an Age of Unsettled Identities.

An interview with Nancy Malkiel on the struggle for coeducation

MalkielAt the end of the 1960s, a change swept elite institutions in the United States and the United Kingdom: In a remarkably brief span of time, a large number of traditional, conservative, highly prestigious colleges and universities began admitting women. In her new book, Keep the Damned Women Out”: The Struggle for Coeducation, Princeton University professor Nancy Weiss Malkiel examines the historic shift, revealing that contrary to popular belief, the decision was less a moral response to female activists than a strategic one made largely by powerful men. Recently, Malkiel took the time to answer questions about her new book.

What led you to write a book about coeducation?

NM: It’s partly autobiographical. I had been a graduate student at Harvard in the mid-/late 1960s, when the relationship between Harvard and Radcliffe was beginning to be addressed. I joined the Princeton faculty in 1969 as one of the first three women in the professorial ranks; 1969 also happened to be the year when the first women undergraduates arrived. I served as dean of the college, with responsibility for undergraduate education at Princeton, for 24 years. At the same time, I graduated from and served as a trustee of Smith, a women’s college that decided not to go coed. I was very interested in how coeducation came to be embraced at Princeton and so many other elite men’s schools, in why Smith decided against coeducation, and in how women’s education worked in the institutions I knew best.

I was also very interested in processes of institutional change. How did very old, very traditional, very elite institutions decide to go coed? What factors influenced their decision-making? Who provided leadership? Who supported change? Who resisted change? How were competing interests adjudicated?

What made coeducation such a struggle?

NM: There was intense opposition to coeducation, mainly on the part of alumni who treasured their undergraduate experience and thought that admitting women would ruin the camaraderie, the special ambiance that had made all-male institutions so successful. The title of this book comes from a letter from one Ivy League alumnus who wrote, in opposing coeducation, “For God’s sake, for everyone’s sake, keep the damned women out.” Very often, coeducation was instituted over the very strong objections of these alumni. Many of these men later came to change their views when their daughters and granddaughters sought admission to their now-coeducational alma maters.

Your book focuses on decisions for coeducation in a very brief period of time – essentially, 1969-74. Why?

NM: There was a flood of decisions for coeducation in these years, both in the United States and in the United Kingdom. That’s when coeducation came to be instantiated at most of the very traditional, very conservative, very elite single-sex institutions on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The decade of the 1960s bore on the timing: with the civil rights movement, the student movement, the antiwar movement, and the women’s movement, it was no wonder that colleges and universities began reconsidering many aspects of the educational arrangements that had served them for centuries.

What was the most surprising thing that you learned in the course of your research?

NM: Coeducation was not the product of organized efforts by women activists. Decisions for coeducation were made by powerful men (Mary Ingraham Bunting, the president of Radcliffe, is the sole exception here). And they were acting not on some moral imperative, not on a high-minded commitment to the education of women, but on straightforward self-interest: Coeducation was embraced as a means of shoring up applicant pools that were declining because many students no longer wanted to go to single-sex institutions.

How did you decide which colleges and universities to write about?

NM: In the United States, I focused on the men’s schools that were generally regarded as the influencers, the agenda-setters, the institutions that others looked to, modeled themselves on, and emulated – in other words, Princeton, Yale, Harvard, and Dartmouth. As for women’s colleges, Vassar was clearly the most prestigious women’s college that chose to admit men; I included Smith and Wellesley for comparative purposes because both of them had high-level reports in this same period that recommended coeducation, and both of them backed away from admitting men. In the United Kingdom, I wrote about the first three men’s colleges at Cambridge to admit women (in 1972) – Churchill, Clare, and King’s – and the first five at Oxford (in 1974) – Brasenose, Hertford, Jesus, St. Catherine’s, and Wadham.

It’s important to note that lots of other American institutions went coed in this period – men’s schools as well as women’s schools, colleges as well as universities. But the others were less influential, less precedent-making, than the elite institutions I focused on.

What were the biggest differences between coeducation in men’s colleges and coeducation in women’s colleges?

NM: When a men’s college coeducated, there was no question that it would attract a large number of highly qualified women applicants. When a women’s college coeducated, it was much less clear that there would be a sufficient pool of highly qualified male applicants.

Why did you want to compare American and British universities and colleges?

NM: A very similar phenomenon – the advent of coeducation at very old, very traditional, very elite institutions – was occurring on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The movements of the 1960s affected colleges and universities in both countries. Colleges at Oxford and Cambridge were fully aware of what was happening in the United States, and there were some explicit connections between some of them and institutions like Princeton and Yale. There were also similarities in alumni resistance to coeducation. Heads of colleges at Oxford and Cambridge sought to assuage the concerns of their alumni by reminding them of the decision taken many decades earlier to remove the requirement of celibacy for fellows (faculty members) of the colleges – suggesting that coeducation, like married fellows, would soon come to be seen as perfectly normal.

Nancy Weiss Malkiel is a professor of history at Princeton University. From 1987 to 2011, she served as Dean of the College, overseeing the University’s undergraduate academic program, making her the longest serving dean. Malkiel’s current research centers on the decisions for coeducation at elite colleges and universities in the Unites States, as well as the United Kingdom, from 1969 to the mid 1970s. She is the author of  Whitney M. Young, Jr., and the Struggle for Civil Rights and Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of FDR (both Princeton). Her most recent book is “Keep the Damned Women Out”: The Struggle for Coeducation.

Where are the Women Architects? An interview with Despina Stratigakos

StratigakosWomen have been entering universities excited to major in architecture. But studies have shown that although women currently make up 40% of all architecture majors at colleges across the United States, only 17% of architectural professionals are female.  Despina Stratigakos takes a close look at this disparity in her new book Where are the Women Architects?. Recently Stratigakos answered some questions on her book, and what she calls the disturbingly high dropout rates for women in the profession.

Why do we need to talk about women in architecture? Can’t we just focus on the work of architects, regardless of their gender?

DS: It’s easy to say that gender issues are a thing of the past, but a young woman entering architecture today still confronts an unequal playing field. She can expect to make less than her male peers at every stage of her career, to see fewer career-building opportunities come her way, and to struggle to make it to the top ranks of the profession, which remain overwhelmingly male. Discrimination lies behind these hurdles and is the reason we continue to see such disturbingly high dropout rates for women. So, yes, we do have to talk about women in architecture. And hopefully do more than just talk.

But aren’t more women than ever studying architecture? Won’t that influx resolve these issues as more women integrate into the profession?

DS: Numbers alone aren’t a fix. For the last fifteen years, women have been a strong presence in architecture schools, making up nearly half of the student body. But far too many of them eventually leave architecture. As a result, the number of women in practice has flatlined, with women today representing less than one in five licensed practitioners. Beyond the human tragedy of so many women abandoning their dreams, this loss of talent and energy undermines the health of the profession.

Why do so many women leave architecture?

DS: This phenomenon has been so little studied, that’s it hard to give conclusive answers, but new research suggests that women leave for complex and varied reasons, including salary gaps, fewer opportunities for career advancement, a lack of mentoring and role models, and routine sexism in the workplace. The simplistic explanation, trotted out for decades, that women leave practice to have babies doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. It’s true that architecture’s deadline-driven culture makes it difficult to balance raising a family with the expected long work hours. But not all mothers choose to leave architecture, and women without children are also struggling in the profession, so the issue can’t be reduced to biology.

In your book, you point out that journalists and other observers have been asking about architecture’s missing women for over a century. If this phenomenon isn’t new, why write the book now?

DS: Something new is afoot in architecture. While there have been questions and protests about the lack of women in architecture for a long time, gender equity issues today are attracting attention across a broader span of the profession and are also garnering public support. A new generation of advocates are speaking out about issues of diversity in architecture and organizing at a grassroots’ level to make their voices heard. I identify this as architecture’s third wave of feminism, and hope the book helps to define a movement that may, at last, bring about deep change.

Architect Barbie’s inclusion in this book may come as a surprise to some readers. You write candidly about your reasons for partnering with Mattel to create the doll and the responses, some of them critical, she received when launched in 2011. Why did you decide to include her story in this book?

DS: I am very interested in how popular culture shapes professional images and the role gender plays in such ideals. For an earlier generation, Howard Roark, the protagonist of Ayn Rand’s hugely influential novel, The Fountainhead, embodied the ideal image of the architect—especially as portrayed by Gary Cooper in the 1949 film version. Barbie is a cultural icon who is both loved and hated, and casting her in the role of an architect galvanized people into talking about professional stereotypes, such as whether architects can wear pink. Her story is relevant to the challenges that women architects face in the real world, especially because she lets us look at gender issues from unexpected angles.

The ideal image of the architect also comes up in your chapter on architecture prizes as a boys’ club. You write about how Zaha Hadid, after becoming the first woman to win the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2004, endured humiliating press stories that focused on her appearance rather than on her achievements. Some of these accounts are quite shocking to read today. What do you want readers to take away from this account?

DS: This rather shameful moment in architectural journalism speaks to the discrimination that even the most successful women architects face. Denise Scott Brown’s exclusion from the 1991 Pritzker Architecture Prize awarded to her partner Robert Venturi, which I also discuss, is another instance of how even prominent female practitioners can be dismissed. But 2004 is not that long ago, and the sexist reaction to Hadid’s win reminds us that attitudes about women being lesser architects and unworthy of the highest laurels are not part of a long-dead past.

But has that changed now? This year, the AIA Gold Medal is being awarded jointly to Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi, and Zaha Hadid has won the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Royal Gold Medal, the first woman to be offered the honor in her own right. Are women architects finally getting their due?

DS: These awards are highly deserved and long overdue, but have come about only after sustained pressure on professional organizations to better align their rewards systems with today’s architectural realities. Scott Brown is the first living woman to win the AIA Gold Medal ever; Hadid is the first sole female practitioner to win the RIBA Gold Medal ever. These are important milestones, but we don’t yet know whether they are part of a larger pattern. In the book, I discuss how the paucity of female laureates has led to the recent and rapid proliferation of new prizes solely for women architects. Time will tell whether such women-only honors continue to multiply or whether they will come to seem anachronistic.

In the book, you also express concern about a more mundane vehicle for recognition: inclusion in Wikipedia. You write about the invisibility of women architects on this hugely popular and influential website, and the bias of male editors against entries on women’s history. Why is it important to close that visibility gap?

DS: In the last twenty years, histories of women in architecture have flourished and have come to challenge our understanding of the people and forces that have shaped our built environment. But for these discoveries to reach a broad audience and to become widely known, they need to appear in the places where people look today for information on the past, and that is increasingly to free online resources such as Wikipedia. Content on Wikipedia is controlled by its editors, who are overwhelmingly male and resistant to the inclusion of women’s histories. This absence threatens to perpetuate the belief among a younger generation that women architects have made no meaningful contributions to the profession. I explore the campaigns launched by tech-savvy activists to write women architects into Wikipedia.

Despina Stratigakos is associate professor and interim chair of architecture at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. She is the author of Hitler at Home and A Woman’s Berlin: Building the Modern City. Her most recent book is Where are the Women Architects?

How Texas law will shape the women’s vote

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The Explosive Potential of the Whole
Woman’s Health Case

by Nancy Woloch

On March 2 the Supreme Court will hear arguments about a 2013 Texas law that affects access to abortion. The law at issue in Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital (no more than thirty miles from the clinic). It also requires abortion clinics to have facilities equivalent to those at an outpatient surgical center, that is, more equipment than Texas law demands in doctors’ offices where more hazardous procedures such as colonoscopies or liposuctions are performed. The rise of the Whole Woman case just as an election looms may provoke voters in ways unsought by sponsors of the Texas law.

Several Texas clinics challenged the law, but a federal appeals court, the Fifth Circuit, upheld the new requirements. The Supreme Court now faces several questions: Does the law protect women’s health, as Texas claims? Does the law impose an “undue burden” on women who seek abortions? The “undue burden” consideration arose in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), which confirms the right to abortion set forth in Roe v. Wade (1973). A law can be an undue burden, states the Casey decision, if it has “the purpose or effect of placing a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion.” It is likely that the Supreme Court, when it reviews the Texas case, will further explicate “undue burden,” “substantial obstacle,” and, especially, “purpose or effect.”

Texas claims that it has “wide discretion” to pass medical regulations, that it enacted the 2013 law to protect the health of those who seek abortions, that the law ensures qualified doctors, and that it cuts delay if a patient needs a hospital. The clinics contend that the state requirements were not designed to promote women’s health, that the law is a tactic to close clinics, and that it imperils women’s health by “reducing access to safe and legal abortion.” Since 2013, critics of the law charge, the 42 clinics that once provided access to abortion in Texas now number nineteen and would dwindle to ten if the law survives review. Amicus briefs that support the clinics have started to accumulate, including a brief by historians who work with legal issues. Laws that claim to protect women’s health can restrict women’s choice, the historians state, and thus “warrant careful scrutiny by this Court.” The Court will consider whether the Fifth Circuit decision reflects precedents in abortion law, as supporters of the Texas law claim, or whether the Fifth Circuit acted in error when it enabled Texas to enforce the new law, as its detractors argue.

The Whole Woman’s Health case, to be decided in June 2016, has explosive potential. The Supreme Court has not issued a major decision on abortion since Gonzales v. Carhart (2007), which upheld a federal law barring what is called “partial birth” abortion. The Whole Woman’s Health decision will affect the options of women in Texas, especially in rural Texas, who may find the right to an abortion out of reach. The decision will also affect women in Mississippi, where a kindred case, one that involves hospital admission requirements for doctors, has arisen and where only a single clinic that provides abortion remains. The Supreme Court has not yet decided whether to consider the Mississippi case, Currier v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The decision in Whole Woman’s Health, finally, will reach women in other states that have enacted abortion regulations similar to those in Texas, such as Wisconsin, Louisiana, and Alabama, and in states that intend to do so.

The Whole Woman’s Health decision will have further ramifications in an election year. Whichever way the Court may go—and there has no been signal as to what might happen—the conflict over the Texas law is likely to sway the women’s vote. The reappearance of a major abortion case will remind undecided women voters that state legislators, who are likely to be men (in Texas the lawmakers of 2013 were 80 percent male), can voice opinions that have an impact on women’s health – or even act to impede women’s rights under the pretext of protecting women’s health. Similarly, the Texas case will remind women voters of what a yet more conservative Supreme Court, with new members chosen by a future president, might decide. Overall, the case will prompt women voters to think about the fragility of women’s rights. Whatever happens in the Supreme Court, the timing of the Whole Woman’s Health decision may well advantage Democrats.

Woloch jacketNancy Woloch teaches history at Barnard College, Columbia University. Her books include A Class by Herself, Women and the American Experience and Muller v. Oregon: A Brief History with Documents.

Quick Questions for Adrienne Mayor, author of The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World

Adrienne Mayor is a research scholar in classics and the history of science at Stanford University. Her work searches for precursors to modern science in mythologies and folk traditions of peoples around the world. Mayor’s previous books include The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times (2000) and Fossil Legends of the First Americans (2007), which examine pre-Darwinian cultural awareness of prehistoric life in antiquity and Native America, linking legends of monsters to the discovery of fossils. Her biography The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy was a finalist for 2009 National Book Award in Nonfiction and won the 2010 Gold Medal in Biography at the Independent Publisher Book Awards.amayor

Mayor’s upcoming book, The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World, explores the familiar Greek myth of warrior women from a global perspective. Citing stories from China, India, Egypt, Persia, and Central Asia, as well as new archaeological discoveries, Mayor unearths the roots of Amazon legends and reveals some surprising insights on gender in the ancient world.

Now, on to the questions!

What would you have been if not an historian?

If I had not become so obsessed with uncovering germs of historical and scientific realities in ancient mythology and legends, I would still be a full-time freelance copyeditor for about a dozen trade publishers and university presses (including Princeton University Press). That was my career until I published my first book (The First Fossil Hunters for PUP, 2000). Before I began concentrating on writing, in my free time I was an artist, making and selling etchings illustrating stories based on my readings in classical literature.


“I find writing a book a slow, intricate process, a kind of obstacle course punctuated with great rewards.”


What was the most influential book you’ve read?

Two influential books: The Histories of Herodotus, the world’s first “anthropologist,” an insatiably curious Greek historian who reported on barbarian cultures based on his research, travels, and interviews in the fifth century BC. I was also influenced by Mott T. Greene’s Natural Knowledge in Preclassical Antiquity (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992).

Describe your writing process. How long did it take you to finish your book? Where do you write? 

I had been gathering material about ancient women warriors for decades. But I began the serious research for The Amazons in 2009 and started the actual writing in 2012. I find writing a book a slow, intricate process, a kind of obstacle course punctuated with great rewards. But research is always thrilling and I tend to incorporate newfound material up to the very last minute. I write in two very different places: my desk in Palo Alto, California is piled high with myriad jumbled books and papers whose stratigraphy is a challenge. Summers in Bozeman, Montana, I write in a spare space, surrounded by interesting rocks and fossils instead of books, on an old oak table with nothing but my laptop.

What was the most interesting thing you learned from writing this book? 

Thanks to modern DNA testing, we now know that a significant number of battle-scarred skeletons buried with weapons in ancient steppe nomad graves belonged to women, the real-life models for Greek myths about Amazons. So Amazons were not just a figment of the Greek imagination, brought to life in exciting myths only to be killed off by Greek heroes. But even more surprising, it turns out that the Greeks were not the only people of antiquity to spin tales about heroic warrior women. And the non-Greek stories of warlike women differ radically from the dark mythic script demanding death for all Amazons. Instead, legendary heroes of Persia, Egypt, and Asia were so impressed with the valor of their female foes that they desired the women as companions in love and war. We are used to thinking of Amazon myths in terms of violence against uppity women, but the ancient evidence also reveals a vision of gender equality.

How did you come up with the title and jacket?

7-18 AmazonsMy working title was “Amazons in Love and War” because there are as many romances as battle stories about warrior women. The final title embraces both mythology and history and conveys the geographic scope of the book far beyond the ancient Mediterranean world. I wanted to find a unique picture for the cover, something arresting and unexpected, a departure from the standard classical Greek vase or Roman statue. I was struck by the strong image and narrative quality of a postage stamp issued by the Kyrgyz Republic. It shows the horsewoman-archer Saikal, heroine of the most famous Central Asian epic poem Manas. The black and white illustration is by Teodor Gercen, a German artist who worked in Kyrgyzstan.

What are you reading right now?

I am enjoying a well-researched adventure novel translated from Danish, The Lost Sisterhood (Random House, 2014) by Anne Fortier (Ph.D. Aarhus University, History of Ideas). The story follows an Oxford professor on a quest in North Africa and Troy to discover a legendary “Amazon treasure,” following clues left by her eccentric grandmother who claimed an Amazon queen as her ancestor.


Adrienne Mayor is the author of:

7-18 Amazons The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World by Adrienne Mayor
Hardcover | September 2014 | $29.95 / £19.95 | ISBN: 9780691147208
536 pp. | 6 x 9 | 10 maps | Reviews