A new course: Gender and Sexuality in Ancient Art around the World

cartoon figures of men and women with gender symbols
Image source: https://www.american.edu/cas/wgss/

This year the Women’s and Gender Studies minor at my school (St. John’s University) updated its title and scope. It is now a minor in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. To support its new dimension, we need new courses. This is good news to me because I have wanted to teach a course on Ancient Gender and Sexuality since I was first exposed to the subject of ancient Greek sexuality by Professor Helene Foley when I was an undergraduate at Barnard over 20 (wow!) years ago.

Greek kylix, c. 520-510 BCE, Yale University Art Gallery, image source

So I have set about developing a new course: Gender and Sexuality in Ancient Art around the World. In envisioning a course that would be most inclusive and of the broadest relevance to students’ culturally diverse interests, I found my efforts aligned with the disciplinary turn to globalize Art History. However, most courses (most of which are very good!) on ancient Gender and Sexuality focus on the Classical/Near Eastern world, which is my own area of expertise, putting me at a certain disadvantage to expand beyond these bounds. But, my Graduate Assistant (Elizabeth Pamblanco, Museum Administration MA candidate) and I have turned up a lot of material on gender and sexuality in Prehispanic American and Prehistoric European cultures. We’ve also found scholarship on gender and sexuality in ancient India and China. The outcome nonetheless remains remains globally imbalanced, and I’m not sure if it’s a result of the strengths/weaknesses of my own knowledge or if there has simply been more work done on Classical and Near Eastern cultures. It is probably a combination of both factors. But I hope that this course will nonetheless help students to think globally and cross-culturally. And I hope that by teaching it I will learn more so that I can teach more about cultures and topics with which I am presently less acquainted. 

Moche ‘sex pot,’ Peru, c. 500–800 CE, image source

Our research in preparing a course proposal alerted me to two issues that I would like to raise. First, what is ‘ancient’ across cultures? Pre-Columbian cultures, for example, continue to the era of the European Renaissance, but I will include material on Aztec (c. 1300s-1521) gender and sexuality in the course. On the other end of the spectrum, I will also include Prehistoric (Paleolithic and Neolithic) material that falls outside of some definitions of “Ancient World.” Second, so many publication and course titles refer to the “Ancient World,” but this world turns out to be limited to Classical civilizations. Sometimes “Ancient World” more broadly refers to Mediterranean and Near Eastern cultures. But very rarely does it refer to the whole world. So that it is clear that this new course aims to cover cultures beyond the Mediterranean and Near East, I’ve preliminarily titled it “Gender and Sexuality in Ancient Art around the World.”

Woman of Willendorf, c. 28,000-25,000 BCE, image source

Please have a look at my proposal with bibliography, posted here. Maybe you are looking for ideas for globalizing your own Ancient Gender and Sexuality course. And/or maybe you have advice for me. I’d love feedback, and especially any suggestions on the course title or additional bibliography on any culture (including those not already represented). Thank you!