Christine Havelock

    It isn't that I remember much of what Professor Christine Mitchell Havelock taught me--Greek art was far from my best subject.  Professor Havelock was memorable for the aura she projected in a classroom.  Even today, some twenty years later, I can still see her: aristocratic, coolly intellectual, and--best of all--brazenly unfair to the men in the class.         Before you label me a Limbaughian femi-nazi, may I remind you this was Vassar College in the mid-1970s.  Only a few short years before, Vassar had decided to go coed and it was no secret Christine Havelock had been opposed to the college's decision.  It wasn't that she was a man-hater; she was married to the distinguished art historian Eric Havelock.  It was, I think, that she believed in women.

    This was easy to t ell in the very first class I took with her.  At her weekly seminar, we got to spout off about all the art we had seen and learned in the Art History 105 slide presentations.  Predictably the men in the class were more forthright about expressing their opinions than the women.

    I remember those seminars well: Some guy would self-confidently expound his opinion on some piece of art or another.  Simultaneously a look of sheer disdain would creep across Christine Mitchell Havelock's alabaster features.  "Surely not," she'd respond in that clipped Canadian way of hers.  "Surely not."  The guys in the class were taken aback.  It was so obvious she favored the women, it became hilarious.  After all, it wasn't that Christine Havelock was mean or nasty in her disdain for the opinion of young men; it was that she was a bluestocking par excellence--a staunch upholder of the Vassar feminist tradition.

    She wore her long, graying hair in a bun, which one of my waggish classmates dubbed "the Havelock knot," as in "there are the Havelocks and the Havelock knots."  To me, she was the perfect antidote to the household I had come from: She contrasted strikingly with my mother.

    Now my mother is an utterly bright woman who has lived to see six of seven children graduate from college and three go on to obtain advanced degrees.  But she never went to college herself; indeed she never received any kind of encouragement to do anything with her intelligence.  In her Catholic immigrant family, girls did not go to college.  Girls grew up to become good Catholic wives and mothers--to have kids, lots of kids.  So my mother lived out the plan and never did do anything with her intellect.  She ironed and cleaned and cooked, and for diversion, she watched soap operas and read.  And every so often, she'd explode in unarticulated frustration, slamming doors and kitchen cabinets with all her might, lashing out at us for whatever we had done with disproportionate fury.  To me, she was the madwoman in the kitchen.  In contrast, I still can see Christine Mitchell Havelock lecturing on Praxiteles and the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, as coolly aloof as gray-eyed Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom.  To me at that age, she seemed the living embodiement of female intellect and power.

   


Back