Prisms of Feminine Power

Chlöe Brew ’21 explores ancient gender roles and power structures with the help of two very different Greek goddesses.

When some people look at an ancient marble statue, they see the product of a single artist’s work. When Chlöe Brew ’21 looks at it, she sees a complex web of cultural influences and clues about how concepts like beauty, gender roles, power, and divinity are enshrined in sculpture.

“I love this project,” Brew says. “I’ve always been interested in how Greek society views itself through art.”

Brew, who is pursuing a double major in art history and classics with a minor in gender and queer studies, conducted a summer research project to learn more about how the ancient Greeks thought about feminine power by contrasting two sculptures, the Piraeus Athena and the Aphrodite of Knidos.

“On the one hand, you have Aphrodite, who is this paradigm of femininity and sensuality and sexuality,” she says. “And on the other hand, you have Athena, who’s associated with traditionally masculine pursuits like warfare and strategy, and who occupies this androgynous place in the Greek pantheon. Who are the women who are looking at these goddesses, who is visiting them, and how are they being viewed in this rigid, patriarchal, semi-misogynistic society?”

Not only do my professors know my name but they know that I'm trustworthy enough to be doing this research project that not a lot of undergrads get the opportunity to do."

– Chloe Brew ’21

From her Tacoma apartment, Brew spent her days scouring the literature to learn more about the cultural context of these works and applying different lenses to understand their significance. She presented her findings in a paper titled “Paradigms of Feminine Power.” As one of nearly 100 Puget Sound students conducting independent research over the summer, Brew intended for her final paper to serve as the foundation for her two senior theses.

Brew had hoped to travel to Greece to view the statues in person, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced her to rethink her plans. She’s grateful for her advisors, Professors Kriszta Kotsis and Brett Rogers, who helped her adapt her research goals while staying true to the intent of her proposal.

“I love my advisors,” she says. “It’s a unique opportunity that Puget Sound provides, to have this relationship with your professors. Not only do my professors know my name but they know that I’m trustworthy enough to be doing this research project that not a lot of undergrads get the opportunity to do.”

Even though the Aphrodite of Knidos and the Piraeus Athena are both more than 2,300 years old, Brew believes they are as relevant as ever. Statues from this period were extremely influential on later art and helped codify standards of beauty that persist to this day. In her final paper, Brew hoped to bring an intersectional lens to a predominantly white, predominantly male field and uncover more about how the Greeks thought about the powerful women they worshipped.

“We can look at art, even if it’s old and doesn’t seem relevant, and see that this single point is reflecting onto so many other aspects of our modern society. How do I look at myself as a woman? How do I look at myself as a multiracial woman? I would do this even if nobody read it because I think it’s super cool, and I want to know more.”


By Jonny Eberle
Photos by Sy Bean
Published Feb. 25, 2021