Dear Propertius: Ancient Advice for the Modern Woman with Timeless Questions, Part 1

For my project I want to explore the concept of having it all as it pertains to women. Currently, I understand this phrase to mean being able to hold down a job and raise a family. As a woman and a feminist, I feel as though I must attempt to have it all because so many women fought for so many years in the hopes that my generation could have it all.  But, I do not want what others have defined as having it all. Yes, I want a family and I would like to pursue a career, but I do not think it is possible to be a full time parent, a full time employee, a full time wife, and a full time friend. If I were to strive to have it all, I fear I would only feel exhausted, unhappy, and unfulfilled. Even though I do not think it is possible to have it all, I do believe that there are multiple ways to participate in all of these aspects of life—each individual just needs to discover a way to imperfectly balance their interests, relationships, and responsibilities.

In order to find my own imperfectly balanced ratio, I have not read the latest self-help manuals or read Kim Kardashian’s article in Cosmopolitan, Get What You Want: the Money, the Man, the Baby.” Rather, I have immersed myself into the worlds and works of three Roman elegiac poets: Catullus (c.a. 84 B.C.- c.a. 54 B.C.), Propertius (50-45 B.C.- 15 B.C.), and Ovid (43 B.C.-17/18 A.D.).  Upon scanning this list, my readers will have noticed by now that something is missing: women. Choosing to study men’s works does not make me any less of a feminist. I believe that men and women are equal, and therefore, a man’s work can be just as insightful to me as a woman’s (plus, if I may adapt Virginia Woolf, “If Catullus had a sister, her works won’t be found in a library”). [click here to read Woolf’s “Shakespeare’s Sister” from A Room of One’s Own]

I have chosen to focus on the works of these men for two reasons. First, their poems are beautiful and have several possible meanings. Second, these men wrote poetry that was labeled by their contemporaries as res novae, new things or revolution (the Romans hated res novae because they posed a threat to traditional Roman values). Within their poems they both praise their “charming little volumes” of revolutionary poetry, and struggle with their decision to disregard society’s expectation for them to become politicians and model upper class citizens.

Like these men, I too want to create a path for my life that differs from what society expects. In order to determine how to do this, I have decided to use their poems as templates and funnels with which I can sift through my thoughts and feelings. I have decided to model this journey of self-exploration on the modern day advice column.

Below is an adaptation of Ovid ‘s poem 1.2:  “Love’s Victim.” I have transformed it into what I am calling a “Dear Propertius letter.” The response, an adaptation of Propertius’s poem, 1.6, will be published in the next post.

Dear Propertius,

How do I describe this problem that has no name?

I am told it’s not hard for women to discover happiness.

After enduring the 9 to 5 grind, we just need to stay on top

of the housework and remember that weariness is natural.

But, try as I might, I can’t persuade happiness to infect me.

Surely, it resides in me, but it must be dormant.

I’m told happiness hasn’t festered within me

because I haven’t remained committed to “having it all.”

Should I try again: to refuse might cause my happiness to palliate?

“Don the Cape!” my sisters say, “being Superwoman eases the burden.”

I’ve seen capes provide comfort and security,

but can’t they also become like shackles?

If I take up this yolk again, will I receive less

tongue-lashings than those that evade it?

Will I still be considered a wild stallion,

or will I become a domesticated horse?

The League oppresses reluctant Heroes more severely

than those who willingly accept this Herculean feat.

Look, I confess I’m a recent convert to my sisters’ cause:

I’m still learning how to uphold its scales of Justice.

I don’t want to fight with my sisters, I want to fight for them,

I come in peace, why can’t they see my flag?

Perhaps my mind, freshly captivated,

mistook the cape for an ill-fitting straight jacket?

Still, this phantom feeling inhibited my Conscience,

robed me of Shame, and resulted in Mania.

Can I be expected to overcome men with this diagnosis?

Take away the pseudo-straight jacket and I’m naked.

Regardless, I still want to be a part of their sacred triumph,

but I can’t fill the Full-Time Superwoman position.

What do I do?


The Currently Cape-less Crusader

Instead of praising my own “charming little adaptation” and begging the gods to let it last for more than a generation, I will leave you with this final thought. Before you dismiss my little exercise as nothing but a self-absorbed woman’s feeble attempt to ask for and then take her own advice (yes, I know I am writing both the questions and the answers…so what), dust off your copy of Latin Love Elegy. As you re-read these witty, tragic, and magical poems, look for modern day parallels. Perhaps you’ll realize that if you just insert a modern word here or there and rephrase this or that, these ancient texts can be transformed into a modern self-help book—a source of Ancient Advice for Women and Men with Timeless Questions.

[Where I found my information: I learned about the majority of the movements, authors, and concepts mentioned in this post in various classes, such as my Freshman english composition course.  In order to find the websites that I have provided links to in this post, I used the search engine Dogpile. Using this engine, I searched for websites that provided biographical information on Catullus, Propertius, Ovid, and Virginia Woolf, contained information on the concept of “having it all,” and offered an opinion on whether or not it is possible for women today to truly have it all. While it was relatively easy to find a reliable source of information on the four authors, I had a more challenging time finding valid sources the discuss topics related to “having it all.” I did not find any articles written by men, so I had to provide only the opinions of women. I also used Dogpile to find an article on Kim Kardashian and her belief that she can have it all. In order to ensure that my classmates and any other readers will be led to reliable information when they click on these links, I linked to pages hosted by reputable sites, such as The Harvard Gazette and the online version of the Encyclopedia Britannica.]

Maddy Northuis


4 thoughts on “Dear Propertius: Ancient Advice for the Modern Woman with Timeless Questions, Part 1

  1. hopeadvancedlatin Post author

    Maddy, I can’t wait to see what other poems you write! I love your approach that the works of both men and women can lend insight to the habits of the other gender. I especially appreciate how you acknowledge that it is impossible for a woman to really “have it all” and, moreover, how having it all is likely to lead to dissatisfaction in life. ~ A. Hoffman

    1. hopeadvancedlatin Post author

      Thanks A. H.! I want to clarify one thing. It is not that I don’t think that women are capable of “having it all” or will be unhappy if they “have it all,” I just think that there should never be one definition for this phrase. For some women, “having it all” is getting all of their daily tasks done AND still having an hour to relax with their family or have some alone time. For others, it means that they can balance working full time and managing a household. Women are not all the same. We all have different strengths and weaknesses. We all deserve to be the best versions of ourselves. If, per-say, I am the best version of my self in the court room, why should I try to become the next Martha Stewart? (And visa-versa). If I measure having by Kim Kardashian’s standards, I will NEVER “have it all. It is completely unrealistic. But, if I realize, like Propertius did, that I don’t have to measure myself against anyone’s standards but my own, then I have a better chance of finding happiness. In short, happiness and “having it all” should be entirely self-referential (like a reflexive pronoun haha).

  2. hopeadvancedlatin Post author

    First of all, thanks for your post, I really enjoyed reading it and thought it was incredibly well done! I like the way you talk about a balanced life being truly unbalanced at the core and the idea that while you may be giving the world all it wants from you, you are not giving yourself everything you need. I think the media sometimes seems to present women that can’t have it all, or don’t want to have it all, as being damaged in some way and I do not believe that is accurate.
    I want to ask the question though, isn’t the idea of “having it all” subjective to the person trying to get it anyway? How then can this idea be applied to approximately half of the human race? What if what I want isn’t even on the list of choices presented to me? I think the response that comes to my mind is that I would then proceed to find my own way, as many women have done before me.
    What about the issues that come before this that haven’t been addressed yet? What about the millions of girls who are still fighting for the right not to be sold into forms of slavery, whether it be the one often loosely termed ‘marriage’ or sex trafficking, and other situations? Do you think that the concept and discussion of women “having it all” could trickle down to situations like that and bring about healthy reforms, or are they too unrelated to effect change in each other?
    I liked looking at this post in the context of myself as a health care professional, because even though it is not gender focused, this can be an issue with those in health care professions. How do you care for yourself when you are caring for others and how much of yourself are you willing to give? There has to be a balance found in all aspects of life.
    I happened across this article while on a social networking adventure and thought you might be interested in seeing it. It seems to agree rather closely with what you are researching.
    Sorry this reply goes in about ten different directions, but thanks for the post!


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