Monday, November 24, 2014

Rhind’s Sister | Recognising and honouring women in archaeology

Appendix >

If I like you, I like you.
For me that’s a pretty simple philosophy.
Similarly, when it comes to academic pursuits – if I like and respect your work it’s because do actually like and respect your work. What I’m getting at here is that I don’t have any particular agendas when it comes to the age, sex, gender, ethnicity, or whatever else you care to mention. Basically, if you’re doing interesting work (or, at least work that I find interesting – which is inevitably bound up in its own collection of biases) I don’t particularly care if you’re male or female, what colour skin you’ve got, or who you choose to sleep with. That all sounds laudably liberal, but it does put me in the odd position that certain things are largely invisible to me as they’re totally off my radar. They don’t bother me because I not always aware that I need to be bothered. Sometimes it takes someone stating the blindingly obvious (to everyone else) for me to recognise that a problem even exists.


In April of this year, Emeritus Professor John Waddell was given the honour of being the 2014 Rhind Lecturer. I was taught by Waddell for my undergraduate degree (1991) and he consented to be the supervisor for my MA (1998). I continue to regard him as a mentor, and one of the most important figures in modern Irish archaeology. The series of lectures are named for Alexander Henry Rhind (1833-1863), who left a bequest to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland for that purpose. His Wikipedia entry notes that he was the first archaeologist to plot the exact locations and relationships of finds, and that he was described as the only ‘bright shining light of archaeological method and conscience’ during the mid-19th century. If you have anything more than a passing interest in Egyptology, you will also know him as the purchaser of the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus, now in the British Museum. The first Rhind Lecture was held in 1874 and, up to 2014, there have been 135 lectures. I didn’t think too much about it – it’s a prestigious honour, given to an undoubtedly deserving recipient. My only sadness was that I would not be able to get to Edinburgh to see the event in person.

That was right up until a well-known academic asked the simple question on social media: how many of those Rhind Lecturers were women? I had no idea, so I did what anyone would do – I Googled it! I shot back a quick answer based on a very speedy assay of the evidence … and I was shocked. A day or so later I changed my answer slightly, once I’d taken a closer look at the data. In the time since that initial exchange, this has continued to bother me so I’ve decided to re-examine the available data and present it here.

At a quick glance, it appeared that those 135 lectures were given by 139 people (some lectures had multiple presenters). Some years have had no Rhind Lecture, others have had two. No lecture was held in 1957, owing to the death of the intended lecturer, Professor Seán P. Ó Ríordáin. The lectures for 1874-8 were all given by Arthur Mitchell, and those for 1879-82, and 1892 were given by Joseph Anderson. Thomas Ross was the Rhind Lecturer in 1899 and 1902, and Dr F Haverfield was Lecturer in 1905 and 1907, while Professor Haakon Shetelig gave the lectures for both 1940 and 1946. As the Wikipedia entry for the Rhind Lectures has considered each to be a separate event, I feel that I would be justified in following suit. However, I’ve taken the line that ‘once a Rhind Lecturer, always a Rhind Lecturer’ … you can’t become more the Rhind Lecturer by doing it more than once! Similarly, the Rhind Lectures were jointly given on a number of occasions: Professor John and Dr Bryony Coles shared the duties in 1994/95 and in 1999/00 the lecture series was shared between four individuals (Dr DV Clarke; Professor D Meek; Dr JNG Ritchie; Mr WDH Sellar). I’ve chosen to count each of these as an individual Rhind Lecturer – and not 0.5 or 0.25 each.

Year-on-year accumulation of Rhind Lecturers. 1874-2014
By my rough count, that makes 131 people who have given the Lectures. When it comes to dividing the list between the sexes, I make it that 111 men have given Rhind Lecturers, but only five women have been so honoured. I have a further 15 people where, based on the evidence available to me, I have been unable to come to a conclusion as to their sex. In some cases it has been easy to know who’s who – I either know the person is; their full name is given (John, William, Eric are all easy to differentiate from Bryony and Rosalie), their title (Mr vs Mrs and Miss), or personal information can be found online. All the same I did attempt to double check as many names as possible and in the process I managed to learn that J Romilly Allen was actually male, not female … I presume that I always imagined that ‘Romilly’ was ‘a girl’s name’. Where I’ve been unable to verify the sex of an individual by any of the means above, I’ve categorised them as ‘unsure’. I’m sure that a broader knowledge of various aspects of archaeology would quickly resolve these remaining uncertainties. I’ve published my data as an appendix to this post, so the reader can check my figures [here]. If anyone can provide evidence to remove my uncertainty over the remaining 15, I’ll happily accept it and amend my figures accordingly.

All caveats and lacunae aside, it’s clear that men vastly outnumber women as Rhind Lecturers. By my figures, men make up 85% of the total. Women, by contrast, make up a pitiful 4%. Even if all of the ‘unsure’ Lecturers turned out to be women (although that’s vastly unlikely), it would only bring the figure up to 15%. The first female presenter was a Mrs Eugénie Sellers Strong, of the British School at Rome, who spoke on ‘Painting in the Roman Empire (from the last century of the Republic to about 800 AD)’ in 1921. It would be another 29 years before another female Rhind Lecturer appeared: Miss I F Grant spoke on ‘Periods of Highland Civilization’ in 1950. The 1976/77 lecture was given by Dr Isabel Henderson on the topic of ‘Pictish Art and Society’. The next was 11 years later in 1987/88 when ‘The Archaeology of Death in Ancient Egypt’ was delivered by Dr A Rosalie David. The most recent was when Dr Bryony Coles spoke (with Prof John Coles) in 1994/95 on ‘Enlarging the Past: the contribution of Wetland Archaeology’.

That was twenty years ago! Not that I want to excuse or explain away the lack of female lectures, but you don’t generally expect to see too many women in top academic positions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But in the period since then … it’s difficult to believe that the organising committee couldn’t find a suitably qualified female lecturer to fulfil the role. I am fully aware that societal differences, expectations, and life choices regularly mean that women do not attain the professional status and recognition that they might otherwise achieve. Even so, I simply refuse to accept that only five women since 1874 (three post-1960) have been sufficiently advanced in the archaeo-historic professions as to be awarded this accolade.

Obviously, this is not simply an issue with the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland – it is reflective of broader societal trends and problems. I don’t presume to tell the Rhind selection committee (and others like them) who they should or should not confer their honours upon. However, as the gender ratio in archaeology approaches parity, we should all be mindful that honouring outstanding contributions through selective processes, like the Rhind, should reflect that balance. I am an unlikely – and somewhat uncomfortable – spokesperson for feminism, but the truth is that when I graphed out my results they really did shock me. I know plenty of really top-notch female archaeologists – some are well-established and some are in the process of becoming so – and it stung me to think that no matter how high the quality of their work, they were less likely to be chosen for prestigious recognition than their male colleagues.

An early draft of this piece attempted to frame a conclusion with some uplifting words that were suitably forward looking and forward thinking. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that platitudes from people like me are merely part of the problem. I can be as laudably liberal as I like about this, and express as much righteous tutting as I can muster, all rounded off with some banality about hope for future change. I wrote all that. I looked at it. I reconsidered and deleted the lot – on several occasions I abandoned this draft … it just seemed too difficult and contentious to write … it would have been easier to pretend that I didn’t notice and that it doesn’t bother me. But I did notice and it does bother me!

I’m still not particularly sure what I should say in conclusion … I’ve no personal power to influence any academic body, and they’re unlikely to come seeking my advice. I can attempt to recognise and change my own biases, so that I become more aware, but that’s of limited value to anyone but myself. At the top of the tree, institutions like Society of Antiquaries of Scotland have a huge role to play in recognising and rewarding our top archaeologists. Decisions made at this level have an enormous impact not just for the chosen individual, but for the next generation of professionals. All other institutions that reward excellence in academia – from bursaries, grants, and sundry honours – need to be attuned to this too. These decisions provide significant role models, career-long inspiration, or simply the understanding that academic work is assessed on merit alone, not on which set of reproductive organs you’re in possession of!

There are plenty of great archaeological researchers, academics, and deep thinkers out there who also happen to be women. They’re not hard to find! They’re in all the same places that male archaeologists are to be found – universities, research institutes, museums, and sundry places of higher learning. On the basis of who gets chosen as Rhind Lecturer, they’re clearly being ignored. Whether that stems from an active or a passive disinterest (as was my own situation) is immaterial - it's still disinterest and it's hurting careers, it's harming individuals, and (most important of all) it's hampering the wider project of researching and understanding our shared past.

All I can say right now is that this situation is wrong and it needs to change. Everyone engaged in academic pursuits – even if only on the peripheries, like myself – must realise that there is a problem that needs fixing. Until then, there is no hope for the future.
Notes:
Data was taken from the Rhind Lecture Wikipedia page [here] and the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland page [here].

The Rhind Lecture Wikipedia page [here] gives the 1987/88 Lecturer as ‘Dr A Rosalie Davie’, which I am taking to be a typo. See here.

You can find videos of all of John Waddell’s 2014 Rhind Lectures here.

The title of an earlier draft of this post was a slight play on the name The Honourable Woman, a recent TV miniseries, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal. I eventually decided not to use it as the movement between ‘a woman possessing honour’ vs. ‘a woman who should receive honours’ seemed more likely to confuse and alienate than draw in readers. I mention it here solely in terms of the TV show - despite being in need of a bit of editing (it’s about two episodes too long), it’s an excellent, thought-provoking series & I highly recommend it! Also, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s English accent is so convincing I was sure that she was a brilliant actress from the UK that I’d not previously encountered – it’s worth watching for that alone!

The actual title of this post is a play on the ‘Shakespeare’s Sister’ section of Virginia Woolf’s 1929 extended essay A Room of One's Own … but, of course, you knew that.