Alison Atkin is currently a doctoral researcher in osteoarchaeology at the University of Sheffield, where she is studying the demographic characterization of mass fatality incidents in the past and the present. Her blog, Deathsplanation, details her on-going research and her general fascination with death and the sciences. Alison also runs the Penny University, a site where she interviews upcoming researchers on their specialist topics. If you are a researcher and interested in engaging the public via the Penny University, please contact Alison here.
It never bothered me growing up that I didn’t know about women like Frederica de Laguna, Mary Chubb, and Adela Catherine Breton. It didn’t stop me from becoming an archaeologist. The seeming lack of females in the field had no impact whatsoever on my decision to attend university for a degree in the subject for which I am most passionate. It never crossed my mind. I never questioned it. Perhaps I should have. For it bothers me now. It staggers my mind that for years, as an individual with an interest in archaeology and related subjects, I never came across these women. They were never pointed in my direction. It seems an unlikely impossibility. And yet, I am not the only one.
A few short months ago, four individuals decided to do something about this historical void of female individuals in archaeology, palaeontology, and geology. Because it isn’t a void at all – it’s a remarkable web of women that span the existence, origin, and expansion of these fields, inevitably impacting their current (and some would say future) place in the history of science – and, if I may be so bold, the world.
Victoria Herridge (Palaeobiologist), Suzanne Pilaar-Birch (Zooarchaeologist), Rebecca Wragg-Sykes (Archaeologist), and Brenna Hassett (Dental Anthropologist) created the tumblr TrowelBlazers. In their own words, “This tumblr is a celebration of women archaeologists, palaeontologists and geologists who have been doing awesome work for far longer, and in far greater numbers, than most people realise. Because we think these women are awesome. We think you’ll think these women are awesome. And we want to keep on discovering more awesome trowel-wielding women.” I also quite agree with the sentiment that in addition to all of the above, they also created this site because “so many of the pictures are, quite frankly, a-MAZ-ing.” I defy anyone to resist the site for lure of the photos alone.
When I heard about TrowelBlazers I immediately recognised it as something I wanted to support. I wanted to know about the women who has helped blaze a trail for people like me to enter these fields… often without giving them a second thought (or as in my case, even a first thought). I wanted to be an active part of the amazing community that exists between scientists in these fields, which fosters an even deeper admiration for the subject with which I have spent my entire life becoming acquainted. I started researching these women. Within the first week of Trowelblazers launching I had wrote a post for the site about a woman I had not heard of before their endeavour. I only found her because they pushed me to be curious. Am I ever glad they did. Meet Jane.
She is an inspiring human being.
She is not alone.
There are already more than 45 featured posts on Trowelblazers and, with a list of over 100 other women to feature, it already seems a project that will continue for many years to come. If you haven’t already, you should go and check it out.
If this is a subject that interests you – and you think that more people should be made aware of the influential female individuals in these subjects – then there is a way for you to get involved. In addition to submitting entries for the tumblr blog, you can participate in the upcoming Wikipedia editathon, which is taking place in London on October 19th at the Natural History Museum. This event is aiming to improve the visibility of a host of forgotten women in science on the internet, with the TrowelBlazer team focusing on Dorothea Bate, Dorothy Garrod, Gertrude Caton-Thompson, Elinor W. Gardner, Etheldred Bennett, Nina Layard, Margaret Murray, Helen Muir-Wood, and Grace Crowfoot.
The event is open both to people new to Wikipedia and to experienced contributors. There will be practical training in how to edit a Wikipedia page, support and resources on-hand to make editing easier, and they’ve also lined up a team of experts (biographers and historians) to talk about trowelblazing women and to lend their expertise on the day. There will also be a unique opportunity to see fossils from the NHM collections collected by these pioneering women, which are not normally on display to the general public.
While we’re on the subject of improving the visibility of women in the past, there is something that I must mention. I think this point needs to go hand in hand when promoting endeavours such as TrowelBlazers. It is, that, when regarding the history of science there can be a tendency to overstate the contributions of women in the past, in order compensate for their lack of opportunity, almost in an attempt to equalise their places in the history books. I know that I am not alone in this view, as was evidenced by the response to historian Rebekah Higgit when she stated it ever so well on Twitter a few months ago. I do think it is important to keep in mind that however unfortunate it is, the past was not equal (let us not broach this matter in the present as that is another post entirely). While nevertheless some women were defying social conventions and we should indeed celebrate their efforts and their achievements (and huzzah to TrowelBlazers for being at the forefront of this) we should not forget all of the other women who played a role in the history of science (and indeed, all of those who did not). We should look not only to the women who stood out from the crowd, but also to those who worked behind the scenes. We should not feel compelled to alter history in an attempt to rectify past wrongs. We should use it as a reminder to all of us who are interested, involved, and invested in these subjects today of just how far we have come and how far we have yet to go.
I recently discovered an example of these women, in Anna and Susanna Lister, who are firmly rooted in the history of the natural sciences. Their father, Martin Lister, was a medical doctor by profession but he had, in his own words, “the greatest enthusiasm” for natural history and was a collector of insects, spiders, and shells. He compiled the first organized, systematic publication on shells and in its final edition, the work was illustrated with 1062 plates of shells – all the work of his daughters Anna and Susanna. Yet, while their contributions to science were remembered, their identities were almost forgotten entirely. It was not until Martin Lister’s own words were found in which he proudly referenced the plates as “the original drawings of my daughters” that credit was once again given where credit was due. It seems there is a lot to learn about these women (and their amazing illustrations). I imagine that there are many more women like them from history to be rediscovered, recognised, and remembered for their own contributions to science.
It makes me very glad to see that TrowelBlazers is not alone in their aim to spread the word on the role of women in the many fields science throughout history. Since learning about these women it has made me realise that although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, I was missing out. It didn’t bother me, because I didn’t know any better. I may have ended up exactly where I wanted to be, but I cannot help but feel that if I had known about women like Dorothy Garrod, Gertrude Caton-Thompson, or Jane Dieulafoy earlier in my life I may have got here in a slightly different way – and I might have been a slightly different archaeologist because of them. I aim to redress issue this immediately, starting with TrowelBlazers and ending… well, who yet knows where this will end.