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  • Timothy Larsen

Five Women Anthropologists Who Defied The Status Quo

Timothy Larsen on Frances Larson


The first generation of women anthropologists set out to live markedly different lives from their chaperoned and sheltered contemporaries who needed an escort to travel from Windsor to Winchester.


In Frances Larson’s captivatingly written Undreamed Shores: The Hidden Heroines of British Anthropology, she vividly recounts the lives of five women who studied at Oxford during the first two decades of the twentieth century: Winifred Blackman, Beatrice Blackwood, Maria Czaplicka, Barbara Freire-Marreco, and Katherine Routledge.


Frances Larson. Undreamed Shores: The Hidden Heroines of British Anthropology, London: Granta, 2021.

In these pages, we meet the kind of person who was willing to be the only woman on a crowded boat for a year-long voyage just to arrive at the remote island where she planned to do her fieldwork. We meet the kind of person who when living with a “stone-age people” pines, not for the comforts of her English home, but rather for a way to go deeper into “cannibal country.” We meet the kind of person who when she finds herself lost in a snowstorm five hundred miles above the arctic circle, half hopes—not for a rescuer—but rather that her team might reach the point of desperation at which she would need to drink raw reindeer blood in true Evenk fashion.

Undreamed Shores is well researched, but it is primarily aimed at a general rather than a scholarly audience. There are no notes in the book (although Larson has thoughtfully made them available on a website). This matters because I perceive a clash between the desire to reach a popular readership (which results in a narrative-driven approach) and the overarching theme (that these women valiantly struggled against the forces of sexism and misogyny). The reality of gender inequality is, of course, abundantly apparent in these decades: we are revisiting a world in which these women could not receive the Oxford degrees that they had earned, and they lived in a society where they could not even vote.


Yet, surprisingly, these women were surrounded by men who were perpetually willing to go the extra mile to help them pursue their goals. The leading male anthropologists in Oxford, Cambridge, and London seem to be continually writing glowing letters of reference for these women, heartily praising their achievements, and yet again scheming to find them more funding. The prominent Oxford anthropologist R. R. Marett was not only energetically helping these women every way he could, he was also campaigning for the university to end its gender restrictions. Blackman’s father had a modest income and was always in debt, yet he was determined to find a way to let her pursue her dream of studying at Oxford. Likewise, her brother Alyward, who was an Egyptologist, was relentless in his determination that Winifred should be allowed to become one as well.


It was extremely difficult for a woman to find paid academic employment at this time, but that general truth is not well illustrated by these particular lives. Then there is the battle to secure an academic post. Routledge was independently wealthy and never wished for an appointment. Czaplicka was Oxford’s first woman lecturer; when she died at the age of thirty-six she had a faculty position at Bristol University, which hoped that she would stay so they could build an anthropology program around her. Henry Balfour, the Curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum, is presented as holding a plum and strategic position in the discipline. When he was old and ill, Blackwood took over all his duties—even his teaching—and when he died she became Acting Curator. Nevertheless, she refused to apply for the Curator position, deciding that it would tie her down too much; she wanted to be free to travel. Freire-Marreco had done her fieldwork in New Mexico and Arizona. She was offered a permanent position with a handsome salary at the American School of Archaeology, but she turned it down because she did not want to live so far away from her mother. Everything was lined up for Blackman to become a Reader (that is, starting at almost the top of the faculty hierarchy) with a generous salary at University College London. The professor organizing matters on the inside had handpicked her for the post. Nevertheless, Blackman refused to apply, reasoning, in a similar fashion to Blackwood, that the duties of this strategic faculty position might require her to be in London during months that she would prefer to spend at her second home in the suburbs of Cairo.


A similar dynamic happened with publications. These women agreed that the fruits of fieldwork should be shared in a scholarly monograph, but somehow—despite insisting that they would—they could never bring themselves to do it. They would write a popular account which was intended as a stop-gap, but the technical treatise never came. This was true even for Czaplicka, who gained a reputation at Oxford as an obsessive scholar. The only book from her trip was My Siberian Year (1916), published by Mills & Boon—a firm which was founded to publish fiction and which would go on to fame for its romance novels. To the exasperation of her brother, Blackman just wanted to return to Egypt year after year without ever writing the scholarly work that such fieldwork was ostensibly meant to produce. As someone who was independently wealthy, Routledge could work on her scholarship full-time. She had servants to take care of all of life’s daily drudgeries—and even hired an additional team of people specifically to help her with the book. Yet she never got beyond a popular account with a Nancy Drew-sounding title, The Mystery of Easter Island (1919).


To Larson’s to great credit, she shows much more than she tells, and she always gives all of the relevant details so that readers can make up their own minds. These remarkable women were unquestionably living in a sexist world, and they heroically found ways to break out of the narrow expectations that society had set for them. But what they were combatting was something that was more structural than interpersonal: they were not fighting a man; they were fighting The Man.

 

Timothy Larsen teaches at Wheaton College and is the author of The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith (Oxford University Press).

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