Why male archaeologists don’t get feminism

Sharon makes a point about bal­ance meta­phors in the com­ments to yesterday’s post which I agree with. This is one reason why I omit­ted a sec­tion from the sec­tion from Paul Bahn’s Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction, because it’s really unrep­res­ent­at­ive of the book. It is a good book. I would be quite will­ing to believe that Al-Qaeda inser­ted the fol­low­ing sec­tion into the text to dis­credit him.

It is utterly laud­able to wish to do away with the sex­ism inher­ent in much tra­di­tional archae­ology, to make people more aware of the pres­ence and import­ance of women in past soci­et­ies, and to pro­duce stud­ies focus­ing on women in dif­fer­ent peri­ods. However, in swinging away from past andro­centrism, the pen­du­lum is in danger of going to the other extreme; sex­ism rubs both ways. As Albert Camus once wrote, ‘the slave begins by demand­ing justice and ends by want­ing to wear a crown. He must dom­in­ate in his turn.’

Or at least I would if he hadn’t expressed the same opin­ion in his 1992 paper Bores, Bluffers and Wankas: Some Thoughts on Archaeology and Humour in the Archaeological Review from Cambridge.

Despite the fact that quoted sec­tion looks like it’s straight from the Daily Mail, this is not the work of brain dead man. He’s much more aware than the aver­age archae­olo­gist on things like indi­gen­ous rights, or pub­lic com­mu­nic­a­tion in archae­ology. So why is he so will­ing to write off fem­in­ist archae­ology as unne­ces­sary? Where is this pen­du­lum? I think the reason could be that he doesn’t see much sex­ism in archae­ology. I don’t, but I’ve got an idea why I don’t.

A few years I was talk­ing in a pub to a friend at another uni­ver­sity. She wasn’t happy because she’d had to see Professor X, and meet­ings with Prof X were always awk­ward. “He doesn’t know how to talk to women, if there’s any­one else in the room he’ll ignore me.” I replied that it was odd, because I’d never had trouble talk­ing to him and I wasn’t even one of his stu­dents. Obviously I’d said some­thing wrong, because she just looked at me with one of her “how can you be so stu­pid” looks on her face. After a few minutes of poin­ted silence I left the table and, as I came back from the gents, I real­ised there was a dif­fer­ence between her and me. Later at a social event I found that, if you knew what you were look­ing for, Prof X did avoid talk­ing to women. Not overtly, but whenever someone brought up one of his lesser known interests that he had an inter­est­ing anec­dote for, like Abyssinian nose-flutes, it was a male who raised the sub­ject. A recent news story on his major research interest was how­ever only briefly dis­cussed when the per­son who raised it was wear­ing a skirt.

There’s a prob­lem of evid­ence. When I was talk­ing one-on-one with the Professor nat­ur­ally there was no evid­ence of sex­ism. Sure, there has been open miso­gyny in the past, but when male archae­olo­gists talk today there’s not open dis­missal of women archae­olo­gists. So when you’re told someone has a prob­lem there’s not just the absence of evid­ence, it seems con­trary to the evid­ence. On the other hand these people do see evid­ence of bias towards women. There are situ­ations that arise where there are advant­ages in being female. I think it’s easier (but not man­dat­ory) to be woman in the “Women in Physics” group at Leicester. It ignores the reason this sort of thing hap­pens is because of a major gender imbal­ance. There was sex­ism, but that’s in the past now.

Another prob­lem is that even if there is an admis­sion of sex­ism it’s only the action of a small minor­ity. I don’t know how small a minor­ity has to be to be dis­rupt­ive, but take a fig­ure of one in a thou­sand. That seems small. Though it means that you’ll be run­ning into these people on a weekly basis. I think that’s an unreal­ist­ic­ally low fig­ure. The num­ber of happy racists, meas­ured by votes for the BNP, is a few per­cent. If the num­ber of miso­gyn­ists is sim­ilar then you’ll be run­ning into these people on a daily basis, though you’re far more likely to notice them if you’re female.

If you have cov­ert bias, which isn’t noticed by some males, how do you tackle it? Overt sup­port would seem to be out of the ques­tion if we think it causes jus­ti­fi­able resent­ment of the bal­ance swinging too far. I sup­pose that means that we could encour­age women to prac­tice sly mis­andry. This doesn’t seem to be recipe for hap­pi­ness. There is another altern­at­ive. If we are wor­ried about this pen­du­lum swinging wildly all we need to do is make sex­ist atti­tudes more open. We do this by provid­ing a socially accept­able out­let for femophobia.

We allow any insec­ure man to declare his per­sonal space to be a ship. That way should some­thing threat­en­ingly fem­in­ine (and on a ship ter­ribly unlucky) hap­pen in his vicin­ity he can sound an alarm on his horn­pipe and run up a few flags so that men of a sim­ilar dis­pos­i­tion can res­cue him. If they wear dis­tinct­ive sailor suits whilst walk­ing out and about then they can be accom­mod­ated by hav­ing women make plenty of space to allow them to walk by unhindered. I know some female read­ers might balk at the idea of step­ping aside for a man, but we make room for people in wheel­chairs or with guide dogs. Why not make space for a dis­abled man, even if, in this case, it’s a man dis­abled by his own stu­pid­ity? Life would be more col­our­ful and punc­tu­ated by the sound of cheery whistles whenever women did things like go out to the pub for a drink. You could even spe­cial nightclubs for the men in col­our­ful clothes and have hil­ari­ous mix-ups when people con­fuse them with gay bars.

If this isn’t feas­ible then accept­ing fem­in­ist approaches would seem the next best grown-up option. Accepting new per­spect­ives doesn’t have to mean swinging the pen­du­lum away from the old any more than pub­lish­ing new books demeans pre­vi­ous work. It requires think­ing about what fem­in­ism is. It’s depress­ing to find there are still people in aca­demia who dis­miss fem­in­ism as bra-burning. If being labelled a ‘fem­in­ist’ is some­thing sin­is­ter when, as Tony notes in his com­ment, most of fem­in­ism is about equal­ity, then there clearly is a need for an expli­citly fem­in­ist archaeology.


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.