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.’Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction by Paul Bahn. page 87
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.