Saturday, March 04, 2006

A feminist archaeology

A couple of weeks ago I got myself involved in a discussion on feminist archaeology over on Alun Salt's Archaeoastronomy. As March is Women's History Month, I thought it worth revisiting here.

Alun had written an article around some quotations from Paul Bahn's Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction. I'd like to repeat here the sections he quoted in that and a follow up the next day.

The explicit emphasis now being placed on gender studies is therefore welcome not only for its attempt to create a much greater awareness of the need to extend gender equality into all aspects of contemporary life, including academia, but also for the substantial contribution that it is making to our understanding of how ancient societies may have worked. However, what is called 'Gender Archaeology' is actually feminist archaeology - sisters are doing it for themselves.

The avowed aim is to focus on gender (in the sense of social and cultural, rather than biological, distinctions between the sexes) in the archaeological record. But despite assurances to the contrary it is clear that the major aim is not so much to reclaim women and men in non-sexist ways in prehistory, as to make women visible in the past. A perfectly laudable aim, and one that is highly fashionable at present, with books proliferating on Women in Prehistory, in Ancient Egypt, in the Roman period, in the Viking period, or any other era. Part of the 'feminist' approach to the past, whose goal is to shed new light on hitherto neglected aspects of the archaeological record, this phenomenon is accompanied by an ever-increasing number of conferences around the world, usually organized by or starring the same cast of characters. Although billed as concerning 'gender in archaeology', these events concentrate overwhelmingly on the female gender, and are attended by a host of female archaeologists, plus a few brave males who perhaps aspire to political correctness. The very word 'gender', therefore, is in serious danger of being hijacked, like the word 'gay' before it.


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.'


The proper antidote to male chauvinism about the past is an egalitarian and neutral archaeology, not a feminist archaeology. If, as the proponents claim, they are not simply trying to make women visible in the archaeological record, is a 'feminist archaeology' needed at all? There is still a long way to go, but the real way forward is a balanced, non-sexist archaeology rather than a feminist kind, which is just the flip-side of the traditional coin.

Paul Bahn, Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction, pp. 83-5, 87

As is often the case, there is a germ of truth behind what Bahn says. There is no point in eliminating male chauvinism only to replace it with a new inequality of the sexes. Unfortunately, there are some people who call themselves feminists who seem to believe that's exactly what they should be doing. Personally, I feel that they do the movement more harm than good, by antagonizing men and women who are otherwise sympathetic towards the aims of feminism. I have no more time for someone who disregards my opinion simply because I am a man than I have for someone who disregards someone's opinion simply because they are a woman.

Nevertheless, despite the existence of such people, they are not the be-all and end-all of feminism (though the more patriarchal corners of the media like to imply that this is the case, in order to discredit feminism through equation with its more extreme elements). The wider movement is about equality and freedom for women, or so I have always taken it. So, I am forced to point out, as I did in comment to Alun, that Bahn's argument depends on the acceptance of a very narrow definition of feminism, and when he says "a feminist [archaeology]... is just the flip-side of the traditional coin," the only sensible response is to say "no, it isn't". Where Bahn sees a feminist archaeology as incompatible with a "balanced, non-sexist" approach, I would argue that the former is an essential step towards the latter. After all, how can women be made visible in the archaeological record, an aim Bahn considers laudable, without a feminist archaeology that looks for them where they have not been sought before?

I also am in general agreement with Sharon Howard's comment on Alun's first post, that the idea of balance is often brought up by those whose agenda is actually to hang on to their privileges before they are wholly eroded. This is, for instance, exactly what the opponents of affirmative action do - they argue that something was necessary, but now it has gone too far, as if the careers of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice prove that racism has been eliminated from the American workplace.

I'm not necessarily saying that Bahn is deliberately distorting in order to prop up patriarchy in archaeology (though there is something dubious about his lauding of the aims of feminist archaeology whilst disparaging feminist archaeology itself). I think it more likely that he has simply bought into common prejudices, and not examined them with enough rigour. As Alun shows in his second post, it's very easy for male academics not to see instances of sexism, and to assume that this means that such instances don't exist, rather than being invisible to them.

A few days after these posts, I was listening to the Today programme, and an item about how most men don't take the paternity leave they're entitled to (prompted by David Cameron's new child and the leave he has taken). Journalist Toby Young said that men these days are being forced to make the same choice between a family and a career that women used to have to make, as if somehow women no longer have to make those choices. As long as there are people with opinions like Young's, then there will always be a need for feminism. And as long as we need feminism, we'll need a feminist archaeology.


Anonymous said...

I had not been aware of feminist archaeology and the comments from this gentleman. Thank you for posting, and with your thoughtful comments.

"...there is something dubious about his lauding of the aims of feminist archaeology whilst disparaging feminist archaeology itself."

-- Spike

Anonymous said...

i am an archaeology student at HSU and have my minor in women studies, feminist archaeology is a great fussion of two wonderful feilds of study. i believe that they can help eachother and there are students out there willing to learn.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr Keen,

This is not intended as a comment - it's a communication to you.

I recently had an article published concerning matters both archaeological and maternal. My article isn't published in an academic journal because (I believe) it's far too highly interdisciplinary, I'm not an academic, and there's something seriously awry with present-day academia generally.

By googling "feminist archaeology" and "blog", I've been trying for some time to find suitable places (or suitable people) to draw attention to my article, but without success.

I hope you might take a look. The first half of the article is published here:

The second half of the article will be published in a few weeks time.

Michael Bland

Ps. I too am a fan of certain works of science fiction. And at the moment, I feel like the man at the start of Invasion of the Body Snatchers who's trying to tell people that the aliens have landed. Unfortunately, however, practically all of the people I've tried to tell this to thus far have turned out to be aliens themselves.

And as will be apparent from my article's part 2, I don't pick lightly on that sociopolitical allegory (written by Jack Finney).

Pps. In the prologue to my article's part 1, there's a quote from the classicist W.K.C. Guthrie which I believe to be of particular importance.