Undreamed Shores: The Hidden Heroines of British Anthropology

This book was gifted to me by the publisher, Granta Books, for a blog post, but the post is entirely my own words and hasn't been pre-approved.

In 1891 Katherine Routledge went up to Oxford to study a diploma in anthropology, one of the first generation of women to have such an opportunity. Fifteen years later she set off for British East Africa where she, along with her husband, William Scoresby Routledge, began the research which would form their joint book With a Prehistoric People. Scoresby remarked of how, as a woman, she was able to achieve access no male anthropologist had ever been able to, understanding and documenting the lives of African women. 1913 they would embark on their most notable work; the first large-scale survey of Easter Island.

Routledge is just one of five pioneering female anthropologists featured in Frances Larson's new book Undreamed Shores, which was released this week. Anthropology isn't something I've really ever read about before, so this was a really interesting look at the history of the field over the last century. Also interesting for me was that it focused on five women who were among the first to study at Oxford, something we can take for granted today.

Winifred Blackman, right, depicted in Egypt (source)

Another of the featured anthropologists, Winifred Blackman, suffered the jealousy of her brother, Aylward, seemingly easily being admitted to the university before her family were able to raise the money for her to join the Diploma in Anthropology in 1912. Still, it would not be until 1920 that women were entitled to be awarded full degrees by the university. By this time Blackman had moved to Egypt where she worked in the "perfectly heavenly" desert site of Meir, excavating burial sites. In 1927 she published her ethnography, The Fellahin of Upper Egypt. 

In the middle of this development of anthropology and the growing involvement of female scholars was the unignorable factor of the First World War, which abruptly halted many anthropological studies, thrust women into new roles, and also granted them more scholarly opportunities. Having recently read about the lives of Vera Brittain (a contemporary of the women Larson writes about) and Ethel Alec-Tweedie, it was interesting to read another similar perspective.

Maria Czaplicka, depicted on the deer (source)

As women in acadaemia the anthropologists worked in some really interesting areas of the war effort. Maria Czaplicka (known to her Oxford friends as "Chip"), a Polish anthropologist, had been studying in Siberia at the outbreak of war and had a difficult journey across Europe in 1915 as she tried to make her way back to Oxford. Upon her return, she was employed in the War Trade Intelligence Departmet alongside fellow scholar Barbara Freire-Marreco, who later wrote that Czaplicka 'undertook "a considerable burden of confidential work for the Historical Section of the Foreign Office'." Although their work was desk-based and therefore seen as more 'suitable' for women, these two women were able to make a real impact on the war effort through their employment.

However, the war also opened up the opportunity for Czaplicka to become the first full-time female lecturer employed by the University of Oxford, following the departure of the male incumbents for the services. As Larson describes, she was diligent in working both roles to the best of her abilities, clearly making the most of the opportunities which would have previously been unthinkable.

Further wartime vacancies at the University Museum and the Pitt-Rivers Museum (my favourite in Oxford and the home of anthropology here) were filled by women, with Winifred Blackman and Beatrice Blackwood taking on assistant roles. While they still worked under the inaugural curator, Henry Balfour, they were nonetheless able to make an impact with their work in a way they weren't able to before. 

While these women seized the openings available to them, there is an interesting difference with Katherine Routledge, who refused to engage in war work. I read online that her family were Quakers, so I do wonder whether their potential pacifism had some impact here, although sadly Larson doesn't address this. She does, however, describe the interest with which Routledge saw the outbreak of war. 'Katherine declared that she was glad to be living through it and seemed to treat the war as another intellectual interest rather than as a personal ordeal'. In this way, it seems that Routledge viewed the war very much through an anthropological lens and not as a worried citizen.

The First World War is by no means the central focus of Undreamed Shores, and to me, who mostly reads books centred on the war, I found this an interesting perspective. The war was not in this way the central focus of the women's lives or the main pivot around which their life experience turned, but rather an incidental period along the way; another experience to contribute to their bank of anthropological knowledge. This book was definitely well-worth a read, looking at a different area of acadaemia and viewing the historical time period in a different way. Having finished it, I can't wait for the Pitt Rivers to reopen so I can take a look at some of the artefacts studied by these five pioneering female academics.


1 comment:

  1. Well, I’ve not read the book, and I know it is confined to five women, but there does seem to be an oversight. There is a single mention of Sligs Seligman, but according to Google Books not a mention of his wife, my scary great-aunt Brenda. According to Thw International Dictionary of Anthropologists, New York, 1991:
    ‘Though her husband was professor of anthropology at the University of London and she was his collaborator in both research and writing, Seligman never held an academic post. She was elected a fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute in 1923 and subsequently served as vice-president of the organization; in 1963 she was the first person to receive the Institute's Patron's Medal, in large part due to her unpublicized philanthropy.
    In 1959 Seligman was elected president of the Association of Social Anthropologists, a clear indication of the respect in which she was held by the anthropologists of the United Kingdom‘.
    He was an FRS, as was one of Brenda’s brothers, but I don’t think they admitted women then