It’s easy to imagine the academic world at the turn of the 20th Century, right? A world closed to all but the most privileged of men – whiskered gentlemen in stiff suits, pipe smoke and port, explorers with a whiff of pith helmet about them.
Imagine, then, arriving on the island of Crete in 1904 to find not one bold, brave young woman researcher digging up the past – but four: Harriet Boyd, Blanche Wheeler, Edith Hall and Dorothea Bate.
Or the Arabian Desert in 1900, where that striking figure riding towards you, headscarf billowing, at the head of a caravan of camels is not Lawrence of Arabia – he was barely out of short trousers then – but Gertrude Bell.
Try archaeology* in the interwar years, then. In our popular imaginations this is proper Indiana Jones territory. But in 1929, on the far eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea, Dorothy Garrod was leading an excavation team of five women. Over the next five years, in caves dotting the steep-sided cliffs of Mount Carmel, Garrod’s team would uncover remarkable remains of Neandertals and some of earliest evidence for modern humans outside of Africa.
There were many, many women archaeologists, palaeontologist and geologists in the 19th and early 20th Century who were well known and respected – then – for their work and achievements. Now, however, they have been forgotten. This isn’t totally surprising – after all, how many men from those fields are household names? But it’s more than just forgetting a name or six; we’ve failed to retain the idea that women like these formed a significant – if under-represented and often resented – part of the cultural and academic landscape. We’ve allowed them to slip from our popular consciousness.
It’s a cautionary tale.
Fast forward to today. Women are a significant, but under-represented, part of the cultural and academic landscape (sound familiar?). Like our predecessors, we face institutionalized prejudice and inequality, even if our individual work is respected. In fifty or a hundred years time, will our existence and contributions have made as small a dent on people’s imaginations as the women of yesteryear?
Not if we can help it! On Friday we launched the TrowelBlazers tumblr blog** to carve out more space on the Internet for the story of women’s contributions, past and present, to the fields of archaeology, palaeontology and geology (authors note: we aren’t above a spot of land grabbing, and given field-boundaries are a tad blurry and multi-disciplinary study common, we will also be featuring women geographers, explorers and anthropologists).
By scouring the Internet and beyond for images and videos, and posting them alongside short, readable snippets of information, we want to reset people’s imaginations. As the blog grows, we hope that the volume of entries – as much as the individual stories – will be its own powerful testament to just how significant these women were, and continue to be.
Because it isn’t just the derring-do of pioneer-era women we are interested in, we want to celebrate the full diversity of trowel-blazing women working today, from all backgrounds and from all parts of the world. On top of this, we want to highlight the networks of women that have worked together over the years – something often lost in heroic tales of success against the odds, where women are inevitably framed by a world of men.
It’s quite an agenda we’ve set ourselves, and we need help building up this picture. We aren’t historians of science – we are learning too – and we know that we haven’t even scraped the surface of the awesomeness of these trowel-wielding women (even if we are quite proud of our spreadsheet with nearly one hundred women on it already). Anyone can submit a post to our blog, or join in the conversation on Twitter and Facebook. Together, we can showcase the aggregate contribution of these trowel blazers.
One exception to the rule can be dismissed, many exceptions cannot. In essence, that is the spirit of TrowelBlazers, served up with a dash of ancient wonder, a sprinkling of adventure and – of course – buckets of mud and sweat.
TrowelBlazers is run by Victoria Herridge (@ToriHerridge), Suzanne Pilaar Birch (@suzie_birch), Rebecca Wragg Sykes (@LeMoustier) and Brenna Hassett (@brennawalks). They all also tweet at @trowelblazers.
* Yes, archaeology is a science (some bits more than others), but we are interested in women beyond the realms of science as well.
** in May 2014 we moved to our new internet home, trowelblazers.com