Archaeology Can Empower Community College Women

I wonder how my experience as a student and burgeoning professional might have been different had I developed mentorships with great women in the profession.
My students and I do some “myth busting” on the first class meeting of the semester. “How does pop culture portray archaeology?” I ask. Students are quick to identify classic movies cast by actors who portray archaeologists in leading roles: Indiana Jones, Tomb Raider, or The Mummy. I ask them to tell me about these characters; students typically discuss the fictional archaeologists’ brush with dangerous booby traps, their quest for sacred artifacts and precious metals, the pillaging of archaeological sites, and even the characters’ sex appeal. “Not much of this is true,” I explain, to the chagrin of some students (and colleagues!).

We view an old advertisement for Virginia Slims Lights that reads, “Virginia Slims remembers when the dawn of mankind was just another day for womankind.” The text alone does not sexualize women in archaeology; to the contrary, it implies female superiority. The message changes when viewed within the context of the advertisement’s imagery. A woman is posed suggestively lying on her right side and dressed as an “archaeologist” (wearing high heels!) against an Egyptian-themed background, holding a cigarette. A string of text placed near her mouth reads, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” Next, we view the representation of archaeology in contemporary Internet memes. One meme we examine is titled “Female Archaeologist” and illustrates six pictorial vignettes: “What guys think I do”; “What most people think I do”; “What my dad thinks I do”; “What I actually do”; “What most people think I find”; and “What I actually find.” Students find the image humorous, but I remind them that the secret of comedy is to make light of truth. “Has the popular perception of archaeology changed in recent years?” I ask them. Students infer by the scantily clad women pictured near the text “What guys think I do” that the popular perception of women in archaeology has not changed much.

I introduce the “famous” archaeologists who shaped the profession over the course of two millennia during the remainder of class. Most of them are men. Archaeology, like many academic disciplines, has been historically androcentric, a fact I was oblivious to until later on in graduate school. The academic culture I was “raised in” was male-oriented; so much of the literature I was assigned to read as an undergraduate and graduate student was written by men and all of my archaeology professors—who are great thinkers—were men. Now, I wonder how my experience as a student and burgeoning professional might have been different had I developed mentorships with great women in the profession. Although the gender gap in archaeology is closing, more men than women teach archaeology at the institutions where I have been employed. Yet, on average, more women than men enroll in institutions of higher education.

We approach archaeology in the twentieth century later on in the first lecture. I ask, “Has anyone noticed any patterns?” Often, students do not realize that we have discussed only men in the discipline until it is brought to their attention. We emphasize the experience of women in archaeology from this point on: Gertrude Caton-Thompson, who slept with a revolver under her pillow when she was in the field; Dorothy Cross Jensen, New Jersey’s first professional archaeologist; and H. Marie Wormington, who signed her work H.M. Wormington to disguise her gender. “What do you think it was like to be a woman in archaeology during this time?” I ask them and point out that women were barred from attending lectures at numerous American colleges and universities as recently as the last century. Students use words like “sexist,” “prejudice,” and “dangerous” to characterize the experiences of women who pioneered the field and we talk about how they overcame barriers to attain their career goals. On average, more women than men enroll in my classes and I use the class demographics to demonstrate how far educated women have come in 100 years.

Some research suggests that educators, including professors—wittingly or unwittingly—preferentially treat white male students even within institutions where women and minorities constitute higher than average enrollment ratios. Teachers of all grade levels know that the tone of the first class day effects student engagement, their impression of the instructor, and their perception of course material for the rest of the term. In my experience, women typically speak less than men during class, even in classes where women constitute the majority. I have observed that women feel more encouraged to actively engage in class after we dismantle the popular image of women in archaeology and connect with the experiences of real women who have profoundly influenced the field.

Harassment in professional spaces has garnered popular attention since October 2017 with the #MeToo movement. Women and men—both famous and common folk—have taken to social media and appropriated Facebook statuses, Instagram imagery, and Twitter tweets into cyber soapboxes; these outlets are the primary means in which students communicate, receive, and share information. I was not surprised to see so many women within my own social network identify with the #MeToo movement; in fact, I felt empowered by the tenacity of so many voices speaking the same truth. The stories that stayed with me the longest were those told by young women who are at the beginning of their careers and have already gained the worst kind of job experience: the kind that makes them say “#MeToo.” The expectation that all of my students will pursue a career in archaeology is myopic, and I believe that there are more attainable and pertinent objectives we can achieve with students. We have the opportunity to model gender equality in the classroom and facilitate a culture of learning that empowers young women. I believe this begins with how we consciously engage with the men and women in our classes who are forming their adult identities during a time when officials have been elected to public office despite sexual misconduct allegations. If Gertrude Caton-Thompson, Dorothy Cross Jensen, and H. Marie Wormington were alive today, I can’t help but think they might say “#MeToo.”

Keri J. Sansevere is a doctoral candidate at Temple University and an adjunct professor at Brookdale Community College. Her research intersects the fields of archaeology, material culture analysis, and American studies. Sansevere’s dissertation is titled “Anything but White: Excavating the Story of Northeastern Colonoware.”

Cite as: Sansevere, Keri J. 2018. “Archaeology Can Empower Community College Women.” Anthropology News website, April 11, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.822

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