European studies blog

Exploring Europe at the British Library

08 March 2023

Traders, spies, suffragettes? Women in cultural anthropology

‘… she was a foolish young woman who never realised the nature of her error,’ said Derek Freeman of Margaret Mead. Mead, an advocate of abortion rights and no-fault divorce, was one of many early women anthropologists who suffered from androcentric bias. While Ruth Benedict claimed that the purpose of anthropology is ‘to make the world safe for human difference,’ women faced various obstacles and discrimination and yet still played a crucial part in the formative years of cultural anthropology.

Even if some scholars such as Edward B. Tylor advocated for women to be included in the discipline, a woman, particularly professionally educated, was a rare breed in early ethnology and anthropology studies. We have heard of Mead or Benedict, both well-established figures in Western scientific circles. However, anthropologists and ethnologists from Eastern Europe whose work is important for humanities barely register in public consciousness.

Photograph of Julia Averkieva

Photograph of Julia Averkieva from Julia Averkieva and Mark A. Sherman’s Kwakiutl String Figures (Vancouver, 1992) YA.1993.b.7126. 

Outside of specialist circles, it is unusual to hear about Julia Averkieva, a Soviet student of Franz Boas, or Branislava Sušnik, a Slovenian-Paraguayan anthropologist who has a street named after her in Asunción and a stamp issued by the Paraguayan Post with her portrait on it.

Photograph of Branislava Sušnik

Photograph of Branislava Sušnik from Branislava Sušnik’s Artesanía indígena: ensayo analítico (Asunción, 1986) YA.1992.a.22026. 

Equally, women ethnographers, such as the Czech Teréza Nováková, who had to publish her findings in a journal called Housewife (Czech: Domací hospodyně), are rarely celebrated. Nováková was not only a collector of patterns, embroidery, and ceramics, but also a passionate feminist fighting for women’s rights.

Illustration from Teréza Nováková’s, Kroj lidový národní vyšivání na Litomyšlsku

Illustration from Teréza Nováková’s, Kroj lidový národní vyšivání na Litomyšlsku (Olomouci, 1890) 7705.h.28. 

One of the rare exceptions who managed to establish herself in the Western-oriented discipline was Maria Czaplicka. This Polish-born, British-educated anthropologist registered on the Western-centered academic radar and, to a lesser extent, in the British public awareness.

Portrait of Maria Czaplicka

Portrait of Maria Czaplicka from her book My Siberian Year (London, 1916) 010076.ee.2. 

Czaplicka passed her A-levels in partitioned Poland at a male school, as matura (A-levels) from a girls’ school would not allow her to continue to higher education. When, as the first woman in the history of the programme, she was awarded the Mianowski Scholarship, she could finally afford to study abroad at the London School of Economics and Political Science and later at Oxford. After her very successful Yenisei expedition, described in detail in the diary My Siberian Year, she became the first female lecturer in anthropology at Oxford University. Unfortunately, she had to give up this position when an academic whom she was replacing came back from the First World War. Czaplicka actively supported suffrage and combated anti-Polish propaganda present in the British press. After assisting Franz Boas in the United States, she moved to a new position at Bristol University. However, her career in a male-dominated academic field started to decline, and in 1921, after failing to secure funding that would allow her to pay her debts, the anthropologist committed suicide.

Czaplicka was one of the trailblazing female academics. Unfortunately, as in the case of many of her female colleagues, her gender and marital status played a role in the way she and her work were perceived. She had to deal with issues her male colleagues in the same discipline never encountered – gender was a stumbling block to a successful future in the field of academia. Even the fact that Czaplicka travelled during her expedition in the company of a man was frowned upon. Women doing fieldwork were perceived with a certain suspicion. In My Siberian Year, Maria recalls: ‘This reminds me…of ingenious conjectures put forward by certain Sibiriaks to account for the appearance of three foreign women in the remote region of their country. One thought we were traders; another said "Spies!"; a third added fresh terrors to the disagreeable possibilities suggested by the first two explanations – we were suffragettes, banished to Siberia by the British Government, through a special arrangement with the Tsar.’

Czaplicka, who herself could proudly wear a ‘suffragette’ badge, is one of the heroines of an exhibition currently on show at The National Ethnographic Museum in Warsaw. "Women Ethnographers, Anthropologists, and Professors" aims to change the focus from history to herstory. The curator's talk is available here.

Photograph of Maria Czaplicka and two unnamed women

Illustration from Maria Czaplicka’s My Siberian Year (London, 1916) 010076.ee.2. The original caption states ‘The author riding Dolgan fashion with a riding stick’. The presence of two, probably Dolgan, women who are in the picture is not mentioned. Except for her closest European travel companions and a ‘man-servant’, the subjects of Czaplicka’s photo remain nameless, identifiable only by their ethnicity. Such an approach, symptomatic of the early anthropology era, clearly demonstrates the imbalanced scientist-native power dynamic. 

Despite facing many obstacles, in due course, women managed to put their stamp on ethnography, ethnology, cultural anthropology, and various fields in science. Czaplicka, Sušnik, Nováková, and their numerous counterparts in Western anthropology took a stand, firmly believing in their own abilities, and forwarded women’s cause. It is indisputable that we should re-evaluate their body of work, taking into consideration today's system of values. Pioneering women in anthropology were a part of the same system as their male colleagues, the system that enabled colonial attitudes that allowed empires to persist and thrive. However, this does not mean that we should not give credit where it is overdue. In the words of French anthropologist Françoise Héritier, ‘indeed, you must never take things as established; you must ask about their basis.’

Olga Topol, Curator Slavonic and East European Collections

.