Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Gender archaeology, feminist archaeology

Following Alun Salt's post on Clioaudio undoing Paul Bahn's confusion of gender archaeology with feminist archaeology (which I will try to turn out a post on if I have the time), I found Natalie Bennett's blog, Philobiblon, which looks great and had two posts of immediate interest.

The first was an appeal for safety for sex workers, leading to a very good piece of hers on the pages of the Guardian's Comment is Free, calling for the decriminalisation of sex work.

Refreshingly, it was grounded in the testimony and appeals of those most affected - the sex workers themselves, like the English Coalition of Prostitutes - corroborated by social workers and nurses' opinions (as well as by probation officers' practical concerns about their own work).

The second was on the truly "brave, brave women", former prostitutes, running for election in Turkey on the 22nd of July; I would discuss it more, but I don't think I could add much.

I'm mentioning these together, partly because I found them together (one through the other), partly because it's past 6am, but also partly because of Bahn's misunderstanding of feminism and so of feminist and gender archaeologies (demonstrated in the elision of the two), which try to help achieve the equality and social justice that the women presented in Natalie Bennett's work are striving for.

Despite expressing a desire for an 'antidote to male chauvinism about the past', Bahn accused that, 'what is called "Gender Archaeology" is actually feminist archaeology', where 'a feminist kind [of archaeology]... is just the flip-side of the traditional coin' (so, presumably, female chauvinism).

Bahn collapsed gender archaeology with feminist archaeology and, ultimately, both with "female chauvinism" and got them backwards in the process, as well as completely failing to address queer archaeologies, which are an emerging set of archaeologies, clustering around the field of gender archaeology, some identifying as feminist and others not.

Bahn warned that:
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.
Men's lives, experiences and histories are very well documented and discussed compared to women's; in order 'to reclaim women and men in non-sexist ways', it is necessary first 'to make women visible', so that there are women to reclaim.

If gender archaeology were feminist, it would be because male lives, experiences and histories are still, frequently, seen as the norm and female lives, experiences and histories either marginalised, unrecognised or dismissed.

As I've explained to a colleague who sighs that I 'always support the underdog', it's not that I support the underdog, but that I support those with justice on their side, who tend to be the underdogs.

So, as long as gender exists, gender (or gendered) archaeology will exist; as long as gender-based inequality persists, feminist archaeology will investigate it, as well as class, ethnic, age, status and other identity-based inequalities.

Depending upon your definition of feminism, you might argue that, if gender-based inequality were ended, feminism, too, would end, although its activists would continue to fight other inequalities and injustices, which they might choose to do through analogy with gender-based injustices in the past.

(So the archaeologists' identities, or others' categorisations of them, would have changed - to queer, anti-capitalist or human rights archaeologists, amongst others - but their fundamental philosophies and works would have remained the same.)

Even if gender-based inequality were ended, however, gender archaeology would continue, as, just like the established fields of economic, social and political history, it explores part of human experience and contributes to our understanding of past lives and, thereby, of ourselves.

A while ago now, I put up two MSc essays: one discussed representing individuals' and groups' identities and in doing so, touched upon feminist approaches and feminist archaeologies; the other more fully examined feminist and human rights methodologies. I've wanted to do something with them ever since I wrote them, but at the moment they're still in their original format; I'll see if I can do something with them now, ideally tying in with the struggles of present and past sex workers.

Bahn, P G and Tidy, B. 2000: Archaeology: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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