Caroline Moore

Working remotely: five formidable female anthropologists

Frances Larson tells the stories of these intrepid women and their pioneering work in some of the most isolated regions on Earth

Maria Czaplicka’s fieldwork took her to Siberia in search of nomadic reindeer-herders — who had never seen a European woman before. Credit: ©Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

I was first sent a version of Undreamed Shores: The Hidden Heroines of British Anthropology in June last year. I started my review; but publication was delayed. So I tore up my opening paragraphs, which began with the remark that only armchair travel was possible at present. By 2021, I imagined, that would be out of date.

How wrong I was. Ten months later, and the book engages even more urgently. We can all sympathise even more sharply with those female would-be explorers who longed to escape from the restrictions of their lives — though an Edwardian tea party now seems to us like unimaginable freedom.

The past is a foreign country; so there are two layers of escape here. Frances Larson has picked five intrepid women from the remote tribe of early female students at Oxford — that small band of outliers on the fringes of a largely hostile male society. The customs of the country are fascinating. Students at Somerville in the 1890s were expected to kiss the college principal goodnight (an excellent tradition, which should be revived); but priestess-like tutors stripped their votaries of excessive ornamentation. ‘I won’t, I won’t, I WON’T be a dowd!’, protested one victim.

Infiltration of the male realm was slow; but the new discipline of anthropology offered unique opportunities for women. One of Larson’s earliest heroines is Katherine Routledge (née Pease), who escaped the ‘dreary domesticity’ of family life in Darlington. At 38, she married a colonial drifter, Scoresby Routledge, and travelled with him to Africa to study the Kikuyu tribe. She adored ‘the gipsy outdoor life’, and quickly proved that the hidden lives of tribal women could best be uncovered by another woman. The Kikuyu were polygamous; their women sympathised with Katherine. ‘Only one wife to do all the work!’, they commiserated.

Kikuyu women commiserated with Katherine Routledge: ‘Only one wife to do all the work!’

Whether or not polygamy would have helped, the Routledges’ marriage was soon under strain.

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