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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Women Were Always There

National Geographic recently published a groundbreaking piece speculating that most of the art in ancient caves was created by women. The article drew lots of commentary back and forth, including comments from women that ancient women probably were not the artists because they were – as ever – too busy with child care, growing and preparing food, and even constructing housing. It is true that prehistoric women probably worked harder than men. Almost all the white men who encountered North American natives commented on how women did virtually all of the society’s work. Women still do, especially in the matrilineal economies of Africa where we all originated.

This does not mean that they were necessarily too busy for art -- but it was the basis of the gender-determination that I found most interesting. Cave art often includes a handprint that archeologists compare to a signature on a painting – and several experts asserted that about 75% of these “signatures” came from female hands. They should know, as anthropologists specialize in measuring and interpreting skeletons, but I never caught on to this anthropological assumption before reading this piece. The experts asserted that women’s ring and index fingers are likely to be the same size, while in men, the index finger usually is shorter than the ring finger.

Of course I looked at my hands in a new way. I guess I’m androgynous, as my right hand is “feminine,” while the left is somewhat “masculine.” I’ve asked a couple of friends who also say that their hands don’t quite fit this definition – but mine is far from a scientific sample. Until there’s proof otherwise, I think we have to assume that the assumption of these scientists is valid.

And even if it isn’t, I was just thrilled to see these guys – and the article quoted mainly guys – think more imaginatively about their field. It immediately reminded me of a piece that I’d written several years ago for the National Women’s History Museum. (No, there isn’t any such physical place, except in cyberspace. That’s another long story that we won’t go into now.) But here it is:

* * *

Anthropology and archeology are modern fields that included female professionals from the beginning -- including the great Margaret Mead – and yet they have been puzzlingly slow to think imaginatively about women.

Soon after the “new” history of the 1970s began to include women and minorities, I expected revisionist books on prehistory. “Who,” I asked myself for years, “was likely to have molded clay into containers for cooking and carrying? Were men or women more apt to peruse the prairie for plants that might prove healthful? Bottom line, was it the gatherer (female) or the hunter (male) who settled down in one place and began what we call civilization?”

A chance to dig deeper into these questions arose when my publisher wanted sections on prehistory in A History of Women in the United States: A State-by-State Reference (2004). This four-volume, 1626-page work features women in every state plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, covering them from prehistory to the millennium. I perused many hundreds of books to write about prehistoric women in each of these 52 places.

Most writers aimed at other academics and were highly specialized. Titles convey their nature: alphabetically, for example, they ranged from Alabama’s Archeology of the Moundville Chiefdom to Wyoming’s Archeology at the Fort Laramie Quartermaster Dump Area. Direct references to women made me jump for joy, but I got little exercise.

In most, it was necessary to pass dozens of pages on bows, arrows, and stone points to find attention to “women’s” topics -- such as food preservation, textile making, childbirth, and other fundamentals essential to a future. Even then, it was rare that an author speculated that real women might have conceived of utilitarian needs and invented the actual artifact to implement her idea. It was as though woven baskets and waterproof moccasins simply fell from the sky.

I was reminded of researching my first book, Foreign and Female (1986), when I read endless pages of books on women for references to immigrants – and just as many pages of books on immigrants to glean anything about women. Of course the situation is much improved now, not only because many more books on women are being published, but also because of searchable databases that have made library detective skills largely unnecessary. Still, I continued to be perplexed about the narrow vision on prehistoric women and kept waiting for someone to see the light.

It began to dawn with The Invisible Sex: Uncovering the True Roles of Women in Prehistory (2007). Like the cooperative work style so common among women, the book is a mutual effort: the three authors are Jim M. Adovasio, Olga Soffer (a Russian), and Jake Page, and it was published jointly by HarperCollins and Smithsonian Books. Not only is it an absolute breath of fresh academic air, it is an amazingly fun read! I read part of it while waiting (I hate to say) for a colonoscopy -- and the nurse came running when I laughed aloud.

Chapters have wonderful titles such as “The Importance of Being Upright” and “Who Brought Home the Bacon?” Chapter subtitles are even better, with the first one reading:

In which the authors present tales of male derrindo and explicate their failures of the deep past, along a bit of the history of science and the reasons why women have not been found in those old tales.

In the portion of the text that made me laugh, the authors argue that the standard view of prehistory in the Western Hemisphere particularly needs reexamination. Because of ancient burials found near Clovis, New Mexico, “Clovis” has become archeological jargon for this era of prehistory; and again, the authors make their point in an entertaining way:

By the chief account of his doings, Clovis Man burst into what are now the lower 48 states of America...13,500 years ago in a group numbering no more than 100. (In this scenario...it is not clear whether the entire group numbered 100 or whether there were 100 hunters attended by their women and children. Neither Clovis Woman nor Clovis Child comes in for much in the way of discussion.)

...Man proceeded...all the way down to Tierra del Feugo [Argentina], which he reached a mere 700 years after arriving in Minnesota. Never had so rapid a colonization of new lands taken place, and never had so few eaten so much meat in so short a time...

Clovis Man, the Mighty Mammoth Hunter ...persisted...with vanishingly few mentions of Clovis Woman, of course. The main discussion of Clovis Woman, in fact was to wonder whether she (while racing along in pursuit of ever-famished Clovis Man) could have produced enough offspring on the fly, as it were, to accomplish the colonization of the Western Hemisphere in a few hundred years... Mathematically-minded archeologists...[viewed] Clovis Woman as little more than a mobile reproductive device.

Behind the authors’ irreverent attitude towards the male-oriented canon is a clear understanding of that canon – and the courage to ridicule its basic thoughtlessness. Every intellectual revolution begins with that sort of thinking and with people who have the temerity to challenge the catechism.

* * *

I concluded my piece for the museum by saying: “The Invisible Sex is a very important book. It doubtless will be seen in the future as a major turning point in the way we view our past; it will diminish the stereotypical caveman and elevate women as fundamental founders of human civilization.”

Several years have gone by, and although this column was reposted more than other things published by the museum, I have to say the world has not revolutionized. Of course, I didn’t expect that: the time is not even a millisecond in the context of the Earth – or academia. Even with today’s rapid communication methods, it takes at least a generation for such ideas to reform what students learn in college and then to transform what teachers teach at the K-12 level.

We still have the Creationists with us, too, who refuse any theories except Adam and Eve arriving in the Garden of Eden fully formed and putting on clothes after they ate the forbidden apple. Many people operate with opposing views that parallel in their minds. Like train tracks that never meet, one line of thought tracks Adam & Eve, while the other invests money and time in the belief system of Jurassic Park.

The truly important thing, though, is that everyone comes to understand on a profound level that WOMEN WERE ALWAYS THERE. Without women, history ends in a generation. It really is that simple. And let me know about your fingers: doris@dweatherford.com.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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