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Geologizing Women into the Field!

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Geology usually requires outdoor activities in remote, inhospitable, hazardous or dirty environments. At the beginning of the 19th century it was hard to imagine that a gentleman would engage voluntarily in such an activity and it’s seemed even less comprehensible that a woman could and should be allowed to do the same thing!
As results of these social prejudices throughout history women geologists have encountered difficulties travelling to their field locations or working in the field.
Girls and women working in the field were tolerated in the social lower classes, like professional fossil collector and dealer Mary Anning (1799-1847) of Lyme Regis (Dorset), daughter of a craftsman, but for upper-class women engaging in field research was almost impossible.
Women could minimize these “problems” by collecting fossils and studying rocks in their local environment, for example on private property or in the surroundings of their home, where their social status was known and such behaviour regarded as eccentricity and somehow tolerated. However upper-class women had to face inevitably troubles as soon as they left familiar paths.
In a letter by stratigrapher and palaeontologist Etheldred Benett (1775-1845) to Gideon Mantell dated to November 2, 1835 she remarks:

A lady going into the quarries is a signal for the men to beg money for beer, and the few times I have been there I never got a specimen worth bringing home. All my Portland fossils have been purchased in Weymouth!

A second accepted possibility for a woman to engage in earth sciences was following her husband, father or brother in the field and acting as a sort of “geological assistant”:

After the last Geological Society meeting of the spring season, the leading researchers gathered up their hammers and their wives and set off on extensive stratigraphical tours.” (SECORD 1990)

One major “excuse” to prevent women engaging in geology included the field gear, considered inappropriate for a women.
The fully equipped geologist was sometimes a reason for distrust by the local people. If he dressed poorly or returned from field work covered with dirt or dust, it could happen that he got arrested as a tramp. When he appeared dressy, like a rich gentleman, there was the danger to become a victim of robbery or even murder. In every case a male geologist had to wear cylinder and tailcoat in the field and women dressed according to the most recent fashion, with “cages” and “horrid iron girdles ´round their legs“, as geologist Roderick Murchison notes on his wife Charlotte Hugonin in 1850, who accompanied him during his fieldtrips.
The depiction by geologist Henry De la Beche of Mary Anning gives us a good impression how a woman geologist dressed at these times:

Hammer in hand; Mary is depicted wearing sturdy boots or clogs, heavy clothing and a top hat, the protective clothing of a working-class woman. Top hats, made of felted wool repeatedly coated with shellac until quite stiff, might appear oddly formal today, but they were the crash helmets of the time and were worn by many geologists when they were doing fieldwork in order to provide protection from falling rocks.” (GOODHUE 2005)

Fig. 1. Cartoon by Henry Thomas De la Beche of Mary Anning working in protective gear (image in public domain).

The discrimination based on the clothing persisted until the middle of the 19th century. With the introduction of sports gear and the increasing acceptance by society of geologists appearance and behaviour soon more practically wardrobe became prevalent and also women could move more freely, explore the Madness of a Subduction Zone and engage in Environmental Geology.

Bibliography:

BUREK, C.V. & KÖLBL-EBERT, M. (2007): The historical problems of travel for women undertaking geological fieldwork. In BUREK, C. V. & HIGGS, B. (eds): The Role of Women in the History of Geology. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 281: 115-122
GOODHUE, T.W. (2005): Mary Anning: the fossilist as exegete. Endeavour Vol.29 (1): 28-32
SECORD, J.A. (1990): Controversy in Victorian Geology: The Cambrian-Silurian Dispute. Princeton University Press, Princeton: 301

David Bressan About the Author: Freelance geologist dealing with quaternary outcrops interested in the history and the development of geological concepts through time. Follow on Twitter @David_Bressan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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