Thursday, February 24, 2011

Gender and Feminism in Archaeology

Left: Female Factory entrance gates; photo courtesy of SAG. J.K. Houison Collection SAG5/6149:
Below right: Parramatta Female Factory, c. 1872; photo courtesy of Society of Australian Genealogists:

Between 1803 and 1874, over 74,000 British convicts were transported to the Van Diemen's Land Penal Colony in Australia. Approximately 12,000 of these convicts were women, who served time in the Female Factory system based upon the severity of their assigned "Crime Class." In this system, women were 'reformed' through prayer and mandatory labor, namely sewing, laundry, and cooking. These women the were able to join the "Hiring Class," and awaited transfer to pastoral communities, where they could complete their sentences as domestic servants. (Casella, 2000)

Excavations and historical research of the Ross Female Factory in the early 90's revealed a black-market in which illicit commodities were 'traded'-- including material goods and sexual activities. The sexual acts preformed were both heterosexual and homosexual, although these categories were not acknowledged by the female felons, many who viewed sex acts as a tradable good, nor by the administrators of the Convict Department, who considered all female sexual activity as deviant. Through this trafficking, the convicts recast their social identities in terms of power and class, but did so outside of the normative binary of male-female gender roles. (Casella, 2000)

Gender in archaeology is a comparatively recent development, and has been influenced by a variety of ideologies-- from the second- and third-wave feminists to African-American feminists to queer studies. Notions such as gender's inseparability from class and ethnicity/race, how gender functions in a given society, and the relationship between gender and material culture have especially come into focus over the past two decades. The result of these new paradigms in archaeology is an increased awareness of the ways in which assemblages are viewed, moving beyond the search for positive or negative evidence for ‘the presence of women.’ Instead, many archaeologists are deconstructing the gender-site associations that have been propagated until recently.

Casella, E.C. 2000. "'Doing Trade': A Sexual Economy of Nineteenth-Century Australian Female Convict Prisons. World Archaeology (32:2), pp.200-221.

Questions to consider:

1. Following Vermeer (2009), if we consider gender as a structuring principle through multiple levels of society, how does gender interface with class at the Ross Female Factory? Social identity? Ethnicity?

Furthermore, based on previous discussion of panopticon architecture, how might we see some of these articulations manifest in the archaeology of prisons?

2. Given the longstanding association of females with the private, domestic, passive sphere and the association of males with the public, political, active sphere how might one use archaeological evidence to argue against this ideology that projects a binary and stable view of gender? What are some ways we might see re-appropriation of gender ideology in the record? What are the shortcomings of accepting the household as a single functional unit?

3. How does the tendency of modern hesitation of archaeologists to embrace feminist political theory reflect the issues associated with transparency and objectivity that we have discussed previously? Does engaging in 'feminist archaeology' suffer from politicization or does it benefit from it?

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