It is not what the six ‘intrepid women’ featured in the Pitt Rivers Museum’s latest exhibition have in common that is of interest, but why we haven’t we heard of them before.

Yes, all six defied convention and undertook groundbreaking fieldwork. Some graduated as Oxford-trained anthropologists in a male-dominated academic discipline; all travelled into places ‘ladies’ didn’t go; all lived with people from very different cultures to learn from them.

Some survived physical hardships in their research: one was nearly thrown overboard on a sea journey and another ventured into literally uncharted parts of New Guinea.

One was Maori, and became an extraordinary cross-cultural ambassador. Some found that marriage ended their professional careers, and one decided against marriage to have a career.

All faced significant prejudice from male colleagues, and had difficulty getting the same professional positions and funding that men would have.

And yet, all excelled, persisted, fought and dedicated their lives to their achievements against the odds, and for that alone, the Pitt Rivers latest exhibition should be applauded.

“All of the women included in this exhibition have left important legacies of object and photograph collections, personal writings and publications. This exhibition is an opportunity to have an insight into their lives and to see parts of these valuable collections,” Louise Hancock of the Pitt Rivers Museum explains.

“In addition, they have all left legacies as role models for women scholars, as people who got on with their calling despite all challenges, and as anthropologists who brought very different perspectives to their attempts to understand other ways of being. We hope people will visit this exhibition, to commemorate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act in 1918, and take inspiration from their stories.”

And so we explore the first of these ‘intrepid women’.

At a time when men controlled the discipline of anthropology and Oxford refused to allow women to collect their degrees, Barbara Freire-Marreco (1879-1967) was the first woman to enrol on the Oxford Anthropology Diploma in 1906, achieving a Distinction for the Diploma in 1908, and the first English female anthropologist to do fieldwork in the United States, living in New Mexico with Pueblo people, and then Arizona with Yavapai people. Further fieldwork trips were then thwarted by the First World War, and after meeting her future husband in 1916, she gave up her academic career. The care with which she documented items means they continue to be an important resource.

Makereti (1873-1930), who was born in New Zealand to a Māori mother and an English father. While living in the Māori village of Whakarewarewa, near Rotorua, she became a tour guide, and in 1901 escorted the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York (later to become George V and Queen Mary). A dedicated ambassador for Māori culture, she was gifted in the Māori arts of dancing, song, story-telling and weaving and featured in a Māori concert group at King George V’s coronation festivities. She died in 1930 while conducting fieldwork in Whakarewarewa for her Oxford anthropology degree, her manuscript being published posthumously in 1938.

Born to a wealthy family, Beatrice Blackwood (1889-1975) could have settled for finishing school and a conventional marriage. Instead she applied to Oxford, gaining a degree in English in 1912 and a distinction in 1918 in anthropology. She conducted fieldwork in Canada, the United States, and then New Guinea, on the islands of Buka and Bougainville in the Northern Solomons. Few anthropologists had travelled to this region and Blackwood was the first woman anthropologist to do so. In 1935 Blackwood transferred to the Pitt Rivers Museum and continued to work there until her death in 1975.

Elsie McDougall (1879-1961) first travelled to Mexico in 1926, where she began a life-long study of textile production. Living among the local communities for extended periods of time, marvelling at their technical skill and artistry, she sought to document every part of the process through extensive field notes and photography. Trips to Mexico and Guatemala meant visiting distant and isolated Maya villages. McDougall had a disregard for her own comfort and thought nothing of arduous journeys on horseback through the night, yet did not see herself as an adventurous traveller. However her methodical and meticulous record-keeping has led to her being considered key to the study of Central American textiles.

In 1937, at the age of 23, Ursula Graham Bower (1914-1988) visited Manipur and the Naga Hills, a culturally distinct area in north-east India. She was fascinated by the hill communities and gained permission from the British administration to live in Laisong village where she dispensed medicines and carried out anthropological fieldwork among the Zeme (Zeliang) Naga. As well as taking several thousand photographs, she shot some of the earliest colour film. During the Second World War, the British asked Bower to form a band of Naga scouts as part of the ‘V Force’ guerrilla unit. Her forces became so effective that the Japanese put a price on her head.

The exception to the rule is Audrey Butt Colson who is still with us and started doing fieldwork in the Upper Mazaruni District of Guyana in the 1950s. The exhibition includes clips from a film she made in 1957 about the Akawaio people. An Oxford University Lecturer from 1955 to 1982, she is keen for this film to be seen to highlight the Akawaio people and their claim for legal title to their ancestral lands.

Intrepid Women: Fieldwork in Action 
1910 to 1957
Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford 
Until March 11 2019