I’ve just finished reading a 650-page book called Women in the History of Linguistics. It introduced me to all kinds of women I’d never heard of before, from Ban Zhao, a scholar in Han Dynasty China, to Ekaterina Dashkova, President of the Imperial Russian Academy under Catherine the Great. Even the parts about the early 20th century—the tradition of linguistics I was educated in myself—featured numerous women I knew almost nothing about.
This isn’t just a linguistics thing. Most of us know little about the women who came before us. And most of us don’t have the time or the opportunity to fill in the blanks by reading a weighty academic tome. What we do have today, though, is the internet, which was meant to democratize knowledge and make it possible for anyone to educate themselves about anything. What would I find if I did simple online searches for some of the women in Women in the History of Linguistics?
I started with Ann Eliza Worcester Robertson (1826-1905), who is mentioned in the book as the first US woman ever to receive an honorary doctorate. Robertson was a missionary who worked with the Creek Nation in Oklahoma: she studied the Creek language primarily so she could translate the Bible into it. However, the quality of her analysis earned the respect of academics too—hence the honorary degree, which she was awarded in 1892. That achievement, however, gets little attention online. It’s mentioned in a biography I found on a website about Oklahoma history, but not in Robertson’s entry in Encyclopedia.com, which describes her simply as a ‘missionary and teacher’–though it does refer to her father, who was also a missionary, as a linguist.
The next woman I went in search of was E. Adelaide Hahn (1893 -1967). She makes a cameo appearance in Women in the History of Linguistics on a list of women who served on the Executive Committee of the Linguistic Society of America (LSA) before 1939. The book doesn’t say so, but I learned from the LSA’s website that she would later become the Society’s first woman President. In the hope of learning more, I put her name into a search engine. I found a (short) Wikipedia entry, which records that Hahn was born in New York City, earned a PhD in Classics from Columbia University and taught the subject for many years at Hunter College; later she branched out into Indo-European linguistics, attending seminars at Yale taught by the most famous (male) linguists of the time. But the entry says nothing about her own contribution to linguistics. Instead it informs readers that
Hahn’s distinctive New York accent, forceful way of speaking, and penchant for large feathered hats earned her a reputation as a “character,” a colorful and unforgettable personality.
If you think that’s insulting, try looking up Alice Kober (1906-1950), who like Hahn was born in New York City, studied Classics at Columbia, and spent the rest of her life teaching at another local institution, in her case Brooklyn College. She’s remembered for her extensive work on the ancient and at the time still undeciphered script known as Linear B. It was finally deciphered in 1952 by Michael Ventris, and most early accounts downplay Kober’s contribution, preferring to celebrate the inspired male amateur rather than the woman whose painstaking structural analysis took many years and 180,000 index cards. But the importance of Kober’s work has since been acknowledged, making it easy to find her online: she features on the BBC website as an ‘unsung heroine’, and in a series of retrospective obituaries published by the New York Times to recognize women and people of colour who were not commemorated when they actually died. She also has a Wikipedia entry, which includes a reasonable section on Linear B. But the rest of it knocks Adelaide Hahn’s entry into a large feathered hat. After quoting an ex-student’s physical description (‘Her figure dumpy with sloping shoulders, her chin heavily determined, her hair styled for minimum maintenance, her eyes behind bottle-bottom glasses…’), the entry continues:
Kober never married, and no evidence exists to suggest a rich personal life. [She] lived with her widowed mother and, so far as is known, never had a romantic partner.
(Footnote: the economist Adam Smith also lived with his mother and never married: in his Wikipedia entry those facts are recorded without comment.)
The next woman on my list, Mary R. Haas (1910-1996), was a respected figure in linguistics, and like Hahn she served as President of the LSA. However, I learned from Women in the History of Linguistics that her career nearly ended before it had begun because, unlike Alice Kober, she was married. Her supervisor Edward Sapir thought it unseemly for married women to hold salaried positions, and did not support her efforts to find an academic job. By 1937 she was so frustrated that she divorced her husband (fellow-linguist Morris Swadesh), telling him she wanted to be free to pursue her career. Her moment came when the US entered World War II, and many male academics were drafted. With women suddenly in demand, Haas went to UC Berkeley, where she stayed until 1977. Searching for her online yields a respectable amount of information, including a decent Wikipedia entry.
I moved on to Lucy Shepard Freeland (1890-1977), who like Haas specialized in the study of American Indian languages. Before reading Women in the History of Linguistics I knew one thing about Freeland: according to the recently-revised entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, her dissertation The Language of the Sierra Miwok (published in 1951) contains the first known use in writing of the term ‘code-switching’. Online she is elusive, partly because of the perennial problem of women’s names. Freeland called herself not ‘Lucy’ but ‘Nancy’, and she sometimes used the last name of her husband Jaime de Angulo. Her published work appeared under several names, ranging from ‘L.S. Freeland’ to ‘Nancy de Angulo’—and who would guess those two were the same person? But what’s particularly frustrating is that, whichever name you use, you repeatedly find yourself on pages that mention her but are actually about her husband.
Here’s part of an item which kept coming up in my searches. It’s from a project commemorating famous residents of Berkeley, and is headed ‘Jaime de Angulo, Anthropologist, “Erratic Genius” (1887-1950)’.
Born in Paris to a wealthy, devout, expatriot Spanish family, the handsome, brilliant, and charismatic linguist, writer, and ethnomusicologist Jaime de Angulo received a Jesuit education. At age 18 he rebelled and fled to Colorado where he worked as a cowboy. He then travelled on to South America, pursued silver mining in Honduras, and arrived in San Francisco just in time for the 1906 earthquake.
De Angulo subsequently earned a medical degree from Johns Hopkins University and married Carey Fink, a fellow medical student and future associate of Carl Jung. After working as a genetics researcher at Stanford, de Angulo dismissed medicine as “a pile of junk” and bought a cattle ranch in Modoc County, where he came in contact with California’s Pit River Indians.
The ranch failed in 1915 and de Angulo homesteaded in Big Sur on a ranch where he would live intermittently for much of the rest of his life. In nearby Carmel he met Lucy Shepard Freeland (“Nancy”), a New Jersey native from a wealthy family who would become his second wife. De Angulo introduced Nancy to linguistics and encouraged her to enrol at U.C. Berkeley.
De Angulo is portrayed as Freeland’s mentor, but their relationship became an obstacle to her professional success. She began living with de Angulo while he was still married to Carey Fink, and her supervisor, who regarded this as ‘scandalous and immoral’, denied her funding to finish her dissertation. When she did finally finish it, he did not take the necessary steps to have her doctoral degree awarded. Without it she was ineligible to apply for academic positions. Her work was later published, but by that time she was in her 60s. Adding insult to injury, when you look her up today you get redirected to her husband, the ‘erratic genius’.
Finally I turned my attention to Britain, and looked up Barbara M. H. Strang (1925-1982), the woman who first taught me linguistics when I was a student in Newcastle in the late 1970s. She doesn’t feature in Women in the History of Linguistics because her career began after the book’s end-date, but I was curious to see how the information available online would compare with what I already knew about her. Her Wikipedia entry is sparse, though it does offer some irrelevant detail about her husband, ‘a lecturer and the heir apparent to his father’s barony’. After reporting that in 1964 Strang became Newcastle’s first professor of English Language and General Linguistics, the writer remarks that this was ‘a novel appointment’. In fact it was not especially novel: Strang’s specialist field, English historical linguistics, was one that women had excelled in for many years, and taught in various institutions long before 1964 (partly because English was originally seen as a women’s subject, inferior to the classical languages elite men studied).
Except for Mary Haas, the women I looked up are not well-served by the most accessible online reference sources. It’s possible to do better if you have access to an academic library (or a good public librarian), but if you rely on what’s easy for anyone to find you will be presented with material which is thin, grudging about women’s achievements, overly attentive to the men in their lives (or in Alice Kober’s case, the absence of men), and sometimes downright insulting. It’s true that 20th century women linguists are a niche interest; but catering for niche interests is supposed to be one of the things the internet is good for. Also, we know that my experience would have been similar had I been searching for information about women who distinguished themselves in other ways: this is a woman problem rather than specifically a woman linguist problem.
The Wikipedia part of the problem (which matters because Wikipedia is such a go-to source for students and anyone without access to academic libraries) is well-known, and there have been efforts to deal with it by organizing ‘edit-a-thons’ in which entries for missing women are added. But this approach has limitations. It’s implicitly based on the assumption that women have been overlooked inadvertently, and that attempts to correct the record will be welcomed. But some recent research by Francesca Tripodi casts doubt on that assumption.
Tripodi’s research focused on the issue of ‘notability’, which Wikipedia uses as a criterion for deciding which individuals should get an entry. In itself that’s not unreasonable: you don’t want hundreds of entries for people nobody would ever look up. But on Wikipedia, a collective, ‘democratic’ project, anyone can challenge any entry, and propose that it should be deleted, on the grounds that its subject isn’t ‘notable’. Tripodi found this strategy is disproportionately used to target women. Biographical entries for women make up less than 20 percent of all biographical entries on Wikipedia, but they consistently account for over 25 percent of the items nominated for deletion. Women aren’t just missing because they’ve been accidentally overlooked; they’re being actively and deliberately erased.
This is not a new phenomenon. Back in 1982, Dale Spender wrote a book entitled Women of Ideas (and What Men Have Done To Them) in which she showed how women’s ideas and achievements had been repeatedly erased from the (printed) record, and argued that men’s control over the dissemination of knowledge was fundamental to the maintenance of patriarchal power. Among other things, it deprives women of information about their predecessors, leading each new generation to believe that women in the past achieved far less than they actually did. It shouldn’t surprise us that the digital revolution hasn’t changed this. There is no technological fix for sexism: the problem is political, and the solution must be too.
The illustration shows Alice Kober and a Linear B tablet.
If you’d like to read my (academic) review of Women in the History of Linguistics use this link