On the Professional Advancement of Women in Near Eastern Archaeology

As many of us know, family constraints are often (illegally) employed to whitewash and exonerate injustice and workplace inequality Studies of the academic world, including the fields of anthropology and biblical studies, have documented barriers to women’s success.

By Beth Alpert Nakhai
Arizona Center for Judaic Studies
University of Arizona
July 2012

In an article posted on this website a year ago, Jennie Ebeling, Associate Professor of Archaeology at University of Evansville and Co-director of the new Jezreel Expedition, asked, “Where are the Female Dig Directors in Israel?” Her concern stems from the numerical disparity between male and female excavation directors in Israel; in the summer of 2011, just over a quarter were women. Things have somewhat improved this summer, as Ebeling is co-directing the Jezreel Expedition with Norma Franklin (University of Haifa), and another new project, at Abel Beth Ma’acah, is co-directed by Nava Panitz-Cohen (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Ruhama Bonfil (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) and Robert Mullins (Azusa Pacific University). Although further study is necessary to determine whether similar disparities prevail in other countries throughout the Middle East, the odds are good that the situation in Israel is no worse than average, and likely better.

In a recent article in The Atlantic, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Bert G. Kerstetter ’66 University Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University and former Director of Policy Planning for the United States Department of State, reflected on the question, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” (July/August 2012; vol. 310/1: 84-102). She noted, in particular, family responsibilities that act as a constraint upon women’s equal participation in the workforce. Alternately, as many of us know, family constraints are often (illegally) employed to whitewash and exonerate injustice and workplace inequality.1 Studies of the academic world, including the fields of anthropology and biblical studies, have documented barriers to women’s success.2 They, too, often cite family as a reason for – or factor leading to – discrimination.


Jennie Ebeling
Jennie Ebeling


As readers of The Bible and Interpretation know, the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), founded in 1900, is North America’s premier professional organization, dedicated to the archaeology of the Near East (www.asor.org). Its mission is “…to initiate, encourage and support research into, and public understanding of, the peoples and cultures of the Near East from the earliest times to the present.” It should come as no surprise, particularly in light of Jennie Ebeling’s research, that many of the people who responded to a survey I sent to ASOR membership in the spring of 2012 cited family as a – if not the – major factor contributing to the difficulties that women experience in their struggle to achieve gender equality – in fieldwork and in academia – within the discipline of Near Eastern archaeology.3

Among its many important functions, ASOR, through its Committee on Archaeological Research and Policy (CAP), “…supports excavations and related research in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean regions by encouraging high standards for excavations and fostering deliberate and ethical practices for research.” Data collected in the spring of 2012 by CAP indicates that, for all ASOR-affiliated excavation projects (34 field and 33 publication projects), there are 74 male directors and/or co-directors and 37 female directors and/or co-directors.4 (This does not reflect all excavations in the Middle East, but only those whose directors who apply for – and are granted – ASOR affiliation. ASOR itself plays no role in selecting dig directors.) Further investigation of the CAP records will show, I am sure, that this step toward parity is a recent phenomenon.

There are, of course, many ways in which people can work as archaeologists; excavation directors comprise the small minority. Specialists focus on ancient texts and inscriptions, scientific analysis of excavation materials, art history, religion, gender, cultural resource management, trade, economy, GIS (geographic information systems), pottery, ancient agriculture and animal husbandry, architecture, site and artifact conservation, museum work, and more. As with fieldwork, gender disparities exist within these areas of specialization, although this, too, may be changing. As part of a larger research project in which I am engaged, designed to study women in the field of Near Eastern archaeology, I have begun to describe and assess the status of women in ASOR.5 Such research, I believe, reveals a great deal about ASOR, about gender and archaeology, and about Near Eastern archaeology. In addition, it serves as a response to broader inquiries into modern life, such as those of Anne-Marie Slaughter.

Given the importance of leadership positions for professional advancement, particularly within the academic world, I became curious about the history of women’s participation as ASOR leaders. I began my work in the basement of the W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem. There, I read through ASOR’s almost century-old journal, the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (BASOR), beginning with the first publication (1919). For ASOR’s first half-century, I discovered a lone female pioneer, Mary Inda Hussey. Professor Hussey was a highly regarded and well-published Assyriologist who spent much of her career teaching at Wellesley College; in 1931, she was the Annual Professor at the Jerusalem School (now Albright Institute). Between 1921 and 1934, she served as “field secretary” of ASOR’s (then) Fund for Biblical and Oriental Research; in this position, she was responsible for mailing BASOR to its subscribers. Some years after that, she became president of ASOR’s Alumni Association. ASOR’s first female associate trustee (a position inaugurated in 1936) was Lucetta Mowry, also from Wellesley College (in 1958-1959). In 1971, two additional women, Helene J. Kantor (Oriental Institute, University of Chicago) and Anne D. Kilmer (University of California, Berkeley), joined the roster of associate trustees, as did Edith Porada (Columbia University), in 1973. The first woman to become a full trustee was Joy Gottesman Ungerleider (Mayerson), Director of the Jewish Museum in New York City; that was also in 1973. In the 1980s, it became common to find a small number of women on the Board of Trustees; now, 10 of 27 trustees are women. In 1985, architectural historian Elizabeth Moynihan became the first woman to serve as Chairman (sic) of the Board of Trustees. The first woman to become an ASOR officer was Lydie Shufro, (appointed vice-president in 1990); since that time, Martha Sharp Joukowsky (Brown University), Rachel Hallote (SUNY Purchase), Tammi Schneider (Claremont Graduate University), Ann Killebrew (Penn State University), Morag Kersel (DePaul University), Jennie Ebeling and Sharon Herbert (University of Michigan) have served or now serve in various vice-presidential capacities.6

Still, more than a century after its founding, ASOR has yet to have a female president. Comparable organizations overcame that hurdle some years ago. The American Anthropological Association was founded in 1902; its first female president was Elsie Clews Parsons (in 1941). The archaeological Institute of America was founded in 1879; its first female president was Margaret Thompson (in 1967). The Society of Biblical Literature was founded in 1880; its first female president was Elisabeth Schussler Firoenza (in 1987). The American Anthropological Association’s Committee on the Status of Women in Archaeology addresses issues of gender discrimination, as does the Society of Biblical Literature’s Committee for the Status of Women in the Profession. ASOR’s Initiative on the Status of Women, established in 2011, is working to foster gender equity in ASOR and in the field of Near Eastern archaeology. If you are interested in becoming a part of this exciting new initiative, contact Beth Alpert Nakhai, ASOR Trustee and Chair of the Initiative (bnakhai@email.arizona.


1 Federal Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) laws prohibiting job discrimination include: (i) Equal Pay Act of 1963 protects men and women who perform substantially equal work in the same establishment from sex-based wage discrimination; (ii) Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; (iii) Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 protects individuals who are 40 years of age or older; and (iv) Civil Rights Act of 1991 provides monetary damages in case of intentional employment discrimination; (v) Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 further clarifies the definition of wage discrimination.

2 See Nakhai, B. Alpert, Gender and Archaeology in Israelite Religion, Religion Compass 1/5 (2007): 512–28, and references therein, for discussion and some of this bibliography.

3 Other impediments to equality cited by respondents include the “culture” of archaeology, a dearth of female mentors, problems in the job market, problems in the academic world, cultural attitudes in Middle Eastern countries, financial disparities and more.

4 My thanks to Øystein S. LaBianca, Chair of the Committee on Archaeological Research and Policy, for this information.

5 The richest database pertaining to women in Near Eastern archaeology can be found at Breaking Ground: Women in Old World Archaeology (http://www.brown.edu/Research/Break
). See also, Breaking Ground: Pioneering Women Archaeologists, eds. G. M. Cohen and M. S. Joukowsky. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, 2004.

6 ASOR commonly has several vice-presidents serving at the same time, each overseeing a different area of responsibility.

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