International Women’s Day!

The Beyond Notability project is taking over the Society of Antiquaries Twitter feed for this year’s International Women’s Day!

As part of this event, we are featuring two audio recordings from the correspondence of two women who are now featured on our database: Eliza Jeffries Davis, a historian, and Margerie Venables Taylor, an archaeologist.

These recordings of letters in the Victoria County History (VCH) archive have been created by Professor Catherine Clarke (Davis) and Claire-Louise Lucas (Taylor). The project is particularly grateful to Victoria County History for permission to record the extracts and make transcriptions of them available here. We’re also very grateful to Professor Catherine Clarke and Claire-Louise Lucas for agreeing to record them.

Eliza Jeffries Davis worked for the Victoria County History as a researcher and writer in the first decade of the 20th century. She became a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1929.

Margerie Venables Taylor worked for the Victoria County History at the same time as Eliza Jeffries Davis. She became a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1925.

These two recordings feature letters sent to William Page, the general editor of the VCH, by Davis and Taylor respectively. They illuminate the working lives of these two women. Davis’s letter is celebratory, sent on the publication of the VCH volume on which she had worked. In it, she makes suggestions for publicity and in so doing highlights her non-VCH working life, as a London County Council teacher. Taylor’s letter, sent after she had been working for some years at VCH, reflects her continuing concerns about the rate of pay for VCH researchers. She also reveals the expansion of her research work beyond VCH, enabling her to push more effectively for a salary increase.

Eliza Jeffries Davis

VCH Archvie EJ Davis read by Catherine Clarke March 2022

Eliza Jeffries Davis letter to William Page, dated 5 Oct 1909, on London County Council Moorfields Training College, White Street, Moorfields E. C. letterhead (VCH 2/22/3)


Dear Mr Page,

Thank you for your note. I am glad the London volume is really coming out at last – though I shudder to think of the negligences + ignorances in my part!

I am writing to suggest that you tell the publishers to send a prospectus of it to the heads of various London schools and colleges. I think we discussed this once, + you asked me to remind you again. It would be so very useful in teaching, + luckily the board of Education is awake to the importance of local history just now, so the heads of schools might think it worth while to spend so much money on a book!

In the case of institutions under the LCC it would be well if the notices were sent as soon as possible, as the “Requisition” for new books (only allowed once a term) are made up about the beginning of November. I enclose lists which may be useful.

Yours sincerely,

EJ Davis

Margerie Venables Taylor

Extract from MV Taylor letter to William Page dated 24.IV.1910 from 48 Watton Crescent, Oxford (VCH 1/3/210)


Dear Mr Page, 

I have been considering the question we discussed since I last saw you. I should very much like to work for the History again, but I think I ought to have more than 1/6d an hour. If you work out £2.10 a week, working 5-6 hours a day, inclusive of all holidays etc, it comes to more than that. At the present moment for Research work at the Bodley I am paid 2/- an hour + other workers-transcribers are paid 2/6 an hour, while the ordinary, not very skilled, catalogue assistant receives 1/6 an hour. So that I think I ought to have 2/- an hour, especially when it is not certain that the work will continue for more than two years. I put the facts before you so that you will understand my position. I really feel it is not fair to take research work at 1/6 an hour, after some years’ experiences. I am sorry to trouble you in this way, but I think you will understand + tell me exactly what you think.  […]

**If you would like to explore the lives of Eliza Jeffries Davis and Margerie Venables further, you will find them on our database at: (Davis); (Taylor).

On Working with Gender

By James, Katherine and Amara.

The subtitle of our project, is ‘Re-evaluating Women’s work in archaeology, history and heritage in Britain, 1870 – 1950′. We aim to create a large-scale study of women’s contributions to these fields by rendering visible previously unknown ‘professional’ (both salaried and unsalaried) activities of women through the study of archival sources. This requires us to identify instances in our sources of women conducting various activities we would categorise as ‘work’, and to express those as data. But how do we identify these women?

This has led the project team to chew over two issues in recent meetings:

  • How to work within, or modify, the conventions of Wikidata to deal with gender (and indeed other sensitive personal) characteristics in our database
  • The ethics of ascription of gender to people in the past

To begin, let’s consider the conventions governing how the property of gender (or ‘sex and gender’, since Wikidata currently conflates the two – and this is in itself controversial) is handled in Wikidata, the collaboratively edited knowledge graph whose linked data underpins Wikipedia and Google Search. Like other systems for the organization and systematization of knowledge, Wikidata operates by using (relatively) controlled vocabularies: lists of key terms with agreed definitions that allow records to be tagged/described in ways that render them searchable.  In order to link our data to other data sets it is important to work to some extent within conventions in order to make those links. If we were to create an entirely unique, bespoke set of categories to classify our historical data, our database would be limited in usefulness, since it would not be discoverable through standard searches or interoperable with other data ecologies. On the other hand, conventions developed in Wikidata (term lists etc) are simplifying/flattening and can be inadequate when dealing with historically constructed categories, including gender. Crowd-sourced editing of Wikidata (in which we are participating) can also lead to changes and allows for modifications.

We are constructing our database by writing statements that ascribe information to individual or classes of items/objects, including people, by linking them with particular values of properties (known in data design as key-value pairs). For example, the English language statement “milk is white” would be encoded by a statement pairing the property ‘color’ (P462) with the value ‘white’ (Q23444) under the item ‘milk’ (Q8495).

The category (property) of ‘sex or gender’ (P21) is defined in Wikidata as follows:

sex or gender identity of human or animal. For human: male, female, non-binary, intersex, transgender female, transgender male, agender. For animal: male organism, female organism.

The issue here is not only that this gloss is contestable (and indeed contested – check out the discussion on the property talk page (content warning: transphobic language)). It is also that no caveats exist around the ascription of values of this property to historical or living individuals.

The absence of caveats for ‘sex or gender’ contrasts with cases such as ‘ethnic group’ (P172)’ and ‘sexual orientation (P91)’, properties the definitions of which are hedged about with caveats:

subject’s ethnicity (consensus is that a VERY high standard of proof is needed for this field to be used. In general this means 1) the subject claims it themselves, or 2) it is widely agreed on by scholars, or 3) is fictional and portrayed as such)

the sexual orientation of the person — use IF AND ONLY IF they have stated it themselves, unambiguously, or it has been widely agreed upon by historians after their death

We are not the only people to notice Wikidata’s blunt flattening of sex and gender. The wonderful Homosaurus, a linked data vocabulary of lesbian, qay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, and others (LGBTQ+) terms, gives us a range of narrower terms we might use instead: gender identity, gender expression, assigned gender.

These narrower definitions draw attention to what we, as historians, are doing in this project. We are dealing overwhelmingly in assigned gender rather than gender identity or gender expression, i.e. gender as ascribed to historical agents in our sources and/or as perceived by us in our interpretation of those sources. We have no direct access to the gender identity of the majority of our subjects (they do not ‘state it themselves, unambiguously’). And gender expression varies over time and between places, making our particular perception of gender a determinant of how we ascribe gender.

In the sources we have been looking at so far, sources that (partially) record work in archaeology, history and heritage in Britain, ‘sex or gender’ (P21) property-values such as womanhood are either ascribed to the people that feature in them, or our sources are silent on the matter. Sometimes the (ascribed) gender of individuals in our sources is signalled in explicit fashion, e.g. by use of gendered titles such as ‘Mr’, ‘Mrs’ or ‘Miss’. In other cases there is indirect or implicit evidence of gender-ascription – not least, evidence of the various kinds of barriers and exclusions to which women were subject in 19th and early 20th century Britain.  Most obviously, individuals to whom womanhood was ascribed were excluded from being Fellows of the Society of Antiquaries until 1920, but (in the UK until 1918/1928) they were also excluded from suffrage, from taking their degrees in certain universities, from pursuing certain kinds of professional work once married, and so on.

Data Feminism gives us ways to respond to the inadequacies of Wikidata P21, both as a tool for representing the past lives that are the focus of our study and – in turn – all people effectively misgendered by its flattening effect and binary assumptions. As D’Ignazio and Klein write “data feminism requires us to challenge the gender binary, along with other systems of counting and classification that perpetuate oppression” (D’Ignazio and Klein, Data Feminism (2020), 97). Not only is questioning a classification system a feminist move, so is acting in opposition to it, refusing to contribute to it on its terms. If what gets counted counts, we need to ensure that not only are more women counted, but that they are counted in ways that make clear when their womanhood is an ascription, an identity, and an expression.

What does this mean in practice? It means a number of interventions in the way we make statements about gender and sex, none of which we claim to have got entirely right, all of which we are working though in real time as we encounter the archive and the lives therein. These include assigning gender as ‘woman’ (Q3 in our data) if:

Where gendered honorifics are absent and only initials and surname are given, even if the individual’s name appears in relation to a context and activity in which normative actors in our period are men, we do not assume that the individual indicated is a man. Rather, we investigate that name, indicate uncertainty when ascribed gender is unclear, and record ‘unknown value’ when no evidence can be found.

Finally, we are committed to using a technical infrastructure that tracks our changes, timestamps them and gives each edit an author. This enables our attempts to resist the presumption of gender ascription to be recorded, and when new information is found that revises a claim, ensures that our uncertainty – however fleeting – remains entangled with the linked data we produce.

All these solutions are provisional and imperfect. We welcome constructive feedback on the procedures we have developed so far.

Our First Trip

By Amara Thornton (Co-Investigator, Beyond Notability)

On 6 October, the Beyond Notability team took its first steps into the Society of Antiquaries archive. This will be a key research area for us, as the Society’s archive is one of our main record sets in starting to map women’s work in archaeology, history and heritage between the late 19th and the mid-twentieth centuries.  

The Society has been in existence since 1707 (more on its history here).  Its recently appointed archivist, Kat Petersen, was our guide to getting to know the SAL’s archive a bit better. She is currently going through the entire archive herself, to ensure that ultimately the Society’s rich institutional history will be discoverable through the Collections website

Our goal with this initial visit was to look at a cross section of the Society’s archive to get a better sense of the kinds of ways in which women’s work was recorded.  The Society’s Blue papers (records generated when a person is proposed as a Fellow of the Society) are an obvious starting point. However, women were not admitted as Fellows until 1920, so references to their work before that point can only be found by looking beyond that particular set of records.  

The Society’s various Minute Books are another key resource.  There are series of Minute Books for various groups within the Society, including the Executive Committee, the Council and the Finance and Library Committee. Women can be found in the Executive Committee and Council minutes before 1920 if they are sending artefacts for exhibition at the Society, reporting on discoveries made, or offering books or artefacts to the Society (Fig. 1). Another activity we’ll be tracking and highlighting is instances of women seeking to use the resources of the Society for their own purposes (Fig. 2). 

Fig. 1. Detail from the Society’s Executive Committee Minutes from 3 July 1913, showing that a “Miss Cobbe” offered the Society a group of manuscripts relating to Bedfordshire. © The Society of Antiquaries of London. 
Fig. 2. Detail from the Society’s Executive Committee Minutes from 18 June 1914, showing that a “Miss Portal” applied to copy extracts from a manuscript held by the Society. © The Society of Antiquaries of London. 

A further valuable record set is the Special Committee Minute Books. We looked through one volume of these, dating from the years immediately after the Second World War. We found the names of FSAs Marjerie Venables Taylor and Kathleen Kenyon among the members of some of the Committees. On the Society’s Apulia Committee, gathered to organise excavations in this region of southern Italy, we spotted the name of another woman, “Mrs J. S. P. Bradford”. “Mrs Bradford” accompanied her husband John Spencer Purvis Bradford, FSA, on a scoping mission to Italy prior to a formal application being made to excavate.  

Thanks to Francesca Radcliffe’s biography of John Bradford, a bit more information about Patience (Andrewes) Bradford is available. Prior to her marriage, she attended the Courtauld Institute, and was part of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) during the Second World War. Radcliffe’s research reveals that during her lifetime Patience Andrewes Bradford was considered to be an expert in medieval archaeology and art – and that in the 1960s, she took over the management of the Apulia Committee.   

Through our project, we will be bringing together archival records at the Society of Antiquaries with information from other associated archives and sources, ensuring that we can view each of these women as individuals within the context of their time, and as a network linked across time. The first step in our programme is to understand how the Society’s institutional archive is constructed and what parts of the Society’s activities over time it represents, all the while taking note of the ways in which women appear in the records. 

We can’t wait for our next trip!