Election of Women Fellows to the Society of Antiquaries

By Ammandeep K Mahal (Research Fellow) 

Since its foundation in 1707, The Society of Antiquaries has been a hub of archaeological, historical, anthropological and art research, all of which fell under the broad term – ‘Antiquary’. Members of the Society of Antiquaries are known as Fellows. In order to become a member, a person must first be elected by existing Fellows of the Society, and they must be ‘excelling in the knowledge of the antiquities and history of this and other nations’ and be ‘desirous to promote the honour, business and emoluments of the Society’. Once elected, Fellows are able to use the Post-nominal letters – FSA (e.g. Dr Rose Graham, FSA).

As part of the Beyond Notability project, the team have been combing through the archives at the Society of Antiquaries. A set of documents that has enhanced our understanding of the Society’s fellowship are the ‘Fellows Lists’. These are a set of printed lists, kept in the Library of the Society of Antiquaries and were collated every year. Each year comprises a list of the full name, address and year of election for each ‘Fellow’. The Fellows Lists also provide an annual record of the Society of Antiquaries Council and Committee members as well as its Local Secretaries.

The Council were elected from the Fellowship and met to decide matters of policy, the Committees assisted the Council with the management of specific areas of the Society and were split into the following; Finance, Library, Executive and Research. Local Secretaries were designated for different regions. Their tasks were varied and included reporting on recent discoveries, locally published books or periodicals and threats to monuments. The Local Secretaries were also required to gather information on current excavations, collectors of antiquities, recommend artefacts for exhibition, and to supply the Society with rubbings of engravings found at monuments or on stones. Therefore, the Fellows Lists provide an insight into the management and structure of the Society as well as the roles of the Fellows within it. They also show that the Society was involved in activities beyond its walls. The Beyond Notability team will investigate the role of the Local Secretaries further and then aim to integrate this work into our database, where relevant.

Women started to be elected as Fellows of the Society in 1920, and one of the earliest examples we have is that of Rose Graham. Rose was selected by the Council of the Society of Antiquaries to be proposed as a Fellow in 1920. Once she was proposed, she was supported by existing Fellows and then elected as a Fellow. Rose Graham, interestingly, was also elected to the Council of the Society in 1926, something that was also reflected in the Fellows Lists.

As part of our research at the Society, the Fellows Lists were photographed every five years, from 1920 to 1950 (the timeframe of this project). From these photographs, I was able to collate a tally of the numbers of men and the number of women Fellows. The total numbers of men and women fellows in each year were then used to construct a graph (Figure 1), enabling the visual comparison of men and women Fellows. 

The Fellows Lists have been an important dataset for us to consult as they provide comparable data that was not available from other archival sources. As can be seen in Figure 1, that the overall numbers of Fellows were increasing from 1921 to 1950, showing expansion of the Society of Antiquaries, not just through the election of women Fellows. Although the numbers of women Fellows were increasing, they were still incredibly low in comparison to the numbers of men being elected as Fellows. There seems to be relative stagnation for women Fellows in the years of the 2nd World War (reflected here in the data for 1935 and 1941) and a decrease in the numbers of men Fellows for the same time period. Thus, the events of wider society are reflected within the Fellows Lists.

This is important information that contextualises the data we are adding to our knowledge base using the fascinating documents held at the Society of Antiquaries. It forms a baseline from which it is now possible to map the growth of the Society in terms of both men and women Fellows. The numbers of women Fellows may also be used to form a comparison with similar data collected from other scholarly societies (where that data exists). This data comes from a period of great social and political change in Britain, a time that marked women’s entry into differing aspects of public life, thus the data illustrates for the first time, how such a change was reflected in the Society of Antiquaries.