A guest blog by Larissa Welton
This International Women’s Day, I want to celebrate the incredible achievements of Grace Mary Crowfoot, a botanist, textile archaeologist, anthropologist, and pioneering anti-FGM advocate and to share her story of breaking biases and fighting inequality for women.
In my work as a digitiser, I am lucky enough to get to go through the botanical collection specimen by specimen. When I come across a plant that was collected by a woman (an all too rare event) I google her and invariably find a fascinating history. In my research about Grace Mary Crowfoot, (known to all as Molly) I found an impressive woman who contributed to many fields and deserves to be remembered.
Archaeology and Textiles
Born in 1879, Molly Crowfoot was a pioneer in textile archaeology. She helped to establish the field, recognising the importance of analysing fabric found in archaeological digs to learn more about historic people and how they lived. She could identify the methods used to create ancient cloths and made replicas (e.g., of the ancient Egyptian Girdle of Rameses III) to prove how they were constructed. Across her long career she worked on the ship burial at Sutton Hoo, the tunic of Tutankhamun and the Dead Sea Scrolls. She was described by Kathleen Keyon as a “first-class archaeologist” and organised large dig sites in Palestine and Jordan with her husband John Crowfoot.
Everywhere she went, Molly Crowfoot learned more about her great passion for textiles from other women. While living in Khartoum in 1916, she made friends with local Sudanese women who taught her their spinning and weaving techniques and how to use a ground loom. This experience proved invaluable when she later wrote a paper establishing that ancient Egyptians used a similar ground loom to her Sudanese friends, with a mural from a recent tomb discovery showing identical implements. Textiles and artefacts gathered by Molly are now in the British Museum collection.
In 1923, Molly met religious leader Sherif Yusef al-Hindi and admired a woven camel-girth he had in his tent. She expressed an interest in how it was made and that she would like to meet the maker. Sitt Zeinab, the weaving artist who had made the girth, came via camel to Khartoum to set up her loom and teach Molly her technique. She explained that in addition to the traditional black and white, she incorporated red and blue thread which she unravelled from cloth imported from Germany and France. Molly published her notes on this double weaving technique, preserving the name and ingenuity of a female artist who would otherwise have been lost to history.
The Carousel above shows a Camel girdle, Textile reproduction, a mat and a food cover donated by Molly to the British Museum and available to view in their online collection.
While living in Sudan, Egypt and Palestine, on every trip she went on Molly would study the local plants. When the travelling group would pause at midday, she would photograph and draw as many plants as she could and would take specimens to dry and study later. She redrew her sketches in ink, using her own specimens and the herbarium at Kew Gardens to make scientific drawings for identification. She corresponded with scientists at Kew, who would identify any specimens of hers whose taxonomy was doubtful. These botanical illustrations were published in several books, including one describing desert adaptations of Egyptian plants. Arabic translations of plant names were provided for these publications by friend and educational reformer Babikr Bedri, who called Molly “that gracious, unassuming, well-educated lady.”
The plants she collected were dried and attached to herbarium sheets. Some of these have made their way into the collection at the Museum. The example below was collected by Molly in Jerash in Jordan in 1928. Molly’s husband John was conducting an archaeological dig on early Christian churches in Jerash during this time, so Molly must have used this chance to study the local plants.
Molly was interested not only in the scientific but also the cultural aspect of plants. With her friend Louise Baldensperger, she published the ethno-botany work “From Cedar to Hyssop”, a book which detailed how people used different species of plants in their daily lives e.g., as food, in medicine, for dyes and for fuel. It also records folklore tales, rituals, and Arabic phrases that relate to the plants. In the early 20th Century, life was changing rapidly in this area, and this record connecting traditional uses and practices with the plants’ Latin names and descriptions is an important part of history.
Combatting FGM in Sudan
As a young woman, Molly attended Clapham Maternity Hospital to learn to be a midwife and was inches away from studying medicine at the London School of Medicine for Women. She had ambitions of being a medical missionary because (in her own words) “they nurse and doctor women who otherwise wouldn’t get looked after at all (e.g. Lady Dufferin’s Medical Mission to the women of India, purdah women who mayn’t be seen by men doctors), and do this in connection with pioneer Christian work without being expected to convert anybody by preaching.” Her long-time sweetheart John Crowfoot realised that he had better propose sharpish before she devoted her life to medicine!
Being so close to the local women in Sudan, and with her background in midwifery, Molly was invited to attend births in Khartoum. She saw with horror the extreme form of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) infibulation that took place at the birth. In 1921, Molly attended a dinner party with the British Governor-General Sir Lee Stack where she spoke loudly and insistently about FGM. This man later complained to a colleague about being embarrassed to hear this impolite and shocking topic over dinner, but Molly refused to be silenced. This interaction led to approval to set up the first school of midwifery in Sudan in 1921: Omdurman Midwifery Training School. Molly sent for two of her midwife school classmates, the sisters Gertrude and Mabel Wolff (“Gee and Bee”) to run the school. They were joined by other invaluable staff members, including: Sitt Gindiya Salih, the first Sudanese Staff Midwife; Sitt Hawa el-Basir, the Principal Matron; and Sitt Battul Mohamed Isa, who became Assistant Principal of the school in 1953. Initially the school had difficulty recruiting but by 1940, 624 midwives had been trained. Infant mortality dropped and the school remained steadfast in its goal to reduce the incidence and severity of FGM for girls.
In 1949, Molly attended a discussion on FGM at the House of Commons and spoke with MP Leah Manning about her experiences and intimate knowledge of the practice. She brought a nuanced view on the subject, explaining her belief that an outright ban would merely drive the practice underground and undo 20 years of the Midwifery School’s careful work in the community.
Breaking the Bias
The dinner party with Sir Stack was far from the only time Molly broke the rules of propriety in her life. Whether it was teaching girls to swim in the river near her house (an activity that was previously ‘boys only’) or her attitude about clothes, she was often unconventional. She often dressed in such a masculine fashion that she confused a Sudanese leader who thought she was a man. Back home in England, she delighted in dressing herself and her children in hand-woven materials dyed with vegetables. On another occasion, she was bringing a sea anemone home in a jar via bus to give to the disabled son of a friend. The jar spilled and to refill the jar and save the anemone, Molly jumped straight into the sea while wearing her best dress!
Molly was extremely encouraging in her four daughters’ academic aspirations, in contrast with her own mother who so disapproved of girls attending university that Molly declined her offer to study at Oxford. All the Crowfoot daughters went on to impressive careers, but none as notable as the eldest sister Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkins. She was one of the most important scientists of the 20th century: an X-ray crystallographer who discovered the structure of insulin, penicillin, and vitamin B12, she won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1964. She remains the only British woman ever to win a Nobel Prize for science. When asked who her childhood heroes were, Dorothy named her mother: Molly Crowfoot.
Molly Crowfoot was an amazing woman who broke biases and took a multi-disciplinary approach to her many areas of study: blending archaeology, anthropology, photography, and botany, as well as the traditionally female spheres of weaving and midwifery. Her fight against FGM and inequality for women deserves celebrating as well as her scholarly achievements.
I hope that as I continue to unlock our botanical collections through digitisation, I will be lucky enough to come across more specimens collected by Molly Crowfoot and shed some further light on how she contributed to botany. I also have no doubt that as I continue to research the names of female collectors on our specimens, I will come across other women whose histories are just as impressive.
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