The life and work of the classical archaeologist Hilda Lorimer at Somerville gives insight into the kinds of challenges women scholars encountered in the classics – a field which was historically marked as intellectually prestigious and at the core of the dominant male culture.
Hilda Lorimer’s parents played a vital role in her intellectual development as they provided access as well as encouragement to education. Her father Robert Lorimer was a clergyman; strikingly, many women classical scholars came from intellectual Jewish or Protestant families or had fathers who were priests. But it was her mother Isabella Lorimer who offered the most enthusiastic encouragement towards her children’s education. She set high standards for herself and helped people living in tenements in Dundee to get hospital treatment.
Hilda Lorimer’s family background encouraged ambition, versatility, independent thinking, and social concerns, which prepared her to take on roles that were outside the norm for women at the time. Hilda Lorimer was the eldest daughter and second eldest of seven siblings. David Lockhart Robertson Lorimer and John Gordon Lorimer developed successful careers as oriental scholars and spent most of their professional life in India. Both of Hilda Lorimer’s sisters took on careers which were outside the norm for women. Emily Lorimer became a renowned poet while Florence filled various posts traditionally held by men – such as her job as “Buyer of Foreign Carpets and Oriental Fancy Goods” with the John Lewis Partnership.
Like many families of women classical scholars, Hilda Lorimer’s family had a shared scholarly interest in classics. Hilda Lorimer learned ancient Latin and Greek alongside her brothers. Her brother William Lorimer became a professor of Greek at St Andrews University and translated the New Testament into Scots. Hilda Lorimer’s younger sister Florence would later study classics at Somerville in Oxford. Learning Greek was often an empowering experience for young girls as it was a kind of knowledge that was mostly associated with masculine authority. As women’s entrance into education became more accessible, knowing the classical languages was a way to justify the claim to higher education.
Hilda Lorimer’s classical education in Dundee and Girton equipped her with the essential skills and expertise which formed the foundation of her scholarly career in classics. She attended Dundee High School and later Dundee University College where she began learning Greek when she was sixteen by studying Plato and became a skilled Latinist. Lorimer won an open scholarship in 1893 to study classics at Girton in Cambridge where she was placed in the first class of the old classical tripos. In 1901, Lorimer was the third Girtonian to be admitted to study at the British School at Athens. It might have been this trip that sparked her interest in classical archaeology. She received high recommendations from her tutors and professors at Cambridge for her post as classical tutor at Somerville and was appointed to teach in Oxford, starting from Michaelmas term in 1896.
Like many women classical scholars at the time, Lorimer never married and might have chosen so deliberately. Between 1884 and 1904, around 80 percent of all women in academia remained unmarried. To choose between either marriage or scholarship was a common choice for women in academia at the time.
Challenges in Oxford Higher Education
Women classical scholars were discouraged and excluded from university positions in lecturing and research fellowships. Shortly after Lorimer’s appointment as classical tutor at Somerville, she asked Dr. Henry Pelham, a Roman historian, about research and received the answer that “none was desirable, since all advanced teaching could be done by men”. University lecturing was perceived to be a more prestigious and, hence, a male-only profession in contrast to women’s teaching. Classics was often understood as one of the most exclusive intellectual domains. Men were concerned that women who entered the field would permanently change the masculine culture of classics at Oxford.
Women classical scholars like Hilda Lorimer were cut off from library resources and academic exchange with fellow classicists which put their own research was at risk. In 1905, Hilda Lorimer wrote a plea to the secretary of the Classical Association in which she asked for a lending library for the teachers. In her letter, she explains her isolated position from fellow classicists and libraries. Her request was not granted permission.
My own feeling is that women are out of place, and that is the only thing I have against Miss Lamb and Miss Tennant, both of whom I like personally, but that Miss Lorimer is out of place anywhere.
Richard Dawkins, director of the Phylakopi excavation in 1911, wrote this contemptuous remark in a letter to the Secretary of the British School at Athens about Winifred Lamb, Lilian Tennant, and Hilda Lorimer who were the first women officially to take part in archaeological fieldwork at the BSA. In Dawkins’ hostile remarks about women fieldworkers, his particular animus against Lorimer may well be explained by the level of her expertise. Lorimer took part in the excavation precisely because of her knowledge of pottery – a particular subject of the excavation which might have ultimately challenged the men.
The integration of women into archaeological fieldwork was furthermore opposed because men were troubled by the social implications of working alongside women. Unless they were married and worked alongside their husbands, women constituted a source of irritation that ought to be avoided by excluding them completely. The hostile opposition towards ‘women on site’ illustrates how sexism could be particularly exclusionary towards unmarried women like Lorimer whose social situation was outside the norm. Taking part in an excavation was an essential training to become an archaeologist since no formal degrees in archaeology existed yet.
Because women classical scholars were mostly debarred from research, the support of male mentors at university helped them to sustain and develop their academic career. Lorimer worked and lectured with John Myres on Homeric Archaeology and was friends with Gilbert Murray, who was a mentor figure to a number of women classical scholars. Both John Myres and Gilbert Murray facilitated Lorimer’s research by regularly sending her books on which they were exchanging views.
Segregated from other parts of the university, Hilda Lorimer and other women scholars found support in the all-female communities of the women’s halls. Lorimer embraced and actively contributed to various aspects of college life: “her solitary Saturday cycling expeditions with binoculars to the remoter fastnesses of Oxfordshire became a college legend in her picturesque and dauntless prime.” Lorimer praised the importance of social life at Somerville, once stating that “at College, more than anywhere else, one was likely to make the friendships that supported one through life.”
Through academic exchange and networking with fellow classicists, women classical scholars inspired and supported one another. But these supportive networks of classical women scholars did not come at the cost of taking away the freedom to disagree. Indeed, Lorimer’s independent thinking often led her to have a place quite apart from other women in classical discussions.
Hilda Lorimer showed exceptional endurance and persistence. She confronted the persisting prejudice that archaeological fieldwork was ‘men’s work’ which women could not endure as they did not have the strength and stamina. Her outstanding determination and strength may have been rooted in her childhood years: “the discipline of her daily walk as a schoolchild enabled her in her prime to tramp twelve hours a day over rough, primitive country.”
In scholarly terms, her book Homer and the Monuments confronted the stereotype expressed by the archaeologist Franz Cumont that women might excel at assembling details but they fail to grasp ‘the bigger picture’ or draw concise conclusions contributing to the general field. The book comprises the results of several decades of excavation work on the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age. By publishing a work that will remain a standard reference work, Lorimer defied the stereotype that women were ‘out of place’ and not capable of contributing to the scholarship of classical archaeology.
Lorimer combined her devotion to scholarship with national service during the First World War, for instance by working as an orderly for the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. Her work was thereby also a statement of her commitment to women’s suffrage – a dedication she shared with other women classical scholars such as Alice Zimmern or Anna Swanwick.
Stella Christiansen completed her MSt in Women’s Studies with a focus in classical literature.
Sources and Further Reading
Somerville College Archive
Adams, P. (1996) Somerville for Women: An Oxford College 1879-1993. New York: Oxford University Press.
Brittain, V. (1960) The Women at Oxford: a Fragment of History. London: Harrap.
Droop, J. P. (1915) Archaeological Excavation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Dyhouse, C. (1995) No Distinction Of Sex? Women in British Universities, 1870-1939. London: Routledge.
Gill, D. W. J. (2006) ‘Winifred Lamb (1894-1963)’ in Getzel, M. and Cohen, M. (eds.) Breaking
Ground: Pioneering Women Archaeologists. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, pp. 425-81.
Gill, D. W. J. (2002) ‘‘The Passion of Hazard’: Women at the British School at Athens before the First World War’, The Annual of the British School at Athens 97:491-510.
Howarth, J. (2000) ‘‘In Oxford but…not of Oxford’ *: The Women’s Colleges’ in Brock, M. and Curthoys, M. (eds.) The History of the University of Oxford: Volume VII: Nineteenth-Century Oxford, Part 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 237-308.
Lorimer, W. L. (2010) The New Testament in Scots. Edinburgh: Canongate Books.
Waterhouse, H. (2004) ‘Elizabeth Hilda Lockhart Lorimer, 1873–1954’, Breaking Ground: Women in Old World Archaeology. Available from: http://www.brown.edu/Research /
The featured image of Hilda Lorimer is reproduced with the kind permission of the Principal and Fellows of Somerville College, Oxford.