Women's Intellectual Contributions to the Study of Mind and Society

Students, as part of an advanced seminar, examined and wrote about the lives of these women, their intellectual contributions, and the unique impact and special problems that being female had on their careers.

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Matilda Coxe Evans Stevenson

by Jennifer McBride

Matilda Coxe Evans Stevenson was an American ethnologist and the first woman to work in the American Southwest. Stevenson is best known for her work among the Zuni people, and for her role as the co-founder of the Women's Anthropological Society of America.

Matilda Coxe Evans Stevenson was born May 12, 1849 in San Augustine, Texas. While Evans was still an infant, her parents Alexander H. Evans of Virginia and Maria Coxe Evans of New Jersey, moved to Washington, D.C., where her father worked as an attorney, writer and journalist. Evans and her four siblings were raised in a privileged, middle-class household. They were taught by their mother with the assistance of a private governess before attending private schools in Philadelphia. Evans received her only formal education at Miss Annable's Academy, which was described as a "sheltered female seminary." In 1868, after completing her education at Miss Annable's, Evans returned to Washington, D.C., where she studied law with her father (while serving as a law clerk in his office), as well as chemistry and geology with Dr. N. M. Mew of the Army Medical School of Washington, D.C. Evans never earned a formal college or advanced degree, due to the educational exclusion of women in higher learning institutions at that time. Evans' effort to obtain a secondary education was further compounded by her interest in science (Evans had intended to become a mineralogist), a discipline that was specifically closed to women.

In April 1872, Evans married Colonel James Stevenson of Kentucky. James Stevenson was an executive officer of the U.S. Geological Survey and a self-taught geologist, naturalist and anthropologist. After her marriage, Stevenson accompanied her husband on numerous geological surveys in Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming and Utah. Stevenson helped her husband construct valuable fossil and ornithological collections, that are now housed at the Smithsonian Institution and assisted him in his famous 1978 study of geysers in the Yellowstone region. During one of these trips in the mid-1870's, Stevenson made her first ethnographic study on the Ute and Arapaho. She learned the basics of ethnographic technique from her husband, and like most anthropologists of the period, was largely self-taught, learning through trial and error. Unfortunately, Stevenson nor any other member of the expedition published the results of her ethnographic study.

Stevenson made her first of several trips to the Southwest in 1879. She was a member of the first collecting and research expedition of the newly formed Bureau of Ethnology, under the direction of John Wesley Powell. Stevenson's position on the team was "volunteer coadjutor in ethnology", which meant assistant to her husband, who was leading the expedition. The research team spent six months in Zuni and Hopi, collecting ethnographic objects, surveying local archeological sites, gathering materials from caves and shrines and amassing information on various cultural and social aspects of Pueblo life.

Stevenson's first publication, "The Zuni and the Zunians," was published in 1881 and was reflective of her experiences on the expedition. It dealt with the basic categories of Zuni life and was the first scholarly ethnography of the Zuni published for a popular audience. This trip also led to many unrecognized publications, for Stevenson helped her husband prepare reports, analyses, and catalogs of the collection that were later published in the Bureau of Ethnology Annual Reports. Parezo (1988) claims that James Stevenson disliked writing reports and that he lacked the creative mind and discipline needed for writing. Creativity and synthesis were thus left to Stevenson, who excelled in both areas. Stevenson's contributions were largely unacknowledged until 1884, when British anthropologist Edwin B. Tylor visited the Stevenson's and discovered the extent of her original contributions, and publicly commented on her work.

Throughout the 1880's, the Stevensons formed the first husband-wife team in anthropology. Stevenson was welcomed on Smithsonian collecting expeditions (in an unpaid capacity) because her work was thought to complement her husbands.

As a female, Stevenson had access to information on Native American women that was inaccessible to male researchers. Stevenson's main interest was in religion and ceremonial traditions, however, leaders of the Smithsonian expeditions encouraged her to deal with issues regarding women and children. Thus, she is often considered the first American ethnologist to consider women and children as worthy of notice in research.

Stevenson was able to incorporate religious issues into her study of women and children. For example, her 1887 publication, "Religious Life of the Zuni Child, which appeared in the Fifth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, examined both the practical or domestic side of child life including the habits, customs, games and other ordinary activities of children, and the religious instruction and observances connected with childhood.

During the 1880's, Stevenson was able to collect an enormous amount of data on the Zuni, as she and her husband made almost yearly trips to Zuni. Also during this period, Stevenson expanded her research to include the Acoma, Hopi, Sia and the Navajo. She also continued assisting her husband in surveying various archeological sites and geological features in Arizona, New Mexico and California.

Stevenson's life drastically changed after the death of her husband on July 20, 1888. James Stevenson died after a series of attacks of Rocky Mountain fever. At the time of his death, the couple had been preparing an ethnography of the Sia. Powell considered the information so important that he officially hired Stevenson to put "her husbands" notes in order, a task that required additional independent fieldwork in 1890.

This temporary appointment became permanent in 1890, and she became the first, and for a long time (until the 1960's) the only, woman to be paid as a government anthropologist, although her salary was always lower than the salaries of her male counterparts.

Stevenson published "The Sia" in 1894, which was the first major ethnography of a Rio Grande Pueblo. Shortly after, she returned once again to Zuni, where over the next few years she collected data on a host of topics including the manufacture and use of native dyes and pigments, games, mythology, irrigation systems, social structure, mythology, language, and philosophy. The resulting 600-page document entitled, "The Zuni Indians: Their Mythology, Esoteric Fraternities, and Ceremonies", is considered Stevenson's most important written work. It was published in 1901-02 in the Twenty-Third Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology. Also during this time, Stevenson contributed to American Anthropologist and other journals.

Stevenson's extensive fieldwork among the Zuni had produced a trusting and mutually respectful relationship, in which the Zuni granted Stevenson admission to a number of secret organizations and ceremonies usually forbidden to outsiders, and especially to women. Stevenson's goal in her more than 25 years with the Zuni, was to record in full detail a complete knowledge of this people before the societies were assimilated. In her writings she repeatedly stressed the importance of collecting ethnographic data before it was irretrievably lost. In fact, by the early 1900's she developed a reputation for being "pigheaded, humorless, insensitive and overbearing" for her tireless pursuit of her "lifelong task" (Parezo, 1988, p. 340).

In 1904 Stevenson moved to New Mexico where she began what she considered would be her monumental ethnological study- a comparison of the religions of all the Pueblos. She purchased a ranch near San Ildefonso as the base for her studies and began collecting information on the Tanoan and Keresan Pueblos. Stevenson remained in San Ildefonso until her death in 1915. Her remaining years were spent fervently gathering data for her monumental study, which unfortunately, was never finished.

In addition to her fieldwork and writing, Stevenson founded and was the first president of the Women's Anthropological Society of American (1885). The purpose of this organization was "to open to women new fields for systematic investigation... and to invite their cooperation in the development of the science of anthropology" (Parezo, 1988, p. 341). Stevenson was very aware of her role as a woman scientist and of her pioneering efforts, as well as of the advantages and disadvantages that this designation provided her. Being a woman granted her access to areas otherwise unattainable by male researchers, and at the same time, her sex limited her acceptance and credibility in the scientific community.

Matilda Coxe Evans Stevenson died June 24, 1915 in Oxon Hill, Maryland. Her work has been described as "impersonal, objective and precise" (Parezo, 1988, p. 341), and her thorough examination of Southwestern Pueblos was an invaluable contribution to the burgeoning discipline of anthropology.


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