Brushing coin on archaeological site

My greatest lesson on what it means to be a feminist came when I least expected. I was working on an archaeological expedition in Turkey under the instruction of a professor and archaeologist named Sarah. Every archaeologist I’ve worked with has tended to be a bit of a maverick, but this woman took the cake for nonconformity. Without trying, just by being herself, she challenged every ideal I had been taught about how I should live my life as a woman.

I grew up in a conservative religious environment, where I was taught that the end goal for women was to get married and that marriage was incompatible with other life goals. You were not supposed to be able to choose another model, one that could say, combine being married with career goals, or involve you eschewing marriage altogether. Nope: The line went that you got married and you had kids and that was it. Attending a conservative university in the South just reinforced the line I had been taught: The place for women was in the home, and nowhere else. I had been so deeply entrenched in these ideas for so long that I didn’t even object when my college boyfriend routinely said, “It’s the time of life now where you’re going to have to choose between a career and getting married.”

When I met Sarah, she just knocked me off my feet. Sarah embodied everything that I had been told women shouldn’t do or be. She was extremely successful and well respected. Here was a woman that people actually liked and respected because of her kindness and work ethic. I saw Sarah working hard alongside her team, even at the thankless parts of the job no one wanted to volunteer for. She would accept nothing short of excellence from all of us, but that didn’t make her bossy, that made her admirable.

Many times, archaeology consists of teams that are predominately male. With a lot of the work demanding hard physical labor, jokes about women being less capable or hardworking are common. Outspoken objectification of other team members can make dig sites hard places to be for women. But regardless of the sexism and machismo common to excavation sites, Sarah carried more than her own weight in the field and proved herself to be the best in the upper echelons of academia, winning numerous top awards for her work and overseeing some of the most well-known historical sites in the world. Her response to sexism in the workplace was not to dignify the perpetrators with a response, but rather to dignify herself and prove them wrong.

Not only was she gutsy as a woman in a male-dominated field, she showed an equal disregard for societal expectations when it came to her family. Sarah had a baby in her forties and she happily takes her toddler along when she goes to do research throughout the Mediterranean. In a world where women are asked, “Why are you choosing your career over your family?”, Sarah made her own timeline.Women experience so much pressure about having children, that to see a woman wait to have a baby until it was right for her was a huge encouragement to me.

That Sarah didn’t think that motherhood necessitated saying goodbye to her career was one of the most intriguing and influential things about her to me. Instead of feeling torn between her family and the progress she had made as an archaeologist, she simply bundled him up took him along for the ride! She taught me that you don’t have to treat your family, or your career, like a liability. If you get creative, you can make life work for you, not the other way around.

Sarah challenged me by example to move forward with creating my own definition of what it means to be a woman in this day and age. There are no set rules, as I so clearly saw with her packing a baby around excavation sites, a squad of researchers awaiting her instruction! I could have easily drowned in society’s stifling messages about gender roles, but her life showed me it’s okay to tell the naysayers to shush, and go make the life you want for yourself exist.

You can be a boss at whatever you want to be, and make womanhood mean whatever you damn well please.

Michal Ann Morrison is a traveler, writer, and lover of books and restaurants that serve cheese plates. When she is not in her home base of Austin, Texas, she is traveling the Mediterranean working in archaeological research. You can follow her adventures on instagram at @michalann!

[Image via iStock]