Arms and the Woman*

“The Times” newspaper’s version of a ‘Page 3 Girl’ from 30 November 2017.

14 December 2017

Tim Koch has been arm-wrestling.

In a piece titled, Progress über alles?, HTBS recently wrote about how changes in technology and economics in the 18th century effected the waterman’s trade, altering it from a ‘jolly life’ to one of ‘starvation’. Of course, it has always been the case that jobs that were once ‘good’ have suffered from the inevitable march of progress – or at least change. Two of many that are currently ‘not what they used to be’ are journalism and academia.

In the past, an academic in Britain could lead a rather relaxed and agreeable life if he (rarely she) wished. They could spend their time living in wonderful old buildings, dining at High Table, having erudite conversations in the Senior Common Room, and coaching the college fourth boat. In return, they could simply deliver the same lectures, year after year. Not unreasonably perhaps, all this has changed, and tenure is now difficult to obtain and there is great pressure to regularly publish academic papers. The Guardian newspaper recently reported:

Peter Higgs, the British physicist who gave his name to the Higgs boson, believes no university would employ him in today’s academic system because he would not be considered ‘productive’ enough.

The emeritus professor at Edinburgh University, who says he has never sent an email, browsed the internet or even made a mobile phone call, published fewer than 10 papers after his groundbreaking work, which identified the mechanism by which subatomic material acquires mass, was published in 1964.

He doubts a similar breakthrough could be achieved in today’s academic culture, because of the expectations on academics to collaborate and keep churning out papers. He said: ‘It’s difficult to imagine how I would ever have enough peace and quiet in the present sort of climate to do what I did in 1964.’

Journalism has, of course, suffered as sales of printed newspapers and periodicals decline due to loss of both readers and advertisers to new technology. The British trade journal, the Press Gazette, recently reported:

The number of British workers describing themselves as journalists has declined by 11,000 over the last year while the number of public relations professionals rose by 5,000, according to the British Labour Force Survey.

It is difficult not to speculate that the increasing number of ‘public relations professionals’ are employed writing press releases (a.k.a. news releases, media releases or press statements) to feed to the declining number of journalists, the latter increasingly filling their pages with what are ostensibly newsworthy stories but which are given to them by people or organisations with their own agenda. Often, these media handouts are simply rewritten in the house style, their main points unquestioned and unresearched, and not subjected to the six basic journalistic tests most famously articulated by Rudyard Kipling:

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

Even academic works are not immune from this state of affairs – as shown by a recent paper from Cambridge University’s Department of Archaeology, the first study to compare prehistoric female bones to those of living women. It became widely-reported, perhaps not because of what it found, but because the department gave its reported findings a clever ‘hook’ that appealed to sub-editors in overworked and understaffed newsrooms. This hook was women’s rowing.

Some members of Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club, all contenders for the crew to race Oxford on 24 March 2018. The archaeological study compared the upper body strength of such women with their early Neolithic sisters of 7,000 years past (The American “Popular Science” website referred to such athletes as ‘members of the school’s women’s crew team’).

The Cambridge research article by Alison Macintosh, Ron Pinhasi and Jay T. Stock, published in the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in November 2017, had the not very sexy title, “Prehistoric women’s manual labor exceeded that of athletes through the first 5500 years of farming in Central Europe”. However, it was presumably a clever press release that resulted in headlines in publications not usually interested in archaeology.

The Times, as illustrated above, went with, ‘Ancient women made rowers look puny’. The opening paragraphs read:

The women who powered Cambridge to a record time of 18 minutes and 33 seconds in this year’s Boat Race were no weaklings…

If they had to arm-wrestle one of their Neolithic ancestors, though, they would probably lose.

Researchers have found that the strapping women farmers of prehistoric Europe had about 13 per cent more upper-body strength for their size than a modern elite rower, and 30 per cent more than the average Cambridge undergraduate today.

… there is reason to believe (that Neolithic women) may have spent up to five hours a day milling grain with… a chunky stone ancestor to the pestle and mortar.

The Daily Telegraph chose, “Prehistoric women were stronger than elite Cambridge rowers, study finds”. (See here.)

The Guardian declared, ‘’Prehistoric women’s arms ‘stronger than those of today’s elite rowers’’’. (See here.)

The Independent headlined, “Prehistoric women were stronger than modern rowers, say Cambridge scientists”. (See here.)

While the main British broadsheets printed the story, of the tabloids, only the online Daily Mail took the bait, declaring “Neolithic women had stronger arms than today’s elite female rowers because they spent five hours a DAY grinding grain, according to 7,000-year-old bones”. (See here.) Presumably, the famously patriarchal and right-wing Mail approves of women staying at home in a cave and spending the day grinding corn – and not attempting to take men’s jobs by becoming hunter-gatherers, walking upright or developing opposable thumbs.

Further afield, the story and the rowing angle were picked up by the Hindustan Times, the Japan Times, and the Portsmouth News.

The study’s findings are summarised in a YouTube video made by Cambridge University:

I found only two features that questioned the comparison with modern rowers.

In The Mixed Zone (‘Bringing the best women’s sport stories online’), Olympian Guin Batten, asked ‘why would we even try to compare ourselves with prehistoric women… rowers don’t use their arms, they use their legs and back’. However, she concludes by apparently agreeing with the basis of the Cambridge study:

You will be amazed at the adaptability of the body to the demands of life, especially when your day-to-day survival is dependent on your physicality.

I suspect that Guin’s real reason for writing was to ‘spin the spinners’ and publicise her amazing ocean row.

Cambridge’s Myriam Goudet. Her strong arms suggest that she has been grinding corn.

The website Row2k showed its feelings with the headline, “What Do the Cambridge Women Think About This Stone Age Guff?” The perhaps not entirely serious article noted that

the Cambridge scientists never actually came out and declared that Stone Age women could actually beat the Cambridge women in a race, and since no one seemed to ask the Cambridge women what they thought about the findings, row2k did…

Imogen Grant: ‘I wanna know what their 2ks are.’

Tricia Smith: ‘I think we should add 90 minutes of grain grinding to our program every week.’

Olivia Coffey: ‘It should come as no surprise that strong women have been around for millennia!’

*With apologies to GBS.

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