It isn’t easy being a woman in a man’s world and it was surely more difficult 100 years ago when the height of social ambition for a woman of good standing was a fine husband and a life of domesticity. Adela Breton took a different path. At 50 years old, written off to spinsterhood, she set sail for Mexico to record the Mayan ruins in accurate and exquisite detail.
By all contemporary accounts – and by her own admission -Adela was quite the independent woman. Edward Thompson, US Consul to the Yucatán, wrote to the director of the Peabody museum stating: “To tell the honest truth she’s a nuisance. She is a ladylike person but ill of whims, complaints and prejudices.”1 He did, at least, acknowledge her skill as an artist. The Americanist Alfred Tozzer remarked that Thompson was “very jealous of her work and especially now as she is doing something that he has already done and doing it very much better.”2 Tozzer formed a great friendship with Adela and marvelled at her resilience, saying “You look at Miss Breton and set her down as a weak, frail and delicate person who goes into convulsions at the sight of the slightest unconventionality in the way of living. But I assure you, her appearance is utterly at variance with her real self.”3
Had she been a man, history would probably have celebrated her work and recognised her valuable contribution to the Mesoamerican archaeological record. Instead, like so many other trowelblazing women, she became a historiographical footnote. Adela – thank you for being, as Tozzer once described you, “the eccentric Miss Breton”; solitary, stubborn, independent – and an inspiration.
Written by @drkatedevlin
Edited by Tori
- Thompson to Putnam, 5 April 1900, UAV 677z40, Harvard University Archive
- Letter 26, 1st April 1902, Harvard University Tozzer Library
- Tozzer, letter to his mother, Letter 12, 5th Feb 1902, Harvard University Tozzer Library
Image: RAI 36208. Miss Adela C. Breton sketching in the ruins, Mexico. Photographer unknown, c. 1890s © RAI. Not to be re-used without the permission of the Royal Anthropological Institute, London.