10/01/2013 05:38 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Where Are All the Women Time Travellers?

Until Peter Capaldi strolled out and was introduced as the 12th Doctor Who, there had been some interesting speculation and even advocacy for the next doctor to be a woman. After all, there is no good reason why a woman couldn't be a Time Lord. But the fact that a man walked out was not at all surprising, as women have been decidedly ignored when it comes to time travelling.

As I was thinking about this I came across Anna Smith's recent article on this very topic in The Guardian. Time travelling women are indeed rare, especially in sci-fi film. Smith notes in particular that Rachel McAdams has had three roles in time travelling movies, only to remain firmly rooted in the her own timeline in each one.

Sci-fi television doesn't seem to be much better, although Captain Kathryn Janeway had numerous experiences in Star Trek Voyager. But both Doctor Who and Quantum Leap, arguably the gold standard in time travel TV series, have decidedly male leads (save for Scott Bakula's character in drag as a refreshing interlude when he time travelled, or jumped, into a female's body).

In our own space time continuum, there are actually two intriguing online examples of alleged time travel by women, both involving the use of cell phones far before their time. One appears in the 1928 Charlie Chaplin movieCircus where a woman passes in the background apparently using a cell phone. The second is from 1938, where a woman is holding an object to her ear that resembles a cell phone. Both examples have been refuted, but what a delicious irony if all the actual time travellers were women?

As a women's historian, I began to think about this in some detail. Is there a good reason for women to avoid time travel? Possibly. History has not been kind to women -- nor most men -- but it would be easier to fit in or acclimate to a new time if you were a man. There were more opportunities for men to go about their business and travel unnoticed. A single woman would have limited options to explain her solitary presence: she would have to be either a nun, a widow, or perhaps even a pilgrim, teacher or trader.

Class made a difference as well. It was far easier to be a female Roman aristocrat than a female Roman slave. Entering into a new time line without a defined class could be tricky, and a full backstory would need to be created before time travel occurred.

There were some places and times that women would definitely want to avoid as well. The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century would be a particularly difficult time for a single female time traveller to try and integrate into the society. Martin Luther's writings left no doubt that women's role in Protestant society was to be confined to wife and mother. Not to mention the so-called Burning Times (15th to 17th centuries), where numerous women (and some men) were burned at the stake as witches.

My solution? If you needed to move around like a man, it would be easiest if you disguised yourself as a man. In fact, this tactic has been successfully employed by women many times in the past. In 1654, Queen Christina of Sweden disguised herself as one of her favourites, Count Dohna, after she abdicated her throne and was travelling through Denmark. This may have been a one-off, but other women actually lived out their lives as men. In the first half of the 17th century, Doña Catalina de Erauso dressed as a man and went by the various names of Francisco de Loyola, Alonso Díaz Ramírez de Guzmán and finally Antonio de Erauso. She lived much of her life in New Spain, and the Pope actually granted her a special dispensation to dress in male clothing after her true gender was discovered.

Of course, women would only face these challenges when going backward in time. If they went forward in time, as was the basis of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, my fervent desire is that women would be able to act independently and safely regardless of their gender.

If the future does indeed equal progress, perhaps there will yet be a female Doctor Who in my lifetime.

Lee Tunstall is an adjunct assistant professor in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Calgary, Alberta, and is an aspiring time traveller.

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