“The Madame Curie Complex” Sample Chapter: Part Three “Women in the Wild: Changing the Culture of Western Science”
This is the third and final part of a multi-part presentation of a sample chapter from a forthcoming book, The Madame Curie Complex. Part One can be found here. Part Two can be found here.
Recently I was approached with an offer to share with my readers a sample chapter from a forthcoming book called The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science. A caveat: I have not read the whole book, and offering the sample chapter here for you to read does not constitute an endorsement by me of the book. But I was sufficiently intrigued by the sample chapter I read to think it was worth sharing with you, to let you read if you want. You can make up your own minds and decide if you want to purchase the book, which is on offer at the Feminist Press site for a reasonable price. About the book:
This March, The Feminist Press will release The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science by historian Julie Des Jardins. The book tells the stories of women scientists, from Marie Curie to Maria Mayer, who took enormous chances and made great discoveries in spite of, and at times because of, the resistance they faced in a male-dominated field. Des Jardins compares their stories with prominent male counterparts in an exploration of whether, and how, women research, collaborate, and come to different conclusions about the natural world.
The chapter I have been given to share with you is chapter 7, The Lady Trimates and Feminist Science?: Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas. It came to me in a pdf version and a lot of formatting has been lost in moving it to this blog, but I hope you will still enjoy be able to enjoy reading it. I hope locating the footnotes will not be too hard. I’ve broken the chapter into sections for a series of posts, and the reference footnotes for each section will be at the end of each post.
On to the last section of the chapter…
Women in the Wild: Changing the Culture of Western Science
Consider popular images of women’s close associations with apes–real and fictitious, in the wild and in captivity–from Digit, to Koko, to King Kong. Images of the Trimates and their animals may have had the greatest impact on how Americans imagine this relationship. Donna Haraway called it “the National Geographic effect.” Starting in the 1960s, film crews documented the movements of Leakey’s protégées, who would have otherwise worked in virtual obscurity. The popularity of NGS publications and films grew out of the lay public’s desire for “naked eye science”–the yearning to experience science as adventure rather than classroom fare. The family sagas between Flo and Flint in Goodall’s television specials enraptured the young Biruté Galdikas long before Dallas or Dynasty captured public attention. Vicariously, women experienced science as a hands-on practice performed outside the lab or the purview of men. On the heels of the countercultural, feminist, and antiwar movements, the Jane Goodall of film represented peace and love and seemed to be Mother Nature in the flesh. She gracefully evolved from the virginal girl next door, as seen in Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees (1965), to the matronly advocate for primates in captivity in My Life with the Chimpanzees (1990) and in films that continue to be shown on Animal Planet in the twenty-first century. In documentaries, the Gombe River Reserve appears timeless and serene and Goodall at peace with her life of limited human contact and competition. She speaks in lay terms and evinces maternal compassion for all nature’s creatures. Hers appears a humane and accessible science.45
NGS documentaries presented all three Trimates as “one with nature,” and primatological work as blissfully maternal. Like depictions of Nobel Prize scientists as loners, these images are manipulations of sorts. Those who held the camera for the Trimates were men–ones who created facades of women’s closer connection to primates and the natural world they observed. Haraway suggests that NGS portrayed a convincing reunification of Western culture–the lady Trimates, with nature–the apes and their forests, at a time when it served capitalist ends to eliminate the appearance of schisms of race, class, gender, and colonialism in third-world areas. We know from the writings of the Trimates themselves, however, that such schisms shaped their daily lives and that their maternal mystique was overblown. While such movies as Project X and Gorillas in the Mist romanticized the study of apes and anointed the women who studied them, the reality was hardly the stuff of Hollywood. Fossey scared off many graduate students by putting them on “dung duty,” which some might call “diaper duty” if it weren’t such a stretch. Linda Fedigan, a practicing primatologist, has dismissed “the big brown eyes hypothesis,” the biological explanation for the high percentage of women in her field. Although she doesn’t doubt that values defined culturally as maternal made many women the patient observers who could hear the natural world “speak to them,” she believes that the media has inaccurately perpetuated the idea that women study apes out of a need to mother living things.46
Accurate or not, such appearances are still significant for their impact. Leakey and the Trimates understood that their fate in the field depended on popular attention to them as iconic figures, though not necessarily as scientists. That they appeared in ways that were not only distorted but also nearly contradictory suggests yet again that consumers
of their stories shared no consensus about what women in the field should represent. Often they appeared to be women of fortitude and compassion, but sometimes at the expense of their personae as legitimate scientists. Biographers found it impossible to cast Dian Fossey as both a competent scientist and appealing woman. Farley Mowat’s
Woman in the Mist (1987), Alex Shoumatoff’s African Madness (1988), and Harold T. P. Hayes’s The Dark Romance of Dian Fossey (1990), reveal, as their titles suggest, a woman confused about her appropriate “place,” hence falling into proverbial darkness. Indeed she was complex, but in the hands of men the complexity always turned tragic. “Fossey emerges as a social outcast–an irrational eccentric, a street person, an animal,” James Krasner laments. “While a certain amount of antisocial eccentricity is expected from male scientists. . . . one of the crueler truths about the way in which Fossey’s story has played itself out in popular media is that her status as a scientist has been eclipsed by her role as heroic madwoman confronting the primitive.”47
The Trimates were the objects of sexist stereotypes, and yet they also featured in ways that inverted assumptions about women and Western science. One might have expected that in the 1978 National Geographic spread on Galdikas’s work, Binti Brindamour, the baby son of Western-educated parents, would have represented the idea of “culture,” and Princess, the orphan of a poached ape, the perils of “nature.” And yet in this spread both babies stand together, side by side, in a tub in which they are both similarly being cleansed of dirt and conventional meanings. The accompanying text reveals that the process of “cultured man” imposing order on “nature” has been reversed. Princess, who had been acculturated by Galdikas, learned sign language and even taught baby Binti his first sign word. In fact Princess had been acculturated so deeply inside the human camp that her rehabilitation required her to forget human culture entirely before she could return to the wild. So who represented “culture” or “nature”? At Camp Leakey such dualities simply didn’t apply.48
Galdikas described her “laboratory” as “the living one that has existed for millennia”; it had no boundaries or procedural rules. There was no commute back to the domicile at the end of the day; entire ecosystems, bodies of water, and rainforests became places and subjects of research. Fossey, too, differentiated little between work and domestic space; her seven- by ten-foot tent was a bedroom, office, bath, and drying area for clothes. She took notes on the apes as well as “everything from weather to bird and plant life,” “poacher activities,” and anything else that provided context. Nothing in the natural environment lay outside the parameters of observation.49
Without the normalizing rhythms of the laboratory, women in the field worked after hours, sometimes days at a time if that is what nature allowed. Goodall commented in her notes that day felt like night and night like day. After long stints in the trees she would return to her cabin, where assistants, usually women, typed up the observations she recorded on tape. Her mother suggested she take off one night a week to do something unrelated to research. “Even on these nights our conversation was almost entirely ‘chimp,'” Jane recalled. “If our work had not also been our pleasure it is doubtful whether we would have been able to keep up the pace.” At her wedding to van Lawick, Goodall viewed wildlife photographs and cut a cake with a model of David Greybeard on top of it. She returned after only three days of honeymooning to monitor the development of a newborn baby chimp. Her domestic and observational space became one when she began feeding the chimps at the provisioning station next to her marital tent. The boundaries of Western science had been eroded in almost every sense.50
Like the first women to enter “domestic science” programs at the turn of the century, Goodall applied lessons learned “in the lab”–in this case, the forest–to her “home” life. The transfer of knowledge was not a one-way street in the field: mother chimps were teachers as well as objects of study. Once Jane had Grub, he, too, became an object to be observed, and she documented his development, as Margaret Mead had of her daughter in the 1930s and 1940s. For both scientists home and the field were not inherently oppositional spaces, and objects of study in them might amplify the commonalities between animals, “primitive” peoples, and Westerners. Connectedness characterized their brand of observation.
In the wild Goodall didn’t need to hide her pregnancy or make superhuman claims. When her infant demanded attention, she scaled down her field observation: “He still wakes early,” she wrote in the summer of 1967. “I mess around with him till about 10 & then he sleeps & I do chimps until he wakes about 1.30.”51 She spent the better part of 1968 taking care of her baby, observing the chimps, and revising her dissertation. This fluidity was not achievable for women working in laboratories back in the United States; their pregnancies and children underscored boundaries separating home life and work life, domesticity and science. The decision to take family leave after the birth of a child–the decision to have a child–were gambles that could cost a career.
The sexual trysts of all three Trimates also suggest that the blurring of personal and professional relationships was inevitable in the permeable space of the field. Hugo van Lawick, whom Goodall divorced in 1974, was one of the few eligible bachelors she was in contact with, since she spent every waking moment logging hours in the forest. Leakey introduced the pair, understanding better than anyone that life in the field, with its intensity and isolation, bred instant intimacy between people already connected by common interest. It was the same intimacy that led to the engagement of several field researchers at Gombe and two of Fossey’s best researchers at Karisoke, much to her resentment. In the field the social protocol of the lab went out the window. Native-born trackers and credentialed scientists stood virtually on equal footing with each other and the animals. At Camp Leakey the punishing conditions of the rainforest required the unique skill set of Galdikas’s second husband, Pak Bohap. He won her admiration because of his intuitive sense of the animals; his lack of formal education was irrelevant.
Goodall and Fossey maintained loose pecking orders between senior scientists, junior managers, graduate students, trackers, camp and field staff, and assistants, but they often ignored seniority based on academic degrees. Jane believed that her native field assistants knew “more about following the chimpanzees through the forest, and . . . more about their behavior, than most university students.”52
Hence the camps of the Trimates were unique meritocracies, in which intuition and intimate knowledge of subject were valued over distanced and impersonal study. Formal education, professional connections, fast-track promotions–all things men achieved more successfully than women in the lab–held no currency in the field. Individualist ambition, the mark of Anne Roe’s elite scientist in the 1950s, seemed to dissolve in the trees. One need only look at the acknowledgments in the Trimates’ books to understand what they valued most; they didn’t thank academic mentors, but domestic workers, nannies, assistants, secretaries, and data collectors, who would have been grunts back in the lab. Gombe was a nearly classless and collaborative space, where one’s hard-earned data was shared in another’s dissertation research. One woman recalled with fondness the cooperative feeling of research meetings and the dinners that receded them; no one ate until everyone had showered, dressed, and come to the table. The mood was familial, the work interdisciplinary. Zoologists, anthropologists, ethologists, ecologists, psychiatrists, and psychologists broke down disciplinary boundaries to come to an integrated understanding of primate and human.53
Was the Trimates’ a feminist science? The question is not necessarily the same as whether or not the Trimates were feminists themselves. Dale Peterson, editor of Goodall’s published letters, noted that at any given time since she had first come to Tanzania Goodall had been seen “as the little girl who thought she could; the sweet Ophelia who dreamed of animals; the feisty feminist in a man’s world; the ironic traditionalist in a woman’s world; the inspired nurturer; Mother Teresa of the apes; Tarzan’s better half; and so on.” Most of these characterizations were ones that Goodall herself had rejected. She told a reporter in 1972 that if he wanted to find evidence of women’s liberation at the Gombe Reserve, he had better keep looking. Her chimps had convinced her that the traditional gender roles of the 1950s were most natural: if women had children, they belonged with them in the home. Why was she the exception, then? She wasn’t, she reasoned, since her home and work were both in the forest. She portrayed herself as a sort of stay-at-home mom, who breast-fed her son on demand, since mother chimps had shown that hands-on parenting fostered self-assurance in their young.54
But that’s not how American women generally saw her. The timing of her celebrity coincided with their growing desire to see models of female careerism and autonomy. She set off for Tanzania on the eve of President Kennedy’s convening of the Commission on the Status of Women; “Jungle Jane” seemed very much the antidote to the misery Betty Friedan had exposed in suburban homes. She looked like the mom next door, but instead of driving children to school she appeared to live alone in the wild without a safety net. Dian Fossey’s public image, too, took on a life of its own. A New Yorker staff writer referred to her as “the prototypical gutsy lady doing her thing.” By virtue of living and working in the harsh Virunga Mountains, she was presumably acting in defiance of convention.55 It was perhaps no coincidence that filmmakers chose Sigourney Weaver to play Fossey in the 1988 film adaptation of Gorillas in the Mist, for in Alien and Working Girl the actress had played a headstrong, independent woman as competent as any man, if not more so. It was easy to envision Weaver among the gorillas of Africa, after watching her bust proverbial balls in boardrooms and monsters’
heads on other planets.
Biruté Galdikas didn’t seem to mind the feminist label: “My personal decisions to get my Ph.D., to go to Southeast Asia, to spend my life studying and rescuing orangutans, and to postpone having children were all part of a wave of the future,” she reflected in 1995. She had read Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch before heading to the field, and it was a great disappointment when she discovered that “orangutans were decidedly sexist,” as she or Greer would have defined the term. “I had come of age during the 1960s, the decade when women in North America began saying for the first time that they were no different from men,” she explained. And yet the more she tried to find similarities between male and female orangutans, the more she came up short.56
Women primatologists have been reluctant to accept essentialist conclusions about alleged distinctions between male and female “nature,” but in the past three decades they have been thoughtful about the historical and social factors that have helped to shape their field into a women-centered science. Leakey’s promotion of the Trimates attracted women to the field, but older woman scientists also provided inspiration as role models. Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead had paved the way earlier in the twentieth century for women to imagine traveling to exotic places to observe, but a tradition of fieldwork with apes in particular also persisted through the work of Frances Burton, Suzanne Ripley, Alison Richard, Barbara Harrisson, Cheryl Knott, Penny Patterson, and
Jane Lancaster. Adrienne Zihlman recalled reading Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa and Benedict’s Patterns of Culture in the 1950s and finding inspiration in graduate mentor Laura Nader, who taught as she nursed a young child. Younger women could envision themselves assuming roles as scientists, wives, and mothers simultaneously, since they had seen it done before. Linda Fedigan believes that women primatologists have consciously chosen a field they perceive as an “equal opportunity science.” Here they have found professional camaraderie and opportunities to conduct research with feminist implications, which is often the case in newer and marginalized specialties. Fifty years ago there was not a single woman who held a primatology PhD; in 2000, women received 78 percent of the PhDs in the field.57
As women observed apes in their natural habitats, they amassed evidence to refute essentialist ideas validating men’s dominance over women. Jane Lancaster, for example, rejected the stereotype of the passive, dependent female in 1973, and others have supported her claims by studying matrilineal networks in which estrous females, too, show competitiveness in the realm of reproduction. “No single pattern of aggressivity, dominance, troop defense, sexual dimorphism, territoriality, competition, or any other social behaviors exist across or even within primate species,” Ruth Bleir concluded in 1978, “–except in the wishful thinking of male investigators.” The very use of the term “harem” in describing congregates of female animals she called “androcentric fantasy.” Traditionally men studied primates according to categories of “dominant males,” “peripheral males,” and the reproductive unit “females and young,” but women have refigured social categories and documented evidence of matrilineal and female-bonded primate societies.58
The constructs of male breadwinner and female homemaker had been outgrowths of “man the hunter” and “woman the gatherer,” but they belied women’s primatological findings too. Early hominid studies decentered home and family in explanations of human evolution; domesticity as we know it has never been an organizing principle in the life of an ape. Sally Linton urged her colleagues in the 1970s to challenge the notion that human beings’ “first tools” presupposed the primacy of the technology of weapons over baby slings, containers, and other inventions that females developed as nurturers and gatherers of food. Sarah Hrdy offered similar challenges to Irven DeVore’s widely accepted interpretations of baboons. His description of a central hierarchy of males competing for power and access to fertile females, she concluded, “was a more accurate portrayal of what goes on in American graduate schools, with the big man bringing up his protégés and sleeping with impressionable undergraduates, than of anything that goes on in baboon society.”59
Through the 1960s, the Trimates’ unique relationships to their subjects of study continued to raise eyebrows. Robert Hinde, for example, had encouraged his pupils to embrace a detached, empirical approach, although a decade or more later, he accepted and even championed their observational science. The Trimates, it seems clear now, told larger-than-life stories about their beloved animals, thus inspiring idealistic men and women to leave the West for work with the apes. Readers of their books cried at the deaths of Greybeard and Digit; theirs was science made popular both by their social purpose and their ethics. Critics worried that in narrating the lives of apes the Trimates incorrectly assumed that animals and humans could make sense of the world in the same ways. Galdikas, for instance, told a New York Times reporter that female orangs screamed only when being raped. Her characterization seemed to project human sensibility on animal behavior, but she argued that she saw orangs as individually distinctive, if not equal, in the natural order.60
By the 1970s scientists and laypeople were more amenable to Galdikas’s perspective, with some qualifications. Critical of the masculine bravado of the atomic age and the technical proliferation that had followed, some were ready to accept kinder, gentler scientific models, which connected to nature and which valued culturally female abilities to observe and raise questions about the natural world. Alison Jolly, whose graduate training in primatology coincided with Goodall’s, agrees that paradigms changed significantly between the 1960s and the 1990s. Primatology, like science in general, accounts increasingly for individual difference, but it has also become more collaborative, integrated, and environmentally conscious. Some might describe this as a turn toward feminist science, others, a turn toward science that is more humane. Why not view both brands of science as indelibly one and the same?61
References for this section:
45. Linda Marie Fedigan, “Science and the Successful Female: Why There Are So
Many Women Primatologists,” American Anthropologist, new series, 96, no. 3 (1994):
536; Donna Haraway, Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science (New York: Routledge, 1989), 156-60; Galdikas, Reflections of Eden, 30.
46. Haraway, Primate Visions, 150, 166, 169; Fedigan, “Science and the Successful
Female,” 533, 529-40; Krasner, “Ape Ladies,” 237-39; Schiebinger, Has Feminism Changed Science? 6.
47. Krasner, “‘Ape Ladies,'” 245.
48. Galdikas, “Living with Orangutans,” National Geographic, (June 1980): 853.
49. Galdikas, Reflections of Eden, 20; Fossey, Gorillas in the Mist, 9.
50. Goodall, In the Shadow of Man, 132-33; Africa in My Blood, 271, 282.
51. Goodall, Beyond Innocence, 52, 73.
52. Emelie Bergman and David Riss and Geza Teleki and Ruth Davis were researchers
who got engaged at Gombe. Sandy Harcourt and Kelly Stewart, daughter of actor Jimmy
Stewart, got engaged at Karisoke and later married. Kevles, Watching the Wild Apes, 56; Lindsay, Jane Goodall, 35; Goodall, Beyond Innocence, 2.
53. Goodall, In the Shadow of Man, xv-xvii; Through a Window, 25; Beyond Innocence,
54. Peterson in Goodall, Africa in My Blood, 2; Montgomery, Walking with the Great
Apes, 34, 40.
55. Shoumatoff, African Madness, 9.
56. Galdikas, Reflections of Eden, 330, 205.
57. Haraway, Primate Visions, 333; Fedigan, “Science and the Successful Female,” 530-
35; Schiebinger, Has Feminism Changed Science? 91, 127.
58. Ruth Bleier, “Bias in Biological and Human Sciences: Some Comments,” Signs 4,
no. 1 (1978): 161-62.
59. Linda Fedigan, Primate Paradigms: Sex Roles and Social Bonds (Montreal: Eden
Press, 1982); Haraway, Primate Visions, 334. Hrdy quoted in Shoumatoff, African Madness, 19; Schiebinger, Has Feminism Changed Science? 127-38.
60. Mowat, Woman in the Mist, 269-70.
61. Montgomery, Walking with the Great Apes, 104.