If there were one subject that I were to not write about and feel the most regret over not doing so, it would be the role of feminism within primatology.
It is absolutely unthinkable to consider what primatology would be like without the work and contributions of female scientists such as Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, Birutė Galdikas, Jeanne Altmann, Linda Fedigan, Barbara Smuts, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, Marina Cords, Tara Stoinski, Susan Alberts, Anne Pusey, Alison Jolly, and Deborah Fouts–I could honestly go on and spew about at least a hundred names of female primatologists as this is one of the few fields which women have contributed from early on, and thus, one of the reasons why primatology is the strong, developed field it is today.
For myself, personally, I am influenced by two phenomenal women primatologists: Karen Strier and Katherine MacKinnon. Both of these women have individually touched my experience in primatology and shaped me into who and what I intend to do with my life today.
The Female Scholars Role
Aside from the female primatologists, female perspective has also shaped a significant niche within the academic subject. One might think the role of female scientists in primatology is based on the potential for females to “correct” the findings from male scientists to fit a female perspective paradigm, but this could not be farther from the truth (Sperling 1991). The role of women in primatology is beyond that of a grader, women have been able to produce information to advance the field in such instances as Goodall’s famous redefinition of what it means to be human (because of primate tool use) to Joan Silk’s debate over relevant terminology such as “friendship” (because of affiliative social behaviors between baboons) to Patricia Wright’s discovery of the golden bamboo lemur. It’s undeniable at this point that females have had and will continue to have a significant role in shaping, constructing, and defining what primatology is and will become as an academic field.
So, if that’s the case, then why is it important to consider the paradigm of feminism within primatology? According to Schiebinger (2000), in the 1960’s, women received hardly any of the granted Ph.D.s in primatology compared to modern day, where women are now roughly 78% of primatology Ph.D.s granted in a given year. As a result, critiquing the perspectives of male-dominated theories and stereotypes became re-examined along with the role of female primates within a given social structure. Female primate literature began to take off, giving rise to ideas such as female mate choice which can undermine male mate choice and female dominance hierarchy such as in Japanese macaques (Primates in Perspective 479, 487).
But with this rise of female scientists came examination at a condescending cost.
Women and “Cute”
As the numbers of women in primatology with Ph.D.s increased, the examination of why primatology was such a female “friendly” field followed. One of the more offensive, demeaning, and grossly untrue (from this writer’s perspective) theories was of the “Big Brown Eyes” Hypothesis. In this, it was assumed that women studied primates to work with the cutesy-wutsy little animulls with which they could take care of and hug forever and ever. As Fedigan (1994) points out, anyone who has studied primates beyond prosimians (and even then as slow lorises could be harmful) would know that primates are far from cute–they can be unpredictable, vicious, and downright nasty.
Oh, how cute--I bet they'd look even cuter with those canines in your flesh!
Speaking as someone who has had first-hand interactions with primates: we, especially in the western world where we generally don’t have living extant primates (e.g. Canada and United States of America), we don’t have the first hand knowledge of what primates are really like. For instance, we typically don’t experience our crops getting raided by primates which might fight back against a protective farmer whose livelihood depends on the crops.
I’d also like to echo SpiderMonkeyTales‘ sentiments on this theory as someone else who has done field work (and here, I speak on my own behalf, but I’d like to think this is maybe a shared thought): there is nothing that cute that can get me to willingly visit the Costa Rican rainforest during the rainy season, get eaten alive by mosquitoes (and potentially risk infectious diseases), awful sunburn, upset stomach and other travel sicknesses, chasing after barely visible subjects, getting literally shit on and covered in maybe-but-not-necessarily-literal shit, visit potentially war-torn countries, potentially damaging important social relationships, investing tons of money into travel, food, gear, and supplies.
Field work is “fucking hard” on every level imaginable: mentally, physically, and emotionally, as I’ve had two seasoned veterans admit to me. And suggesting we’re doing it just to see something cute? Check that mentality at the door, please.
Primatology: why should we care about feminism and why a female primate’s work is never going to be done.
Although I’ve stated the contributions from female primatologists in the subject, there is still the issue of why feminism is critical to science and primatology. If it isn’t obvious by the fact that women compose at least half of the population (and therefore have an intrinsic right to a voice which concerns their heritage and environment), here’s why: women’s contribution to science can enhance the study, find new perspectives worth examining (or, because this is Science and Science need not always be new! exciting! or supported! to be worthwhile, as “failures” are worth examining as well), and shape the discipline, theoretical framework, and questions we ask to get the knowledge we actively seek.
Furthermore, as we are around half of the population, expanded research into feminist perspectives for scientific queries could enhance the “gendered dimensions of life that conventional categories of analysis ignore” (Fedigan 1997). Even if we are unable to specifically determine how non-human primates identify in terms of gender or sex, this absolutely does not mean we should be limiting our human primate scientific perspectives in terms of only male and female, but explore what other paradigms outside of the traditional perspective.
While it is true primatology offers strong role models for women in the aforementioned primatologists at the beginning of this post, I would be sorely remiss if I did not believe that who we can offer is not necessarily indicative of what we can offer. Primatology is a field that still can be hard to break into, however, if one is willing to work hard, there is always work to be done.
Fedigan, L.M. (1994). Science and the successful female: why there are so many women primatologists. American Anthropologist, 96(3), 529-540. http://www.jstor.org/stable/682298
Fedigan, L.M. (1997). Is primatology a female science? Women in Human Evolution. L. Hager (ed.) Routledge Press, 56-75. http://people.ucalgary.ca/~fedigan/Fedigan%201997b.pdf
Primates in Perspective, 2nd Edition. Edited by C.J. Campbell, A. Fuentes, K.C. MacKinnon, M. Panger, S.K. Bearder, and Strumpf R.M. Oxford University Press, NY, 2011.
Schiebinger, L. (2000). Has Feminism Changed Science? Signs, 25(4), 1171-1175. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3175507
Sperling, S. (1991). Baboons with Briefcases: Feminism, Functionalism, and Sociobiology in the Evolution of Primate Gender. Signs, 17(1), 1-27. http://courses.csusm.edu/hist460ae/genderaniamls.pdf
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