Understanding Women’s Contributions to Ecological Field Research

I had written almost exclusively about men.

That’s something I realized after finishing my book manuscript on environmental expertise, nature conservation, and international organizations in the post-war period. Without bad intentions, I had done what is so easily done in the history of science: the reproduction of scientific gender hierarchies through following the well-documented traces of male scientists, and using the rich and available collections at the organizations and universities where they worked.

While these are important sources which let us tell relevant stories, they sometimes make us overlook the informal contributions to the production of knowledge by more marginal actors, including, at least into the 1970s, the role of women. To be fair, a number of women naturalists have been studied in their own right.[1] Yet we still know very little about the gendered history of ecology and the informal contributions by partners (mostly women) who accompanied researchers (mostly men) to conferences, to chairs, or on fieldwork.

An example of the role of spouses in collaborative fieldwork is the work of Marty (Martha) Hayne Talbot and Lee Merriam Talbot. Together, these two Americans led several ecological studies like a survey of the fauna of the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem, a savannah in today’s Tanzania and Kenya, between 1959 and 1961. The project, financed by the Foreign Field Research Program of the National Academy of Sciences, the New York Zoological Society, and the Government of Kenya, entailed the first comprehensive study of animal migration in East Africa—and is still frequently cited by wildlife ecologists to this day.

Both Talbots had degrees in Biology before they got married to each other. Marty got hers in 1954 from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. An enthusiastic naturalist, she then became involved in setting up a student conservation program with the U.S. National Park Service, and met Lee at a Sierra Club meeting shortly thereafter. Lee, who had received a BA in Wildlife Conservation from the University of California at Berkeley in 1953, would go on to work for his PhD and establish a scientific career for himself. Yet Marty also used their collaborative work to further her interest in biology and nature protection, for instance working as a research associate with the Smithsonian Institution and an assistant director of the Southeast Asia Project of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

During the twentieth century, many well-educated women accompanied their husbands on ecological expeditions. Juliette Huxley, for instance, herself a literary scholar, joined her husband, the British evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley, on several trips to Africa during the 1950s and 1960s. She published Wild Lives of Africa in 1964, a widely-read account of their travels. Yet, as in so many cases, Juliette Huxley never was really readily accepted as her husband’s scientific counterpart by the established, male-dominated ecological community.

At least into the 1970s, scientific (co)publications by women companions and women researchers remained sparse. The co-authored reports and articles that Marty and Lee Talbot published after their stay in East Africa must be seen as exceptions. Nevertheless, women’s travel reports and life writing tell us much about the informal ways in which women contributed informally to ecological field research—ranging from scientific administration to field observation, and from participating in animal taming experiments to drafting scientific reports. Moreover, this work tells us much about the ways in which international research teams interacted with local communities. This provides a lens to investigate discourses on human-nature relationships underlying ecological research in particular regions.[2]

Patterns of ecological authorship began to change by the mid-1970s. Scholars have described how the rise of “gendered” branches of ecology, such as primatology, allowed more women to build formal academic careers and engage in field work practices in official investigator roles.[3] Also, in mainstream wildlife ecology, women such as Linda Maddock contributed with individual projects to milestone publications like her 1979 synthesis of Serengeti research called Serengeti: Dynamics of an Ecosystem.[4] Again, this was facilitated by disciplinary changes. The emergence of large-scale ecological monitoring projects during the 1970s required an expertise in early computer programming that was often held by women, for whom these relatively new types of clerical skills were deemed appropriate.[5]   

The role of marginal voices in our understanding of human-nature relationships has been receiving more and more attention. Within post-colonial environmental history, especially, there are many inspiring authors, who have highlighted the agency of marginalized local actors within colonial hierarchies of knowledge.[6] Here, the focus has often been on colonial rather than gender hierarchies. Still, spaces like colonial and post-colonial field camps can tell us a lot about gender, environmental thought, and the development of ecology as a discipline. Scientific publications, a standard source for historians of science, can also tell us about the official roles that women could fill in the ecological establishment.

Yet, in order to understand their informal contributions, we can learn from the insights by other fields, such as New Imperial History, that have already problematized the ways in which colonial archives suppress the voices of the colonized.[7] In a similar way, history of science archives, often consisting of the collections of personal papers and correspondences by established male scientists, do not bring to light the informal contributions by the unestablished. Therefore, we need to look beyond the archive and into alternative sources, such as life writing or interviews.

I know I will do so in my next book project.

[1] Anna-Katharina Wöbse, Klara Enss – eine Sylter Biografie: Kritisch denken, politisch handeln – gut leben. Husum: Husum Druck- und Verlagsgesellschaft mbH u. Co. KG, 2017; Barbara R. Stein, On Her Own Terms: Annie Montague Alexander and the Rise of Science in the American West (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press), 2002; Linda Lear, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature (Boston & New York: Mariner Books Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009).

[2] See e.g. Kay Turner, Serengeti Home (Nairobi, Kenia: K. Turner, 1977).

[3] Donna Haraway, Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science (New York, NY: Routledge, 2006).

[4] A.R.E. Sinclair, Serengeti I: Dynamics of an Ecosystem (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1979).

[5] See e.g. Janet Abbate, Recording Gender: Women’s Changing Participation in Computing (Boston, MA: MIT Press, 2012).

[6] Examples include Nancy J. Jacobs’ Birders of Africa: History of a Network (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016); and Megan Raby’s American Tropics: The Caribbean Roots of Biodiversity Science (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

[7] Antoinette M. Burton, Dwelling in the Archive: Women Writing House, Home, and History in Late Colonial India (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2003).

*Cover Image Credit: “Martie and Lee Talbot raiding a lioness, Kenya 1960,” reproduced with kind permission from Harvard University Archives, HUGFP 78.75 (Folder 2).