I Was Once a Revolutionary

Exposed in Print, I Now Tell My Story

I was recently exposed for my previous revolutionary activities.

Everything they said about me and my fellow activists is true. And that time was one of the most interesting and intellectually engaging periods of my life. That’s because this particular revolution was not about governance or politics; there was no civil war involved. Instead, it was a scientific revolution that changed the very foundations of the discipline of evolutionary biology.


The reveal, with my work cited several times, wasn’t posted on Facebook or Twitter. Nor was it part of some investigative reporting by The New York Times. It arrived quietly in the mail at university libraries in the January 2020 issue of the British academic journal Animal Behaviour (volume 164, pages 251–260 and authored by Zulema Tang-Martínez of the University of Missouri-St. Louis).


But still, it was fun to see the article and be cited as one of the women in the 1970s and 1980s who helped the discipline of animal behavior, and primatology, in particular, to wake up and see that the lives of female primates were rich in complexity and agency.


We did this by standing in the field or watching captive colonies to gather data on the behavior of primates (prosimians, monkeys, and apes) to test our point. In doing so, we brought to the table innovative observations and theoretical perspectives that pulled animal behavior from a male-centered discipline onto a more level playing field.


I was fully aware at the time that I was participating in a ground-breaking shift. It was also clear that this change was happening, in part, because we were in the midst of the feminist revolution which put more women into college and graduate school. Reliable birth control (the pill) also gave women the option of delaying or forgoing childbirth which then removed the stigma of possible motherhood from any equation that men in power might use to keep women out of the field or the classroom. In essence, this revolution in animal behavior was a revolution (evolutionary biology) within a revolution (the feminist revolution) within a revolution (the sexual revolution). It was clearly a revolution made by the times and we were well aware of it.


It’s no surprise that primatology in particular lead the new “feminist” animal behavior. Primatology already had some high profile women filed workers in Jane Goodall, Biruté Galdikas, and Dian Fossey, although their diligent observations of apes in the wild were often dismissed or downplayed as adventure rather than science. There were also established women animal behaviorists, such as Thelma Rowell, Devra Kleinman, as well as anthropologists and primatologists Jane Lancaster, Jean Altmann, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Phyllis Dolhinow, and Alison Jolly who were the first wave of this academic revolution. In demanding visibility for their work and ideas they lead the way for others, like me, to follow.


Also, anyone doing primate work in those days was a sort of pioneer experience because primatology was just beginning as an official discipline. Others had conducted broad descriptive studies of various primate groups but in the mid to late 1970s it was still a nascent discipline that was starting to apply the scientific method to behavior. As such, the gates were open for innovation.


Primatologists come from various disciplines such as zoology, psychology, ethnology, and ecology but I was lucky enough to be trained as an anthropologist, a discipline that has always been gender-equal. Cultural anthropology in particular had been populated with women who gladly went off to study non-Western cultures, and some had popular visibility such as Margaret Mead who was a media star. The work of those women made any anthropology department, even back then, a comfortable place to be, both intellectually and physically.


My particular induction as a revolutionary came in a very obvious way. I was a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Colorado intending to do human paleontology. Then I took the only offered course on primatology (not even taught by a primatologist) and we read the one primate “textbook” at the time which was a series of sketches of various species. While reading that book, I realized that when females were mentioned the comments only related to motherhood. As a young woman with no children, and with ambitions for an academic career, that made no sense to me. So, I went up to the professor and asked, “What about the female monkeys who don’t have babies? What about them?” His response was simple, and it changed my life. “I have no idea,” he responded. “And you should study that.” And so, I did.

I switched to a school that had a growing primatology reputation and a primate research center, the University of California at Davis, and went on to do my Ph.D. dissertation on two species of female macaques (a type of monkey) without infants. Later I studied a third species of macaques and again focused on females. Eventually, I wrote a book called Female Choiceswhich summed up all the theory and work that had been conducted on female primates to date.


In the process, I helped upend the entrenched idea that female primates (which, course, includes humans) were passive actors in their own lives. Instead, I, and many others working at the time on the same issues, showed that female primates were not passive at all; they were interested in sex, had power in their mate choices, evaluated males for their own reproductive success, were the prominent members of social networks in some species and dominant over males in others and they did a lot more than have babies. And that’s what made me a revolutionary.

I moved away from that path in the 1990s and began to write trade books and magazine articles highlighting broad ideas in anthropology and the work of other researchers. But still, last month I was interviewed by filmmaker Mark Devries for an upcoming documentary on evolutionary biology. Once a revolutionary, always a revolutionary, I guess.


The women involved in reshaping animal behavior in the 1970s and 1980s were persistent, clever, educated, well trained, hardworking, and smart. That’s why we won that revolution.

And it was glorious.


(Also published on Medium.com.)

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