When I set out to write a book on what science tells us about women—a topic as controversial as it is vast—there was one person I knew I had to meet. So I found myself on the sun-drenched road to Winters, a town in California’s western Sacramento Valley. Here, a picturesque walnut farm is home to one of the most incredible women in science, a thinker whose work one researcher told me reduced her to tears. Anthropologist and primatologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, now professor emerita at the University of California, Davis, can reasonably be credited with transforming the way biologists think about females.
“Everything I am interested in, initially, it’s personal,” she told me as we parked ourselves in deep couches outside her study. Now in her seventies, Hrdy came from a conservative American family which made its money from oil. “I grew up in South Texas, a deeply patriarchal, deeply racist part of the world.” The juxtaposition between this and her current liberal Californian life could not be starker. But it’s also no accident.
She admits that she was timid as a young woman; not a revolutionary by temperament. Growing up in the politically-charged 1960s shaped both her and her thoughts about science. Studying primate behaviour during fieldwork in India, she discovered how powerful females could be, even in male-dominated species. This eventually lead her to write her seminal 1981 book The Woman Who Never Evolved, a beautiful and thorough account of female sexual agency, cracking wide open the longstanding notion that females are naturally passive and coy—as many biologists at the time believed.
For her groundbreaking ideas, Hrdy has been described as the original Darwinian feminist. Along with other female scientists at the time, she is credited with shaking up the male establishment in evolutionary biology and daring to present something new—something that, despite the evidence in her favour, still not everyone wants to accept.
Her later works explored how children are raised, making the powerful case that humans did not evolve to have mothers as sole childcarers, but that we are unusual in being a species that breeds cooperatively. “The nuclear family is fairly new as an invention. People don’t realise that. They think of Adam and Eve… they assume that it was natural. It’s not,” she said.
Through careful research, she also attempted to understand how female sexual repression over thousands of years influenced the way scientists thought about women’s minds and bodies. When male biologists in the 1970s claimed that the female orgasm hadn’t evolved for a purpose, or that women were naturally monogamous, Hrdy challenged them on their own turf.
Her work was radical at the time it was published. Yet forty years on, it still feels daisy fresh, possibly because science hasn’t shed all its sexism and stereotypes. In the upper echelons, it remains dominated by men. Sex difference is one of the most fashionable fields of study, but papers and books still get published claiming that women have different brains from men, and that we have evolved to occupy different roles in society: women as natural, intuitive caregivers, and men as intellectual thinkers and hunters. Just recently, a paper appeared in a journal claiming that women are less intelligent than men. Controversies like these are what drove me to California in the first place—and to write my own book, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story, profiling the work of Hrdy and others.
“I think that when women, especially in the past, came up with things, they just didn’t get the credit for it. It just didn’t happen. Of course, the famous example was Rosalind Franklin. But I see it happening today still,” Hrdy told me. She herself was once advised by a senior male colleague to stick to being a mother. She also knew of male professors harassing women or having affairs, and backing each other up to avoid getting caught. “All through my career these things were going on. We did not speak out openly the way the women are doing now.”
As young women begin to speak out about sexism today, a new light is also being shone on female scientists in the past. Another important biologist and friend of Hrdy, Patricia Gowaty, lives high in the Santa Monica hills in Los Angeles (Hrdy gave me a fresh bag of walnuts to take for her). When I arrived at her home, she was equally vocal about the problems in her field. What makes both hers and Hrdy’s life stories so fascinating is that they entered science at a time when women were only just being welcomed into academia and gaining prominence—and all this happened to coincide with a new wave in feminism.
“In the late 1960s, all over the country, there were groups that were coming together to consciousness-raise,” Gowaty told me. “The idea of consciousness-raising was simply to talk and to bring to consciousness the ideas associated with the feminism that was emerging at that time. It wasn’t particularly academic, but it was very much about paying attention to constraints.” Feminism didn’t just affect how she thought about her life, but also became a rallying cry in her work.
Early in her career, Gowaty studied bluebirds and noticed that females—counter to popular wisdom that stated they were sexually passive and monogamous—were travelling considerable distances to mate with other males. “Females will get up in the middle of the night and fly a mile away,” she laughed. But when she informed her male colleagues, they refused to accept it. The birds must have been raped, they told her. Since then, Gowaty has dedicated her career to exploring mistakes perpetuated by scientific stereotypes about females, particularly when it comes to sexuality.
Women of my age—I was born in 1980—are sometimes accused of not understanding the struggles of the women who went before us. The critics are right. We take for granted the doors that were opened before we were born. We’re incensed when we encounter sexism, when our predecessors may have bristled but carried on because they had no other choice. We forget the battles they fought every single day so their daughters could someday go to work without facing the same problems.
Indeed, women were fighting even before Sarah Hrdy and Patricia Gowaty were born. During the first wave of women’s rights in the late nineteenth century, critics vocally challenged Charles Darwin and other biologists who claimed that women were the less-evolved sex, intellectually beneath men. In 1916 American campaigner and writer Eliza Burt Gamble published an entire book in response to Darwin’s The Descent of Man, titled The Evolution Of Woman: An Inquiry Into the Dogma of Her Inferiority to Man.
Feminism and science may seem like an uneasy combination, threatening to rational and unbiased scientific endeavour. But in fact it has been vitally important to improving science. Inspired by feminism, scientists like Hrdy and Gowaty have helped provide a vital corrective to past mistakes in research, a check against new ones, and a response to entrenched sexism.
If science were fairer, they might be far more widely recognised as the incredible pioneers they are. Instead, their work bubbles along, gently making waves, quietly moving people to tears, and gradually shifting the bedrock of what we think we know. They are feminists, and they are heroines—but always, always, they are scientists first.