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Jane Goodall

From Women in European History

Jane Goodall


Africa in my Blood: An Autobiography in Letters: The Early Years (Houghton Mifflin, 2000)

(Critical Biography by Allen L. Linton II)



Valerie Jane Morris Goodall is usually described as anthropologist, primatologist, ethologist, and in 1966 “probably the best qualified person in the world today to speak on the subject of chimpanzee behavior in the wild.” [1] Today, Goodall stands one of the most recognizable people within science for her hands-on work with animals and activism via the Jane Goodall Institute. What Goodall lacked in formal training and education, though acquired later in her career, she compensated with a tenacity and drive to engage with animals never possible before her arrival in Africa. Dale Peterson writes “Jane Goodall ought to be considered a uniquely distinguished pioneer in the science of ethology and the world’s preeminent field zoologist.”[2] There remains one obvious question that follows a woman with unprecedented accomplishments: How did a woman accomplish so much in a male-dominated field during a time of inequality for women? More often than not, people list her accomplishments without an appreciation for the challenges presented as a woman in science. Without diminishing the more-than-successful career of Goodall, her success in science is directly connected to her gender, being a woman.

Jane Goodall’s methods, academic work, and contributions to the world reflect the utmost work ethic, original thought, and brilliance. In no way do I propose to minimize the gravity of her accomplishments and scientific brilliance, but her success relied on obtaining the opportunities to work within her element: one-on-one with the animals. These opportunities, facilitated by future mentor Louis Leakey, came to fruition by Goodall’s insistence to study animal behavior along with the fact that she was a woman. Ultimately, two overarching points will become clear by the end of this piece: 1) Jane Goodall benefited tremendously from being a woman and 2) Jane Goodall represents a shift towards women’s independence in the field of science. Sexist thought assumed Goodall, and any woman, possessed unique skills and qualities beneficial to biology that men did not. Ironically, the sexism preventing equality in the sciences becomes the opportunity for Goodall to succeed and redefine the role of women in science for years to come.[3]

Growing Up: Developing an Interest in Animals

Jane Goodall began cultivating an interest in animals early in her life through reading, writing, drawing, and interacting with animals around her. Early letters to her childhood friend Sally Cury reveal an acute attention to animal detail as letters were accompanied by pictures of insects and fish. Though unusual among children, Goodall can be seen developing a more human relationship with animals early in her life, something that would help her analysis of chimpanzees in Africa. This developing relationship with animals eventually becomes her greatest point of criticism, as viewing animals as humans is contrary to the scientific method. Goodall discusses dressing Jublee, her stuffed chimpanzee, among her animal-laced letter to her mother[4]; although this interaction seems mundane and childish at best, this begins the interpersonal relationships she finds between animals and humans. Furthermore, these interactions, actions encouraged to enforce gender roles in society,(caring, loving, etc) contributed to her unique relationship with understanding animals. Within society today, certainly emphasized more during the 1940s, girls become conditioned to engage with stuffed animals and dolls associated with gender roles. For Goodall, however, these engagements cultivated a more interpersonal analysis for animals. By developing analytical skills predicated on interpersonal interactions, Goodall could identify animal behavior unidentifiable to traditional scientists and scientific methods.

A Young Jane Goodall

In later letters, Goodall began her most controversial practice within her research, the naming of animals during scientific study. In 1947, she began documenting dogs using their breed, the dog's name, and the “kind of owner” to distinguish different species.[5] Her early methods reveal an attention beyond the animal science but on the emotional bonds and influences on individuals within the atmosphere of women. Considering the stereotypes of women representing emotional connections and men representing strength, emphasis on Goodall's methodology seem less scientifically critical and more analytical within the given stereotype. When looking at the broad spectrum of her life, Goodall’s early attention to social interactions, albeit human-to-animal, influences her approach to working with real animals in the wild.

Opportunity and Initial Success

On Jane Goodall’s course to animal analysis, she benefited from experiences that cultivated an attitude suitable for working with animals. While working as a physiologist in a youth clinic, Goodall acknowledged the special abilities needed to work with those unlike her self. When dealing with crippled and paralyzed children, Goodall recognizes and processes the trials experienced by the youth as “a special gift from God to compensate for the lack of activity.[6]” This buttress of religion allowed Goodall to see beyond the differences between individuals, as well as animals, and appreciate the species in its own element. Goodall did not view these children as equivalent to animals, but did recognize her unique set of skills needed to be affective in different environments.

Either through religion or personal upbringing, Goodall introduced her own, unique methods to animal behavior analysis. Conventional scientific thought involves separating the human from the animal, but Goodall viewed this as an inhibitor to knowledge about animals. Without formal training, Goodall believed an open-minded approach to studying animals would yield more substantive information regarding behavior in the wild. Goodall's restrictions to formal scientific training, difficult for any woman of her time to acquire, impeded her progress into scientific work and forced her to implement her own scientific methods to animal biology. This refreshing perspective added to Goodall’s appeal when meeting Louis Leakey for a job in Africa.

According to Leakey, Jane Goodall possessed two characteristics that made her the ideal counterpart for ape research: motivation and her gender as a woman. Leakey believed academia too often influenced scientists with preconceptions of ape studies, and prevented more groundbreaking, fundamental analysis. Goodall, having not gone to receive a formal education, represented the ideal scientist for Leaky because her passion and motivation to study animals in their habitat remained free from traditional, academic influences. The characteristics Leaky sought for a capable assistant (uninfluenced by academic traditions, motivated, and comfort within a male-dominated animal structure) seem led him to searching for women. Goodall’s motivation, often coinciding with an “exceptional energy,” is founded in the difficulty of women to contribute to the scientific community. During the 20th century, advances in women working in science became more noticeable but women needed to prove their ability to do science as well as men. Limited access to higher education for women prevented women from getting more substantive jobs, given to men with the necessary academic qualifications. Goodall comments on gender restraints in her personal life in a letter to her family: “There is the vaguest possible chance that little me may have the chance to go right out into the wilds of the Northern Frontier for two of 3 months to study a strange tribe of chimpanzees who may be a new species, or sub-species…He says (Louis) that it might be hard as I’m a woman & one has to get the help of the [Direct Commissioner] there.”

When given working positions, women often did not receive the pay they deserved and did not get meaningful positions to contribute to scientific work. As women became more independent and educated, the opportunities did not compliment a dependent way of life. Low paying science jobs for women could not sustain living and made working in science unappealing. This creates a cyclical problem: there is a lack of equality with women in science, but the jobs women can get do not provide equal opportunity, so women do not enter the field. Similar to other institutional patriarchy, science offered the illusion of equality by giving some women, some jobs. Despite recent work to end gender discrimination in the sciences, authors note that women still encounter gender barriers within scientific careers.[7]

Amid these struggles, Goodall still gains the opportunity but her gender does not impede success, rather works as a mechanism for opportunity. Science, as an academic field of study, coincides with academic achievement and preparation. As previously discussed, science also favors males, as they are privy to he academic foundation needed to success. Goodall's journey is highly unusual as she faced an initial uphill battle: little academic experience and being a woman. For her to overcome both hindrances and begin research can best be described as a rare feat for women and prospective scientists alike. Leakey’s fondness for Goodall began as a scientific rationale for selecting women to interact with apes. Knowing male dominance is a characteristic of chimpanzee society, Leakey believed Goodall (being a woman) would be less threatening to the community.[8] During the 1940s, Leakey attempted to track chimpanzee behavior by sending a young, motivated man to collect observations in the wild. Unsuccessful in these efforts, Leakey attempted to research mountain gorillas by sending out his female secretary with minor success. Despite significant results, Leakey’s secretary successfully tracked gorillas with minor observations. Limited success with female researchers inspired Leakey to make a commitment to getting females into nature to track gorillas. Here is the unique logic: Leakey chooses women as researchers because they have limited access to education; their social position is what makes them, to him, desirable as scientists. But most other scientists disagree, and think that scientists need to be trained. Researchers naturally come with the connotations of formal training to identify their findings and relate them to the given scientific field. Women, through restricted access to research institutions, did not get the opportunity to develop scientific skills at the same level as men. Leakey's philosophy, informally educated women being best for research, appeared to lower standards for women rather than encourage vertical movement for women in science.[9] Socially, women without the same formal training do not carry the same credibility as those with degrees and researching backgrounds.

A more plausible reason for hiring Goodall, and supported via women working with Leakey, is the physical attraction Leakey experienced for young, good-looking women like Goodall. By Jane Goodall’s arrival in 1957, Leakey developed a double-edged reputation for giving women opportunities within science and for his informal, romantic relationships with these women. Within the circumstances at the time, Goodall is stuck in a conundrum: furthering her career to fulfill the dream of studying chimpanzees in their habitat or maintaining her reputation but risking losing her opportunity to research by spurning her mentor/suitor. Goodall struggles with her situation and immediately declares her contempt for Louis’ motives; later in the letter excerpt, she begins to consider the ramifications to her growing reputation:

“My situation here is really getting more and more tricky every day. Old Louis is infantile in his infatuation and is suggesting the most impossible things. I have absolutely no intention of getting involved with him in the ways he suggests…But suppose it got round? Suppose Mary*[10] got to hear of it? And, more than all that, it is the principle of the thing most important.”[11]

Choices between professional career and personal reputation, unfortunately, more often impact women compared to men. As a side effect of the male dominated workplace, women become relegated to a dependence role in accompanying male ambitions. Despite the anomaly that Jane Goodall represented, the male support structure around Goodall and Leakey attempted to regulate the trip out of her hands. Outside regulation came in the form of National Geographic trying to send photographers with her, Gombe Stream National Park officials attempting to restrict access to studying animals alone, and fellow scientists disputing her observations by highlighting her lack of formal training. Earlier in history, women were berated for intellectual inferiority to men; today we see women more often than men being forced into a choice between personal and professional lives. Almost inherent with a female’s profession decisions is the question of family (in particular children) and placing one aspect of life on hold for the other. Men, however, do not regularly encounter questions when ascending towards professional goals. For Jane Goodall, she chose to maintain her reputation and dedication to the field of study. Without doubt, she wanted her determination, motivation, and passion to be the measures of her preparation into Africa; it cannot be ignored, however, that her opportunity to study chimpanzees came through factors she could not control: youth, beauty, and womanhood.

Legacy to Women’s History

Scientifically, it is difficult to refute that Jane Goodall revolutionized the field of ethology. During the first year of study, Goodall identified chimpanzees eating meat, crafting objects to use as tools, social interaction between chimpanzees, and acclimating chimpanzees to her presence. At the time, Goodall became only the ninth person to be accepted to the Cambridge University Ph.D. program without an undergraduate degree. Outside of science, Jane Goodall’s legacy arguably surpasses her professional accomplishments. Goodall used the sexist ideology, women being more compassionate and better communicators, to gain opportunities and provide breakthroughs within science.

Goodall defiantly broke the traditional norms guiding science and women’s roles in a male dominated world. While she brought her own, academically unique, methodology for animal analysis, she also became a trailblazer for women’s independence in the workplace. For instance, the Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve approved Goodall’s request to study chimpanzees, but she could not study alone. In response, another woman is contacted and two women study in the forest without the watchful eye of a male. Unprecedented! When contacted by National Geographic for pictures of her work, Leakey send out a female photographer for initial pictures. Most importantly, Goodall’s immense success gave necessary credibility to women’s work ethic and knowledge translating into meaningful results. No biologist, and few other female scientists, carry the same reputation and inspiration embodied in Jane Goodall. Her work in Africa and with the Jane Goodall Institute show the potential for women to capitalize on opportunities to redefine the world around them.

Historically, female status represented a sexist motive for discrimination in various aspects of professional life. The same is still true today. Jane Goodall, arguably, would not have the opportunity to research were it not for both a professional and informal attraction by Louis Leakey. Instead of interpreting Goodall’s success as positive ramifications for being a woman, the reality is people continue to use gender as a judgment mechanism for opportunity and ability. Regardless of gender, Goodall’s greatest characteristic and most admirable gift to history is her ability to challenge the norms of science, the norms of thought, and the norms of being a woman.

Supplemental Information

See Additional Background Information


  1. Dr. Leonard Carmichael, Chairman of the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration
  2. Jane Goodall, Africa in My Blood: The Early Years (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 2.
  3. Lovgren, Stefan. “Africa Chimp Expert Extends ‘Path Goodall Blazed.’” National Geographic Explorer.
  4. Africa in My Blood, 13.
  5. Africa In My Blood, 21
  6. Africa In My Blood, 48
  7. Henry Etzkowitz, Carol Kemelgor, Brain Uzzi. Athena Unbound: The Advancement of Women in Science and Technology. Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  8. Africa in my Blood, 84
  9. Morell, Virginia. Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind’s Beginnings. New York: Simon & Shuster, 1995.
  10. Mary is Louis Leakey’s wife. Mary and Louis both worked in Africa focusing on excavations relating to Humankind’s origins. Mary is Louis’ second wife, but more importantly, is severely jealous of Louis’ new, female secretaries. Louis’ reputation for romantic relationships often created tumultuous research trips for all parties involved.
  11. Africa in my Blood,118

Annotated Bibliography

After reading Africa in My Blood, I assembled a list of books and articles necessary to understanding the work Jane Goodall accomplished and the controversy during her research with animals.

1) Goodall, Jane and Hugo van Lawick. In the Shadow of Man. New Jersey: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000.

Summary: This book, originally published in 1971, documents groundbreaking study of chimpanzee behaviors within their social hierarchy. Most interesting is Goodall’s emphasis on detailing the emotion chimpanzees present in their social interactions (friendship, relationship, enemies). Her accounts of chimpanzee emotional reactions make her distinct from other scientists studying prime apes, often times instigating controversy on the validity of her findings.

2) Greene, Meg. Jane Goodall: A Biography. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2005.

Summary: The biography for Jane Goodall offers a different perspective on the life work and studies in Africa. Greene’s story focuses more on her personal life overcoming two husbands (one divorce and one died), scientific criticisms, and reconciling spiritual turmoil. These personal trials help build the Goodall beyond the work with animals, and towards understanding her contributions as a woman in a male dominated field.

3) Lovgren, Stefan. “Africa Chimp Expert Extends ‘Path Goodall Blazed.’” National Geographic Explorer. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/02/0223_040223_lonsdorf.html#main (accessed April 14, 2009)

Summary: This article focuses on new research about chimps using science to chronicle generations of chimps and relationships. The importance of this article is the reference to Goodall as a trailblazer for her research. It is clear that the woman in the piece not only appreciates her work biologically, but showing the way for other women scientists to research in the wild.

4) Power, Margaret. The Egalitarians - Human and Chimpanzee An Anthropological: View of Social Organization. Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Summary: This text references why Goodall came under scrutiny for her methods of researching the chimpanzees. Most notably, Goodall did not number her subjects, rather giving them names; this led skeptics to believe she lost objective analytical skills when reporting on behaviors. Also discussed is the use of feeding repositories as controversial due to the changing of natural food seeking habits.

5) de Waal, Frans B. M., “A Century of Getting to Know the Chimpanzee.” Nature 437 (2005): 56-59

Summary: An interesting article from 2005, de Waal speaks to the concerns of Chimpanzee behavior studies being interfered with through controversial methods, some used by Jane Goodall. Despite the speculation, research comparable to Goodall’s leads to overwhelming strong conclusions on chimpanzee behavior leading humans to question our distance from prime apes.

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