Friday Bookshelf: "On Her Own Terms"

This week's Friday Bookshelf is actually a repeat of a blog post from the old blog site. It begins with a question:

Who was Annie Montague Alexander?

She lived from 1867 to 1950. Naturalist and philanthropist, she was the founder of two natural history museums at the University of California, Berkeley. Over her lifetime, she ranged widely throughout western North America and beyond, collecting specimens of plants and animals as well as fossils, many of which formed the basis of the museum collections. Early on she realized that increasing population growth in California was threatening the region's biodiversity. There are now seventeen taxa named for Alexander, and there are several others that honor her partner of forty years, Louise Kellog. Kellog went on to make more field trips after Alexander's death in 1950.

I learned about this remarkable woman by chance, while browsing through a used book store. The Wikipedia entry on Alexander makes it sound like she was a minor player in the specimen collecting expeditions. However, the biography by Barbara R. Stein, On Her Own Terms: Annie Montague Alexander and the Rise of Science in the American West, makes clear that Alexander was her own driving force and centrally involved in all the expeditions of which she was a part. She set traps, she slept out in the open, she prepared specimens - in short, she did not shirk from any required task. And it was her wealth that helped to establish the museums and set up scholarships, though typically she did it all in a self-effacing manner.

Did she inspire the men around her to open up more opportunities for women? Well, I am so sure you will find this hard to believe, but it seems that for at least two men in key positions, they considered her to be more or less outside the circle of women. An exception, if you will. So, not setting any sort of precedent. Status quo, unaffected.

And so life goes on. And so, fifty years later, I have to learn about her in a used bookstore.

When they tell you there weren't any important women in the past in your field of study, do NOT believe them. When they do tell you something about them and it seems peripheral - I'd question that, too.

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Thanks for this post! I am a field biologist in training and have noticed the glaring lack of female naturalists in the literature. It's interesting, because there are typically more female than male students in my zoology-related classes, but then again many of those are pre-med or pre-vet majors.

Another book you might enjoy (well, be very interested by, anyway; sadly, it is a lightweight treatment of a serious researcher who faced serious issues) is "Discovering Dorothea" by Karolyn Schindler. I recommend it.

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 19 Oct 2007 #permalink