Jane Goodall’s Mom Went to the Jungle, Too

March 27, 2009

Prior to my position working with the National Girls Collaborative Project here at AAUW, I spent many years in the world of environmental science education, and I still spend much of my time after work volunteering for local environmental pursuits. Inspirational women abound in the environmental sciences.

As a child, I was captivated by the National Geographic documentaries of scientists like Jane Goodall who, in 1960, at the age of 26, ventured into the African wilderness to study the chimps of Gombe. Her unorthodox method ended up both revolutionizing primatology and challenging the way humans understand what it means to be human. With all her honors, it is hard to imagine that in 1960 the only way the British authorities would allow her to travel to Africa was with her mother accompanying her.


Just two years after Goodall first went to Gombe, Rachel Carson released a serialized book in the New Yorker called Silent Spring. A zoologist by training, Carson supported her income as a young professional biologist by authoring science articles. With Silent Spring, she explained in plain terms how insecticides and pesticides like DDT were not only killing the pests but harming other animals as well. Carson endured a misogynistic backlash from pesticide manufacturers, but the book became a catalyst for a new wave of environmentalism. In 1999, she was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people of the 20th century.

In 1971, future Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai became the first woman in East and Central Africa to receive a doctorate degree. With her degree in biological sciences Maathai went on to become the chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy at the University of Nairobi — another first. Maathai earned the Nobel Prize in 2004 for her work with the Green Belt Movement, her grassroots organization that has assisted women in planting more than 20 million trees in an effort to conserve the environment and improve women’s quality of life. She is the first African woman to win a Nobel Prize.

Wangari Maathai. Yale Club, New York City, 2002. Photo by Martin Rowe.

Wangari Maathai. Yale Club, New York City, 2002. Photo by Martin Rowe.

The most famous women in environmental science, like those above, were able to galvanize public opinion with their scientific pursuits, while others are quietly making an impact neighbor by neighbor to create the change they want to see in the world. In Washington, D.C., for example, a few young women started a group called DC EcoWomen to empower female environmentalists by building a community that fosters career-building opportunities. Other women, like Crystal Lal who started the Cheverly Community Market where I volunteer on weekends, are turning small ideas into big changes in their communities.

These women come from divergent backgrounds in different decades, but the takeaway for me is that all of these women had a sense of wonder and compassion for the natural world and they trusted their own voices. What could be more inspirational than that?

This post is part of a special Women’s History Month series.

By:   |   March 27, 2009

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