I Am Woman: Jane Goodall

January 15, 2019

The Center for the Performing Arts recognizes women in the arts. Our 2018–19 season features women of all ages, cultures, genres and disciplines in leadership and supporting-artist roles. The scheduled events represent the success women artists and allies have found through determination, despite hardship, and with the help of supporters. When you support women artists, you recognize their challenges, validate their talents, and help them to advance their achievements. Learn more about “I Am Woman.”

Naturalist Jane Goodall came of age during a time in England when charming and connected young women were shopped off to successful marriages. She was a good student with good looks, but she entertained a dream that didn’t fit into what tradition would dictate.

As a child during World War II, she fantasized about a life among wild animals. But she was "just" a girl from a middle-class British family, living nowhere near the habitats of the world’s most impressive animals, and with a “leggy blonde” image that some felt didn’t match up with a career in the sciences. Thanks to unwavering support from her mother, Vanne, Goodall found the tenacity she needed to realize her dream. She worked hard and saved her money to make the life-changing trip to Africa in 1957.

“I realize now I had the making of a scientist — curiosity, not being afraid to make a mistake, and patience. With a different mother, those skills might have been crushed,” she said in a 2015 interview with The National.

Goodall’s story, starting with the stuffed chimp she received as a girl, inspired “Me … Jane: The Dreams and Adventures of Young Jane Goodall.” The Kennedy Center Theater for Young Audiences on Tour presentation — at 4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 10, in Eisenhower Auditorium — is based on a Caldecott Honor Book by Patrick McDonnell.

While her initial research of the social habits of chimpanzees at times, to her, seemed to be unsuccessful, and in spite of criticism by some primatologists of her methods, Goodall ultimately became one of the world’s most celebrated naturalists. She recognized that the animals used tools — a trait that anthropologists saw as a human-defining trait. She also anthropomorphized her subjects, which might have helped to enable her success, but which was frowned upon by some researchers. But Goodall said it was her informal education and unbiased approach to research that helped her to realize more about the primates.

Throughout her career, Goodall has learned from mistakes in the field, helped to put anthropology on the map for young people and sustained a spiritual life with a minimal footprint. The support from her mother and mentors has inspired the award-winning scientist to expand her reach from wildlife research to animal advocacy, environmentalism and sustainability, and the push for the availability of education and anti-poverty programs for women and girls.

On early, mixed reactions to gender stereotypes:

"I remember a very funny time in my life just before I got to Africa. My paternal uncle was Sir Michael Spens, son of Lord Patrick Spens. Michael was keen to present me at court as a debutante. In those days, society girls had a season of dances and balls — a kind of marriage market. Obviously to me, this was completely absurd, but I had to humor Michael, and so I lined up in Buckingham Palace to shake hands with the Queen. I remember being surrounded by girls who said to me, 'Don’t you dream of being a lady-in-waiting?' I replied, 'Absolutely not—I want to live among wild animals.' They recoiled in horror. They thought I was very weird, but then I thought they were very weird, too." (Time, 2018)

On the media’s portrayal of young Goodall:

"I had to go to America to attend a press conference and give a few talks. The media produced some rather sensational articles, emphasizing my blond hair and referring to my legs. Some scientists discredited my observations because of this — but that did not bother me so long as I got the funding to return to Gombe and continue my work. I had never wanted to be a scientist anyway, as women didn’t have such careers in those days. I just wanted to be a naturalist. If my legs helped me get publicity for the chimps, that was useful." (Time, 2018)

On what makes a successful woman:

"In chimp society there are good and bad mothers, and looking back over the years, we know that the offspring of mothers who were affectionate, protective but not over protective and, above all, supportive, tend to do better and to have more self-confidence. … This was important for the human female too — they needed to be patient, quick to understand the wants and needs of their infants before they could speak, and good at keeping the peace between family members. If these qualities are, to some extent, handed down in our female genes, this may explain why women, so often, make good observers. This helped me, for (archaeologist) Louis Leakey firmly believed that women made better field workers than men." (Time, 2018)

On how her work may have changed the perceptions of the role of women in the sciences:

"Judging from the number of young women who’ve wanted to follow in my footsteps, I should think it has changed it a lot! … This has happened to me all over the world, certainly all around America, young women have said, 'You really helped me break out of the mold, you really helped me realize it could be done.' And kids write and say, 'You taught me that because you did it, I can do it.' Those are the letters I love the most." (The Huffington Post, 2010)

On advice from her mother:

"She used to say, 'If you really want something and you work hard, and you take advantage of opportunities and you never give up, you will find a way.' That’s a message I’ve been able to bring to children, particularly girls, all around the world. It has been very, very useful to me." (The Huffington Post, 2011)

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Last Updated January 31, 2019