Skip to main content
Menu

Book

Despite several stumbles, a new volume about women in paleontology will likely prove valuable to future scholars

Rebels, Scholars, Explorers: Women in Vertebrate Paleontology

Annalisa Berta and Susan Turner
Johns Hopkins University Press
2020
344 pp.
Purchase this item now

The history of vertebrate paleontology, like that of other scientific disciplines, has traditionally been told and shaped through a masculine filter. Annalisa Berta and Susan Turner aim to rectify this bias, and their new book, Rebels, Scholars, Explorers, is a stepping stone along that path, synthesizing observations about the past, present, and future of women’s contributions in the field. The book is the first major effort to bring the work of several centuries’ worth of silenced people to light. Any such endeavor will inevitably have gaps, but it will also serve as a reference for future projects—particularly with regard to premodern individuals, details about whom are often much harder to track down.

Rebels, Scholars, Explorers can perhaps best be thought of as a three-part work. In the first section, the authors offer a broad overview of the often hostile climate within which women in vertebrate paleontology have long operated. In the second, they present short biographical sketches of a sampling of women throughout the field’s history. In the third, they provide an assessment of where things currently stand and where we might go from here.

The book includes the contributions of many early modern women I had never heard of. Among them is Maria Pavlova, who, although she was an eminent Russian paleontologist and professor in 1919, could do nothing when a close colleague rejected her highly qualified student (a woman) for a professional position. In her memoir, Pavlova wrote of the incident, “I’m feeling as if I returned from a very hard funeral.”

A number of the biographical sketches also contain anecdotal gems. Taphonomist Kay Behrensmeyer’s, for example, references her nonchalance about a venomous green mamba at her field site in Cameroon. And Elizabeth (Betsy) Nicholls’s entry notes how, at the age of 12, she wrote to renowned naturalist Roy Chapman Andrews to ask if girls could be paleontologists—and how she kept his encouraging reply as a treasured token.

The inclusion of a chapter on modern individuals whose careers are not primarily in original research is refreshing, given academia’s general habit of ignoring such contributors. Included here are women such as Akiko Shinya, the chief vertebrate fossil preparator at the Field Museum, and Tsiory Andrianavalona, who leads an outreach center in Madagascar called ExplorerHome that seeks to inspire scientific curiosity in Malagasy students.

It was incredible and heartening to see, throughout the book, so many citation-rich sections exclusively referencing works led by women. The authors’ account of vertebrate paleontology in the Soviet Union, for example, discusses the work of a host of women studying Paleozoic fishes. Such passages make stark the extent to which the contributions of women are often overlooked.

The book’s interviews contain insightful observations and advice from women such as Margery Coombs, Catherine Badgley, and Romala Govender, as well as from male paleontologists who have mentored women. However, some interviewees aim for equality rather than equity. Reading such passages was frustrating, but their inclusion accurately reflects the prevalence of misguided efforts at allyship. (This section of the book is presented without commentary and is bound to spark some very good discussions in paleo reading groups.)

As a book about the history of a field whose infancy lies in the West, Rebels, Scholars, Explorers has a largely Occidental focus. Discussion of women in other theaters picks up, albeit inconsistently, as the book proceeds forward in time. The authors thoroughly cover the scientific efforts of mid-20th-century Chinese women, for example, but only a single woman from and living in India—Sanjukta Chakravorti, a recent graduate—is included.

The book’s final chapter begins to address intersectionality by discussing the additional challenges faced by women paleontologists who are also ethnic minorities. Here, Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan’s account of the restrictions placed on her during South Africa’s apartheid was particularly poignant. However, the authors’ handling of transgender issues, another intersectional identity, is disappointing.

Although they rightly include at least one trans woman in their account, they also include James Robinson, who, prior to his transition, studied plesiosaur anatomy and behavior. One wonders how he would feel about being referred to by his pretransition name—a practice known as deadnaming, which most who transition consider to be disrespectful—and, more generally, about his inclusion in a book about women. It is vital that anyone studying or writing about gender seek out noncisgendered perspectives, lest errors be introduced and individuals harmed.

Despite these shortcomings, Rebels, Scholars, and Explorers is a strong backbone upon which future scholarly work can build. I look forward to seeing the rest of the skeleton uncovered.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Indiana University Bloomington, Bloomington, IN 47405, USA.