Danielle Clode is a zoologist and award-winning author. Her latest book In Search of The Woman Who Sailed the World discovers the untold history of Jeanne Barret, who disguised herself as a man, was hired as a naturalist’s assistant, and in 1775 became the first woman to circumnavigate the world.
What does feminism mean to you?
For me feminism is simply about believing in equality, so really it’s just not being sexist. I come from a family of pretty strong-willed, independent and capable women (mothers, grandmothers, aunts and great-aunts) so they were inspiring role models. Even if they lived fairly conventional lives, they felt like leaders to me and I think they were treated like that by their partners, family and colleagues.
Growing up, the principles of feminism and equality were at least theoretically adhered to even it if wavered a bit in practice! As a young kid I remember fiercely objecting to any suggestion that there was something I couldn’t do because I was small or a girl.
How did you come to hear about Jeanne Barret and what more did you want to discover in your research? Were there any surprises?
I came across Jeanne Barret when I was writing one of my earlier books, Voyages to the South Seas about French scientific expeditions to Australia from the mid 1700s to mid 1800s. Despite naval regulations forbidding women on ships, there were women on several of these voyages.
Jeanne Barret, who dressed as a man to sail as the botanist’s assistant on the Bougainville voyage was the first, but she was followed by Louison Seguin who sailed on the Kerguelen voyage, Louise Girardin on the D’Entrecasteaux voyage (who also dressed as a man), Mary Beckwith, an English convict who sailed to Mauritius with Baudin, and Rose de Freycinet who was the wife of expedition commander Louis de Freycinet. Only Rose left her own account of the voyage — so it was very challenging to reconstruct Jeanne’s life.
But recent advances in archive digitisation have opened up a lot of new resources and I was surprised to find a large amount of new archival information about Jeanne’s life before and after her voyage. Researching her life constantly upended my expectations about how a woman was supposed to live in that time. I kept tripping up on the assumption that men, rather than Jeanne, had the agency in this story. But this just wasn’t the case. For example, people often assumed that when the botanist Jeanne worked for died on Mauritius, she was left stranded and penniless and had to work as a barmaid until she found a soldier to marry and take her home to France. In fact Jeanne owned property, ran a bar and amassed a small fortune before she met her future husband — who signed a pre-nuptial agreement before they married, ensuring that she retained control of the majority of her money.
Women tend to be absent from natural/scientific accounts — this was certainly the way when Jeanne finished her circumnavigational feat… How have things changed?
One of the interesting things about the history of women in science and natural history is the fierce resistance they met as soon as they started to succeed. As soon as they rise to a certain level, men found ways to push them out and exclude them, particularly on an institutional level. For example the universities in France were closed to women, and classes were taught only in Latin. To be honest, I can see parallels between this and the early history of the University of Melbourne! The Museum of Natural History in Paris (where a lot of biologists worked) however, ran its classes in French and were open to everyone.
The fields of science where I have worked (biology and psychology) both have very strong representation by women but there are still systemic and hidden issues facing them that limit their opportunities. Women are often not as good at blowing their own trumpets or putting themselves forward as men. Many of them devote more time to supporting students and mentoring others. Then there is still the unequal distribution of domestic and emotional labour and childrearing. And there is evidence that people are more likely to collaborate with people who are similar to themselves — so that perpetuates a lack of diversity.
In my own career I’ve seen men get paid twice as much as equally qualified women for the same work, simply because they asked for more. Or women being passed over for men with a fraction the skills and experience because they were perceived to be more qualified. These kinds of subconscious perceptual biases are hard to counter unless you put in place processes that overtly challenge them. The Australian Research Council, for example, does a great job of taking career interruptions (of all kinds) seriously when assessing applications. Science is a great process for identifying systemic problems and developing solutions that work — we just need to make more use of them in our own practices.
Could you share some feminist recommendations; which authors, books, podcasts, are you reading or listening to right now?
One of the major influences on my book on Jeanne Barret was the work of Arlette Farge — the French archival historian who works on ordinary everyday women. Her classic book The Allure of the Archives, was particularly inspiring and showed how archival research can yield a completely different vision of women’s lives than the ‘official’ version (and it’s just a great read). She shows how it possible to restore the lives of women who left few records of their own. I love the stories she reveals of working class woman — far from being passive victims of a patriarchy, they were loud, vocal and angry.
I make a conscious effort to listen for women’s voices. I think we have a strong tendency to listen to men when they speak and this leads to women being silenced or excluded. So I intentionally increase the number of female singers in my playlist, find art by women, choose movies with female leads or directors, read and review books by women and try to check my references and recommendations to make sure I’m including women where I can. If I don’t think about it, I’ll end up with more men because they are more readily available or come to mind, but it’s never difficult to find a female voice who is just as good, just as capable and just as interesting. And often even better.