On-line version ISSN 2309-9585
HAMMEL, Tanja. Thinking with birds: Mary Elizabeth Barber's advocacy for gender equality in ornithology. Kronos [online]. 2015, vol.41, n.1, pp. 85-111. ISSN 2309-9585.
This article explores parts of the first South African woman ornithologist's life and work. It concerns itself with the micro-politics of Mary Elizabeth Barber's knowledge of birds from the 1860s to the mid-1880s. Her work provides insight into contemporary scientific practices, particularly the importance of cross-cultural collaboration. I foreground how she cultivated a feminist Darwinism in which birds served as corroborative evidence for female selection and how she negotiated gender equality in her ornithological work. She did so by constructing local birdlife as a space of gender equality. While male ornithologists naturalised and reinvigorated Victorian gender roles in their descriptions and depictions of birds, she debunked them and stressed the absence of gendered spheres in bird life. She emphasised the female and male birds' collaboration and gender equality that she missed in Victorian matrimony, an institution she harshly criticised. Reading her work against the background of her life story shows how her personal experiences as wife and mother as well as her observation of settler society informed her view on birds, and vice versa. Through birds she presented alternative relationships to matrimony. Her protection of insectivorous birds was at the same time an attempt to stress the need for a New Woman, an aspect that has hitherto been overlooked in studies of the transnational anti-plumage movement.
Keywords : Feminist ornithology; sexual selection; gender equality; Cape Colony; matrimony; Mary Elizabeth Barber; visual culture.