May 30 2005

Field Guides: A Feminist Reading


The female is brown! Male blue-ringed dancer, Argia sedula. Photographed by Twisty in Blanco County, TX May 24, 2005

I reveal no secrets when I confide that science is no bastion of feminist thought. This can be demonstrated in any number of ways, most recently and notoriously by Harvard honcho Larry Summers’ pronouncement on the innate inferiority of the female mind, but today I draw the reader’s attention to a slightly less flashy example: the conventions of the field guide.

If you’ve never seen one — and if you are not a hopeless nerd, there’s no reason you should have — a field guide is a compendium of the identifying characteristics of the extant species of the order or suborder under discussion, comprising photographs and descriptive blurbs used to aid the natural historian in expanding her zoological horizons when she takes to the countryside with her binoculars and notebooks and snake bite kits and, if she is wise, sandwiches.

I am an amateur nerd, so I possess a buttload of these handy books, and keep one or two of’em on my person at all times. I’m sure it would surprise you if it had escaped my notice that, in describing birds or damselflies or snakes, authors of field guides tend to regard the male example as the default. Discussion of the female is almost without exception relegated to some ancillary paragraph, where her characteristics are presented in terms of their divergence from the male “standard.” Sometimes the females are not even represented in the photos.

This convention has no particular scientific benefit and contributes nothing to the epic scope of human knowledge (and, when your specimen is female and there’s no picture to be found, is in fact a big pain in the ass). The practice is merely the reflection of a wider sexist bias, which regards the female of any species as a variant of normal.

It may seem a fine point, but these little digs add up.


  1. stingray

    That picture is amazing! Perhaps you should submit it in your own revised field guide.

  2. frobisher

    yes, you are probably right. The only explanation I can think of is that in the world of nature the males are often more picturesque with colourful plummage/coats, therefore making a more interesting picture. For example, in England one of our native birds the pheasant – the males have beautiful red/gold/green plummage whereas the female pheasants are a drab brown colour allover. The downside for males is they make more of a target for cars when they cross the road . . .

  3. JRoth

    Well the dead giveaway is that, for mammals, female is, in fact, the biological default. And for many invertebrates, the male is biologically optional. Yet “objective” science sticks with the patriarchal habit.

    Although I do wonder whether more serious scientists (as opposed to compilers of field guides) are a bit more circumspect about this. Probably not.

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