Female Representation in Natural Science Collections

For International Women’s Day, Rebecca Machin celebrates the female animals in the Natural Science collections of Leeds Museums and Galleries.

I have written much in the past about the way gender is (mis)represented in natural history collections and displays, and why this is problematic . But it is considered poor collections care to flog a dead horse…and indeed flogging a dead horse in the sense of selling it would also be against the Museums Associations Code of Ethics… So, for International Women’s Day, here is a celebration of beautiful and amazing females of other animals here in the collections of Leeds Museums and Galleries.

A taxidermy badger in a sitting position with a white background.
A female badger. Like all other female mammals, this badger would have produced milk for her young.

We have several badgers in our collection, including this lovely female. Badgers are wonderful animals, digging tunnels and chambers called ‘setts’ to live in. The Badger Trust has some useful information about the ineffectiveness of the badger cull. Female badgers, and all other female mammals, are able to produce milk for their young. The milk a female mammal produces changes according to the age and needs of her babies, and provides them with a perfect food source and the protection of antibodies. Being able to produce milk is one of the key features of mammals, so important in fact that the name ‘mammal’ comes from the Latin word for breast. Even though this feature of female mammals is so central to their evolution and biology, most museum displays contain more male mammals than female.

A taxidermy beaver, standing upright.
A Eurasian Beaver. Female beavers are amazing architects, lumberjacks and builders.

Here is our lovely Eurasian Beaver. She had been part of the trial reintroduction of beavers to Scotland, but sadly was shot by a farmer. As well as doing things only female mammals can do, like developing babies and producing milk, female beavers are also amazing architects, lumberjacks and builders, making dams, lodges and canals. These help them store food and avoid predators. The text on museum galleries tend to represent females as producers of babies, with less emphasis on the other capabilities and features they have.

A taxidermy female black grouse, which actually has brown feathers.
A female Black Grouse. This species is named after the black-feathered males.

This is a black grouse. But she’s not black! To be clearer, although this is not a black grouse, it is a Black Grouse. This is an example of the many animals which are named after characteristics found only in the males. The gorgeous colours and patterns of this female mean she is well camouflaged in her moorland habitat (in the winter both male and female black grouse become white). Other examples include blackbirds (the females are brown) and black howler monkeys (the females are a creamy colour). There are many more. Animals are more commonly named after men than women, and some animals have their entire species assigned a gender through their name, for instance Tyrannosaurus rex – Rex being the Latin for ‘King’.

What looks like a white shell with a curved tip, and is hollow.
The egg case of an Argonaut.

What do you reckon this is? Although it looks like a shell, this is actually an egg case made by a kind of octopus called an argonaut. The female argonaut secretes the egg case from special tentacles. She lays her eggs in it, and also shelters in it herself. Male argonauts don’t make these cases, and are much smaller than the females.

A birds nest with small blue eggs inside, on a yellow background.
The nest of a female Wheatear.

This cosy home was built by a female wheatear, an insectivorous bird that visits the UK in the summer, during its breeding season. They live in Africa during our winters. In some bird species, the male and female build a nest together, but in many the females build it alone. A female wheatear builds her nest in a safe place like a rabbit burrow or rock crevice. Then she lays her clutch of eggs (only female birds can do this!). When the eggs hatch, both the female and male feed their babies.

I feel it is important that the natural richness of female animals is well represented in museum displays. All too often, females are represented solely as bearers of offspring, in exclusion to all their other qualities, skills and stories. Women can, and should, lead rich and rewarding lives. Other animals, including those in museums, can show us that this is natural. There are billions of beautiful, weird, colourful, creative female animals who play, eat, dance, farm, hunt, build, sing, sleep and nurture young. Let’s celebrate them.

By Rebecca Machin, Curator of Natural Science.

Find out more about our Natural Science collection

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