When an 11 year-old Jane Goodall first began telling people in 1945 that she wanted to go to Africa, her declaration was often met with laughter.
Goodall, who loved apes ever since infancy, when her father gave her a stuffed chimpanzee named Jubilee, was rebuked for many reasons: "We didn't have any money and World War Two was raging ... but mostly because I was a girl -- I was the wrong sex," she told The Huffington Post. Her family, she said, told her, "Jane get real. You know girls don't do this kind of thing, living with animals in the forest."
Now 77, Goodall has become the world's leading expert on chimpanzees. She travels 300 days out of the year, and holds five professorships, 24 degrees and more than 60 awards. And she doesn't think being a woman kept her from "doing this kind of thing" at all.
"In fact," said Goodall, "my gender, I think it helped me."
She started her career as a secretary to paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey in Kenya and then Tanzania. Leakey first supported her desire to work out in the field. He "thought women made better observers," Goodall told journalist Ros Coward in 2004. Goodall didn't disagree.
"I think, actually, that probably had I been a male, I wouldn't have been pushing these anthropomorphic ideas that I had," Goodall said, referring to the correlation she soon began noting between human and primate behavior.
"I learned the tremendous importance of early experience in the lives of chimpanzee infants," Goodall said. "Good mothers, bad mothers, traumatic experiences in the first couple of years really do make a different in adult behavior. And of course human child psychiatrists today are emphasizing that this is true for human infants."
Goodall faced initial criticism from peers and professors at Cambridge because she gave her primate subjects names rather than numbers (deemed more scientific), anthropomorphizing them. But Goodall stuck with her convictions and began her influential research. And in some ways, she found the life of an anthropologist easier than the men around her did.
"Going out into the field as a [single] woman, there wasn't that urgency that most men felt back then, that they've got to be the breadwinner and they have to get on with the job and get their Ph.D. and get some kind of livelihood so that they can raise a family"
Goodall saw her independence as an asset.
"I was never competing for a woman's place in a man's world," Goodall said. "I wasn't interested in academia." (She entered the Cambridge Ph.D. program without a prior university degree .) "I didn't want to have some kind of tenure in a university."
Her gender worked in her favor, too, in her interactions with African communities, she said. She was doing field research in Tanzania just a year after the country gained independence and found that while there was a mistrust of white men who had controlled the country under colonialism, "They didn't see me as a woman being a threat -- they were much more likely to help me achieve what I wanted to achieve."
Although she was dubbed by her biographer "the woman who redefined man," Goodall also redefines the realities of young women around the world through her work with the Take Care Program at the Jane Goodall Institute.
"How could we even try to save the chimpanzees when the people were struggling to survive?" Goodall asked. "[We make a] holistic effort to help people to improve their lives with farming methods, programs working with women so that they can choose to own environmentally sustainable projects through microcredit loans, scholarships to keep girls in school and better health care."
Goodall knows how influential the support of a strong woman can be.
Goodall told HuffPost that she remembers the advice that her mother gave her when she announced her intended career path to a reticent audience.
"She used to say, 'If you really want something, and you work hard, and you take advantage of opportunities and you never give up, you will find a way'," Goodall said. "That's a message I've been able to bring to children, particularly girls, all around the world. It has been very, very useful to me."
On September 27 at 8pm ET, Jane Goodall will appear live in hundreds of select movie theaters across the country to discuss her career. The event will also debut "Jane's Journey," which features never-before-seen footage of her research and features Dave Matthews, Angelina Jolie, Charlize Theron and Pierce Brosnan. Go to www.fathomevents.com/jane for ticketing information.
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