Thus Spake Zuska
A Blog for All and No One




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Friday, August 19, 2005

Why Are There No Great Women Scientists?

Andrew Franks had a lot to say about my post on Columbia's $15 M diversity initiative (see his comments on that post).  Disclaimer #1:  We are related.  Disclaimer #2:  His comments are his opinions, not mine. 

One of the things he said is the following:

...I am back to the question of just how many stars can one institution produce in one year?  What do I do if the Physics department generates just three stars in the next decade - but those three stars essentially rewrite modern physics and all happen to be White males whose names end in -ich, -ger, and -ein?

This certainly sounds like a troublesome issue, but Zuska is the Empress of Engineering, and any good engineer can recognize a problem that has already been solved.  Andrew Franks's question is yet one more version of the oft-heard lament, Why Are There No Great Women Scientists?

Here, it is posed as its inverse, "What do I do if all the great scientists just happen to be white males?"  We multiply by negative one to get the woman scientist question, because this is certainly one negative question, and then we immediately recognize this as a problem that has been solved, in Linda Nochlin's classic essay "Why Are There No Great Women Artists?"  (All quotes here are drawn from the version of Nochlin's essay printed in the 1971 Basic Books edition of "Woman in Sexist Society: Studies in Power and Powerlessness" ed. V. Gornick & B. K. Moran.) 

As we proceed, just think "scientist" wherever you see "artist" and "science" for "art".  Let us consider the opening paragraph of Nochlin's tour de force:

"Why are there no great women artists?"  This question tolls reproachfully in the background of discussions of the so-called woman problem, causing men to shake their heads regretfully and women to grind their teeth in frustration.  Like so many other questions involved in the red-hot feminist controversy, it falsifies the nature of the issue at the same time that it insidiously supplies its own answer:  "There are no great women artists because women are incapable of greatness."  The assumptions lying behind such a question are varied in range and sophistication, running anywhere from "scientifically" proven demonstrations of the inability of human beings with wombs rather than penises to create anything significant, to relatively openminded wonderment that women, despite so many years of near-equality - and after all, a lot of men have had their disadvantages too - have still not achieved anything of major significance in the visual arts.

So then, the response:  re-discovering neglected heroines of the past; staking a claim for women's different approach to the subject at hand; and then, the next, more interesting stage.  Nochlin says this is when we begin to realize "to what extent our very consciousness of how things are in the world has been conditioned - and too often falsified - by the way the most important questions are posed."  Who is formulating these questions, she asks.  The woman problem is too uncomfortably similar in formulation for her to the Nazi phrasing "Jewish problem".   She opines: 

Obviously, for wolves, be they in sheep's clothing or in mufti, it is always best to refer to the lamb problem in the interests of public relations, as well as for the good of the lupine conscience.  Indeed, in our time of instant communication, "problems" are rapidly formulated to rationalize the bad conscience of those with power.

Oh my, she does have a way with words.  Finally, she says:

...the Great Artist is conceived of as one who has genius; genius, in turn, is thought to be an atemporal and mysterious power somehow embedded in the person of the Great Artist...It is no accident that the whole crucial question of the conditions generally productive of great art has so rarely been investigated, or that attempts to investigate such general problems have, until fairly recently, been dismissed as unscholarly, too broad, or the province of some other discipline like sociology. 

So relevant for us today, as we are just beginning to explore what conditions are necessary to the production of a diverse science and engineering workforce!  Now all this is old hat to the PoMo humanities folks who have moved way beyond and would laugh that we are even discussing this.  But I have been trying to tell my friends over on the other side of the university for a long time that science and engineering are 30 years behind in the feminist revolution.

Anyway:  so, why no great women scientists?  why do all the great scientists happen to be white males?  You are asking the wrong questions, dudes. 

And if you still can't resist obnoxiously wagging Albert Einstein under our noses (as if his life should be reduced to an example), then may I offer for your consideration Marie Curie and her two Nobel Prizes?  When you can show me some guy who spent his days out in a shed stirring two tons of pitchblende in a cauldron over an open fire to isolate a tiny little dot of radium, and was at the same time completely responsible for the care and raising of two children, one of whom grew up to be a scientist and win her own Nobel Prize, then we'll talk. 

6:51:35 PM    comment [] trackback []

How Do You Describe This Blog?

Recently I was asked for a short description of this blog.  I offer it here in case you are wanting to tell someone else about Thus Spake Zuska and are looking for just the right words to do so.  Here are just the right words:

Zuska, Goddess of Science, Empress of Engineering, and Avenging Angel of Angry Women, will tell you what everyone else is thinking but is afraid to say. 

Goddess of Science and Empress of Engineering should be self-evident titles.  I am what I am.  And I have the degrees to back it up.  :) 

But Avenging Angel of Angry Women -  well, let me tell you, guys, if you didn't already suspect it, there are a LOT of angry women out there.  Even if they are keeping their anger tamped down.  Even if they aren't entirely aware of their anger themselves.  Even if they haven't told you about it.  And there are more women who ought to be angrier than they are, in my opinion.  Because, let's face it, here we are in 2005 arguing the same damn things that women have been arguing since Christine de Pizan in the freakin' 14th century. 

But perhaps you will say, along with civil engineer Elsie Eaves, "In this day, to go on record by stating what women can or cannot do is to invite demonstrated contradiction.  There is no sex to engineering..."  Or you would agree with M. D. Martha Tracy, that "The open door is on every hand..."  Of course, Eaves was speaking in 1920, and Tracy in 1904. 

In 1903, Ethel Ricker became the first woman elected to Tau Beta Pi, engineering's honor society. What did the national executive board see fit to do?  Why, to overturn her election and amend the constitution to explicitly exclude women, so that similar mistakes couldn't occur in the future.  Now that's some honor!  It wasn't till 1969 that the constitution was amended to re-allow women, 1973 that sexist language was removed from the constitution and by-laws.  It makes me ANGRY that things like this happened and it makes me ANGRY that this part of history is covered up, hidden.  As if the excruciatingly slow progress of women in engineering and science somehow just "happened".  There weren't any stumbling blocks erected along the way by the men in charge, were there?  Oh, no - they built some damn castles with moats and put out signs:  "Women Not Wanted".   

So when organizations - be they departments, universities, companies, what have you - go around trumpeting proudly that they have just hired or installed their first woman whatever - department head, dean, vice-president, of engineering, physics, chemistry, you name it - my response is not "how great!" but "Jesu Christi, you are just getting around to it NOW?"  You - meaning you folks in charge of whatever organizational structures are responsible for this - you ought to be ashamed that it has taken you this long to recognize the female talent right under your noses. 

And so, yes - Avenging Angel of Angry Women.  Because sisters, if you can't let yourself say it out loud because of the spot you are in, if you are out of touch with it because you've been surpressing it so long in order to get along - well, just sit right down with Zuska for awhile and get in touch with your Inner Pissed Off Woman. 

Because I, like my heroine Debra Rolison, feel that A Millenium of Affirmative Action for White Men is Sufficient

5:25:05 PM    comment [] trackback []

Why the Long Breaks Between Posts?

I'm assuming there are at least a few readers of this blog who may wonder why there are occasionally long dry spells between the pithy posts you've come to know, love, and depend upon reading with your morning coffee. 

Or, you're just mildly curious as to why posting on this blog is so darn irregular. 

It's the migraines.  When you don't hear from me in awhile, you can just assume I'm off having more of that quality time with my migraines that I alluded to in an earlier post.  Apologies, folks, but there's not much I can do about it, unless you'd care to complain to my insurance company and insist that Botox treatments should be a covered benefit even if the FDA hasn't yet seen fit to list them as an approved treatment for migraine. 

5:05:05 PM    comment [] trackback []

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