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A Simple Problem Science Can’t Solve

Women in Science: Portraits from a World in Transition

by Vivian Gornick
Simon and Schuster, 172 pp., $15.95

The earliest discussion I know of in which intellectuals explain to one another why affirmative action just doesn’t work in the academy is in Book V of The Republic. Socrates makes a convincing chairman of the department.

All the pursuits of men are the pursuits of women also, but in all of them a woman is inferior to a man.

Very true.

Then are we to impose all our enactments on men and none of them on women?

That will never do….

And one woman is a philosopher and another is an enemy of philosophy, one has spirit, and another is without spirit?

This is also true.

Then one woman will have the temper of a guardian, and another not. Was not the selection of the male guardians determined by differences of this sort?

The scientific demonstration that women are intellectually inferior to men has taken a number of forms as scientific theories have themselves developed, but at each moment the latest scientific understanding has been the mode for a naturalistic misogyny. In the nineteenth century it was claimed that women’s brains, being smaller than men’s, were less capable of reasoning. At the same time it was argued that there was a reciprocal dependence of the organs of generation and of reason. Thus, the education of women would cause their ovaries to dry up, with the inevitable extinction of the race (or at least of the better sort of people).

Women beware. You are on the brink of destruction: You have heretofore engaged in crushing your waists; now you are attempting to cultivate your mind: You have been merely dancing all night in the foul air of the ballroom; now you are beginning to spend your mornings in study… now you are exerting your understanding to learn Greek, and solve problems in Euclid. Beware!! Science pronounces that the woman who studies is lost.1

With the realization that brain size has no relation to brain function in humans, and with a somewhat more sophisticated understanding of human physiology, such quaint justifications for sexism have lost their force, but they have simply been replaced by equally baseless, although more fashionable, assertions. Anatomy may no longer be destiny, but chemistry is. Now it is our DNA that makes men dominant. Genes make hormones and hormones influence neural development and neural development makes professors. So the virtual nonexistence of famous women mathematicians is the consequence of the lack of mathematics genes in the gentler sex. That, at least, is the claim of a paper published in the most prestigious general American journal of science, commented on at length in the editorial columns of that journal, and given wide publicity in the general press.2 That the authors of the paper never actually gave any evidence for the existence of such genes seems to have deterred neither them nor the referees who recommended their paper for publication nor the editor of the journal.

One of the most important aspects of any ideology is the apparently objective way in which it legitimizes its own creators and so deprives its opponents of any competence to challenge it. A reform and an orthodox rabbi were once violently disputing the question of wearing a hat in the shul. “Where is it written,” demands the reform rabbi, “that you have to wear a hat?” With a smile of triumph the orthodox rabbi rifles through the pages of his scripture and then, poking it under the nose of his opponent, says, “Here, read this.” “And David went into the temple,” reads the reform rabbi. ” ‘And David went into the temple’? So what does that prove?” he asks. “Look,” says the orthodox rabbi, “an argument is an argument, but just between you and me, would David go into the temple without wearing a hat?”

How do we know that “the pursuits of men are the pursuits of women also, but in all of them a woman is inferior to a man”? Why, because science tells us so. But is not science a pursuit dominated by men? That is so, but how else can it be, since, in scientific reasoning, women are inferior to men?

Women have suffered both as the subjects and as the objects of science, but in this as in everything else, subject and object re-create each other. It is woman as subject, the woman in science, rather than the woman of science, that Vivian Gornick treats in a series of vignettes based on her extensive interviews with women of various ages and status in American academic life. Gornick has changed the names and some superficial details so that, as when I read her Romance of American Communism, I was always a little distracted by trying to guess who it is she is talking about, but that is a burden that only scientific insiders have to bear. The important resemblance to her earlier book is in her accent on the romance. Gornick’s women are all in love with doing science. They are high on it. It is their drug, their ultimate orgasm. The sexuality of their rhetoric, as she reports it, is overpowering.

Nothing else can touch such an experience for me,” says the pseudonymous Laura. “Let me tell you, there’s not an ‘I love you’ in the world that can touch it. Nothing.” Of course the path of true love has its potholes: “The rote work in the lab, the drudgery, the disappointments, the niggling difficulties that can make you jump out of your skin…. You gotta love it, anyway. Or else you can’t get to the moment that makes it all worthwhile.” Just as for Martin Luther, the bathroom may be the scene of enlightenment, “Sharlene” recalls:

It came to me on a Friday night in the shower…. I ran out of the shower dripping wet and immediately put my conclusions on paper…. It was one of those times you think, Jesus, I’ve put a tiny piece of the creation in place. I was flying.

So if women love doing science, what are they complaining about? By the very nature of Gornick’s method, the only people she interviewed were those women who actually get to do science, not the vast number who were extruded from the research community or denied entrance into it in the first place. Moreover, most women scientists have been “freed” of the administrative chores, the tutorial responsibilities, and the departmental politics that are part of a professor’s life. Women in pure science have been, for the most part, research associates in academic laboratories, devoting full time to actually doing research. For many, even the financial support for this research is provided by the fund-raising efforts of male professorial patrons. Who would not envy the life of Barbara McClintock, immured in her intellectual pleasure palace at Cold Spring Harbor, liberated from schedules, students, deans, in perpetual intellectual dalliance?3 What does a woman want?

For one thing, she would rather not be harassed and humiliated on her way to that assignation with “the moment that makes it all worthwhile.” The crudities that finally precipitated the fall of James Watt can evoke only tired recognition from “Sharlene,” who was accepted as a graduate student because, as the chairman of the department explained, “this year [1967] I’m reduced to the lame, the halt, the blind, and the women.” Or from “Nina,” who in the middle of her fight for tenure was told by an old friend and colleague, “Listen, women are good for only one thing, having their behinds pinched.” Or from all those whose behinds have been pinched. But pinches alone do not make real bitterness, especially if the insulted triumph in the end. The real black and blue marks are not on the buttocks but on the psychic self, which we have been socialized to value. The problem for women in science is the problem for women everywhere, that their selves are denied value.

There are two social planes on which we have learned to understand our own worth. The first consists of personal relations with our lovers, our peers with whom we share sickness, health, depression, and bad smells, those whom age cannot wither nor custom stale. For women scientists, those lovers are often themselves scientists, or, given the social-class sorting that occurs in pairing, some professional of a similar standing. Often they have met in graduate school or perhaps in an early academic job. They have so much in common; they ask similar questions, are perhaps even working on the very same scientific problem. What better circumstance for a permanent and happy liaison, the intermingled eroticism of the flesh and the mind?

But, alas, it is careerism, not love, that makes the world go round. The organization of academic life, especially in the United States where the more than two thousand universities and colleges are thinly spread, makes it extremely unlikely that two professionals can simultaneously find jobs in one town. The capacity of West Lafayette, Indiana, or Irvine, California, to absorb two new tenured professors of cell physiology is severely limited. Even Boston, with its rococo excess of institutions of higher learning, can seldom provide simultaneous permanent employment even for the most qualified and prestigious of academic couples. So someone has to sacrifice a career for someone else. “Patty” was an assistant professor at Cornell Medical School.

Then I got married and went to Philadelphia with my husband. That’s what you did in those days: he went, I went. We came here when he got his job at this school. I became an associate in biochemistry…. I remained just that for seventeen years…. My boss…said to me when I grumbled, “Patty, you shouldn’t be ambitious for yourself. You should be interested in furthering Bob’s career.”

The horror is, of course, that Bob agrees. Bob may indeed love Patty, but he loves the National Academy of Sciences more. She must give up everything for him, but not he for her. He is worthy of complete and sacrificing love, she only of a contingent affection. What kind of a woman is she, anyway, if she can’t elicit a love that she gives so readily?

And jobs are not the only thing that is hard to find in science. The credit for an idea, a technique, the successful solution to a long-standing scientific problem will all belong to someone to the exclusion of others. Scientific credit is in much shorter supply than its fiscal analogue, and joint bank accounts are rare. “Alma,” disrupting her career, followed her physicist husband to Paris:

And the first thing my husband announced was that I was not welcome to join his group for lunch, or anything else for that matter. That was the first time he told me that under no circumstances would we ever work together, that physics was competitive, and he wouldn’t have his marriage disfigured by a competitive relationship forming between us. Hah! His idea of avoiding competition between us was for me never to become anything.

It may indeed be that no “I love you” can touch the moment of scientific discovery, but “I only love you second best” touches the very heart of self-esteem.

The second level at which we measure our own value is on the plane of social power. The ideology of freedom, of individuality, of personal worth and dignity that is central to our society is in constant contradiction with the actuality of most people’s lives. Only a privileged sector of the middle and upper classes have some power over their own lives or their conditions of work and social life. For the rest, the sense of powerlessness and personal unworthiness is the most prominent of the “hidden injuries of class.” I once witnessed a minor collision between a car driven by a middle-class person and one belonging to a man who was obviously a manual laborer. The worker jumped from his car, ran up to the other driver and shouted, “My name is Al Flanagan, and no one pushes me around.”

So long as we think of science as a relationship between an individual and nature, as nothing but the romance of discovery, we will be unable to comprehend why women in science are so often bitter and alienated. Science is, above all, a social activity carried on in a community characterized by differences in power, reward, and esteem. Scientists are curious about nature, but the search for truth among them is generally the pathway by which they search for status. Maybe Henry Clay would rather have been right than president but he never got to be president. For graduate students and apprentice scientists, science is held out as a way of life that will provide control over the conditions of their work, freedom to pursue intellectual interests, financial and job security, and, for many of them, the psychic pleasures of fame among their peers and influence over their juniors.

What has embittered so many women in science is that, having been enticed by an image of social worth and power, they find themselves, like Al Flanagan, riding in a 1976 Pontiac buffeted by people in new cars who seem to own the streets. “Patty,” who followed her husband from job to job, puts it directly. “No money, no sabbaticals, no security, no recognition, and of course no hope of ever getting on a tenured track line.” Men, so used to getting paid and promoted for their work, seem to be unaware (until they become unemployed) of how much their sense of worth depends on being paid by other people for what they do. Women are constantly reminded of it.

Nor do women get status and praise. The highest award available to an American scientist, aside from the Nobel prize, is membership in the National Academy of Sciences. When Barbara McClintock was elected to the academy, she was only the third woman to achieve that status. When I last had reason to be concerned with its affairs, in 1970, the academy had six women members out of a membership of six hundred. Fifteen years later, Gornick counts thirty out of thirteen hundred. One can’t say there hasn’t been progress, although, of course, someone will quickly point out that a doubling of the size of the membership inevitably means some compromising of standards.

By concentrating on science as Gornick has, with its element of intellectual challenge and its ideology of the conquest of nature, one can easily miss the general force of the feminist argument. Science, more than any other occupation, provides, to a significant fraction of its practitioners, the rewards of freedom, individuality, and status that underlie the bourgeois notion of self-worth. Thus the denial of self-esteem and social power seems particularly obvious for women scientists. But it is the general condition of women that they are paid less than men, have less job security, and are able to rise only in exceptional circumstances to higher corporate or trade-union responsibility. The full-time mother and housewife whose daily schedule and evening leisure must be molded to her husband’s work schedule, or who because her husband changes his job is ripped away from the network of her social relations and from the surroundings over which she has achieved control, is no less deprived of personal power than “Nina” or “Patty.” What women in science are bitter about is that they are being treated like women. Science is not a lonely and romantic relation with nature but simply one mode of realizing ourselves in social relations. Before accepting that women in science are really in a “world in transition,” we had better have a look at the larger social world that women inhabit.

Letters

An Exchange on ‘Gender’ October 24, 1985

Plato & Affirmative Action January 31, 1985

Plato’s Women October 25, 1984

  1. 1

    R. R. Coleman, MD, quoted in Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, For Her Own Good: One Hundred Fifty Years of Experts’ Advice to Women (Doubleday, 1978). His argument is derived from the influential book by E. H. Clarke of Harvard, Sex Education, or A Fair Chance for Girls, 1873.

  2. 2

    C. Benbow and J. Stanley, “Sex Differences in Mathematical Ability: Fact or Artifact?” Science, December 12, 1980.

  3. 3

    See Stephen Jay Gould’s review of Evelyn Fox Keller’s biography of McClintock, A Feeling for the Organism, in the March 29 issue of The New York Review.

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