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Women in Science
“Women Drink Water While Men Drink Wine”
by Rita Arditti
From early times women have been excluded from access to any organized body of knowledge. Women in ancient Greece were educated to become housekeepers, mothers, or mistresses. In the same period Greek philosophers were trying to give answers to the fundamental questions about the nature of the universe, the meaning of life, etc., women were being praised for their ignorance and kept in women’s quarters; silence was considered their best quality. The schools of learning, like Plato’s Academy, were composed of a selected group of males from important families, who engaged in discussions of mathematics, astronomy, philosophy. They, of course, were convinced of the intellectual superiority of their sex; in fact, one of their beliefs was that the penalty for a man who lived badly was to be reborn as a woman in the second generation. Aristotle translated the social customs of his time into “scientific” ideas and saw women as inferior to men in all aspects; he even believed that women had fewer teeth than men and explained procreation mainly as the creative action of the male seed. The ideas of Aristotle had a great influence on latter-day biologists and scientists and to this very day his hierarchical and dualistic thinking plagues many minds.
During the Middle Ages the Church monopolized centers of learning, and science was at a low point: geometry, arithmetic, and some astronomy were all that was taught. There were women practicing medicine in the Middle Ages, mainly in Italy. A few achieved fame for their intellectual ability in convents that provided a retreat for women of the upper classes; these were practically the only places where a young woman could get some education.
During the Renaissance some universities opened their doors to women of the aristocracy, but the vast majority of women continued to live in ignorance. However, the new science that followed from the work of Copernico, Kepler and Galileo provided an alternative vision of the world and impetus to challenge the established social order. If the earth was not anymore the center of the universe, if the heavens were not immutable, if comets could appear and disappear, why should women be subject to men? Why should men be leaders and women followers? If the natural world could be different from what it was supposed to be, women did not have to accept an oppressive social order. Some women began trying to take a more active role in learning and devoted their energy to thinking about scientific matters. Women who wanted education in the sciences were the target in Moliere’s play “Les Femmes Savantes”: “Get rid of this fierce-looking telescope and all the rest of these gadgets … Stop trying to find out what’s happening on the moon and mind what’s going on in your own house where everything is upside down. It’s not decent, and there are plenty of reasons why it isn’t, for a woman to study and know so much …. Women today want to write books and become authors. No learning is too deep for them … and here, in my house, they know everything except what they need to know. In my house, they know all about the moon and the pole star and about Venus, Saturn and Mars, which are of no concern of mine and … nobody knows how the pot is cooking… ”
In the scientific environment a style and organization evolved from Bacon’s ideas: Nature was to be conquered and scientists organized themselves in a quasi-military fashion to assault her. Women were excluded from the scientific societies that appeared in the seventeenth century, mainly the Royal Society and the French Royal Academy. The societies soon became· conservative bodies, trying to protect narrow interests and making it hard for new ideas to gain acceptance. Membership in the societies was considered proof of scientific ability and as a result it was soon concluded that women were not able to make scientific contributions. One outstanding example was the case of Sophie Germain (1776-1831) who, well aware of the reception her work would get if attributed to a female, corresponded for three years with Gauss on mathematical topics, without letting him know that she was a woman. She signed her work “M. le Blanc”. After her work on the vibrations of elastic plates won her a prize from the French Academy, she was somewhat more accepted by the mathematical circles of her time, but she never became an official member of the Academy.
Though there were many other women making important contributions at various times in different countries (see “Woman in Science” by H.J. Mozans), most of us have never heard of them; and with the exception of Marie Curie no woman in science has been given the worldwide recognition traditionally accorded to many competent male scientists. And even Marie Curie’s talent elicited mixed feelings. When she published her “Treatise on Radioactivity”, Rutherford reviewed it favorably in Nature magazine but in a private letter to a friend he let his true feelings come out: ” … Altogether I feel that the poor woman has laboured tremendously and her volumes will be very useful for a year or two to save the researcher from hunting up his own literature; a saving which I think is not altogether advantageous.” Her seriousness and inability for small talk, her concentration on her work and her commitment did not gain her many friends and even at the height of her career she was not accepted as a member in the French Academy of Science. Irene Curtis, one of Marie Curie’s daughters, revealed clearly some of the constraints and forces that played on her as a woman in science: “… a woman of science should renounce worldly obligations … Family obligations are possible, on condition that they are accepted as additional burdens … For my part I consider science to be the primordial interest of my life.”
Being a member of a minority group (women in science) generates feelings of insecurity and doubts about one’s own competence. In addition, a woman scientist rarely has the support of her colleagues, the trust of her department chairperson and the smooth running family life that most men scientists have. As Virginia Woolf beautifully points out in A Room of One’s Own, women drink water while men drink wine, and if women had been left the resources for an adequate education “we could have been sitting at our ease tonight and the subject of our talk might have been archaeology, botany, anthropology, physics, the nature of the atom, mathematics, astronomy, relativity, geography … We might have been exploring or writing; mooning about the venerable places of the earth; sitting contemplative on the steps of the Parthenon, or going at ten to an office and coming home comfortably at half-past four to write a little poetry … ”
The creativity of many of us in science is stifled in research laboratories and universities where the position of women is strangely similar to the position we have in our families. Laboratories are like households, the “head” of the laboratory is usually a male, women are found in “assistant” or “associate” positions and younger students play the role of “children”. The sexual dynamics are such that few women manage to develop the skills and the self-confidence necessary to survive in an extremely competitive environment; very few are encouraged to do so. The scenario is set for the failure of the majority and the acceptance of a few “exceptions”. Women are still trained to assist, not to aspire to leadership roles and to perform tasks that will allow the “big” scientist to keep his energy for higher tasks and directive functions.
Today, among 207,500 science and engineering Ph.D.’s in the US labor force, 93.4% are white and 92.1% are male. The proportion of women becomes smaller at each higher level of degree, salary, academic position and administrative responsibility. Unemployment rates for women continue to be 2 to 4 times higher than for men with comparable education and experience. During 1973 in the biological sciences 30% of the bachelor’s degrees and 21% of the doctorates were awarded to women but only 12% of the full-time biological scientists employed were women. (Data from “Professional Women and Minorities”. A Manpower Data Resource Service.)
Out of the experience of support groups in the women’s movement some of us have learned that conditions which enable people to work creatively and joyfully are practically nonexistent in the scientific milieu. We know now that in order to communicate clearly it is essential to feel that one is being listened to with attention and interest. Qualities that may seem to be lacking can be developed and leadership skills can be learned, if there is an interest in sharing them. However, competition for recognition and prizes does not foster good human interactions.
The image of the distracted and genial scientist, oblivious of practical details, devoting all his energy to find the solution of a problem dear to his heart is definitely a relic of the past. To work successfully in science, nowadays, is not very different from running a successful business operation. Organizational abilities, access to information, acceptance and credit from the established sources of support, these are the qualities that will determine the outcome of a scientific research endeavor. Self-confidence and being part of a network that will ensure formal and informal contacts are absolute musts. An exaggerated sense of the importance of one’s own work is almost a required trait. However, when a woman in science asserts herself, she is looked upon with hostility and mistrust. A woman’s work usually needs to be validated by a man’s to be taken seriously. Regarding the discovery of the structure of DNA, when Rosalind Franklin’s work showed that the sugar phosphae backbone of the DNA molecule was on the outside and the bases were inside the helix, she was treated scornfully until Maurice Wilkins began duplicating her work. Her co-workers, Wilkins, Watson and Crick received the Nobel prize in 1962 for their work and in their Nobel prize acceptance speeches her crucial contribution is barely acknowledged among a host of other citations. As a result, she is practically unknown to younger students of biology.
Until recently, a career in science had been regarded as very desirable. Scientists have, for a long time, maintained a sort of careful distance from the general affairs of the community and acted as “experts” when consulted about matters that related to their work. The belief in “professionalism” has protected the scientific community from serious self-examination and criticism. Scientists evaluate each other—there is not outside opinion on scientific issues that they will listen to. At the same time, since science is a social activity, and is usually funded by governments or powerful private institutions, many scientists find themselves reluctant to speak out against policies that are being developed by their funding agencies. Scrupulous honesty in laboratory matters is not necessarily matched with a courageous and strong committment to the good of the society-at-large. An obvious example of this is the role that American science has played in the destruction of VietNam. It has become clear that scientific enquiry that divests itself of social responsibility will not contribute to solving the problems around us; on the contrary, it will create new ones. The connections between the scientific and the military establishments, the hydrogen bomb, nuclear testing and recent developments in the life sciences have begun to change the realities of science. It does not seem as desirable anymore to try to incorporate women into the mainstream of American science. It would be a tragic mistake for women to become scientists and not to advocate a humanistic or committed science. We have to question the process by which scientific work is accomplished and its product. We are taught to approach problems with a purely cerebral attitude and not to bother with the consequences or ramifications of our work. The pressure is “to keep things separate”: scientific inquiry on one hand and human concerns on the other. This way of working leaves little room for our development as human beings and opens the door to the creation of exploitative technologies. We stand powerless, producing knowledge that can be used against people in a variety of ways. The myth of value-free science is being replaced by an awareness that science perpetuates and generates values.
As women, we know from first hand experience that a purely mechanistic approach can add very little to knowledge. Living in a patriarchal culture, scientists have usually studied females as the reproductive systems of the species and have reduced us to our reproductive organs, our secondary sexual characteristics and/or our sexual behavior.* “Scientific” rationalizations have been offered for the secondary status of women, blacks and poor people. Nonscientists have been consistently discouraged to participate in science policies and their opinions have been considered irrelevant or plainly disregarded.
The task that seems of primary importance, for both women and men, is to convert science from what it is today, a social institution with a conservative function and defensive stand, into a liberating and healthy activity: science with a soul which would respect and love its objects of study and stress harmony and communication with the rest of the universe. When science fulfills its potential and becomes a tool for human liberation we will not have to worry about women “fitting in”, because we will probably be at the forefront of that “new” science.