It Helps To Speak The Language When You’re Thinking About Gender
When I was a postdoctoral student my supervisor sent me for three or four days to what we participants called “cancer camp”. It was a mini-course on the histopathbiology of cancer. We learned to interpret pathology slides, how to look at them, read them, identify cancer in all its various forms and stages. We were taught the vocabulary that pathologists use. Just as importantly, we were taught how to see. How to understand what it was we were looking at, to tease the meaning out of the brightly colored and oddly shaped masses we were looking at in the microscope. Without being taught how to interpret what we were seeing, the pathology slides would have made no sense to us, and the vocabulary would have been useless.
A few years before cancer camp, when I was still a graduate student, I took my first women’s studies course, on the history of feminist thought. In that course I also learned a vocabulary and a way of seeing that let me look at things that previously made no sense to me and make meaning out of them.
But here’s the irony:
If I were to talk today about pathology slides and cancer staging to non-experts, they would be in awe of my scientific knowledge and accept what I said as expert knowledge. If I were to talk today about gender issues in science to that same non-expert, chances are he or she would feel perfectly free to challenge me because they have an opinion, and they believe everybody’s opinion is equally important, and who’s to say that what I “believe” is any more right than what they believe.
If I were to make my comments in the context of Scienceblogs, with regard to the cancer pathology, I might get some agreement, some disagreement, some discussion about interpretation, but even those who disagreed with me would probably not conclude that I must not be a scientist. On gender issues, however, every crank in the woods feels free to offer his uninformed bigotry as proof I must be wrong AND that I must not be a scientist, merely because I take gender and science issues seriously to begin with.
All this is so even though I had a mere three days training in pathology compared to several years of formal training in women’s studies and actual job experience applying that knowledge to science and engineering. The specialized vocabulary of women’s studies and its particular way of seeing the world is not recognized as disciplinary knowledge; instead, it’s mocked as “political correctness”.
So when I talk to myself about gender, these are the kinds of things I think:
Why are there so many stupid jerks in the world? And why do those stupid jerks read my blog, if it annoys them so much? It is annoying beyond belief that people assume no expertise at all is needed to make grand pronouncements about the state of gender issues in science and engineering.
If I want to make this or that point on my blog, what kinds of asinine comments are the trolls likely to make? How can I steal their thunder, at least partially, ahead of time? For the gender trolls are ever inventive and never seem to tire of whining.
How pleasant it must be sometimes, to be male, and walk around blissfully unaware of gender. Then I remember how busy men are always policing each others’ masculinity and I don’t feel so jealous of them anymore. You could not possibly pay me enough money to go through adolescence as a boy, nor to be so limited in what is permissible to feel and express as grown men are. Though it must be nice to be automatically taken more seriously about everything just for having the extra dangly flesh.
Sometimes I wish I could un-know what I know about gender, because it is tiring to view the world through the gender lens. It’s tiring to watch t.v. and be constantly annoyed by the stupid commercials (“After all, boys are built different – and Tonka’s got the blueprint!” Because what little girl would EVER want to play with a truck? I guess my little sister and I were mutants. Well, it’s never too soon to start training the boys for the proper way to be a man, and that includes being Ford Tough, no doubt.)
My fellow Sciencebloggers are so lucky. They get to write about the fun parts of science – the nerdy, science-y, techie things that make our hearts race, the geeky stuff we all love so much. When I was little, even when I was starting out as an engineer in college, I never thought to myself “gee, I hope I grow up someday to spend exorbitant amounts of time thinking about how crappy things are for women in science! Because that will sure be a great way to spend my days!”
I am sick to death of thinking about gender and I weep for all the lost energy in women’s lives that goes to dealing with the obstacles, barriers, hostilities, and problems of institutionalized sexism.
Should I keep my hair long, because Mr. Zuska likes it that way? Or should I get it cut short, because I think I’d look better that way? My mother says “I can’t believe you let a man tell you how to wear your hair; I thought you were a feminist.” Hee. But I wear my hair long because it makes Mr. Zuska happy, and for the past four years when I have been really, really ill, he has been there for me every second of every minute that I’ve needed him, and never once complained; he acted like it was an honor for him to be able to help me; long hair is a simple thing I can do to show my love back to him. It’s maddening that something as simple as how I wear my hair can be fraught with gender connotations.
Enough thinking. I’m hungry. What about chili for supper?