Why Can’t Women Do Anything Great?
Yeah, I should be asleep, restoring strength for spending another day with mom. But I’m catching up on email and blogs and preparing for the upcoming Diversity in Science Carnival WHICH YOU SHOULD TOTALLY BE WRITING SOMETHING FOR – GET BUSY, NOW!
And in the course of all that I read this post by Stephanie Z which led me to Sheril Kirshenbaum’s post (Goodbye, Sheril, we will totally miss you here at Scienceblogs) Where Are The Women With BIG Ideas?
I’d like to point readers to a recent piece from The Guardian asking ‘Where are the books by women with big ideas?’
Books like Freakonomics, defining significant cultural or economic trends with a punchy title, never seem to be produced by women. But why?
Gah! Are we STILL talking about this????? Do people have no memories? Are they not able to do research?
Linda Nochlin. 1971. Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?
It’s the tiresomely enduring repetitive nature of this stupid crap that makes me a cranky humorless feminazi.
And in case you missed it, here’s where I wrote about the application of Nochlin’s brilliant work to the world of science.
Now goddammit, can we please stop having the same fucking conversation we’ve been having for the past half century (or more)?????
(oh hell, I just reproduced my old post here after the jump)
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.
Bunny Rock in Zuska’s Garden
Zuska is the kick-ass alter-ego of Suzanne E Franks. When not dispensing Zuska's wisdom, Suzanne can often be found gardening, reading, or having one of her thrice-weekly migraines.
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