Lady Science Volume II
Edited By Leila A. McNeill and Anna Reser
Lady Science Volume II: 2015-2016
Edited By Leila A. McNeill and Anna Reser
Published by Lady Science at Shakespir
Editorial material © 2017 Leila A. McNeill and Anna Reser
All content remains the copyright of its respective author and is published with permission.
Cover by Anna Reser
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
I vividly recall how much I hated my very first history class. It was in middle school, and it seemed to be nothing more than a dry, endless record of the exploits of dead white men. Worse still, the only thing the class asked us to do was to memorize names and dates. To say I did not see the need for history back then would have been an understatement—in fact, I had a vehement reaction against the entire subject and could not understand why it was still taught. Why had it not gone the way of other anachronistic classes, like Latin?
Given my initial reaction, it may seem odd that I ended up becoming a history professor. My metamorphosis took place relatively quickly over the course of the following year when I was a freshman in high school. During that time, I had one of the best teachers from whom I’ve ever been fortunate enough to learn. His history course actually contextualized what we were learning, allowing us to see the why instead of just the what.
It also paid attention to the people at the margins. We learned as much about women as about men, and Mr. Rogers—yes, that was really his name—repeatedly pointed out the fact that the pioneers in many fields of endeavor were gay. When some students would inevitably titter at the mention of homosexuality, he would muster his background as a naval officer and retort in a low-key but commanding manner: “There’s nothing wrong with being gay, and if you’re laughing at it that means there’s something wrong with you.” To normalize “outsiders,” Mr. Rogers would sometimes remark that there was nothing new under the sun. But that didn’t mean his students already knew that. Suddenly, I began to see the purpose of history.
The way Mr. Rogers used his subject in order to teach tolerance rather than trivia was all the more important because my childhood spanned the 1980s and early 1990s. After a decade of seeing the ravages of AIDS on the LGBTQ community, those of us growing up queer were terrified and mostly deep in the closet. The homophobic backlash and the national conversation on AIDS in political circles and the media often positioned gay citizens as vermin-like carriers of disease. I remember one difficult day when, as editor-in-chief of my high school newspaper, I had to fight to reject an op-ed written by a student that proposed solving the AIDS crisis by interning everyone with HIV in concentration camps.
It wasn’t lost on me that it was a history teacher who was the only adult I knew at the time to repeatedly and vociferously stand up for LGBTQ people. That he did this without necessarily knowing who among his students was queer or questioning made this all the more impressive. He knew that we were out there, hiding, afraid, and in desperate need of validation.
The real reason I became a historian was not because I was so terribly interested in the past but because I had had my eyes opened to the uses of history. Now that I had begun to understand how our present experiences were constructed by what happened decades and even centuries before, I finally saw that humanity itself is something that is learned, not something innate that we can take for granted. Suddenly, history became the most important thing in the world because what was actually at stake was teaching people humanity.
In my research, I focus on the hidden stories of women and trans people in the history of technology. I do this because I want to make space in our present technophiliac context for understanding technology as not necessarily progressive, and certainly not an end in itself. Too often, the fiction of steady linear progress clouds our thinking and our understanding of the world around us. My research contradicts the view that with enough time and technology everything gets better; I show how the tools and infrastructures that aid and protect us also shape and control who and what we can be—usually in line with socially regressive norms. By studying and teaching this history, I strive to make space in the present for marginalized people to find their voices, in the same way that Mr. Rogers did for me over two decades ago.
In the years between then and now, I have traveled to many countries for my work and have been educated by some of the foremost scholars in the world. Yet, my first interaction with the subject of history as it should be taught remains one of the most important learning experiences of my life. At base, history is a social justice project: a discipline whose entire reason for existing is predicated on the idea that we can somehow fix the mistakes of the past and lead our societies toward something better. It is not a recording of facts but an exercise in giving voice to ideas that are drowned in din of the present. And above all, it is a reminder that humanity is never something we can take for granted, rather it is something we must constantly relearn.
Today, I strive to replicate this process of epiphany for my students and readers. In the same way, the authors in this volume use the history of gender to remind us that progress is a struggle that requires our participation. In the fragile, imaginary, intellectual space where the past and present collide, historians wrinkle time to show people what they would never live long enough to experience on their own. The essays in this volume are excellent examples of that. I am gratified to be writing this foreword because I know we can only succeed if historians research and write with originality and fearlessness to uncover the voices that echo all around us but are not yet heard.
January 1, 2017
Lady Science is a collaborative project and thus the first and most sincere acknowledgements must be made of our contributing writers. Afton Lorraine Woodward, Sarah Horne, and Joy Rankin have enriched this volume with their thoughtful and rigorous research and writing.
Since the last volume, the Lady Science team has expanded considerably and we are immensely grateful for the hard work of our Contributing Editors, Joy Rankin and Kathleen Sheppard, our Managing Editor Nathan Kapoor, our Copy Editor Stephanie Shasteen, and our Grant Writer Jaime Tillotson.
We are further indebted to Marie Hicks for the generous gift of her time and insight in writing the foreword to this volume.
by Leila A. McNeill
by Afton Lorainne Woodward
by Anna Reser
by Sarah Horne
by Leila A. McNeill
by Leila A. McNeill
by Leila A. McNeill
by Anna Reser
by Anna Reser
by Anna Reser
by Anna Reser
by Leila A. McNeill
by Lydia Pyne
by Joy Rankin
by Anna Reser
by Leila A. McNeill
by Anna Reser
by Anna Reser
by Leila A. McNeill
by Leila A. McNeill
by Anna Reser
by Leila A. McNeill
“It is essential to resist the depiction of history as the work of heroic individuals in order for people today to recognize their potential agency as a part of an ever-expanding community of struggle.”
Lady Science is an online magazine focusing on women and gender in the history and popular culture of science, technology, and medicine. Each year, our writers and editors publish 22 critical essays on these topics, which we collect into an edited volume available as a free ebook. This second volume of Lady Science, containing essays from 2015-2016, is part of our mission to make important and productive scholarship about women and gender available for free to students and the general public.
The second anthology continues to carry out our mission to write women back into the history of science, technology, and medicine and to expose the structural reasons that they have been excluded or obscured. This entails not only vital recovery work in the area of biography and professional histories of women scientists, but also the application of feminist theory to these histories in ways that help us account for the structural oppressions that condense around race, gender, class, and disability.
This collection is organized into three main sections: the lives and networks of women, structural oppressions and feminist theory, and the popular culture and historical representations of women in science, technology, and medicine. These three sections reflect the overall themes and the theoretical framework of Lady Science. First, we are interested in how women have been active creators of scientific culture, both by performing science in non-traditional and unexpected ways and making inroads into male-dominated fields. Second, we use feminist theory to expose structural oppressions that have kept women out of scientific fields and out of mainstream historical narratives. Lastly, we analyze, critique, and challenge the representation of women in science and popular culture, as the contemporary representation of women in popular culture is often a reflection of what incomplete and false narratives about women from history have taught us.
Writing the history of women in science, technology, and medicine remains an effort in recovering lost stories and voices. After decades of diligent work in this area by scholars, we now understand that women have always been present and active in every area of scientific and technical development. This section continues that work of recovery while simultaneously extending our reach to examine both the individual biographies of women in these fields and the social and professional networks they built for themselves, often outside of the male-dominated scientific mainstream.
In an essay about such networks within the field of archaeology, Leila McNeill examines this network-building in archaeology, showing how women created space for themselves and their scientific work within a male-dominated field. Afton Woodward analyzes the fraught representation of women scientists in the eighteenth century, locating some of the mythology of women scientists in a Restoration play called “The Lady Scientist.” In essays about art and science and technology, Anna Reser and Sarah Horne consider the ways that artistic practice enabled women to participate in science as illustrators, or alternatively, the way that artistic visions of the future have left women out of that vision. McNeill writes about the figure of the woman spiritual medium both as a powerful practitioner and the subject of scientific inquiry by male investigators.
Gertrude Caton-Thompson, Women’s Networks, and Racial Politics in Great Zimbabwe
Leila A McNeill
In 1928, Gertrude Caton-Thompson led the first all women archaeological excavation to study the ruins of a stone city in Great Zimbabwe. It was this bit of information that led to me to discover an archaeological network teeming with women that spanned continents and at least a century. More interesting yet, Thompson’s excavation in Zimbabwe stoked racial tensions locally and across the British Empire, and her findings of the site challenged racist archaeological theories that had been used to defend and sustain Europe’s colonization of Africa.
During a trip to Egypt with her mother in her youth, Caton-Thompson had found her passion for archaeology, which was further nurtured by her friendship with Gertrude Bell and T. E. Lawrence. (1) In 1921, she formally began her education at University College, London. And as an aspiring archaeologist in a male-dominated field, Caton-Thompson couldn’t have asked for a better teacher than the towering Margaret Murray, the first woman in the United Kingdom appointed as a lecturer in archaeology. (2) Caton-Thompson also studied under Dorothea Bate, a founding figure of archaeozoology, and soon after arriving at UCL, Caton-Thompson embarked on her first field experience to Abydos, led by the famous Flinders Petrie. (3) Petrie was an Egyptologist and archaeologist who developed an invaluable method of dating excavation sites that helped piece together the history of ancient cultures, a method which Caton-Thompson later took with her on her own excavations. As one of Murray’s best students, Caton-Thompson accompanied Murray and Edith Guest on a cave excavation in Malta. (4) Caton-Thompson quickly took her place in a rather prestigious network of archaeologists.
After her education with Murray and Petrie, Canton Thompson continued work in Egypt, implementing the dating methods she learned from Petrie and making a name for herself. In 1925, she began what would become a long working relationship with geologist Elinor Wight Gardner in Fayum, one of Egypt’s oldest cities. (5) There Caton-Thompson and Gardner initiated the first archaeological survey of the Fayum Oasis, conducted general surveys of the region, and excavated numerous sites. Three years later the Council of the British Academy sent Caton-Thompson to study ruins in southern Africa, which had caused contention among archaeologists and the local region, then known as Rhodesia.
The stone ruins were first “discovered” by German geologist Karl Mauch in 1871, but discovered only in the way Europeans discover things that were built by, and known to, thousands of indigenous people for centuries. Mauch claimed that the ruins were far too impressive to be built by a local population of Africans, the Shona, so he concluded that the ruins were the product of a Biblical civilization from the North, the Queen of Sheba. Mauch’s conclusions about the ruins and the people who built them were not that of a single racist but a reflection of cultural beliefs embedded in the very fabric of the Empire. Europeans viewed African culture as inferior and dismissed any evidence of their long history in the region by claiming instead that African civilizations flourished only because of the influence and integration of Northern and lighter skinned peoples. Cecil Rhodes, the genocidal Imperialist for whom Rhodesia was named, was pleased to use Mauch’s findings to bolster his Imperialist agenda in the region. (6)
In the 1890s, Rhodes commissioned amateur nobody J. Theodore Bent to determine the origins once and for all. While Bent did not buy into the Queen of Sheba theory, he, like Mauch, disregarded evidence of Shona origins and concluded it was built by a northern race. To add further insult to injury, Rhodes appointed local journalist Richard Hall as curator, which resulted in the desecration of the city as he removed artifacts and layers of archaeological evidence. This too was not unique to one man but indicative of a history of Europeans destroying archaeological sites in Africa and claiming artifacts as property of the Empire.
When Caton-Thompson and her team of women arrived in 1928, they had their work cut out for them. Prior to her arrival, only one other archaeologist had studied the site, David Randall-MacIver, who claimed in 1905 that the city was, in fact, of African origin. Caton-Thompson and her team, however, would provide the much needed concrete data to back up MacIver.
Kathleen Kenyon, fresh out of the university at Oxford, was responsible for the fieldwork at the site and analysis of the historical evidence. (7) Architect Dorothy Noire drew the architectural reconstructions of the site. In addition to the expertise of Kenyon and Noire, Caton-Thompson brought her meticulous and scientific approach and method of sequence dating to the excavation. She was able to prove once and for all that the date of the city was medieval and that it was of African origin, thereby disrupting a century of racist anthropological and archaeological theory.
When she presented her findings at the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Johannesburg, she met much resistance, either on account of her gender or the nature of her findings-- probably a whole lot of both. Raymond Dart, well-known paleoanthropologist, disagreed with Caton-Thompson and is said to have spoken “in an outburst of unscientific indignation and charged the startled Chairman with having called upon none but the supporters of Miss Caton-Thompson’s theory.” She kept letters written by locals and collected much of the mostly negative press surrounding her work at Zimbabwe. In such a racially divided region, her work, explains Martin Hall in Farmers, Kings, and Traders, caused a rift between the local community and herself that lasted for years following excavation. (8) In the end, however, her evidence and conclusions were incontrovertible.
Caton-Thompson’s work in Africa further expanded her network and brought her into the acquaintance of Louis Leakey. (9) In 1933, she hired Mary Nicol, more famously known as the paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey, to illustrate her book The Desert Fayum. (10) Caton-Thompson is not only credited with influencing Mary’s career path but also with introducing her to Louis, whom Mary later married and and with whom she carried out a successful professional partnership until his death. In 1937, Caton-Thompson continued her working relationship with Elinor Gardner, and the two teamed up with travel writer Freya Stark to join the Wakefield Exhibition to Yemen. With the team, they performed the first systematic excavation of the 5th century B.C. Moon Temple of Hureidhaat.
Caton-Thompson’s biography is exciting and her long list of accomplishments far exceed what I’ve mentioned here. But her story is only a small part of a much bigger network of women, without whom her story might not have been possible. Although men like Flinders Petrie were willing to encourage women in the discipline, it was the mentorship and support of women like Murray that kept the field open to other women. As Murray mentored Caton-Thompson at the start of her career, Caton-Thompson did the same for Kathleen Kenyon. The network was held together by strong working relationships that lasted decades, like that of Guest and Murray or Caton-Thompson and Gardner.
This strand of mentorship and partnership was reflected also in their analysis and writing. Anthropologist Kathryn Weedman argues that many women archaeologists from 1860s to 1960s “often stressed indigenous development over external influences,” which contradicted the work of their male colleagues; Caton-Thompson’s work at Great Zimbabwe serves as only one example. Weedman suggests that Western ideologies and the racist and misogynistic social stratification of colonization positioned both women and Africans below white European men. It was this inferior place in society that prompted women archaeologists to look at indigenous cultures and people differently than men did. Facing opposition inside the profession from male colleagues and outside the profession with long-standing social stigma surrounding women in male-dominated fields, the individual successes of these women were often the joint effort of many who worked to keep the field open to the next generation.
1. Gertrude Bell (1868-1926), known as the female Lawrence of Arabia, was a British spy and archaeologist, who was posthumously awarded the Order of the British Empire for her work with the British Military Intelligence. T.E. Lawrence (1888- 1935), widely recognized as Lawrence of Arabia, was a British archaeologist and diplomat, who served as a British Army liaison in the Great Arab Revolt.
2. Margaret Murray (1863-1963) was a British Egyptologist and archaeologist. She was the first woman lecturer in archaeology in Britain and was active in the women’s rights movement and improving the role of women in higher education.
3. Dorothea Bate (1878-1951) was a British paleontologist and archaeozoologist, who discovered many extinct Mediterranean species and contributed the evolutionary study of giant and dwarf forms of extinct species. Flinders Petrie, Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie, (1852- 1942) was a British egyptologist, archaeologist, and pioneer of the systematic method of archaeological dating
4. Edith Guest was a British archaeologist, author, and friend and professional partner to Margaret Murray
5. Elinor Wight Gardner (1892-1980) was British geologist and paleontologist who predominantly in the Middle East and Fayum.
6. Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902) served as Prime Minister of Cape Colony in South Africa from 1890-1896 and founded Rhodesia, now known as Zimbabwe. His belief that Europeans and English speaking people were the superior race undercut much of his ventures in South Africa; he is recognized as an early influence in shaping apartheid in the region.
7. Kathleen Kenyon (1906-1978) was a British archaeologist, known particularly for her excavations in Jericho
8. Martin Hall, Famers, Kings, and Traders: The People of Southern Africa, 200-1860 (University of Chicago Press, 1990).
9. Louis Leakey (1903-1972) was a British and Kenyan born paleoanthropologist and archaeologist whose work contributed to our knowledge of human evolution.
10. Mary Leakey (1913-1996) was a British paleoanthropologist who discovered the first Proconsul skull and discovered 15 new species in the course of her career. She was married to Louis Leakey.
11. Freya Stark (1893-1993) was a British travel writer who chronicled her travels in the Middle East, Turkey, and Afghanistan in over twenty books.
12. For further reading see: Getzel M. Cohen and Martha Sharp Joukowsky, eds., Breaking Ground: Pioneering Women Archaeologists (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004); Kathleen L. Sheppard, The Life of Margaret Alice Murray: A Woman’s Work in Archaeology (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013); Kathryn Weedman, “Who’s ‘That Girl’: British, South African, and American Women as Africanist Archaeologists in Colonial Africa,” The African Archaeological Review 18, no. 1 (2001): 1–47.
The Eighteenth-Century Lady Scientist
Afton Lorainne Woodward
Try to name some women scientists from the early modern and Enlightenment periods, and you might be able to come up with a few: Margaret Cavendish, Caroline Herschel, Émilie Du Châtelet. Now try to name some fictional women scientists from that era. The truth is that women did not appear much in fiction as scientists until relatively late in history, but that’s not because there weren’t any female scientists—there were many, but they were mostly invisible, sidelined, uncredited, exploited, or shunned. Some women who observed and participated in science (or natural philosophy) in the early modern era were formidable figures: Cavendish, for one, famously visited the Royal Society in 1667 and wrote about her experiences in The Blazing World. (1) There was a present demand for and significant interest in scientific outlets for women: they bought microscopes, attended scientific lectures, and had Newton’s philosophies mansplained to them. (2) Still, the gendered separate spheres dogma was firmly in place, and while they could enjoy science on the peripheries, women were largely excluded from scientific and intellectual arenas.
One place where we do find female scientists during this period is in the theater, and plays can provide illuminating information on women’s roles in science. For the most part, these works were written by male authors and reflected men’s anxieties about science interfering with women’s household and familial duties. Molière’s Les Femmes Savantes (The Learned Ladies, 1672) was full of husbands unable to rein in their unruly, stargazing wives, who desired “to know the motions of the moon, the pole star, Venus, Saturn, and Mars . . . while my food, which I need, is neglected.” (3) In 1726, James Miller’s Humours of Oxford attempted to put women firmly in their place again. (4) Miller’s character Lady Science confesses she deserves punishment for her experimental projects by lamenting she is “justly made a Fool of, for aiming to be a Philosopher—I ought to suffer like Phaeton, for affecting to move into a Sphere that did not belong to me.” The male character responds in kind: “The Dressing-Room, not the Study, is the Lady’s Province—and a Woman makes as ridiculous a Figure, poring over Globes, or thro’ a Telescope, as a Man would with a Pair of Preservers mending Lace.”
Even though women were significant consumers of science, they were not considered worthy investigators themselves because of the perceived detriment to pot roasts and embroidered pillows everywhere. The problem, ostensibly, was not that women were mentally incapable of doing science, but that their lady brains and dainty bodies could not handle both doing science and fulfilling their domestic obligations; the latter, it was assumed, should take natural precedence. Indeed, good science, especially for women, is correlated with coldness, workaholism, and lack of children. In the event that a woman was granted a professorship in science, it was assumed she would remain celibate. Even now, Rosalind Franklin, one of the most successful female scientists of the twentieth century, is portrayed as an “ice queen.”
Further complicating the intersection of women and science in the early modern period was the troublesome nature of experimental science itself, which received its own dose of mockery at the theater. Many people believed that experimental science was a fad, pointless at best and harmful at worst, that pulled men as well as women away from more meaningful work—or, at least, many playwrights thought such an idea made for comedy gold. Sir Nicholas Gimcrack, the nutty professor in Thomas Shadwell’s 1676 play The Virtuoso, was a favorite punching bag at the theater. (5) In one scene, Gimcrack pantomimes the motions of swimming like a frog on a table because he hates the water: “I content myself with the speculative part of swimming; I care not for the practice. I seldom bring anything to use; ’tis not my way,” he says, summarizing the audience’s concerns about the practical uselessness of science. Because he fritters his time away on absurd and irrelevant projects instead of paying enough attention to his business or marriage, both begin falling apart. Gimcrack finally sees the error of his ways and satirically laments, “That I should know man no better! I would I had studied mankind instead of spiders and insects.”
One voice that is heard among all the squabbling over the role of women in science and its relative usefulness is that of Susanna Centlivre, who in 1705 wrote a play called The Basset Table featuring a woman scientist. (6) This play, though excruciatingly minor in the canon of Restoration comedies, is notable for featuring a fictional woman scientist who is actually written by a woman (though prevailing sentiments about the marketability of female-authored plays meant that Centlivre’s name was removed from the work, and she was not given credit for it for several years). It is a work that successfully and skillfully rebuffs the idea that women cannot be curious and investigative while simultaneously investing in emotional relationships. This work is exceptional among comedic plays at the turn of the 18th century for its optimistic messages about both science and women.
The Basset Table’s primary plot is a straightforward, though amusing, pontification about the dangers of gambling. The main character, Lady Reveller, annoys her uncle, alienates her friends, and mucks around in a love triangle for much of the play. Lady Reveller’s natural philosopher cousin Valeria, though, is the real star of the show. At first glimpse, Valeria appears to play into the standard tropes as nothing more than a lady Gimcrack: she first arrives onstage chasing a “giant flesh fly” with a net; she offers to take her cousin’s dog and do experiments on it; and she purports to keep bear cubs in her bedroom “for dissection.” Her father’s ridicule of her investigative pursuits is in line with many contemporary opinions of science, and he demands that she put away her silly instruments, marry a sea captain, and give birth to many strong sons who will go fight the French. In any other play in which the characters learn a moral lesson, Valeria might put her experimental pursuits aside to focus on social and familial obligations;, indeed, the play’s other female characters do, somewhat problematically, learn to obey their husbands. Valeria, though, not only retains her experimental proclivities but gets to choose her own husband and play an equal part in a happy marriage.
Centlivre is aware that her female scientist is odd for her inquisitive propensities, made even odder by her gender, but by giving Valeria the conventional role of heroine who gets married in the end, Centlivre combats the threat of social abnormality posed by intellectual female scholars. The twist here is that it is the scientist’s father, not the scientist herself, who is the antagonist to love and happy domesticity. And even while it gently mocks her, the play clearly means the audience to sympathize with Valeria—contrary to stereotypes about scientists, in particular lady scientists, she conducts her science while pursuing, however inexplicably, a fulfilling relationship with Ensign Lovely.
Valeria is also the most cool-headed member of her family; even when she believes she has been forced to marry someone else, she shows remarkable presence of mind and intelligence while still remaining human and distinctly female: “Duty compels my Hand,—but my Heart is subject only to my Mind,—the Strength of that they cannot conquer;—no, with the Resolution of the Great Unparallell’d Epictetus,—I here protest my Will shall ne’re assent to any but my Lovely.” Crucially, Valeria poses no danger to the domestic order, showing that acceptance of traditional roles such as that of a wife does not have to be antagonistic to intellectual pursuits. In fact, her scientific inclinations make her an ideal heroine. By contrasting the rational Valeria with the frivolous game-playing women in the play, Centlivre shows not only that women are capable of hands-on and intellectual work, but that intelligence and stability, good qualities in any scientist, are far more desirable in a woman than, for instance, superficial obsessions like gambling.
The Basset Table had a very short run when it was first produced, but there has been some renewed interest in it lately, possibly because of its independently minded female characters. A critical edition was published in 2009, and the Folger Shakespeare put on the play in 2012. To modern audiences, a marriage might not seem like the most progressive ending—after all, marriage is not everyone’s ultimate goal or reward—but the play ends on a progressive note by giving Valeria what she wants, not what her father wants. In the hands of any other writer, Valeria might have eventually seen the error of her ways and decided that she was squandering her keen housekeeping abilities, but in a way, Centlivre suggests that women scientists can have it all. An overly rosy and simplistic lesson to be sure, but radical for its time, and even for today. When people stop explaining to women scientists what they should want from their own lives, everything actually turns out okay.
1. Margaret Cavendish, The Blazing World, 1666.
2. Francesco Algarotti, Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophy Explain’d for the Use of the Ladies: In Six Dialogues on Light and Colours,1739.
3. Molière, The Learned Ladies, 1672.
4. James Miller, The Humors of Oxford, 1730.
5. Thomas Shadwell, The Virtuoso, 1676.
6. Susanna Centlivre, The Basset Table, 1705.
7. For further reading see Warren, Victoria. “Gender and Genre in Susanna Centlivre’s The Gamester and The Basset Table.” SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 43.3 (2003): 605-624; Chico, Tita. “Gimcrack’s Legacy: Sex, Wealth, and the Theater of Experimental Philosophy.” Comparative Drama 42.1 (2008): 29-49.
Mad Machines: Women in Art and Technology
In 1966, the new curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, keen to test his mettle, conceived of a massive collaborative art program to explore the tensions and resonances between industry and art. There are many heroic accounts of the trials Maurice Tuchman underwent to bring his project to fruition, perhaps none more heroic than his own reminiscences in the final published report on the project. (1) Art and Technology (A&T), as the project would eventually be called, was designed to pair artists with California corporations in order to produce artworks and research. Tuchman expected that such collaborations might not only provide artists with access to new and unusual materials and processes, but that some important questions about the relationship between art and technology might be explored. The industries that participated in A&T were among the most high-tech companies in America including Lockheed, the RAND Corporation, RCA, IBM, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, all integral parts of the post-war military-industrial complex. More importantly, these corporations housed some of the largest and most important research facilities in the country. As Tuchman is careful to stress, A&T was about forming mutual understanding and productive relationships between artists and scientists, not simply the physical fabrication of artworks by hired companies.
The process by which artists were selected for the program is described in Tuchman’s introduction to the report, in which he explains that “we were also determined to discuss Art and Technology with as wide a range of artists as possible- Europeans and Americans, Japanese and South Americans…” because, according to the report, “we felt that only by exposing diverse types of artists to corporations could the value of the premises of Art and Technology be tested.” This vision of diversity turns out to be quite limited, and reflects the entrenched curatorial biases of many museums in this period, especially with regard to art works that engaged with technology. Tuchman notes that the organizing body received “seventy-eight unsolicited proposals from artists,” which came from women and “‘primitive’ or folk-traditional artists who wished to make mad machines through Art and Technology,” and that no such proposals were accepted. In a stunningly patronizing move, Tuchman did allow the proposals of two women, Channa Horwitz (then Davis) and Aleksandra Kasuba, to be reproduced in the A&T report, as they were “the most interesting.”
This rationalization for the lack of women and other artists whose work was deemed inappropriate for the project reveals common assumptions about science and technology in the postwar period. Technology was the preserve, first and foremost, of men, and even then only certain kinds of men who adhered to a vision of science and technology that was firmly oriented toward the future. The “primitive” artists who wished to make “mad machines” represented to LACMA uses of technology that were not in line with a conservative mainstream as represented by the corporations he chose for participation. These artists were presumably more aligned with beats, hippies, freaks, and other countercultural stereotypes that midcentury high technology actively avoided and often publicly derided. Lumping women in with these specters of dissent shows that LACMA, like other postwar institutions, subscribed to a vision of technology that was only for some people, and which could and should be made unavailable to others. In addition, the fact that the rejected proposals were solicited reinforces the sense that Tuchman was committed to diversity only in the sense that he himself had preselected certain kinds of artists to participate. Indeed, the most high-profile collaborations, and those upon which Tuchman lavishes the most attention and praise, were carried out by some of the biggest stars of the art world at the time: Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Irwin, and Claes Oldenberg.
Aleksandra Kasuba’s proposal to A&T is a tiny fragment of what became a successful and prolific career. Alive today and working in New Mexico, Kasuba remains concerned with many of the essential theoretical and conceptual issues that preoccupied the selected A&T artists. In particular, with the advent of Minimalism in the early 1960s and the growing interest in the psychology of human perception, many artists were exploring the design and building of immersive environmental installations that would provoke particular sensations and experiences within the viewer. Kasuba’s proposal details two such projects: the first for a spectrum environment that would engulf the viewer in successive fields of colored light, and the second for a similar structure that presents the four elements inside hemispherical shell structures lit by moving lights. The A&T report reproduces two tidy architectural drawings of the proposed environment.
Kasuba’s project is not substantially different from other proposals for environmental works, most notably the elaborate plan hatched by Robert Irwin and James Turrell, working with Garrett Corporation, to build a multi-room sensory experience installation designed to provoke sensation and even hallucination in the viewer. Perhaps most galling is that Irwin was able to work alongside engineers in developing habitability guidelines for American spacecraft as a result of his participation in A&T. Habitability remains one of Kasuba’s chief interests, on which she has conducted extensive research. Had Kasuba been given the opportunity to participate in A&T, she too might have gained entry to the powerful and influential world of aerospace and access to the technologies that were shaping her world.
I am not the first to offer a critique of A&T’s exclusion of women. In fact, I am offering almost the exact argument made by feminists at the time of the exhibition of works and research made in the program in 1971. In a scathing report issued by the Los Angeles Council of Women Artists, the discrimination against women in the art world, and at LACMA in particular, is laid out in no uncertain terms. (2) In addition to the critiques I have outlined here, the remarkable report includes a trenchant observation of the patriarchal nature of the corporation, the exclusionary nature of curator-directed shows that do more for the ego of the curator and the prestige of the museum than they do for artists, and a critique of the underlying assumptions about women as consumers that fuel discriminatory practices in the productive fields like art. The report also notes that because A&T was supposed to celebrate a vibrant and progressive future, it was especially unacceptable that there were no women in that future. A&T did forge important connections between art and technology, between the art world and the corporate sphere, but only for certain kinds of people who were committed to a certain kind of future. Women and “primitive” artists were excluded from the benefits of participating in a large, prestigious museum show, and they also found that LACMA reproduced many of the same barriers to women that science and technology had long maintained.
1. Maurice Tuchman, A Report on the Art and Technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art 1967-1971 (Los Angeles, The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1971). This report is available to view online: https://archive.org/details/reportonarttechn00losa_ (Last accessed November 19, 2016).
2. This document is available to view online: http://blogs.getty.edu/pacificstandardtime/explore-the-era/archives/i143/ (Last Accessed November 19, 2016).
Art is a Science: Women Illustrators Breaking Gender Barriers and the Story of Agnes Chase
Despite persistent gender disparities, women today hold positions throughout the sciences and are vital members of the scientific community. Universities in Western Europe and the United States began admitting women to science programs at the end of the 18th century. Certain subfields welcomed women more than others, with botany being one of the most accepting fields. In fact, the study of plants as a suitable vocation for women became a popular idea as early as the 18th century. Although women were not encouraged to take up botany as a profession, members of the elite class considered the practice of illustrating and studying plants a moralizing pursuit and a means of natural theology-- a celebration of the greatness of God through the study and contemplation of His creations. Before botany became a professional field with its own scientific degree in the mid 19th century, the study of plants was valued equally for its moralizing role as it was for its advancement of humanity’s scientific knowledge. Following the professionalization of botany in the mid 19th century, a small number of women earned doctorates in the field as early as the 1880s.
Botany earned a special designation in the United States as the most suitable science for women due largely to the work of Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps, a teacher and author responsible for popularizing botany in America. Phelps’ book Familiar Lectures on Botany, first published in 1829, was one of the few books on the subject available in America and the only one intellectually accessible to beginners. (1) Phelps argues that women are particularly suited to study botany’s “beautiful and delicate” subjects and that spending time outside benefits women’s health. (2) Phelps’ textbook remained in publication for 40 years, selling nearly 400,000 copies, many to female students. (3) Although Phelps educated American women in the scientific aspects of botany, its theological role persisted.
As botany transitioned from an elite pastime to a professional science in the second half of the 19th century, the field became increasingly specialized. Serious female scholars distanced themselves from associations with botany’s amateur past by conducting expert studies on botanical species unpopular among most hobbyists. While a small number of women achieved respected positions in botany through academic study at institutions of higher learning, this avenue remained unavailable to most. Despite the barriers women encountered in seeking a career in the botanical sciences, some women managed to use alternative means, such as illustration, to break into the profession. As in the biological sciences, illustration was a crucial component to the study of botany. Moreover, illustration and botany both existed in a liminal space more accessible to women as illustration was not considered fine art, nor was botany considered among the most rigorous of the hard sciences. This allowed women like Mary Agnes Chase to break into the scientific profession despite continued gender discrimination.
Born in Illinois in 1869 into a lower class family with little money, Chase lacked the resources to attend high school or college, but she overcame these obstacles to become a respected botanical scientist. Chase began working towards a career in botany following the death of her husband in 1889. A poor widow burdened by her husband’s debts, Chase worked to support herself, but she spent any free time working towards a career in botany. She volunteered as a botanical assistant at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago in 1901 and passed the Department of Agriculture’s examination to become a botanical illustrator in 1903. Shortly thereafter she attained a position working for Albert Spear Hitchcock as a botanical illustrator at the National Herbarium in Washington D.C. Chase continued her education by staying after work to independently study specimens at the National Herbarium and quickly mastered the taxonomy of grasses. (4) She earned a promotion to scientific assistant in systematic agrostology (the study of grasses) after publishing her first article in 1906. (5) Chase worked with Hitchcock for more than 20 years studying the grasses of North and South America and assumed Hitchcock’s position in the department following his death in 1935. Chase held this position for 4 years before reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70; however, she continued to serve the National Herbarium as an honorary curator of grasses until her death. (6)
To complete their study of American grasses, Hitchcock and Chase conducted field research in Central America and South America where they collected and observed botanical specimens in their natural environment. As a woman, Chase encountered many obstacles while on exhibitions. These difficulties included being denied access to resources easily available to male botanists and a lack of funding. However, Chase’s involvement with the women’s movement in the United States provided her with valuable connections that helped ease this financial burden, as members of North American women’s missionaries hosted her in their homes. (7) Notably, she became the first American botanist to undertake an expedition to Brazil. After completing her second trip to Brazil in 1929, she amassed a collection of Brazilian grasses consisting of more than 4,500 specimens, likely the largest collection of its time, which included at least 10 varieties previously unknown to science. (8)
The fact that Chase’s success as a botanist hinged on her initial access to the field through her skills as an illustrator is critical to this narrative. A classificatory anomaly, botanical illustration is both art and science, but remains relegated to disciplinary fringes. In fact, the existence of botanical illustration within this liminal space contributed markedly to the perceived suitability of the profession for women, making botanical illustration, arguably, the easiest way for women to enter into the sciences. Unable to pursue a doctorate in botany, illustration offered Chase an alternative way into the field. Even though botany underwent profound professionalization changes at the turn of the century, it altered very little in terms of the use of botanical illustrations and preserved specimens.
Chase’s illustrations continue stylistic traditions established more than 4 centuries earlier in woodcut illustrations of plants from 16th century books known as “herbals,” the earliest books on plants printed in English. The woodcuts printed in these texts are the first known images of plants created expressly to aid in identification. (9) Drawn in ink, Chase’s highly detailed line drawings typically consist of an overview image of the specimen, accompanied by 3 or 4 enlarged details of its seeds. In an illustration of ‘‘Paspalum scabriusculum,” or wooly panicum, Chase depicts the joints of the stalk, the veins of the leaves, and all of the individual seeds as they appear when the grass is in full bloom. The overall image mimics the appearance of a pressed specimen and was likely drawn after one of the specimens Chase collected on her expeditions. Chase’s ink drawings are stylistically similar to 16th century woodcuts, like those by Leonhart Fuchs, in the stark contrast of crisp black line against a solid white ground, and in the depiction of an idealized perfect specimen without distortion or creative embellishment. This generalized version of nature became a popular mode of botanical illustration as it was thought to simplify the process of classification. Chase’s illustration also shows the influence of Hans Weiditz, a 16th century botanical illustrator who developed the convention of bending the stem of a large plant in order to depict it in its entirety without sacrificing the naturalism of the picture. Chase’s illustration uses this convention instead of depicting the plant in multiple sections, the other solution to this problem. Both methods became popular conventions. Chase’s stylistic similarities to these early forerunners attest to her dedication to a more historically scientific mode of botanical illustration.
Indeed, Chase’s illustrations contrast markedly with the more contemporaneous botanical paintings by mid 19th century British naturalist Marianne North, created when botany was still considered an amateur pursuit and had not yet developed into an academic science. (10) Rather than excise the plant from its surroundings to place it in a sterile and scientific space for contemplation, North fills the composition, surrounding the plant with botanical specimens and even other aspects of nature. North’s paintings depict multiple plants from different viewpoints and in various stages of growth, vibrantly painted with bright natural colors. While appealing, North’s images do not contain enough fine detail to assist in the precise identification of species. Her goals align with Victorian travel writers who went on amateur botanizing missions to record and report on the previously unseen. North’s artistic paintings reinforce strong period beliefs in biological essentialism that argue an individual’s characteristics and abilities are predetermined by sex. This division defined women’s role in botany as to identify, collect, press, and illustrate, while men claimed the right to create scientific taxonomies. (11)
In contrast, Chase’s technical approach towards illustration is indicative of the professionalization of botany and efforts to secure the value of women’s scientific contributions. Chase managed to succeed by using the tools available to her within a system actively suppressing women’s efforts to infiltrate historically male sectors of society. Although her work remained largely in areas defined as appropriate according to biological determinism, Chase’s scientific career, made possible through art, remains an impressive achievement.
1. Emanuel D. Rudolph, “Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps (1793-1884) and the Spread of Botany in Nineteenth Century America,” American Journal of Botany 71 (1984): 1163. Phelps’ book is available to view online: https://archive.org/details/familiarlecture03phelgoog (Last accessed Novmber 19, 2016).
2. Vera Norwood, Made from the Earth: American Women in Nature (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 20.
3. Rudolph, “Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps,” 1164.
4. Pamela M. Hensen,”What Holds the Earth Together’: Agnes Chase and American Agrostology,” Journal of the History of Biology 36 (2003): 439-440.
5. Ibid., 439.
6. Ibid., 440.
7. Ibid., 443-445.
8. Marcia Myers Bonta, Women in the Field: America’s Pioneering Women Naturalists (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1992), 137-142.
9. Gill Saunders, Picturing Plants: An Analytical History of Botanical Illustration (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995),17.
10. Jeanne Kay Guelke and Karen M. Morin, “Gender, Nature, Empire: Women Naturalists in Nineteenth Century British Travel Literature,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 26 (2001): 314-315.
11. For further reading, see Marcia Myers Bonta, Women in the Field: America’s Pioneering Women Naturalists (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1992), Pamela M Hensen “What Holds the Earth Together’: Agnes Chase and American Agrostology.” Journal of the History of Biology 36 (2003): 437-460.
Vulgar Women, Queer Men, and Unruly Spirits
Leila A. McNeill
On the surface, it seems like any serious investigation into the supernatural goes against modern science’s very foundations of objectivity and observable, empirical evidence. But, well into the 20th century, scientists in England, Canada, and the United States made concerted efforts to establish inquiry of the supernatural as a legitimate field of scientific study called psychical research. Psychical researchers, made up of physicians, psychologists, and physicists, attempted to create a science of the paranormal by observing, measuring, and quantifying alleged encounters with otherworldly spirits. This was not just a fringe group of scientists obsessed with the occult. Prominent physicist Oliver Lodge supported psychical research aims, and many men of science formally organized psychical research organizations and publications.(1) The mystery of the séance was dragged out of darkened rooms and into the sterile laboratory of the scientist.
Though psychical researchers of the 20th century were interested in mediums and spirits, they wanted to distance themselves as much as possible from the spiritualists of the 19th century. Spiritualists believed that communication between the living and the dead was possible through a medium, who was almost always a woman. Historian Alex Owen finds that the rise of spiritualism coincided with society’s renegotiation of woman’s place in the public sphere and in the domestic sphere. In a Victorian culture where women had limited opportunities for social power and prestige, women were particularly attracted to the spiritualist movement because it revered them for their ability to commune with the unseen world. Women were considered “natural” mediums because of the underlying cultural assumptions that women were the “feeling” and passive sex with a closer connection to the natural world. Men often used these assumptions about women’s nature to relegate them to the domestic sphere. But, through mediumship, women could stay within the confines of their prescribed femininity while finding power in it at the same time.
Mediumship also appealed to women, especially those that might embody gender or sexuality in nonconforming ways because it gave them permission, at least temporarily, to challenge the status quo. During a séance, mediums didn’t just summon spirits to flicker the lights and shake tables; they also became vessels for spirits to inhabit. If in the possession of a spirit, the medium would submit her conscious self entirely to it. And if possessed by a male spirit, she would take on the voice, mannerisms, and behaviors of that man, sometimes becoming aggressive, vulgar, overtly sexual, or blasphemous. While the men and women who joined or supported the spiritualist movement accepted the unconventional behavior of mediums under spirit possession, medical men believed this to be nothing more than pathological hysteria and sexual deviancy in women. The threat of being carted off to a Victorian asylum was quite real for some women mediums.
The séance itself was quite a spectacle to behold. In addition to direct communion with the dead through an entranced medium, summoned spirits made mysterious knocking noises, adjusted the lighting, or toyed with the sitters by lightly touching them or pilfering their possessions. Sometimes the unseen spirits played musical instruments or moved objects around the room. Written accounts also claim that spirits could partially or fully materialize. Séances occurred almost exclusively in a domestic setting, either in the medium’s home or in the home of someone hosting a séance. But, between the 1880s and World War I, the organized movement of spiritualism gradually lost its flair.
In the interwar period between WWI and WWII, however, North America and Britain experienced a resurgence of interest in the paranormal, but this time with some striking differences. Spiritualists did not wholly reject scientific inquiry; they did, however, reject the scientific method as it applied to their work because they understood the supernatural to exist outside the known matter of the universe. Psychical researchers did not accept this argument and believed that rigorous application of the scientific method could uncover the forces behind mediumship. Applying the scientific method was essential to establishing psychical research as a legitimate field of scientific study. Thus, psychical researchers were required to establish themselves as objective, rational, and skeptical observers.
Unlike a typical sitter who participated in the paranormal activity of the séance, the researchers distanced themselves as methodical, objective observers of the phenomena to avoid any misperception that their study could be tainted by subjective experience, which could not be measured or quantified. To follow the example of mainstream science to establish their legitimacy, psychical researchers were typically middle- to upper- class white men. While some women attempted to establish themselves as researchers in their own right, they could never reach the same authority as their male counterparts. As women, they presumably embodied the same passivity and qualities of the medium being studied, which made their observations inherently suspect and untrustworthy. Just like in every other scientific field, men were the scientists; women were the things that scientists studied.
The moment that mediums and séances were moved from the darkened room of home and hearth and into the laboratory of the researcher, women lost all authority in the world of the supernatural. For the most part, mediums were willing participants in the research, but their participation hinged on their complete submission to the researcher. In a typical séance, the medium would need to become completely passive in order for a spirit to possess her; however, she still remained the authority in the room. This authority was overthrown by the psychical researcher because building a case around a woman and her subjective evidence of the supernatural defied the scientific method of objective, observable inquiry. Ultimately, the cultural assumptions about women’s natural passivity and feeling that lent them power and prestige in 19th century spiritualism now rendered them as mere objects of scientific study. In the case of the famous medium Leonora Piper , the researchers deferred to one of her alleged male spirits to learn about the phenomena rather than a conscious and aware Piper.(2) The only part of the woman medium that mattered to the researcher was her body as a vessel for phenomena.
Though most mediums were women, some men also claimed to have the ability to commune with spirits. Male mediums were quite an enigma for researchers because as men, they were not supposed to be the same weak-minded and passive creatures as women. With a man as a research subject, he disrupted the the gendered power imbalance between research subject and scientist. By taking up a craft that was built upon the cultural constructions of femininity, men were forsaking their masculinity and were subsequently marginalized as effeminate or queer. In the case of medium William Cartheuser, researchers believed his powers to be true, but, according to historian Beth Robertson, they also perpetually questioned his masculinity and described him in feminized terms, like “weak-minded” and “childish.”(3) That one of Cartheuser’s main spirits was a girl named Alice only further worked against him. While it was acceptable for female mediums to display masculine behaviors during possession and later resume their traditionally feminine roles, male mediums who displayed feminine behaviors during possession could not so easily escape their transgression of gender norms.
Even after the psychical researchers removed the séance from the domestic setting and stripped the space of all the parlor tricks of a fraud, they were still left with the living breathing medium in front of them. Once a medium’s eyes rolled back in her head and a man’s voice came from her mouth, the researchers, for all their attempts of objectivity and skepticism, could not help but become wrapped up in the supernatural. These questions remain: How do you apply an objective and measureable method to study something that is inherently subjective? How many of these women were just utilizing a safe space to challenge a patriarchal society? How many of these mediums had a pathological illness? How many of them were simply frauds? I do not know, and after researching this piece, I am even more uncertain. But whether the phenomena is real or not, it is clear that a seemingly objective scientific lens, whether we turn it on the natural or the supernatural, is never really objective-- it is always undercut by cultural assumptions about gender and who has power and who does not.
1. Sir Oliver Lodge (1851-1940) was a prominent British physicist who perfected coherer. He was knighted in 1902.
2. Leonora Piper (1857-1950) was a famous American medium in the 20th century who became of intense interest to American philosopher William James.
3. William Cartheuser (ca 1930) was an American medium who became a subject of the American Society for Psychical Research
4. For further reading see: Alex Owen, The Darkened Room: Women, Power, and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989); Beth A. Robertson, “In the Laboratory of Spirits: Gender, Embodiment, and the Scientific Quest for Life Beyond the Grave 1918-1939” (Dissertation: Carleton University, 2013)
Oppression is systemic. The essays in this section explore the ways the institutions of science, technology, and medicine have been constructed according to a hierarchical, patriarchal pattern that excludes women and marginalized people by its very design. The intersecting constructions of race, gender, and class upon which the scientific, technical, and medical mainstream have been built extend beyond these institutions themselves. We can see their operation in the home as well as the laboratory, and trace how they are written into our laws and customs.
In this section, Leila McNeill analyzes the meaning of scientific structures like the concept of the anthropocene and astronomical naming conventions to critique the ways that science reinscribes ancient patriarchal norms on contemporary scientific discourse. In essays on the UFO phenomenon, the possibility of a feminist glaciology, and food as a technology of modernity, Anna Reser interrogates the categories of science and technology themselves and find that they are ripe for reinterpretation. In addition to race, gender, and class, McNeill and Reser also consider how these structures intersect with disability in contemporary US labor laws and in the history of the American space program. Lydia Pyne considers the way that writing history can itself reproduce exclusivity and reflects on practices of feminist scholarship that can help to expose and ameliorate these oppressive structures.
Leila A. McNeill
Within the last couple of years, the Anthropocene has become discussed more and more inside and outside of academic walls. Simply put, the Anthropocene is the proposed current epoch of geologic time that began when human activity altered the Earth’s geology and ecosystems globally. Evidence from atmospheric data and ice cores suggest that our current era is distinctly different from that of the Holocene, which began approximately 11,700 years ago at the end of the last ice age. The Holocene is marked by glacial activity, whereas the Anthropocene is marked by human disruption. Though the term has been widely used by scientists and others, Anthropocene is not yet a formally recognized epoch in the official geologic time scale. One reason for this is the ongoing debate about when exactly the Anthropocene began-- with the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s? Or much sooner with the onset of agriculture? Other debates involve the suitability of the term and its long-term implications for policy and global planning. I am interested, however, in the Anthropocene as a concept and a construct of culture, an examination to which feminist and intersectional theory has much to contribute.
Man not only lies in the root of the word--Anthropos--but also at the heart of Anthropocene as a concept. The use of Anthropos to define an entire epoch on the global earth implies that we are talking about Man, capital M; Man in this sense is universal. Thinking of Man as universal is in and of itself a modern, Western concept that has been passed down to us from the wellspring of the European Enlightenment. This is a concept that continues to plague the field of history; feminist historians still find ourselves challenging the erroneous idea that the history of the Western Man is a universal human experience. As anthropologist Anna Tsing (1) states in her talk “A Feminist Approach to the Anthropocene: Earth Stalked by Man,” “Man, the Enlightenment figure, arose in dialogue with God. He inherited God’s universalism.” Just as there is no single universal timeline for history, Tsing argues that there is no one universal timeline for the Anthropocene. The root Anthropos, then, embodies not a universal human, but the white Western man as he conceived of himself in the 17th century-- and, as it seems, he still does.
Within Anthropos is man, little m. Since the Enlightenment, men of science and industry have set themselves over and separate from nature. Nature became a resource to be tapped, a force to be harnessed. Forests and ecosystems were a source of fuel for the Industrial Revolution. Razing forests and altering ecosystems for the sake of industrial progress was in essence a masculine endeavour. In positions of power and privilege, men created the system of industrial capitalism, and they alone retained the profits and progress that it rendered. It became a closed system that marginalized women, the working class, and the whole of the “undeveloped” world. The effects of the Industrial Revolution are irrevocably embedded in sediments and ice cores as well as the atmosphere. Anna Tsing is correct when she poignantly says that “masculine domination is implicated in the set of catastrophes we call Anthropocene.”
Ensconced in Anthropos is not just man, but specifically the white European man and his desire for empire. Imperial colonization and the subsequent exploitation of non-Western people and their land served the economic and industrial interests of European empires. Spanish expansion in the 15th century dominated Central and Latin America. In the 16th century, France expanded territory in North America and eventually the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia. The British set their sights on their own continent and eventually expanded to North America and the East Indies. The Dutch in kind built colonies in the East Indies, Latin America, and Africa. The building of empire was global, but the human and colonial disruption to ecosystems occurred locally. In each colony, Anthropogenic events proliferated in ways unique to that location and on a scale that has not yet been fully grasped. Anthropocene should be understood through place, as it is unevenly distributed across the globe. A universal Anthropocene does not work when we incriminate the imperial colonialism of Anthropos. Embedded in Anthropocene is the same arrogance and ethnocentrism that characterizes colonialism.
Interrogating Anthropos is not a trivial matter of mere language. Feminist and intersectional theory teaches us that the naming of things matters. In “On the Poverty of Our Nomenclature,” Eileen Crist argues that Anthropocene is anthropocentric in that the name itself “evokes the human centeredness that is at the root of our ecological predicament.” (2) In thinking that nature has been disrupted by humans, we first accept that humans are a force acting on it and outside of nature. Humans, however, act within nature as part of it. After all, we know that humans biologically are just another animal-- a destructive animal, but an animal nonetheless. Instead of challenging the human domination that brought us to this predicament, Crist suggests that Anthropocene by its very name “propos[es] instead technological and managerial approaches that would make human dominion sustainable.” By historicizing Anthropos, we can understand that it’s not simply human domination that we will sustain, it is the continued domination of the white Western world over the rest.
Once again, I invoke Anna Tsing: “Anthropocene matters because livability is threatened by the repercussions of human activities.” For whom will we make this Anthropocene planet liveable? So far, it seems for the same dominant culture that set in motion some of the most consequential Anthropogenic events of the epoch. The global South is least responsible for human alteration to the lithosphere. However, this region is the most vulnerable to Anthropogenic markers, like climate change, and it is the most invisible in discussions about how to live in this new epoch. If we blindly follow the Anthropos into the Anthropocene, we will only recycle the same social and cultural inequalities that contributed to our arriving here in the first place. Feminist theory can help hold us accountable to the diverse responsibilities of preserving livability in the Anthropocene. (3)
1. Anna L. Tsing is currently a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University. She specializes in Feminist Studies and Environmental Studies. Her works include Words in Motion (Duke University Press, 2009) and Nature in the Global South: Environmental Projects in South and Southeast Asia (Duke University Press, 2003).
2. Eileen Crist, “On the Poverty of Our Nomenclature,” Environmental Humanities 3 (2013): 129–47.
3. For further reading, see J.K. Gibson-Graham, “A Feminist Project of Belonging for the Anthropocene” Gender, Place and Culture 18, no. 1 (2011): 1–21, and Will Steffen et al., “The Anthropocene: Conceptual and Historical Perspectives,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 369, no. 1938 (March 2011): 842–67.
Monsters, Myths, and Constellations
Leila A. McNeill
“I am nothing. I have done nothing at all; all I am, all I know, I owe to my brother. I am the tool which he has shaped to his use—,” wrote Caroline Herschel. We know that Caroline’s insistence that she had “done nothing” is far from true. (1) In her lifetime, she, independently of her famous brother William, discovered 8 comets and 3 nebulae and received multiple honors. She also carried out some of William’s most complex astronomical calculations. Still, she sees herself not as an astronomer in her own right, but as a helpmate to William, a tool that he shaped for his own ends. Caroline defines herself in relation to her brother, and for over 100 years, history remembered her similarly.
Though Caroline seems grateful to William, and never expressed dissatisfaction with her lot in life, it is difficult not to feel a sharp sense of sadness when Caroline resolutely says, “I am nothing.” Caroline’s rejection of her accomplishments, her own sense of self, is no doubt an internalization of sexist 19th century cultural norms. How women identify, define, and understand themselves has too often been tied to their relationships to men, and this crisis of female identity has been women’s inheritance handed down from centuries of literary traditions and historical narratives. In 1968, poet Adrienne Rich wrote “Planetarium,” a poem dedicated to Caroline and other female astronomers. In “Planetarium,” Rich wrests from Caroline’s story the root causes of internalized sexism, tracing a matrilineal line of female identity from the past to the present.
In her essay “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,” Rich bemoans what male writers and artists, as creators of Western literature, art, and cultural history, have made of women. In art and literature, women have served as “the painter’s model and the poet’s muse,” and in history, they have been wives, mothers, assistants, and copyists. (2) Men, on the other hand, have been women’s watchers, gate-keeping and influencing the language and images women produce. Rich leans on Virginia Woolf’s feminist text A Room of One’s Own to illustrate this point. Even in a text where Woolf attempts to create a space for women in a male dominated literary tradition, her language and tone betray a self-conscious awareness that men from the other room are still listening. Rich says that “the spectre of this kind of male judgment…has created problems for the woman writer: problems of contact with herself, problems of language and style, problems of energy and survival.” (3) Caroline was neither a writer nor an artist, but she too, as a woman in astronomy, was haunted by male sanctioned conventions. And even though Rich as a poet speaks from the experience of literary traditions, it is in “Planetarium” with Caroline that Rich feels “at last the woman in the poem and the woman writing the poem become the same person.” (4)
In the stirring opening lines of “Planetarium,” Rich refers to Caroline as “A woman in the shape of a monster/ a monster in the shape of a woman/ the skies are full of them.” As an unmarried, childless woman participating in a male dominated science, Caroline challenged assumptions about women’s nature, becoming an inversion of what a woman was supposed to be. Rich goes on to trace the matrilineal line of female identity from past to present: “she whom the moon ruled/ like us/ levitating into the night sky/ riding the polished lenses/ Galaxies of women, there/ doing penance for impetuousness.” Through the “polished lenses” of the telescope, Caroline peered at the other woman monsters in the skies, the “[g]alaxies of women…doing penance for impetuousness,” myths created by men and placed in the stars by men too.
Cassiopeia, a constellation in the northern hemisphere, was named for the mythical queen of Aethiopia. Poseidon punished Cassiopeia for taking pride in her beauty by tying her to her throne, and as she circles the pole, she is upside down half the year. Andromeda, Cassiopeia’s daughter, also did penance for Cassiopeia’s vanity, as she was chained naked to a rock where she waited for the sea monster Cetus, to rape her. Andromeda was saved by Perseus, who took her for his wife. The Pleiades, or the Seven Sisters, is a cluster of stars in the Taurus constellation. The Seven Sisters were once women who danced together under the night sky. Orion desired them, so he hunted them. To help the sisters escape, Zeus turned them all into stars, and Orion, a constellation too, still chases them night after night.
The stories we tell matter, and the stories that the stars tell are often of rape and female punishment at the hands of men. When women astronomers look at the stars, these are the stories they read. Rich understood that these types of myths and images of women could have a profound influence on both men and women-- men in the way they view women and women in the way they perceive themselves. Of the woman writer who encounters these myths and images in the Western literary tradition, Rich says, “She goes to poetry or fiction looking for her way of being in the world, since she too has been putting words and images together [but] she comes up against something that negates everything she is about: she meets the image of Woman in books written by men.” Caroline’s book was the stars, and when she turned her telescope on the sky, she met the image of Woman in the stars named by men.
Male astronomers have a very different experience than women when they read the skies. The constellations named for men tell stories of conquest, not submission or punishment. In “Planetarium,” Rich contrasts Caroline’s experience with astronomical discovery to Tycho Brahe’s: “An eye,// ‘viril, precise and absolutely certain’/ from the mad webs of Uranusborg// encountering the NOVA…Tycho whispering at last/ ‘Let me not seem to have lived in vain.’” When Tycho looks at the sky, he sees stories of male identity linked to power and strength, so when he discovered Tycho’s Nova in 1572, it would be his right to claim the discovery as his own. This is quite different from Caroline’s “I am nothing” because she had learned from her myths that women, who acted in ways that displeased men, were monsters deserving punishment. Sometimes, myths become truth.
Throughout “Planetarium,” Rich comes to an understanding of how myths create a culture that uses and abuses women, and in her understanding, she experiences a personal awakening: “What we see, we see// and seeing is changing.” She at once acknowledges the matrilineal line of female monsters with the pronoun “we” while moving toward a transformation-- “seeing is changing.” For the rest of the poem, she only uses the pronoun “I,” signalling her own part in re-writing our cultural myths and literary traditions. Rich ends with a final nod to Caroline as she re-imagines Caroline’s words-- “I am the tool which he has shaped to his use.” Rich, too, sees herself as a tool but one of her own making and used for her own ends: “I am an instrument in the shape// of a woman trying to translate pulsations// into images// for the relief of the body// and the reconstruction of the mind.” By rewriting myths and translating them into new images, Rich, once a monster at the beginning of the poem, is now a woman.
As a historian, I am in the mythmaking and storytelling business, and as a feminist historian, I think of myself and other historians like me as revisionist mythmakers. As Rich turned to Caroline to frame her own awakening from a male dominated literary tradition, I turn to Rich to articulate my own awakening in the pursuit of history. Like Rich in “Diving Into the Wreck,” I had carried with me “a book of myths/ in which/ our names do not appear.” When I decided to study history, I wanted to see why women had been written out of it: “I came to see the damage that was done//…the wreck and not the story of the wreck/ the thing itself and not the myth.” I did not want to just work within the male dominated historical narrative the way it was; I wanted to know why it was in the first place. And in knowing, dismantle it. Book by book, letter by letter.
1. Mary Cornwallis Herschel, ed., Memoir and Correspondence of Caroline Herschel (Murray, 1879), ix.
2. Adrienne Rich, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,” College English 34, no. 1 (1972): 18–30, 19.
3. Rich, 20.
4. Ibid., 25.
5. For further reading see: Alicia Ostriker, “The Thieves of Language: Women Poets and Revisionist Mythmaking,” Signs 8, no. 1 (1982): 68–90; Renee L. Bergland, “Urania’s Inversion: Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, and the Strange History of Women Scientists in Nineteenth-Century America,” Signs 34, no. 1 (2008): 75–99.
Visitation and Violence: Gender and the UFO Phenomenon
I had to research and write this essay exclusively during the day. For me as a kid, there was nothing more terrifying, or more twistedly fascinating, than the UFO phenomenon and the prospect of alien abduction. As Leila and I have nervously joked many times, I’m still not 100% convinced that the truth isn’t actually out there mutilating cattle, hence the broad-daylight workflow. But ufology, the study of the UFO phenomenon, and other similar research endeavors like paranormal investigation and cryptozoology are important areas of study for the history of science.
At the heart of ufology is a struggle between narrative and eyewitness accounts, and a need to prove itself as a legitimate scientific discipline through the rational and objective analysis of often absent material evidence. We have shown many times before that these two categories of evidence have historically been coded feminine and masculine respectively, associations that ufology often leverages to prove its credibility. It is in the structure and content of abduction narratives that the field’s underlying assumptions about women, gender, and generation lie—assumptions borrowed from modern science and medicine.
At first glance, ufology and other “fringe” sciences look to me like the “lady science” that we seek out and analyze in this publication. Both are marginalized forms of inquiry that have been forced to the periphery of an insular and often hostile male-dominated scientific establishment. Both are accused of “softness” in the face of an establishment that demands “hard” facts. In many regards, ufology is as “feminized” in the eyes of the scientific establishment as the “lady sciences” that the mainstream has historically scorned. Yet, a closer look reveals that ufology actually behaves just like mainstream science with regard to how it deals with issues of women investigators, gender, generation, and technology.
Lack of visibility and credibility is what ufology and other “fringe” sciences fight against. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to ufology becoming mainstream is its lack of material evidence. In the absence of actual alien spacecraft or bodies, researchers are left with photographs, videos, and personal accounts. Personal accounts as evidence are the most problematic for ufology because mainstream science all but completely discounts anecdotal evidence in favor of material evidence and instrumental data. This is the soft evidence that prevents ufology from taking a hard science approach to its phenomena.
Ufology attempts to counter the perceived softness of its evidence, and the subsequent feminization of the field, by identifying categories of credible witnesses whose testimony can be taken more seriously than others. The ultimate credible witness is probably the astronaut. As rational, skeptical, and scientific observers, astronauts appear to be less prone to imagination and fantasy. The popular image of astronauts as ideal citizens speaks to their trustworthiness, and their military and government service presumably means that any accusations of government conspiracy are not taken lightly by astronauts. Other favored witnesses include pilots and scientists. All of these professions, as we have often argued, are coded male, and at times in history, they have actively excluded women from participation.
To push into the mainstream, ufology tries to stiffen its soft evidence. But, as prominent Australian ufologist Sheryl Gottschall argues, the male-dominated model of science that ufology emulates cannot account for the “softness” of the evidence, regardless of who presents it; the field should take seriously what she calls “the esoteric.”(1) Gottschall contends that the gender imbalance of researchers leaves ufology unable to take full advantage of the necessary perspective on this type of marginalized evidence because more women in the field would help diversify its methodologies and expand its scope and effectiveness. One thing that ufology borrows from mainstream science is its treatment of women investigators and its preference for certain kinds of evidence.
Ultimately, however, naivete about the history of science, not “softness,” prevents ufology from breaking into the mainstream. Abduction and contact narratives conform to a surprisingly small number of types, almost all of which involve recognizable methods of modern scientific or medical practice implemented by the alien beings. The history of science shows us that the familiar modern version of science, with its inductive and observational practice, reliance on high-tech instruments and materials, and its professionalized and specialized medical practice, has only been the norm for a little over 100 years at most. One of the ways that history of science demonstrates that science hasn’t always looked the way we expect is by studying “fringe” sciences that were once the mainstream, like alchemy and astrology. By investigating scientific traditions from outside the West, and indeed, the science of ladies and other marginalized investigators, the identifiably 20th-century Western science supposedly practiced by aliens upon abductees implies a scientific and technological determinism and universality that is simply not plausible.
Even if I were able to overlook ufology’s assumptions about what counts as science—after all, mainstream science is certainly not innocent of this—I cannot overlook the dangerous and disturbing ideas about women that are embedded in abduction narratives. In general, these narratives describe invasive medical examinations by the alien captors, which for women involve examination of the reproductive system, and most horrifyingly, impregnation and subsequent removal of the hybrid human-alien fetus. Many abductees report that they have been assigned a mission by the aliens that will ultimately save humanity from destruction. In the case of women abductees, this mission involves the responsibility of bearing children, usually without consent. Thus, one of the central bodies of evidence for ufology is a narrative text that involves the abduction, rape, and forced impregnation of women under the pretense of global salvation. (2) Abduction narratives in which the aliens practice modern science act as a cultural text that reveals assumptions about the nature of modern science with a perspective of women and generation that are deeply disturbing.
Ufology’s understanding of the science it seeks to emulate is flawed, but in an important sense, this understanding is borrowed from science’s image of itself. Mainstream science makes some of the same missteps as ufology because both are working from the same script of reason, objectivity, positivism, and the priority of physical evidence. Even worse, they both share troubling ideas about what women’s bodies are for and what the scientists and medical practitioners of this world—or another—are allowed to do with them.
1. Sheryll Gottschall, “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus—So Where Does That Leave ufology?” UFO Research Queensland, August 27, 2014. http://uforq.asn.au/men-mars-women-venus-leave-ufology/ (Last accessed November 16, 2016).
2. Roger Luckhurst, “The Science-Fictionalization of Trauma: Remarks on Narratives of Alien Abduction,” Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 25, No. 1 (1998), 29-52. On the rhetoric of abduction narratives see also Stephanie Kelley-Romano, “Mythmaking in Alien Abduction Narratives,” Communication Quarterly, vol. 54, no. 3, (2006) 383-406.
Calving, Cores and Controversy: Feminist Glaciology
In 1982, The New Yorker published a short story by science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin. “Sur” is an anonymized report of an extraordinary expedition to Antarctica, carried out by the narrator and a group of friends in 1909. (1) The narrator notes that since they are all women, the explorers have had no opportunity for scientific training and plan instead simply to see the wild ice continent and perhaps go a bit further toward the interior than others before them. Indeed, they reach the South Pole in the winter of 1909, almost exactly two years before Roald Amundsen overtook Robert Falcon Scott to become the first to reach the pole. The author expresses her embarrassment at learning this and assures the reader that no one need ever find out that she and a band of women beat both men to the pole—they left no trace of their expedition.
“Sur” is one of the many works of fiction and art that Mark Carey , M. Jackson, Alessandro Antonello, and Jaclyn Rushing use in a recent paper called “Glaciers, gender, and science: A feminist glaciology framework for global environmental change research.” (2) The paper is an expansive literature review. In addition to fiction and art, Carey also cites the knowledge of indigenous people who live near and with glaciers, the work and perspective of women glaciologists, and climate scientists as important sites for developing new knowledge bases about glaciers that reside outside of the white male scientific establishment. Carey argues that these knowledge bases, combined with a research program informed by feminist, intersectional, and postcolonial theory and history, will produce new and more inclusive knowledge about glaciers and the unevenly distributed effects of climate change. The paper argues that the history of glaciology is tinged with masculinist discourses of heroic exploration and dangerous fieldwork, a manly tradition that still pervades the discipline. This type of analysis and its conclusions, as I’m sure you can imagine, is just our kind of thing.
Predictably, the paper has been a bit of a dog whistle for anti-feminists of every stripe. It seems the most dust was initially kicked up by Fox News, which reported on the publication of the paper with a pointed aside about Carey’s funding coming from the National Science Foundation, implying that American taxpayers had been funding inappropriate research. Blogs and news websites picked up the story and a great deal of noise was made. Attacks on the paper usually begin by invoking the infamous Alan Sokal hoax and criticizing Carey and the other authors for impenetrable writing peppered with “liberal buzzwords” like “feminism” and “intersectionality.” (3) Many critics sound the scientistic call for hard numbers and empirical data and invoke the specter of the “science wars” in accusing the authors of being anti-science and drawing a hard line between the sciences and the humanities. The paper’s examination of indigenous knowledge about glaciers, gleaned from living near the ice for generations, is met with thinly-veiled racist dismissal.
I won’t unpack the paper in this essay, in part because “Feminist Glaciology” is paywalled and my hot take would simply join the others to which only people with library privileges can respond. But the critical response to the paper is full of useful clues as to why writing feminist history of science is still such a difficult task. We can begin by noting that Carey, as a well-funded white male tenured professor, will always be better positioned to make claims about the marginalization of women and people of color than those people themselves. The backlash that Carey and his co-authors face would undoubtedly be magnified if he were a woman or a person of color. This isn’t, of course, to say that Carey can’t or shouldn’t do this kind of research, but it’s worth remembering that this paper is largely a literature review in which Carey cites the ongoing work of a great variety of scholars, artists, and writers, many of whom are women-- none of whom have received anything like the attention of “Feminist Glaciology.”
Though I am loathe to agree with any of the ad hominem attacks on the writing style of the paper, I do find it a bit clunky. But this is not because of its “jargon” or its critical-theoretical style—it’s just written to conform to the style of a geography journal and isn’t especially lyrical to this historian’s ear. As long as terms like “postmodern” and “postcolonial” are disparaged by scientists and the mainstream media as “buzzwords,” the important work that those terms enable can be easily dismissed. These terms are used by scholars to get under and around entrenched assumptions, such as the perceived objectivity of science. They are terms that humanists use to investigate human activity, and science is no less human than any other form of inquiry. Part of the reason that debate and discussion can be shut down by accusations of jargon slinging, is that most of the writing that develops and implements these powerful analytic tools is behind academic paywalls and are not accessible by the general public.
One of the things that has drawn the most ire is the author’s inclusion of alternative research strategies developed in art and literature, especially works that rewrite the history and practices of traditional manly glaciology with its focus on drilling ice cores and heroic mountaineering. The notion of an artist or novelist contributing anything useful to glaciology, like the observation that indigenous people might have knowledge about the ice unavailable to Western science, seems to be not only unacceptable to critics of Carey’s work, but openly hostile to the scientific enterprise. Underpinning this hostility are assumptions about what constitutes scientific inquiry in a physical sense—just looking at ice, or writing about it, or painting it can’t be science because science penetrates and uncovers, conquers and subdues. The reason that the explorers in “Sur” are forgotten is that they left no physical trace of their expedition.
For those of us who are knee deep in the literature on science and gender, there’s nothing particularly radical about Carey’s conclusions, and many of the frameworks he cites are older foundational works that have since been built upon—in some sense Carey’s analysis is actually just a little overripe. But the reaction to the paper indicates that very little of this work has filtered into the public consciousness. The kinds of knowledge produced by women and other marginalized people are consistently undermined by the scientific establishment itself and even more so in public. Part of the reason for this is that these kinds of knowledge don’t leave traces on the ice or in the historical record. And in an age of imminent and catastrophic climate change caused by a long human history of marking the environment, perhaps leaving no trace isn’t such a radical research program after all.
1. Ursula Le Guin, “Sur,” The New Yorker (February 1, 1982). You can view a scan of the original issue online: http://archives.newyorker.com/?i=1982-02-01#folio=038 (Last accessed November 16, 2016).
2. Mark Carey, M. Jackson, Alessandro Antonello and Jaclyn Rushing, “Glaciers, Gender, and science: A feminist glaciology framework for global environmental change research,” Progress in Human Geography 40, no. 6 (2008): 770-793.
3. On the “Sokal Affair” see Alan D. Sokal, “Transgressing the Boundaries: An Afterword,” Philosophy and Literature 20, no. 2 (1996): 338-346.
Technological Food and Women’s Labor
Either through personal experience, or through the endless mocking and fascination food blogs, listicles, and social media posts indulge in, most Americans know something about towering molded Jell-O salad, mayonnaise-frosted sandwich loaf, or thick casserole sopping with condensed canned soup. These family gathering staples and showy cocktail hour assemblages are deeply bound up with ideas of American values, patriotism, family, and the strictly gendered ideologies of midcentury. They are also tied to the growth of large-scale manufacturing, and are linked to the influx of technology and its products in the home. In the kitchen, women balanced the demands of their families, the household budget, and an influx of manufactured foods with shifting expectations about presentation, taste, and the expenditure of their own labor. Thus, an artifact like a Jell-O salad is far more than a kitschy curiosity. Such foods sit (or wiggle) at the nexus of domesticity, technology, and modernity.
It is perhaps the notion of convenience, more than anything else, that is responsible for some of the most appalling American culinary creations of the post-war period. New packaged foods were advertised, in part, on their time and labor-saving merits. A large part of the labor of cooking, which had always fallen primarily on women, was now taken up by machines that shelled and packed peas, condensed and canned soups, and powdered and flavored gelatin. Food companies published cookbooks to help women incorporate these new foods into their kitchen routines, while appliance manufacturers did the same for new kitchen gadgets and labor-saving machines.
The convenience of processed and packaged foods, like the now-familiar story of kitchen appliances, came at a cost for women. There was a stigma about these foods that was revealed in the elaborate, and, at times, absurd presentation that was prescribed by midcentury cookbooks. As Jessamyn Neuhaus describes: “women were expected to ‘be creative’ with processed foods,” an injunction that often negated the labor-saving qualities of these foods in time spent molding, arranging, frosting and layering. (1) Neuhaus notes that even in cookbooks produced by food companies, women were instructed to concoct clever disguises for packaged foods, lest they shame their family by taking the easy way out. These prescriptions, as well as numerous recipes for packaged foods that could be sculpted into elaborate imitations of more traditional foods (like a hot-dog crown roast), revealed underlying anxieties about the aesthetics and class value of such foods. Glenn Sheldon notes that what he calls “kitschy food” was a site for the performance of class and social standing. (2) Convenience is a virtue of modern food that has to be paid back in deference to tradition, a cost that often negates the benefits of packaged and processed foods.
New packaged foods created new kinds of labor for women, instead of simply eliminating certain tasks. This exchange or transfer of labor applies to other types of technology that were being integrated into home life. Neuhaus points out that even technologies outside the kitchen affected the food labor of the housewife. Women were instructed by cookbooks on ways to navigate the intrusions of television, the most celebrated hallmark of post-war culture, either by preparing food to be eaten while watching, or expending even more labor on elaborate family dinners to outpace the seductions of TV. (3)
Food and technology are so closely connected that it is even possible to make the favorite argument of historians of technology: certain foods themselves are technologies for augmenting women’s labor. An advertisement for Hellmann’s mayonnaise touts the preservative powers of their sandwich spread, noting that the mayo glaze for the potato salad loaf “keeps it fresh and moist to the last slice.” The ad also boasts that the mayo will help you “make the prettiest potato salad ever.” A recipe for a jellied summer salad is similarly suggestive, noting that this “hearty” salad can be made ahead of time and will remain fresh for later. These new manufactured foods promised to change women’s routine in the kitchen, and to make the most of their labor by preserving fresh foods longer. So not only are molded salads tied to the performance of gender, class, and aesthetic virtue, they are themselves technologies for shaping the labor of the kitchen.
These kinds of arguments may sound strange, but they have an important purpose. It bears repeating that if we only look for women in science and technology within accepted institutions, we may be disappointed. Framing something like a Jell-O salad as a technology demonstrates that the artifacts and processes that women were obligated to interact with at midcentury, function in many ways just the same as those things we typically think of as technology. In this case, the augmentation of labor that is usually discussed in terms of machines and industrial processes is transcribed into canned peas and Jell-O salads when it enters the home in the post-war period. Redrawing the lines around what is “allowed” to be labeled technology demonstrates that technology is a social category, not an undisputed feature of the physical world. Because technology is so central to the project of modernity in the West, these kinds of arguments help to situate women at the heart of the construction of the modern world.
Neuhaus is careful to point out that studying cookbooks and recipe cards can only tell us what women were expected to do in the kitchen, and not necessarily what they did do. (4) This is an important corrective to the ways that theatrical and ornamental midcentury food is discussed. I agree with Neuhaus, however, in asserting that there is much to learn from such prescriptive literature. These strange foods, newfangled kitchen gadgets, and the increasing influx of other consumer technologies into American homes in the post-war period, point to the home, the family, and the ministrations of the housewife, as essential sites for the construction of modernity. Women were expected, as much as male engineers, scientists, and business leaders, to manage a delicate balance between closely held values of family, tradition, and class, with a consuming national current of faith in technology, modernity, and capitalism. Modernity, in turn, entailed subtle but profound shifts in the labor expected of women in the home. Our contemporary myopic or romantic view of post-war home life, which is focused on condemning sexism and silly food, or romanticizing a perceived “simpler time,” is a discourse that obscures these shifts and renders the housewife more and more a one-dimensional caricature. What the food and household technologies of midcentury show, is an America that was negotiating modernity for itself through the skill and labor of thousands of housewives.
1. Jessamyn Neuhaus, “The Way to a Man’s Heart: Gender Roles, Domestic Ideology, and Cookbooks in the 1950s,” Journal of Social History, vol. 32, no. 3 (1999): 529-555.
2. Glenn Sheldon, “Crimes and Punishments: Class and Connotations of Kitschy American Food and Drink,” Studies in Popular Culture, vol. 27, no. 1 (2004): 61-72.
3. Neuhaus, 535.
4. Neuhaus, 530.
Astronormate: The Image of Ability in the American Space Program
Women did not enter the American space program until 1978—two decades and dozens of crewed missions after the formation of NASA in 1958 and the selection of the first astronauts in 1959. New historical scholarship is beginning to address the reasons for this, and it has offered a picture of how forces as various and complex as the gender roles of postwar culture, midcentury professionalization, and a lack of adequate medical data on women’s bodies excluded women from the space program. I want to add another potential axis to the structural morass that women were forced to wade through in order to eventually join the astronaut corps: that of disability.
I would begin, as influential disability studies scholar Rosemarie Garland Thomson does, by arguing that the Aristotelian perception of the female body as merely a disfigured or imperfect male body structures the ways that women are regarded in Western cultures. (1) The female body is seen as inherently disabled because it functions differently from the male body, which is considered the norm—the standard against which all bodies are compared. Disability scholars recognize a distinction between an old ‘medical model’ of disability that treats disability as the physical fact of impairment, and a social model that regards disability as the limits placed on an impaired person by a society designed to meet the needs only of the able-bodied. Both social and physical disability were causes of concern for the planners of the space program. This concern prompted NASA to create new procedures and protocols, and even new disciplines, to mitigate the threat of disability to its most important and visible members, astronauts.
Bodies are absolutely central to human spaceflight. Every part of a crewed mission revolves around the bodies and abilities of the crew, from the shape and size of spacecraft to the design of switches and seats, to the types of science experiments carried out and the programming language used by the spacecraft computers. The space program technology of the 1960s was designed to accommodate an extremely specific type of physical body, while the institutional structures of the space program were created around a specific type of social body. The language of disability, and the continuity it provides between the technological and the social, is essential in explaining, among other things, why there were no women astronauts until the late 1970s. In disability studies terminology, the 1960s astronaut was a perfect example of the “normate,” a term coined by Thomson to denote the figure in a given society that has the most cultural capital and the most access to participation in society. In the early 1960s, the normate was white, male, middle class with a profession, married, heterosexual, and able-bodied. This is a basic description of the first seven astronauts; military test pilot with a technical college degree would eventually be added. The normate, like the astronaut, is defined by what he is not—his normativity is constructed in opposition to various forms of difference like femaleness, physical or cognitive impairment, and race. As the figure of the astronaut as a white, able-bodied male became naturalized by NASA’s public relations and media coverage, the possibilities for different kinds of astronaut bodies became more and more difficult to imagine.
The selection of astronauts was largely a medical matter, and it was presented to the public as such. (2) After eliminating people who embodied the unspoken disqualifiers of being women, or black, or impaired (like having radical political views, among other things), and eliminating people who did not meet the technical and educational requirements, the men on the shortlist were then evaluated by aerospace medicine physicians who searched for the unseen impairments and potential disability that could not be eliminated by other social criteria. When the astronaut selection process is viewed as a continuum, and the elimination procedures at the beginning of the process are brought level with the medical procedures at the end, we can see that disability is the thread that ties them together. Being female was as disabling to the potential astronaut as having a hidden heart condition; the former is a disability that can be recognized on sight where the latter requires elaborate and often unprecedented medical testing to uncover. (3)
Another way to think of the connection between gender and disability in the space program is to consider the extensive modifications that were made to its infrastructure and technology in order to accommodate women in the late 1970s. Amy E. Foster’s book Integrating Women into the Astronaut Corps: Politics and Logistics at NASA, 1972-2004 details the social, technological, and institutional changes that NASA had to make in its operations and organization in order to admit the first women astronauts in 1978. (4) It was not a simple undertaking. Women’s restrooms and locker rooms had to be added to the architecture of ground facilities, accommodations for women astronauts to change clothes aboard the space shuttle and sleep in privacy had to be conceived, engineered, and fabricated. That most terrifying of lady-things, menstruation, had to be agonized over by teams of physicians and engineers who were so keen to contain the crimson tide that they sent hundreds of pads and tampons to space with the first women astronauts. The discussion of space shuttle toilets alone takes up multiple sections. The extent of the changes NASA needed to make in order to integrate women into the astronaut corps demonstrates that the human spaceflight program was designed from the ground up to accommodate only male astronauts. What kind of retrofit would be necessary to accommodate differently-abled astronauts?
Perhaps one last anecdote will help to illuminate the ways that disability functions as a social construction in the history of the space program. At the press conference announcing the first Mercury astronauts, the press was briefed by the head of NASA’s Life Sciences division, and the physician who conducted the medical examinations for astronaut candidates, Dr. Randolph Lovelace. He and the NASA officials conducting the conference assured the press that these men had met the most stringent requirements for health and physical fitness. The press wanted to know if astronauts would be able to smoke cigarettes on space missions, and if they would have to quit smoking (and drinking) while in training. Dr. Lovelace assured the press that the physicians and flight surgeons had no intention of making anyone quit smoking. This, of course, sounds ludicrous to us today, even a history of smoking seems like enough to disqualify someone from being an astronaut (not to mention that Americans would not accept a role model for school children who smoked). But in the late 1950s and early 1960s, everyone expected the astronauts to smoke because everyone smoked! Everyone expected the astronauts to be white, able-bodied men because everyone who had a position of influence and power in America at that time was white, male, and able-bodied. We certainly know better about the smoking part, and we’re getting better about the white, male part. But there are still deeply entrenched cultural ideas about who is able to be an astronaut that have less to do with the so-called physical facts of the astronaut body and much more to do with the society and structures where astronauts function. These structures are designed with a default figure in mind. In the 1960s, that figure smoked! What other features of this normative figure are merely vestiges of a social and cultural mindset that no longer exists? More importantly, how can we actively change this mindset to make space for difference in our public institutions?
1. Rosemarie Garland Thomson, Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature (Columbia University PRess, 1997).
2. W. R. Lovelace II, “Duckings, Probings, Checks that Prove Fliers’ Fitness,” Life (April 20, 1959). Life is available to view online: https://books.google.com/books/about/LIFE.html?id=R1cEAAAAMBAJ (Last accessed November 17, 2016).
3. Mae Mills Link, Aerospace Medicine in Project Mercury (National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1965). This book is availalbe to view online: http://history.nasa.gov/SP-4003.pdf (Last accessed November 17, 2016).
4. Amy E. Foster, Integrating Women into the Astronaut Corps: Politics and Logistics at NASA, 1972-2004 (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011).
Disability, Pregnancy, and the Continued Fight for Worker’s Rights
Leila A. McNeill
When I re-enrolled in my employer’s health insurance plan this year, I noticed something that gave me pause. If I were to become pregnant, I could claim the pregnancy as a temporary disability under the Amended Americans with Disabilities Act (1). I had seen this before when I enrolled the first time, and my workplace certainly isn’t the only one to cover pregnancy this way. This was, however, the first time I took notice. I wanted to know why, with decades of expanding rights for women in the workplace behind us, pregnant women in 2016 have to borrow from another protected class’ legislation to avoid discrimination. So began a search for an unsatisfying answer among a quagmire of research and hundreds of pages of case law.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the first major piece of legislation that granted women and other disenfranchised groups rights in the workplace. Under Title VII, employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, religion, and national origin. However, the 1976 Supreme Court case General Electric Co. v. Gilbert revealed one of the ways that Title VII wasn’t enough to secure women’s employment. In General Electric’s Salem, VA. plant, pregnant employees claimed sex discrimination on the grounds that pregnancy was excluded from GE’s disability plan, the Weekly Sickness and Accident Insurance Plan, which was extended to all employees, male and female. SCOTUS upheld that employers could legally deny pregnancy coverage from health insurance and benefits plans without violating the Civil Rights Act. As discordant as it sounds, employers could effectively fire a woman or deny her benefits because she was pregnant and still comply with Title VII. Women and feminists found themselves caught between a rock and a hard place; they could either claim equality with men by denying their reproductive body or admit sex difference to claim pregnancy benefits and workplace accommodations that would not be applicable to male-bodied employees.
In response to General Electric Co. v. Gilbert, Congress passed a federal statute called the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) in 1978. The PDA amended the sex discrimination portion of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to account for pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions and benefits coverage. However, the PDA provides woefully limited protections for pregnant women who need on the job accommodations, like more bathroom breaks or lighter lifting duties for physically demanding positions. Women who are not granted such accommodations from their employer could be accused of not fulfilling their job duties, which leaves them subject to the same at-will employment as any other employee. To file discrimination under the PDA, a woman would have to prove disparate treatment. In other words, she would have to prove that she was subjected to negative treatment because of her sex by comparing her treatment to that of another non-pregnant employee who also needed and received workplace accommodations—for example, someone who is temporarily disabled. Finding someone in one’s own workplace with a comparable situation is not an easy task and not always possible. And, according to attorney Sheerine Alemzadeh, courts have historically been reticent to apply disparate treatment analysis to PDA claims because they see it as a sneaky way for pregnant workers to gain preferential treatment.
Next came the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993, which is about as useful to pregnant women as a gifted box of super absorbent tampons. The FMLA is job-protected leave that provides 12 weeks unpaid leave for qualified medical and family reasons, including pregnancy. FMLA is useless for a couple of reasons. For one, it only covers workplaces with 50 or more employees, so small staff workplaces are not included at all. And, the most important reason—it is unpaid. Protections effectively exclude women with poverty line and low-income status because they can’t afford to forgo a paycheck for 12 weeks. FMLA disproportionately fails women of color, immigrants, and women who live in rural areas. Avoiding discrimination as a female-bodied pregnant employee is like a choose your own adventure story, except instead of an adventure, you must wander a confusing labyrinth of legislation and litigation where all paths lead to unemployment.
All this brings us to the Amended Americans with Disability Act (AADA) of 2008, which provides protections for pregnant workers where previous legislation has failed. Before the act was amended in 2008, the original Americans with Disability Act (ADA) did not include pregnant workers because disability was defined as a medical condition that exists in the body; since courts and employers perceived pregnancy as a “normal” biological function of a “healthy” female body, pregnancy did not fall within the scope of the ADA. The AADA, however, defines disability differently, reflecting a more progressive way of understanding disability. Under the new AADA, disability is defined through an interaction between an individual’s body and their social environment. In other words, the disabled body is not inherently sick and in need of treatment; the body is only disabled because it must move through an environment constructed by and for able-bodied people. With this amended definition, pregnancy could be understood as a temporary disability, and as such, an employer would be required to provide accommodations and make adjustments to the working environment of a pregnant employee as they would for an employee with a disability.
Feminists have been critical of adopting the AADA to protect pregnant workers because many believe that branding the reproductive body as inherently disabled only hurts women more. Legal scholars, on the other hand, argue that this is the best option for pregnant employees as it provides the best protections for accommodations and leave. I’d like to push back against both of these arguments. For feminists to recoil at the category of disability is to send the message that feminism is not for people with disabilities. But for legal scholars and courts to insist that disability rights is the best possible solution for pregnant workers, is to take something away from people who perceive disability to be an identity and a community. Using disability and restructuring it in legal terms to include other groups only stifles the work that disability activists have been doing tirelessly for decades.
What we have are two identity groups grappling for rights in a labor and economic system that wasn’t intended for them. In the history of labor in the modern Western world, bodies are at the center of the capitalist machine, and only bodies that are mostly like to achieve production in the labor market are deemed useful. As the workplace became increasingly more mechanized in the 19th and 20th centuries, a disabled body became a faulty cog in the machine, and faulty cogs must be replaced. A pregnant body that cannot lift a certain amount of weight, that cannot move as quickly as others, that requires access to a bathroom, only holds up the line of production. Ability and gender then became the underlying criteria that determined a useful body from a dispensable one.
The white able-bodied male was the model of the ideal body against which everything else was judged. That we have to continue to paperclip amendments and federal statutes to our Constitution to protect everyone but white able-bodied men attests to this. A labor system that requires laws and legislation to protect the people within it from the system itself is the fundamental problem. Restructuring the definitions of disability and pregnancy is certainly important to prompt cultural change and attitudes. However, protecting people with disabilities and female-bodied employees of all races and socio-economic class in the workplace will require a radical rethink of an economic structure and labor market that was never designed to account for human difference.
1. The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act was signed into law by President Barack Obama on September 25, 2008, which amended the original ADA to expand the term “disability,” thus, making it easier to individuals to seek protections under the act.
2. For further reading, see Susan Burch and Lindsey Patterson, “Not Just Any Body,” Journal of Women’s History 25, no. 4 (2013): 122-137; Sheerine Alamzedah, “Claiming Disability, Reclaiming Pregnancy,” Wisconsin Journal of Law, Gender, and Society 20 (2012): 1-35.
Writing About Fossils Found By Men
I think it was Raymond Dart’s autobiography, Adventures With the Missing Link, that pushed me over the edge. (1)
In Adventures, anatomist and early 20th century paleoanthropologist Dr. Raymond Dart recounts his discovery of the famous Taung Child hominin fossil. He tells the story with flourish and panache – he and his wife were hosting a friend’s wedding in Johannesburg in the fall of 1924 when a crate of fossils arrived just before the ceremony was supposed to start, and Dart, the best man, starts rummaging through them, finding the Taung Child crania and endocast. He was ecstatic. As Dart tells it, he spent this beautiful moment of scientific discovery daydreaming about being an “instrument in Darwin’s hands” to bring the focus of human origins research to Africa. Back on planet Earth, however, the poor groom was a short step away from having a stroke trying to find his distracted groomsman and dragged Dart away from the fossils, just as the bride arrived.
But it’s the conversation that Dart recounted between himself and his wife, Dora, that made me fling Adventures across my desk in disgust. According to Dart, when the crate of fossils arrived, Dora, his wife, was none too pleased:
“I suppose those are the fossils you’ve been expecting. Why on earth did they have to arrive today of all days? Now, Raymond, the guests will start arriving shortly and you can’t go delving in all that rubble until the wedding’s over and everybody has left. I know how important the fossils are to you, but please leave them until tomorrow.”
I found Raymond Dart’s description of this exchange to be unspeakably patronizing -- his account of the conversation actually goes on for three more pages. Really? She spoke to you like an errant schoolboy, chastising you over the fossils? It was like we had to take Raymond at his word that Dora was as dippy as she appeared in print. My eyes couldn’t roll themselves back in my head far enough.
It’s hard to know more about Dora than what Raymond gives us, however, because Adventures With the Missing Link is the only printed record of that conversation. Dora Dart doesn’t have any journals, papers, or photographs that are part of the archives at the University of the Witwatersrand, and letters that do mention her only do so in passing. A search of other newspapers outside of Dart’s legacy collection led me to conclude that Dora Dart didn’t leave much of a footprint in the archives.
Like so many women in the early days of paleoanthropology, Dora was undeniably part of the Taung Child’s life history, but her participation in the social life of the fossil is decidedly unmarked by history. When Raymond discovered the fossil in the crate, Dora contributed knitting needles and enthusiasm as Dart worked to free the fossil from its rock matrix; she traveled with Raymond to London with the fossil; and, when the Darts accidently left it in a London taxi, she was the one who tracked the fossil down to a police station. But she doesn’t ever seem to have a voice of her own in the Taung Child’s story, other than “Dart’s wife,” in large part because she wasn’t involved with the fossil’s formal scientific study.
For most of its history, paleoanthropology, the study of human origins, has been dominated by men. Men finding fossils, men publishing their fossils, men writing to other men to congratulate – or snipe at – each other about finding and publishing their fossils. Consequently, the history and mythos of paleoanthropology has been monopolized by these stories about men and their fossils.
Women who show up in the 20th century’s early days of human origins research are usually wives of famous scientists or they are fossil enthusiasts, employed as technicians, secretaries, or students. Mary Leakey is, of course, the big exception, with her decades of excavations in Tanzania’s Oldulvai Gorge in the mid-20th century and work with the Zinjanthropus skull. (2) Moreover, the history of paleoanthropology is generally written through the lens of discovery – narratives that hinge on a new species or an exciting fossil. Most popular histories about paleoanthropology focus on the discovery of the fossil and inexorably link a fossil with its discoverer, like Raymond Dart and the Taung Child in 1925, Donald Johanson and Lucy in 1974, etc.
Interestingly, women who show up in early paleoanthropology generally come from different background disciplines than do their male counterparts. Women tended to come to paleoanthropology from archaeology or anthropology, rather than from anatomy or paleontology – sciences that were less about spectacular discoveries of “things” (fossils) and more about understanding processes. But those sorts of research questions are hard to canonize in a science’s historical mythos. The discovery of some really cool fossil, traditional science storytelling goes, is so much more exciting to read and write about.
Accordingly, the traditional histories of paleoanthropology don’t have a whole lot of women in them. Dart’s student, Josephine Salmons, occasionally makes an appearance. Lady Smith Woodward shows up here and there in various stories of the Piltdown hoax, since her husband Sir Arthur Smith Woodward was so involved in Piltdown’s excavation and study. By and large, however, these women are ladies in the early fossil stories, not scientists. The big names in anthropological research, like Mary Leakey or Jaquetta Hawkes, tend to be researchers who focus more on the behaviors associated with early Homo than finding new hominin fossils. (3) And this is pretty much the cannon of paleoanthropology’s history of science as it currently stands.
But how do observations like these actually influence the writing of the history of paleoanthropology? When I started designing my book, Seven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World’s Most Famous Human Fossils, I realized that I would be writing a book about fossils that would basically have no women in it – in that sense, it would be similar to other histories of paleoanthropology. Because focus of the book would be about the creation of celebrity fossils, I knew that I would find myself writing a lot about paleoanthropology’s early, formative decades as a scientific discipline and a time with very few women in the science. I went through several designs of Seven Skeletons where I included Mary Leakey; however, those designs didn’t fit with the book’s focus on celebrity fossils and, for thematic consistency, I cut the chapter every time I outlined or included it. But by doing that, I felt like I was somehow perpetuating the style, focus, and structure of how the history of paleoanthropology is written by not including more women. Combine that with readers’ expectations about how the history of the fossils “ought” to be told and it becomes difficult to offer alternatives to how to write about women in the early days of paleoanthropology.
My goal with Seven Skeletons was to write about the fossils as social, scientific objects – to distance the fossils from the dominant historical narrative that hinges on the genius of their male discoverers. Examining the social lives of fossils became a way to ensure that other voices would be incorporated into the fossils’ stories through interviews, archives, museum exhibits, and even fiction. This cacophony of other, new voices meant that the stories would at least be different than what had been written previously. But I worried – still worry! – that my decision about Seven Skeletons’ structure perpetrates the canonical way that the history of paleoanthropology is written, especially for popular audiences. It’s not “wrong” history, but I wonder if it’s particularly “right”?
Writing history is all about making choices. Choices about what stories to tell and what narratives to craft, choices about themes, about what to include – but also about what to leave out. Writing good history is all about all of those choices and finding a way to balance archival integrity with the aesthetics of narrative.
In writing Seven Skeletons, I realized that I wouldn’t be writing directly about women as scientists in paleoanthropology, but I could make sure that the women who did make an appearance were given their own details – a first name, a quote directly from them, a detail that humanized them outside of their identity as “so-and-so’s wife or student.” Introducing a plurality of nontraditional materials became a way for me to choose to incorporate more stories about the social lives of these fossils.
To that end, I included a few details about Dora Dart in Seven Skeletons and made sure that Lady Smith Woodward was Lady Maud Smith Woodward (for Pete’s sake, let her have her first name). After the Peking Man fossils disappeared, the paleo laboratory’s secretary, Claire Taschdjian, wrote a fictional account of their disappearance; it’s referenced in the Peking Man chapter. Rosemary Powers, the secretary for the Natural History Museum in London was responsible for keeping the cranks at bay once the Piltdown fossil was debunked; her letter from April 28, 1967 made me laugh out loud in the archives. “Dr. Oakley: Mr. Jessup brought in this correspondence he had with Scheuer, so that we might quash the blighter if he ever pops up again. He has not been heard from in 3 years, happily. I have appended the old file…” There was no question in my mind that the memo would go in my book.
Including these details doesn’t redress the question of gender imbalance in the history of paleoanthropology. But it does emphasize that the fossils are fundamentally social objects, with pull and cachet that transcend the way their stories are generally told.
1. Raymond A., with Dennis Craig Dart, Adventures With the Missing Link (Harper & Brothers, NY, 1959), 4.
2. Mary Leakey (1913-1996) was a paleoanthropologist who discovered the first Proconsul skull and discovered 15 new species in the course of her career. She was married to Louis Leakey.
3. Jaquetta Hawkes (1910-1996) was a British archaeologist and writer famously known for her book A Land
4. Rosemary Powers, “Memo to Dr. Oakley,” April 28, 1967, Piltdown Misc., Piltdown Collection, Natural History Museum, London.
5. For further reading see Code, Lorraine. What Can She Know?: Feminist Theory and the Construction of Knowledge. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991); Kalb, Jon. Adventures in the Bone Trade: The Race to Discover Human Ancestors in Ethiopia’s Afar Depression. 2001 edition. (New York, NY: Copernicus, 2000); Lewin, R. Bones of Contention: Controversies in the Search for Human Origins. Vol. 2nd. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997); Morell, Virginia. Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind’s Beginnings. New Ed edition. (Touchstone, 1996).
The ways that women are represented in science and popular culture can show us what gendered and racial systemic oppressions still exist and also expose how they operate. Representation of women is often based on incomplete historical narratives that do not show women to be complex, fully realized individuals. The essays in this section critique and challenge poor representation, but also highlight positive examples of representation and explain why that matters.
The first two essays by Joy Rankin and Anna Reser look at the representation of famous women scientists, Marie Curie and Ada Lovelace, in popular history books. The writers argue that storytelling and emotionally infused histories allow writers to create more complex women and prompt readers to connect more deeply with historical subjects. The next two essays by Leila McNeill and Anna Reser focus on photography, ethnography, and scientific ways of looking at and capturing the image of women who live outside the developed Western world. The two authors look at how images of indigenous women and women of the Middle East are consumed in the West and how applying scientific rhetoric and objectivism to these images dangerously “others” the women in them. Additionally, McNeill and Reser turn to literature in order to understand society’s expectation of women’s role to nurture the environment and women’s part in building an environmental movement that encompassed the concerns of women and a vision of intersectional feminism. McNeill and Reser then look to television and print advertising to analyze women as scientific practitioners and consumers. Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries is a masterclass in creating complex female characters, while CSI produces damaging stereotypes about women in science and the meaning of scientific evidence. Mid-century print advertisements for the modern kitchen show women to be at the heart of modernity as smart and intentional consumers of technology.
My Thrilling Adventures Reading About Ada and Charles
Perhaps you know Ada Lovelace as the world’s first computer programmer. If so, you may also be familiar with Charles Babbage as the person who designed the first computer. However, as Sydney Padua beautifully illustrates in her graphic novel The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer, what Lovelace and Babbage accomplished – separately and together – is far richer and even more noteworthy than our contemporary shorthand acclamations Indeed, the particular form of Padua’s novel, the combination of comics and notes, enables readers to appreciate the nuances of Lovelace’s (and Babbage’s) work in a way that more traditional biographies or academic treatments may not.(1)
Although the novel blends fact and fiction, Padua has thoroughly researched her subjects and their era. Some of her endnotes positively gleam as the jewels of her investigations, carefully polished. For example, I learned that “writers of poetry die on average six years earlier than writers of nonfiction; and writers themselves die younger than normal people by two and a half years.” (2) This gem appears in the chapter “The Person from Porlock,” which bridges Ada’s circulation in the worlds of both literary and mathematical genius. Ada was the daughter of the poet Lord Byron, and one of the Lovelace estates was a short distance from Ash Farm, where the poet Samuel Coleridge wrote “Kubla Khan.” Padua weaves these details, along with Ada’s mathematical prowess and likely knowledge of probability, into a clever chapter-long joke. “The Person from Porlock” serves as a microcosm for the novel: Padua has assiduously investigated Lovelace’s and Babbage’s worlds, and although she has created an imagined universe for them, she built it upon a strong factual foundation. Here I will emphatically note that only the first chapter, “Ada Lovelace: The Secret Origin!” is nonfiction. The remaining chapters are chock full of historical research and detail, but they imagine a world in which Ada and Babbage succeeded in building and programming an analytical engine -- that is, a computer.
The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage brings their world to life. Padua has captured and conveyed their elite and educated social milieu, and the many people and events with whom Ada and Charles were connected. The page depicting one of Babbage’s dinner parties distills the phenomenal mental firepower of their group: Charles Darwin chats with Michael Faraday while the Duke of Wellington drones on to Florence Nightingale. Readers see Alfred, Lord Tennyson watching Charles Dickens tinker with Babbage’s mechanical Silver Lady.(3) The comic format allows Padua to communicate the impressive range and accomplishments of Lovelace’s and Babbage’s social circle in a glance. And the comic is just plain fun, like when Ada rejuvenates a crashed analytical engine with a swift kick of her boot-clad foot to a crankshaft: she “re-boots” it!
With her graphic novel, Padua posits Lovelace and Babbage as a team. Sometimes Ada is front and center, sometimes Charles, and sometimes they’re together. Emphasizing Ada enables Padua to showcase her range of accomplishments, but also to call attention to 19th-century cultural expectations for women, and to emphasize what has (or has not) changed in nearly 200 years. When Padua turns our attention to Babbage, we see the quirks of his personality, as well as the political engines of Victorian England and the British Empire, spheres traditionally understood as more masculine. Thus, in a chapter in which Marian (or Mary Ann) Evans – better known as George Eliot – visits Lovelace and Babbage’s “brave new world of modern technology,” Padua takes us from a page on which 19th-century novelists, including Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Thomas Carlyle, line up for spell check to an explanation of Babbage’s notation for the analytical engine.(4)
I love Padua’s novel because she emphasizes the contributions and complexities of the 19th century women who enriched and expanded our knowledge of the natural world. Ada was the daughter of Anne Isabella Milbanke, a mathematician described as “the Princess of Parallelograms.” She was the student of Mary Somerville, an accomplished natural philosopher (or scientist) and mathematician, after whom the first women’s college at Oxford University was named. Lovelace’s social circle included Caroline Herschel, who was celebrated for her intellect by the mathematician and scholar Pierre-Simon Laplace. And, Lovelace, a brilliant mathematician, published an impressive and unprecedented work of abstraction, logic, and computation – in 1843. As Padua eloquently explains, “[Hers] was a truly extraordinary leap of imagination – it is difficult, maybe, for us in our computerized age to grasp how extraordinary.” (5)
With her “Pocket Universe,” Padua effectively juxtaposes 19th century English cultural norms, especially around gender, with contemporary ones in order to highlight the flaws with both. As Padua notes, everyone seems obsessed with whether Ada had extramarital affairs, but no one seems to ask that about her husband.(6) Similarly, when she is analyzing some correspondence between Ada and Charles, Padua uses the opportunity to explain that “[b]efore the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, every penny a married woman [like Ada] had or earned was the property of her husband (as, essentially, she was herself).”(7) In this section, Padua then demonstrates the depth of her historical sleuthing by quoting from a letter in which Babbage dishes all sorts of gossip – a letter that Padua herself found and that is reproduced in one of the appendices.
I love The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage most of all because reading them mirrors the process of crafting history: the factual details of history can always be assembled in myriad ways to create multifarious interpretations. With her “Pocket Universe,” Padua goes beyond traditional biographies or academic monographs, to elaborate on the gray spaces of history, the in-betweens, the may-have-beens, to speculate on a more gender-equitable past and future. One can simply read Padua’s comics, which are a visually pleasing wonder to behold. There’s one story. Or one can absorb the rich footnotes at the bottom of each page, adding another layer of depth and detail. The mesmerizing – and highly entertaining! – endnotes and appendices beckon still, offering miniature histories unto themselves, as well as the newspaper articles and cartoons, letters, memoirs, and other primary sources from Ada’s era that Padua consulted to produce her excellent history. The order in which these are read doesn’t really matter. I sometimes found myself following one page from comic to footnote to endnote to appendix and even online, emerging many minutes later at a very different place from where I began. The many threads that can be followed when reading Ada’s Adventures reminds me of the non-linear nature of investigating – and writing – the past. By combining her comic narrative with the academic techniques of footnotes and endnotes, Padua demonstrates that there is not just one history of Lovelace and Babbage; rather, multiple histories are happening at once.
Padua is refreshingly upfront about the challenges of interpreting the past. She shows her work, her thinking, and her analysis. After she quotes one of Lovelace’s letters, in which Lovelace discusses her health and mentions “Erasmus Wilson’s medicines,” Padua reflects: “Well, maybe I’m reading too much into it…Erasmus Wilson was an actual doctor of the period, after all. The word ‘livelihood’ [in Lovelace’s letter] makes me wonder if Ada’s schemes [betting on horses] were an attempt to establish a secret cash flow for herself?”(8) Padua does not offer a definitive argument, but I rather appreciated her “thinking out loud” here and elsewhere.
On the one hand, Padua’s novel could be read as a feminist fiction because Ada is the heroine; Babbage often just seems like the sidekick. Feminist, too, because it calls attention to the women in Ada’s life, as well as to the dramatically different treatment of women and men – then and now – as actors and historical subjects. On the other hand, we could say that Padua’s novel is just good history. It offers a rich and complicated picture of what was, what might have been, and what might be.
1. Sydney Padua, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer (Great Britain: Particular Books, 2015).
2. Ibid., 47.
3. Ibid., 19.
4. Ibid., 150., spell check on 156, notation on 177.
5. Ibid., 27.
6. Ibid., 38.
7. Ibid., 133.
Romance and Radium: Emotional Histories of Science
More than a year ago, around the time I wrote a piece on the Marie Curie complex, Leila and I decided that in order for Lady Science to move forward and accomplish the goals we set for the project, we had to stop writing about Marie Curie (and probably Ada Lovelace and Rosalind Franklin). In order to produce the useful frameworks and tools we need to do better history on women in science, we have to get beyond the famous figures and out from under the shadow of their fraught historiography. Very soon after that decision was made, I read Lauren Redniss’ book Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout, and I knew immediately that I wouldn’t be able to keep my promise about laying off the Marie Curie stuff. (1)
Radioactive is a kind of graphic novelization of Marie Curie’s life and her scientific and romantic partnership with Pierre. The story is told both in narrative and in the rich visual language of Redniss’ illustrations. It’s not an obscure work--it won the National Book Prize and Malcolm Gladwell and Richard Rhodes are blurbed on the back cover-- but were it not for a certain eccentric professor of mine, it would never have been seen in the halls and bookshelves of my history of science department. First of all, the cover glows in the dark. Second, it’s full of feelings, which is not something I can say for really anything else on the shelf that Radioactive shares in my office.
Radioactive is a deeply emotional retelling of the Curie story that redresses a lack of intimacy in our cultural memory of this history. Redniss gives equal weight to Marie’s own prowess as an investigator and to her personal life. The science is inflected by her romance and partnership with Pierre and placed in the context of the tragedy of his death and her efforts to put her life back together afterward. The book is a portrait of a whole person-- something that is easy to forget about the towering figures of history-- and a reminder that science springs up not from the inevitability of history but from the fallible and fragile lives of human beings.
Redniss’ visual style relies on mixed media, using drawing, collage, and a photographic technique called cyanotype to narrate the story. Cyanotype creates a negative image that Redniss uses to give some scenes a spectral quality that evokes, especially near the end of the book, the properties of radium and the withering effects it had on Marie’s body. At the beginning of the story, Marie and Pierre are lively, bold line drawings on a crisp, white field, animated in their youth and passion. As the story ends, Marie becomes ghostly and immaterial, her features effaced and only her silhouette remains as she nears the end of her life.
The book also interweaves the story of the Curies with the history of radioactive materials and atomic science on a larger scale. Redniss relates the tragedy of the women workers who painted watch dials for the US Radium Corporation and the growing realization of the dangers of radioactive materials. The most affecting of these larger historical connections is the account of Sadae Kasaoka, who survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. Redniss reproduces Kasaoka’s papercuts which illustrate the injuries sustained by her father that she saw as a small child. A black square of paper is peeled back in one section to reveal red underneath, what happened to her father’s burned skin when Kasaoka touched it.
I have rarely been so moved by a piece of writing and art, and certainly never before by something I read in graduate school. Reading historical writing about the history of science is often an intentionally unemotional affair, and reading about the history of radium or the atomic bomb is often necessarily a clinical experience. As a historian, I am supposed to look at history dispassionately and not let my emotions color the way I construct my interpretation. But, I would be lying if I said that emotion played no part in my interest in the past in the first place. Reading about Marie Curie and being enveloped in Redniss’ unique and sensitive visualizations was, for me, a way to connect with this history in a way I had never been able to before, though I was already familiar with all of it. I cried when I looked at Kasaoka’s paper cuts, even though I’ve never been able to muster much emotion when reading about the history of the bombing, other than a principled disgust for nuclear weapons.
Emotion, as we’ve said again and again, is what gets women in trouble in both history and in science. Feelings get in the way of real science and real history, both of which, we are told, require the utmost mental discipline and the good-faith pursuit of perfect objectivity, which is what men can apparently do with their superior rational man brains. But in stripping all the feminine stuff-- emotion, sentiment, romance, passion, and art-- from our understanding of the past, we are depriving ourselves of the opportunity to make a real connection to the past and to cultivate the social and political benefits that can come from such an awareness. I will only ever have the barest understanding of what happened in Hiroshima, but I would rather that understanding was filled out by the richness and empathy that Redniss evokes than only the clinical and technical understanding that I can get from most history. Life, death, love, and tragedy- this is the stuff of life. Whether that life belonged to the most famous scientist of her time or a small child who witnessed unspeakable destruction, these are the things we should strive to grasp in our work.
1. Lauren Redniss, Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout (It Books, 2010).
National Geographic and the Modern Lens of Empire
Leila A. McNeill
I can remember as kid pulling the yellow covered magazines off my family’s bookshelf and flipping through the pages of National Geographic. I don’t remember reading the articles in any great detail, but the photographs of foreign wildlife and native peoples in National Geographic were always stunning. Even as a child, I remember knowing instinctively that, first and foremost, this was a magazine meant to be looked at. The photos of native peoples from outside the United States instilled in me an overwhelming sense of difference and distance between me and them, and they still do. After all, it is because of their difference from Western life that they are featured in the magazine to begin with.
National Geographic has become the photographer’s lens through which we in the West, and in the US in particular, view the rest of the world. As of 2012, NG was ranked the 7th largest publication in the United States and touted an astounding worldwide readership of over 30 million people. The magazine’s mission page says that the organization is “driven by a passionate belief in the power of science, exploration, and storytelling to change the world” and that every year they “fund researchers and explorers around the globe who are working to preserve species and ecosystems, protect cultures, and advance understanding of our planet and inhabitants.” This sounds wonderful, but like a dog whistle to my historian’s ear, I hear the echoes of colonial imperialism and a paternalistic desire to protect less civilized nations from themselves. As an organization, non-profit though it may be, based in a developed capitalist country like the United States, NG cannot escape the power imbalance that surely follows from fully-funded explorers entering a developing country and turning their cameras on a people who cannot turn a camera back. With its enormous readership and editorial authority, NG has positioned itself as a leading scientific institution in representing “primitive” cultures to the Western imagination.
Before NG articles and photographs were easily retrievable online, my family organized the magazines chronologically in rows on the bookshelves, and it was a familiar mainstay that I also recognized in many of my friends’ homes. They were things to be collected and displayed-- what does this say about the people photographed in them?
Take for instance the famous Afghan Girl, photographed by Steven McCurry and featured on the cover of the June 1985 issue. This cover is by far the most successful NG has ever published. The girl never consented to having her photograph taken, and for years, she had no idea that her image was being bought, sold, and immortalized across the ocean. She never even had a real name until NG tracked her down 17 years later-- Sharbat Gula. An authentic copy of the photo can run upwards of $8,000. Her cover has been included in commemorative NG collections that you can also buy and place on your coffee table for sophisticated guests to peruse over drinks. We have collected her, and you can own her if you’re willing to pay for her.
The girl’s bright green eyes boldly look back at the Westerner, and her dark hair and face are framed by her faded and torn scarf. The green peeking out of the tear at her shoulder reinforces the fierce green of her eyes. She is at once exotic and familiar as similar images of Muslim women from the East have been naturalized in the Western imagination since the 19th century. She is also idealized as the quintessential refugee in need of a white Western savior; the Afghan Girl is now solidified in the popular imagination as The Afghan Girl. In 1985, Afghanistan was 6 years into its Soviet occupation, and The Afghan Girl was living as a refugee in Pakistan. Afghanistan wasn’t just fighting their own occupation though, they were also helping to fight America’s Cold War, and America needed the Afghans to help win that fight. By representing Afghanistan as the the war-torn refugee girl with the fierce and resilient gaze, we could all collectively justify the West’s intervention and its exploitation of the Afghan people. After 9/11, The Afghan Girl had a resurgence in popularity as the Bush administration used her as an emblem of Islamic oppression to sell their war in the Middle East. The way we understand and respond to the Afghan Girl has been intricately related to the imperial interests of the West. Her photograph then tells us more about ourselves and how we see ourselves on the world’s stage rather than the true lived experience of Afghan women and Afghanistan as a nation.
The way that NG photographs women from the Middle East in general is more than a little troubling. On the cover of the October 1987 issue, a young girl sitting on a swing smiles back at the camera and an adult Muslim woman, perhaps the girl’s mother, looks into the camera through the slit in her veil with the caption “Women of Arabia” in the lower left hand corner. Later in 2002, The Afghan Girl now identified as Sharbat Gula appears again on the cover, this time completely veiled and holding the original photo of her youth.
In the West, even though many Muslim women themselves passionately argue the opposite, it is hard to see the veil as anything other than a symbol of male oppression, especially since one sign of women’s liberation in Western culture is how naked a woman is allowed to be in public. NG has been a key participant in and an active maker of this singular narrative about Middle Eastern and Muslim women. In both these covers, the photographers create a sense of tension between the promise and freedom of unveiled girls next to their veiled futures. In the 17 year time span of these covers, from the Afghan girl to her rediscovery, NG has portrayed the position of Middle Eastern women as stable, unchanging, and forever backward. No matter how much Muslim women advance or exercise agency over their own lives and clothing choices, the West keeps them trapped in the veil of its own imagination.
Set within the framework of a scientific and educational publication, these images of Muslim women seem to escape the political, racial, and gendered dimension that they so clearly take on. Though NG journalists and writers usually aren’t scientists themselves, they work within a tradition of using scientific language to describe native people and their customs as if these are objective ways of looking at people who are “different.” With this seemingly scientific objectivity, they prompt us as readers to press our curious faces up to the glass and see Middle Eastern women in their natural habitat. When we believe that the same scientific lens used to capture the snow leopard also represents people and their culture, or when we see photographs of wildlife on one page and native women on the next, it is not surprising that we think this is an objective way of looking at the different Other. NG itself claims that their content is “unbiased,” but photographers approach their subjects first as Westerners (among other identities) and second as professionals. Photographers and we as readers in the developed world place ourselves, either consciously or unconsciously, in a place of power over the women of the Middle East when we commodify and collect their image and presume to know the complex inner lives behind the veil.
1. For further reading see Wendy S. Hesford and Wendy Kozol, eds., Just Advocacy?: Women’s Human Rights, Transnational Feminisms. and the Politics of Representation (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2005); Catherine A. Lutz and Jane L. Collins, Reading National Geographic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).
Picture Protectorate: Power and Postcards in Empire
Picture postcards emerged in the middle of the 19th century alongside changes in postal services in Europe, and they quickly gained enormous popularity. Improvements in photography and technologies for reproducing photographs made the picture postcard one of the cheapest ways for Europeans to consume photography. Photographs of the colonies, including architecture, local flora and fauna, and, most famously, local people, were popular souvenirs. Once made into postcards, they became objects of exchange among colonists and tourists abroad and their friends and family in the metropole. Photographs made in the colonies were shipped back to the metropole to be made into mass-produced postcards, which were then shipped back to the colonies. European colonists all over the world could purchase these postcards to send home to friends and family or to compile into albums documenting their time in the colonies. Picture postcards of colonized people and their export to the West are representative of the pervasive culture of commodification of the colonies extended even to the likenesses of their peoples. Both photography itself and its portrayal of colonized people was underpinned by the burgeoning authority of modern science.
As historian Jennifer Tucker has pointed out, photography is distinct from other kinds of images, which are made like drawings, in that a photograph is taken. (1) In the history of scientific photographs in particular, the word ‘taken’ helps to establish the photograph’s analogy to a specimen collected from nature, thus, enhancing the truth value of photography. Tucker argues that it is the enthusiastic embrace of photography by science in its collecting practices that legitimated photography as a reliable and truthful record of the world. The unimpeachable objectivity of photography, a notion which emerged at the same time science was beginning to professionalize in the middle of the 19th century, has since been undermined—because of course the contemporary reader knows better than to trust the photographic image unreservedly. But it is important when looking at photographs made in the past to understand that while their objectivity certainly wasn’t completely unquestioned, it was widely accepted. Perhaps even more important is to understand that photography’s objective status was endorsed by the elite science of the nineteenth century.
Like most Western image traditions, the damaging possibilities of this trade in the image of colonized bodies fell disproportionately on women. The seemingly neutral gaze of the camera reproduced and solidified racist and sexist ideas about colonized women, ideas that came directly from the mainstream of 19th century science. Jane Desmond, in her study of the visual culture of tourism in Hawaii from the late 19th century to the present, has detailed the ways in which picture postcards of native Hawaiian women were produced according to widely-held ideas about the classification and valuation of different races. (2) Races that were perceived as more modern, or more amenable to modernization via imperialism, were ranked higher than those races that were seen as primitive and backward, or largely “beyond help.” Part of the reason that the stereotype of the hula dancer, indeed tourism in Hawaii in general, remains so popular is that the image of native Hawaiian women, marked out by racist classification systems as members of a more ‘tractable’ culture, were distributed widely on picture postcards. These cards were essential to securing the Western notion of native Hawaiians as ;ideal natives.’ Native Hawaiian women in particular were idealized as appropriately and invitingly sensual, as opposed to the more overt and threatening imagined sexuality of black women.
The effects of scientific racism on the images in picture postcards is compounded and amplified when they are made from ethnological displays, or the exhibition of non-western people in ostensibly educational contexts, such as museums and expositions. Most famously staged at World’s Fairs, these displays leveraged the authority of anthropology in their presentation of colonized people as curiosities and specimens of the uncivilized Other. Robert Rydell has argued that these contrived exhibits were presented as authentic and endorsed by anthropology as an accurate way for World’s Fair audiences to learn about the strange people that inhabited the colonies. (3) Along with the agricultural and mineralogical products from the colonies and technological and scientific wonders, human beings were also procured by fair organizers and contracted to perform characteristic activities in an ‘authentic’ reproduction of their homes designed by white anthropologists. Once photographed for postcards, these skewed representations of colonized people were exported to a far wider audience even than those many thousands who saw the exhibit in person.
Significantly, Rydell notes that images of people are far outweighed in world’s fair postcards by images of technology and science, architecture, nature views, or iconographic illustrations. That almost all of the cards depicting people are of the people in the ethnographic displays indicates that “postcard publishers quite literally framed nonwhites and commodities to be traded, collected, and recombined in modular fashion with other marketable goods on display at the fairs.” (4) In this context, women in particular were transformed into consumable objects, often with explicit erotic overtones. Colonized women were often photographed bare-breasted; their ‘willingness’ to be pictured this way presented as a sign of their savagery and exoticism. Picture postcards, far and away the most popular World’s Fair souvenir, allowed fairgoers to purchase and possess images of colonized women for visual and erotic pleasure. Just as people in the metropole enjoyed the material products of empire, they could also consume the spectacle of colonized women by purchasing, collecting, and sending postcards.
Picture postcards are a valuable set of sources for exploring the intersections of scientific racism and ethnographic practices, nineteenth century visual culture, imperialism and commodity culture. (5) Scientific authority functions not only to sanction the content of ethnographic photography by labeling images of colonized people as anthropologically accurate and authentic, but also acts as an endorsement of photography as an objective and mechanical means of representing reality that buttressed the truth value of postcards. Picture postcards made from photographs were generally understood to represent the reality of the colonies—a reality that anthropology had already assured the West was backward, savage, and in need of the paternalistic protections of empire. Colonized women, portrayed as overly sexualized and lascivious, were seen as offering firm proof of the uncivilized nature of colonized people. As we have argued several times before, the oppressive aspects of scientific authority have disproportionately affected women and women of color even more significantly. Because women in the 19th century were actively excluded from scientific practice and because colonized women were by default the objects of scientific inquiry, racist and sexist ideas about women became naturalized when backed by the authority of modern science and apparently objective photographic practices.
1. Jennifer Tucker, Nature Exposed: Photography as Eyewitness in Victorian Science (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).
2. Jane C. Desmond, Staging Tourism: Bodies on Display from Waikiki to Sea World (University of Chicago Press, 1999).
3. Robert Rydell, “Souvenirs of Imperialism: World’s Fair Postcards,” in Christraud M. Geary and Virginia-Lee Webb, eds. Delivering Views: Distant Cultures in Early Postcards (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998).
4. Ibid., 55.
A Home in the Heavens: Ecofeminist Thought in Aurora
The home has historically been the central site of women’s labor, and as I have described before, the home has often been the necessary site of women’s scientific and technological practice when they were excluded from the spaces of institutionalized science. There has been an understandable pushback against this association of women with the home, as it has been used by a patriarchal society to limit the activity and mobility of women for centuries. But, women themselves have leveraged this association as well as a related association of women with nature to justify their involvement in science, technology, and medicine. In the case of the nascent eco-feminism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the association with home and nature lent women an authoritative voice in activism and Progressive politics
One of the central concerns of American Progressives around the turn of the century was the increasingly severe pollution of the urban environment as a result of industrialization and the density of population in urban areas. The municipal housekeeping movement argued that Progressive women who agitated for sanitation and pollution reduction were doing so from their legitimate role as homemakers, albeit with a slightly expanded definition of home. They argued that the city itself was their home, and if the care and keeping of the home was women’s job, then so was the care and keeping of the city. (1)
Framing an environment, from a city to the whole planet, as ‘home’ is a key strategy for cultivating environmentalist attitudes and activism, and for women, it has historically provided a way into politics and activism. Justifying their work as part of their natural and proper role, Progressive women developed the first tenets of an eco-feminism that would flourish in the mid 20th century after the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in 1962. (2) Eco-feminism is, generally, the efforts taken by women to protect the earth and their own environments, especially in the context of gendered ideas that identify women with nature and in conjunction with activism for women’s rights.
Municipal housekeeping, like domestic engineering and scientific home management, are practices that reveal the ways that science and inquiry are shaped by their context and the roles assigned to their practitioners. Women are responsible for caring for the home, and by extension, the environment. This expectation is deepened by widespread scientific ideas that associated women with nature itself. This intersection of associations and roles for women, and the shifting scale of the ‘home’ for which they were responsible, is explored in a cosmic way in science fiction. A perceptible thread of the eco-feminism that the municipal housekeepers of the Progressive era would have recognized runs through the science fiction novel Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson. (3) In the novel, “home” is an individual dwelling, a carefully managed artificial biome, a massive and complex starship, the earth, and our solar system itself.
The smallest home in Aurora is a home for dolls, described in a small scene near the beginning of the novel as we get to know the characters. Devi and Badim are the caregivers of a child, Freya. All three live on a generational starship bound for a new star system. They were born on the ship in one of the last generations, so none of them have ever seen earth. But they will see the new star system and the moon that is supposed to be their new home. As the characters assemble the doll house, Freya says that she wishes she lived in a house like it, and Devi responds that she already does. The ship itself is a kind of dollhouse, a microcosmic environment, built by people of earth.
In this story, the special care of the home at every scale belongs to women, first to Devi and then Freya. The ship is so large and so complex that it contains 12 complete ecosystems, each 4 kilometers long, which function in a carefully maintained economy of essential elements: light, water, power, and life. Though the ship contains an artificial intelligence and extremely advanced technology, it is widely agreed that Devi and her special skills as an engineer and an ecologist keep the ship alive. Devi is a mother figure in her own home, but also for the entire ship. Further, the gendered connotation of a dollhouse as a toy made explicitly for girls should not be overlooked. The responsibilities of the chief engineer, and its leadership and motherly connotation, pass to Freya after Devi’s death just before reaching the new solar system.
Like many of Robinson’s other works, Aurora is a pointed environmental polemic. Ultimately, the mission to another star fails, and Freya’s generation is forced to return to diseased and damaged earth that has been squandered by its inhabitants. Having lived inside a ship her whole life, whose protection and stewardship was her life’s work, earth for Freya is seemingly endless, miraculously self-regulating, and tragically wasted by its human inhabitants. She and some of the others from the ship find occupation and comfort in the work of rebuilding drowned beaches. This type of environmental work restores Freya to her role as homemaker and housekeeper in the dramatically enlarged scale of her new home. Throughout the story, the women characters assume the stewardship of their home at every scale.
The eco-feminists and municipal housekeepers of the Progressive era understood their roles and leveraged them for political capital. Are the women in Aurora constrained by circumstance and gender roles in a way that truly limits their power? Certainly, the stifling ethical and moral ambiguity of a generational ship itself, wherein all but the first generation crew is deprived of the choice of completing the mission to a new star, lends itself to this interpretation. But the powerfully polemic nature of Robinson’s work leads me to believe that the associations with Progressive activism are not coincidental. Devi and Freya are not necessarily to be regarded as victims of circumstance or regressive gender roles, but rather we might see them like the municipal housekeepers who were inventive and empathic activists. Devi and Freya are engineers and leaders who are deeply sensitive to the ecology of all their varied homes, and who subvert the gendered expectations of home and care to wield political and technical power in space and on earth.
1. See for example Susan A. Mann, “Pioneers of U.S. Ecofeminsim and Environmental Justice,” Feminist Formations vol. 23, no. 2 (2011): 1-25.
2. Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Houghton-Mifflin, 1962). You can view the full, searchable text of the book on Internet Archive: https://archive.org/stream/fp_Silent_Spring-Rachel_Carson-1962/Silent_Spring-Rachel_Carson-1962_djvu.txt (Last accessed November 16, 2016).
3. Kim Stanley Robinson, Aurora (Orbit, 2015).
Who Killed the World?
Leila A. McNeill
The summer of 2015 blessed us with Mad Max: Fury Road, the first feminist action film. Fury Road was not just created with a critical feminist perspective, but an eco-feminist one. Eco-feminism, at its core, is a philosophical movement that connects both ecological concerns and feminist concerns in arguing that the patriarchal systems of power that oppress women are the same as those that exploit nature. Set in a post-apocalyptic hellscape, Fury Road clearly and straightforwardly illustrates this foundational concept of eco-feminist thought. The world of Fury Road is one of “fire and blood,” according to Max himself, but more literally, it is a world where the natural resources of oil and water are controlled by a warlord, Immortan Joe. The only people who ask the obvious question—“Who killed the world?”—are the women, specifically the wives forced to bear Immortan’s children. The answer is clear: the out-of-control masculinity that Immortan inherited has killed the world. Immortan exploits what little water and oil is left in order to control a population desperately in need of them. Similarly, he perceives women as a mere resource to be used for reproducing more men for his Warboy army. In a world where nature and women are oppressed and exploited in the service of men, everyone ends up losing.
Long before we had Fury Road, though, women writers brought issues of nature conservation, animal rights, and women’s rights into the purview of the public. British writer Mary Wollstonecraft, one of the most well-known early women’s rights writers, was instrumental in laying the groundwork for a feminist discourse about nature that connected the concerns of women and the destruction of nature. (1) In her book Original Stories from Real Life, woman serves as a mouthpiece for nature. (2) The teacher, Mrs. Mason, cultivates sympathy for the suffering of animals by drawing her students’ attention to a bird who had been stoned by a young boy, and tells them that the bird’s suffering is greater than that of a child who has smallpox. In the same story, Mrs. Mason tells her students the story of a boy who, never having learned gentleness, grew up to be a harsh man who tormented guinea pigs and eventually died alone in a ditch. In these stories, a woman speaks for nature in an attempt to teach children empathy with animals, and boys are the characters responsible for the animals’ suffering. She goes further to imply that callousness toward animals as a young boy creates harsh, cruel men.
Also writing in the 18th century, prominent English poet and writer Anna Laeticia Barbauld built a reputation among the Romantic poets for fostering a public empathy toward animals. (3) In her 1773 poem “The Mouse’s Petition,” Barbauld wrote specifically to Joseph Priestley after Priestley showed her a mouse that he intended to use in an experiment with air the next day. (4) In the poem, Barbauld writes from the first person perspective of the mouse who protests its oppression for the sake of scientific progress and argues that destruction of nature is not worth the prize science gives us. Barbauld’s poem works to challenge many types of social oppressions that were perpetuated in the name of progress in the 18th century: colonial slavery, patriarchy, and animal experimentation. For Barbauld, the attitudes and behaviors that oppressed nature were the same that oppressed humans who were deemed less-than by a scientific authority. Priestley was so moved by the poem that Barbauld wedged between the wires of the mouse’s cage that he actually set the creature free.
In the 19th century, women writers continued the tradition of speaking for nature, like Wollstonecraft and Barbauld, through fiction and poetry. Anne Brontë published the novel Agnes Grey in 1847, which illustrates how both women, specifically governesses, and animals occupied a marginal role in society, and in such an inferior position, they were treated with similar cruelty by male characters. (5) In her 1850 poem “The Waters,” Eliza Cook first describes nature, which she identifies female, as beautiful and wondrous when it is in a wild, unharnessed state, but which the city and urban life has tried to tame. (6) The narrator of the poem identifies with an oppressed nature and wonders if society “fixed its shackles” to her as well. While Wollstonecraft, Barbauld, and Brontë attempt to provoke empathy for nature in the hope of saving it, Cook shows nature and woman to be unapologetically wild and rebellious against those who try to tame them.
Also in the 19th century, women began to publish critical essays in newspapers in addition to the numerous novels, short tales, and poems that advocated for the protection of nature. The rhetoric of these writings grew ever stronger. In the 1883 essay “Unscientific Science: Moral Aspects of Vivisection,” Anna Kingsford passionately argues that “men should understand that the plea of ‘science’ to be insufficient as justification of human action” and any act that destroys nature is a regression for humanity, not a progression. (7) Frances Power Cobbe, a leader among anti-vivisection activists, explicitly compared experimentation on animals to violence against women in her 1878 essay “Wife Torture in England.” (8) She was not alone in seeing violence against nature and women as the same; Edith Ward similarly argued in an 1892 newspaper article that if men could see that kindness and justice is the right of animals then they could see that women too were deserving of such consideration.
In the United States, women of color emerged as a strong and significant literary voice in the tradition of speaking for animals. One prominent example is the 1982 short story “Am I Blue?” in which Alice Walker finds that justice for women, people of color, and nature are interdependent. (9) In “Am I Blue?,” the main character finds kinship with a horse named Blue, as she cultivates “a mutual feeling between me and the horses of justice, of peace.” Walker writes that those who believe that animals want to be used by humans are the same who believe that “women ‘love’ to be mutilated and raped…” At the end of the story when she is sitting down to eat steaks with a friend, she finds as they “talk of freedom and justice one day for all” that she cannot continue to eat an animal.
The eco-feminist message that Fury Road shows us is not a new one; it is a message that women writers in Europe and the United States have been cultivating for centuries.
As cultural outliers, these women found affinity with a nature that was being exploited for the service of science and men. Even before the nuclear and chemical warfare of the mid 20th century that mobilized the organized movement of eco-feminism, women as far back as the 1700s have been building a brand of women’s rights that encompassed the natural world. Women writers have long served as a mouthpiece for a silent nature, and they have continued to use metaphors of nature’s exploitation to illuminate the experience of women in a patriarchal society.
1. Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) was a British writer and early women’s rights advocate best known for her treatise A Vindication on the Rights of Woman.
2. Mary Wollstonecraft, Original Stories from Real Life (London: J. Johnson, 1796).
3. Anna Laeticia Barbauld (1743-1825) was a writer, critic, and poet whose work was fundamental to British Romanticism.
4. Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) was British chemist who is often credited with the discovery of oxygen.
5. Anne Brontë (1820-1848) was the youngest of the famous Brontë sisters, who, like her sisters, was a novelist and poet. Anne Bronte, Agnes Grey (Newby, 1847).
6. Eliza Cook (1818-1889) was a British poet and proponent expanding women’s rights.
7. Anna Kingsford, “Unscientific Science: Moral Aspects of Vivisection,” in In Nature’s Name: An Anthology of Women’s Writing and Illustration . 1780-1930, ed. Barbara Gates (London: University of Chicago Press, 2002). Anna Kingsford (1846- 1888) was a British writer and outspoken advocate of anti-vivisection, animal rights, and women’s rights.
8. Frances Power Cobbe (1822-1904) was a British writer, a leader in the anti-vivisection movement, and outspoken women’s rights activist. Frances Power Cobbe, “Wife-Torture in England,” Contemporary Review 32 (1878): 55–87.
9. Alice Walker, “Am I Blue?,” in Banned, ed. Patricia Holt (Aunt Lute Books, 1996). Alice Walker (1944-) is an American activist and writer who has won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for her novel The Color Purple.
10. For further reading see Sylvia Bowerbank, Speaking for Nature: Women and Ecologies of Early Modern England (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004); Carol J. Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory (New York: Bloomsbury, 1990).
The Lady Detective
Leila A. McNeill
From Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes to HBO’s True Detective , detective fiction, both print and film, has traditionally been a masculine genre, written by men and featuring male leads. Of course there have been exceptions,-- Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple comes to mind—but on the whole, the genre, which has been constructed within a male purview, can be alienating for women in many ways. In regard to representation, men unsurprisingly outnumber women in roles of authority or importance, and these male characters often treat women poorly or maintain sexist attitudes (see both Sherlock and True Detective). Additionally, women are usually secondary to the male detective, and though it is an improvement to show women in the forensic lab, these women again exist to assist the male lead or serve as set dressing. When women do lead the team, like forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan in Bones, they are often rife with emotional or psychological problems or suffer from a traumatic past, as if these are the only kinds of women who could pursue the masculine careers of law enforcement or forensic science. Luckily, we now have Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (MFMM), a crime procedural that drastically departs from the masculine tradition of detective fiction by featuring a “Lady Detective” lead and telling stories through a feminist perspective. (1)
Set in 1920s Melbourne, Australia, MFMM is led by a cast of women. Phryne Fisher is a flapper, heiress, and “Lady Detective,” who appreciates a good glass of Scotch and unapologetically reaps the benefits of “family planning” methods. Dr. McKenzie, or Mac, is a lesbian doctor who serves as the forensic specialist and Phryne’s closest friend. Dot, or Dorothy, serves as Phryne’s companion and sometimes maid who uses her traditionally feminine skills as a maid to help solve cases. The male characters, Inspector Jack Robinson and Constable Hugh Collins, are equally important and loveable, but Phryne is always the active force driving the investigations forward.
Rarely in police procedurals do we see women involved in important decision making; in MFMM decisions and breakthroughs are never made without them. In the pilot episode “Cocaine Blues,” women are brutalized by a back-alley abortionist. Phryne obtains a medication, labeled “Pink Powder,” that the women seeking illegal abortions were given prior to the procedure. Phryne takes the Pink Powder to Mac, and over a couple glasses of Scotch, Mac inspects the powder to find that it is a nerve powder, cocaine. Mac sarcastically adds that it is “usually prescribed for women of course, the hysterical sex, for nervous exhaustion, emotional collapse, wandering wombs, that sort…” This find leads Phryne to the culprit and to solve the mystery of the larger story arc.
In the episode “Raisins and Almonds,” a Jewish man is murdered by a lethal and unidentifiable poison. While Mac and Dot are discussing poisons, Mac casually notes that anything in Australia could be a poison and points at a vase of purple Nightshade. Later, Dot relays the information about the Nightshade, which eventually leads Phryne to the killer who had easy access to Nightshade in a family garden. In the same episode, Mac again goes into action as she tries to implement an alchemical formula handwritten into a Kabbalah text. The Kabbalah text promised the alchemist the essence of life if one could successfully transmute lead into gold. What Mac creates from the handwritten formula is artificial rubber, which again leads Phryne to a major breakthrough in the case.
It is important to see women in positions of authority and expertise making decisions and discoveries because this is so rare in popular culture. Most of the breakthroughs in a case happen during private conversations between women and through their combined knowledge and teamwork. Together Phryne, Mac, and Dot are able to navigate the male-dominated spaces of the police force and lab, and they never compete for male attention or accolades.
Representing women in non-traditional masculine roles, however, is only one of the things that MFMM does well. Instead of just using the ‘add women and stir’ approach, MFMM takes into account historically and culturally embedded ideas about gender and sexuality and creates characters, who are products of those ideas, behaving and acting within that framework.
In the episode “Death and Hysteria,” a psychologist sets up a sanitorium in Phryne’s aunt’s house for treating “hysterical” women. Betsy, in danger of undergoing “chemical castration,” was committed because she was “consumed by lust,” and she is murdered by way of electrocution while she is using an early model of an electrical ‘massager.’ Another patient, Delores, seeks attention and love and resorts to disrobing in public to get it. These women, as Phryne recognizes, are not mentally ill, rather they are shut away from a society that reviles and stigmatizes female sexuality. Delores compares herself and the other women patients to caged birds that couldn’t survive free in the world. Phryne, a sexual but never sexualized character, acknowledges these double standards in male and female sexuality and has no patience for them. By imagining these characters and their narratives through a critical feminist lens, MFMM challenges and debunks patriarchal notions of female sexuality that in other shows and often in reality are used to depersonalize and blame female victims for their own suffering.
Perhaps the best thing that sets apart MFMM from much of the mainstream crime procedural, indeed TV and film in general, is its depiction of violent crimes against women, which is where a feminist perspective matters the most. I’ve written before about the ways that historical medical dramas victimize women through medicine, and much of the CSI ilk follows in this pattern. Often in these shows, crimes against women are at once devalued and fetishized while their postmortem bodies are objectified and sexualized. MFMM never directly shows violent crimes against women, rather the devastating aftermath of rape or violent crime is reflected in the behaviors of the characters themselves. We don’t need to see the rape happen to know the havoc it reaps on survivors. In the case of a dead sex worker, the victim’s body is not sexualized, and Phryne never sees victim’s line of work as a reason to devalue the crime or the victim herself. During autopsy, Mac handles the bodies of victims with respect and never puts them on full display.
Culturally embedded ideas about designated male and female spaces, gender norms, and female sexuality are all bound up with how the crime procedural and detective fiction are constructed. Instead of blindly pulling on these ideas from culture, MFMM brings them to the fore, criticizes them, and often subverts them. Phryne, Mac, and Dot constantly move in and out of traditionally male spaces-- Phryne because of her refusal to see herself as anything less than capable as men, Mac because of her prefered masculine dress and scientific mind, and Dot because of her attention to detail that is helpful both in and out of the domestic sphere. More than just representing complex female characters that transgress gender norms all over the place, MFMM also illustrates the importance of putting women in positions of authority, especially in cases involving women and gender dynamics. My hope is that MFMM is the beginning of a trend toward a more diverse genre and not just another exception in the boys’ club.
1. For background, see Lindsay Steenberg, Forensic Science in Contemporary American Popular Culture: Gender, Crime, and Science (New York: Routlege, 2013).
Evidence and Objectivity in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation
A specter hangs over those of us who write about contemporary popular culture and science: that of the ratings behemoth and 15-season network darling, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Because of the immense influence of CSI on crime drama, especially where it makes certain claims about the utility and truthfulness of scientific method and its conspicuous cast of women investigators, the show is ripe for analysis. As the granddaddy of science on television in the US, CSI has left its mark on not only its numerous spin-offs, but also the entire genre of crime drama.
The CSI universe is one where objective truths are available to investigators who employ scientific methods to collect physical evidence, which is always valued over personal testimony. The evidence, we are constantly reminded, cannot lie. Predictably, women investigators do a lot less of this science than men, and women victims suffer both horrifying violence and misrepresentation by the moralizing tone of the show. We should take seriously the possibility that the show’s universe is one that viewers believe to be analogous to the real world, and we can look at how women are treated in this universe as an index of widely-held beliefs about women in science and how science is applied to cases involving violence against women. (1)
The pilot episode of any show should be watched with a charitable eye. The writers are still figuring out the show and its characters. But the pilot of CSI sets up some troubling tropes about women and science that shouldn’t be overlooked, and, indeed, are reprised in later episodes and in the shows that were inspired by, or spun off from, CSI. First, there is the laughably one-dimensional and thankfully short-lived Holly Gribbs. Gribbs, just joining the graveyard shift at the Las Vegas Nevada crime lab, is our introduction to the strange and apparently subversive world of late-night forensic investigation. Gribbs’ character is killed off immediately, and it’s easy to see why. She’s uncomfortable with the preserved specimens decorating Grissom’s office; she’s apparently never seen an autopsy before (what do they teach these people at “the academy”); and she’s afraid of dead bodies. Her only real utility is not as a scientist, but as a narrative device to establish Gil Grissom, the graveyard shift supervisor, as a fatherly mentor through what is definitely some workplace-inappropriate hugging and face touching.
The show constructs relationships between characters according to patriarchal ideas of appropriate roles for men and women, and the performance of masculinity and femininity. Gil Grissom is fatherly and kind to Gribbs, but a few scenes later, a nameless woman lab technician initiates a truly cringeworthy flirtation with him while lab equipment hums in the background, saying that Grissom should “pin her up against a wall.” The night shift apparently has loose rules on what is appropriate smalltalk at work. In a later episode, a forensic artist is called in to make a reconstruction of a victim’s face, and apparently sweeps Grissom off his feet by holding his pet tarantula and teaching him about the sexy process of molding the concrete in which a body was buried, a task that involves much more physical contact between the two than I’m prepared to believe is necessary. Neither of these women is allowed to simply be good at her job or have appropriate interactions with men while she is working. Women in the lab are only interesting, it seems, if they are also overtly sexualized and openly interested in their male colleagues.
The women investigators are equally defined by their gender, and the work they do is heavily influenced by their often stereotypical characterizations. Catherine Willows, arriving late to a meeting because she was with her daughter, is defined first and foremost as a mother. As a result, she usually handles cases of child abuse and exploitation. In the pilot, while investigating a shooting, Catherine literally whips around at the sound of a baby crying, in case we forgot in the last 10 minutes that children are the only things running through this woman’s mind. Later, we find out that Catherine used to be an exotic dancer, about which she is refreshingly open and unabashed, but the revelation of her past consistently bamboozles the men she works with. Like her status as a mother, it is also a source of special feminine insight, which she uses far more often than the forensic science that other investigators use. The audience is reminded again that though the scientific method is supposedly neutral and objective, it is clearly better suited for the men on the team than for Catherine.
The characterizations of the women investigators are lazy and puerile, but they are not surprising. Television and film tell us over and over that science is the way to the truth and that science is for men. Thus, the truth is for men, and feelings are for women. The show’s handling of women victims, however, is inexcusable and downright dangerous. The fetishization of the female corpse that is the hallmark of modern crime dramas, the dramatization of violence against women, and the misrepresentation of sex workers are symptoms of a larger conceptual problem that the CSI universe contains, namely the existence of objective truth based on material evidence.
In the episode “Who Are You,” Catherine investigates a rape case. She shouldn’t have been involved at all, since she used to be married to the alleged rapist, but the show insists that Catherine’s feelings trump her sense of professionalism and ethics. It is the way she “solves” the case, however, that I find most troubling. The victim is a dancer working in the same club where Catherine once danced, and this allows the investigator some privileged access to the dressing rooms. In the victim’s locker, she discovers a box of contraceptive films. The instructions say that the film must be inserted a couple of hours before intercourse. This physical evidence, which to Catherine proves that the victim intended to have consensual sex and therefore couldn’t have been raped, is used to exonerate the alleged rapist after Catherine confronts the dancer, who then confesses that she tried to trap the man for a settlement payout. The dancer’s confession is used to wrap up the storyline about Catherine’s ex-husband, not to corroborate the evidence; the case is solved as soon as Catherine finds the films in the locker. This paints a very dark picture of what constitutes consent, makes false claims about how consent can be proven, and privileges evidence over victim testimony.
There is a much-contested notion called “The CSI Effect.” It is the idea that, thanks to shows like CSI, juries and the public have certain expectations about both the kind of evidence that should be brought to court, and the truth value of that evidence. Though this phenomenon has never been conclusively shown to exist, it points to the influence that crime shows have on views about science, truth, and objectivity in law enforcement and legal practice. (2) This influence extends to the show’s treatment of women characters, both investigators and victims. In CSI, scientific methods are generally reserved for men, while intuition and special knowledge are for women. The claims of victims and perpetrators are meaningless without corroborating physical evidence. In cases of rape, especially, this is deeply problematic as there is often no physical evidence of consent. Given the far-reaching influence of CSI, both on television crime drama and our perceptions of science and truth, these misrepresentations of women are worth thinking deeply about. Though CSI wrapped up in 2015 after 15 years on the air, its impact on the television landscape and public perception is still reverberating. As perhaps the most popular and widely viewed representation of science on television, we should be critical of the claims CSI makes about science and evidence and the way it places women in this matrix.
1. See also Julia Rudolph, “Gender and the Development of Forensic Science: A Case Study,” The English Historical Review 123 no. 503 (2008): pp 924-946.
2. Monica L. P. Robbers “Blinded by Science: The Social Construction of Reality in Forensic Television Shows and Its Effect of Criminal Jury Trials,” Criminal Justice Policy Review 19, no. 1 (2008).
“Ways to please a lady”: Advertisements for the Modern Kitchen
Leila A. McNeill
The internet seems to love vintage advertisements from the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, as evidenced by the numerous articles and listicles about such ads that circulate social media. Perhaps it helps us all feel a little bit better about ourselves that we’re able to ironically poke fun at the blatant racism and sexism of midcentury ads: “At least we don’t do that anymore!” The sexism of midcentury America is most obvious in advertisements centered on house and home. These advertisements would have us believe in a world where women find deep, personal fulfillment in cleaning toilets, men can make casual threats of domestic violence, and women of color don’t exist (seriously, this is the whitest America). Such surface level observations about midcentury advertisements that those articles and listicles make are, to me at least, unremarkable. What I’m interested in is the gender politics inherent in the capitalist medium of advertisements and its relationship to the domestic technology on display.
Within advertisements of kitchen technology, specifically, I see a clear division between those directed at women and those directed at men. Advertisements for kitchen technologies directed at women emphasize ease of use, affordability, and efficiency. In a 1945 ad for a Kelvinator “Automatic Cook,” the product promises women the ease of cooking a full dinner just by pushing a button on an oven timer—a button which the advertisement text calls an “electric ‘brain’.” With the ability to “Set It—And Forget It,” the product also offers women the freedom to leave the house; after an afternoon out, this housewife comes home, sets aside her handbag and white gloves, and simply takes a perfectly cooked dinner out of the oven.
Wear-Ever Pressure Cookers not only promises efficiency, but also affordability. While the husband in the ad dreams of food, the woman is calculating budgets in her head: “[It gives] welcome relief to my hard-pressed food budget. It makes economy cuts of meat deliciously tender and saves fuel too.”
In a 1960 two page-spread advertisement, Hotpoint advertises their kitchen appliances’ efficiency-- “Saves Time--Saves Steps--Saves Work.” On the left page in bolded text, the ad states: “Hotpoint- First To Introduce A Complete, Smartly Styled, Custom-Matched, All-Electric Kitchen With Scientifically Planned Work-Saving Centers!” The woman is pictured in action--cooking, loading the dishwasher, etc.-- with a caption below that explains how the woman is saving time and work with those specific appliances. On the right page, the ad includes an actual blueprint of how the kitchen should be laid out for maximum efficiency. The caption to the right of the blueprint explains that this design is ideal for “modern women.”
Obviously, these advertisements are sexist; they at once romanticize and trivialize women’s domestic work. However, there is much more going on here. The demand for ease-of-use, efficiency, and affordability influenced and shaped the technology and engineering behind the ad—the technology and the design of kitchen appliances were constructed through the purview of women’s lived experiences. While advertisements, on one hand, tell consumers what they think they should need, consumers, on the other hand, play a key role in telling the corporations and marketers what is working and what is not. In the case of kitchen appliances, women are the main consumers.
In both the Wear-Ever and Hotpoint ads, the marketers understand that women, more so than their husbands, set the budgets for their families. While the husband typically brought in the money, the wife managed it. So an appliance’s affordable price tag or economic use of resources, fuel, and electricity appealed specifically to a female consumer. In the 1940s, the housewife served as an economic authority not just of her own house, but also of the nation at large. Federal organizations such as the Department of Labor, and labor organizations like the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations, relied on self-reported data from housewives of all social strata to calculate the national cost of living. This, in turn, influenced the national price tag of food and other consumables.
The selling point of efficiency, which is most prominent in the Hotpoint ad, draws on decades of research in scientific management. Scientific management analyzes workflows in conjunction with methods of work and production with the purpose of maximizing economic efficiency and labor productivity. Experts like Frederick Taylor, and Lillian and Frank Gilbreth, pioneered the field of scientific management in the 20th century, and many women writers of home economics textbooks and manuals appropriated many of its principles for women and the home. (1) (2) Scientific management of the kitchen was an all-encompassing endeavor. From the physical placement and design of kitchen workspaces, to the range and motion of the female body interacting with these workspaces, all are displayed in the Hotpoint ad. These selling points aren’t arbitrary, but are reflective of women’s experiences. Engineers observed and analyzed real women at work in these spaces, and their results shaped the design and efficiency of the machines themselves.
A subtext that all three of these ads share is an understanding, superficial perhaps, that women don’t really want to spend all their time in a kitchen. A selling point for each product is the time away from the kitchen that the appliance provides through its ease-of-use or efficiency, a concept that extended far beyond the three ads here. Kelvinator promises an afternoon out and about, perhaps with friends or running errands; Wear-ever guarantees more free-time; and Hotpoint wants to release women from the “drudgery” of kitchen work in order to delegate more time to other duties. Oddly, these ads romanticize women’s work in the kitchen, but this romanticization is constantly placed in tension with the underlying desire to leave the kitchen.
In kitchen advertisements directed at men buying gifts for their wives, the ads lose much of their complexity. They don’t feature efficiency or affordability; instead, they bizarrely focus on sexual pleasure. Even at a glance, these ads are not nearly as involved as the ones meant for women: they contain much less text and the visuals are mostly for aesthetic appeal. Where the advertisements meant for women attempted to speak to various aspects of their lived experiences, the advertisements meant for men play on the husband’s assumptions that women enjoy, and garner pleasure from, being chained to the kitchen in the service of her family. These ads completely obscure the difficulty of domestic work, trivialize female sexuality, and remove women as the economic authority of the home.
Despite the differences between the advertisements’ female and male audiences, what the ads share is a concept of modernity that is fundamentally tied to women. These ads are prescriptive in that they imply women are responsible for modernizing their homes and their families, both technologically by partaking of labor-saving machines and aesthetically by incorporating high tech materials like stainless steel and electronics into their kitchens. Typically, we view the midcentury housewife through a lens of nostalgia, as a throwback identity that sought to reclaim some sense of postwar innocence. In reality, however, women in the home were expected to keep up with the fast pace of technological change. Through scientific management of the home, they were expected to participate in and practice modernity like any male engineer. Whether a woman decided to buy the appliances for their efficiency, or if a husband decided to buy an appliance to “satisfy” his wife, the industry of kitchen technology relied mainly on the buying power of women as consumers of production. Much more than reflecting an antiquated form of midcentury sexism, these advertisements reflect a vision of modernity with women at its center.
1. Frederick Taylor (1856-1915) is known as the father of scientific management whose work on industrial management influenced the development of modern industry.
2. Lillian Moller Gilbreth (1878-1972) and her partner and spouse Frank Gilbreth (1868-1924) are considered the inventors of motion study whose work contributed to the field of scientific management.
3. For further reading see: Ruth Schwartz Cowan, More Work For Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave (Basic Books, 1983); Thomas A. Stapleford, “‘Housewife vs. Economist’: Gender, Class, and Domestic Economic Knowledge in Twentieth-Century America,” Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas 1, no. 2 (2004): 89–112.
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Lady Science is an online magazine focusing on women and gender in the history and popular culture of science, technology, and medicine. Each year, our writers and editors publish 22 critical essays on these topics, which we collect into an edited volume available as a free ebook. This second volume of Lady Science, containing essays from 2015-2016, is part of our mission to make important and productive scholarship about women and gender available for free to students and the general public. The second anthology continues to carry out our mission to write women back into the history of science, technology, and medicine and to expose the structural reasons that they have been excluded or obscured. This entails not only vital recovery work in the area of biography and professional histories of women scientists, but also the application of feminist theory to these histories in ways that help us account for the structural oppressions that condense around race, gender, class, and disability.