Lady Science


I was going to start a new thread about this, but see that Fishnut already mentioned it in the links thread:

Phil Plait’s Forward to the book Lady Science
A really good forward from a man who actually seems to get it, and makes an interesting point about focusing on pioneers,

While it’s important to acknowledge these women and their accomplishments, there’s a series of subtle problems with doing that as well: It spends a lot of energy and effort on only a select few women, it pushes aside the accomplishments of other women in that field who may not have received the spotlight, it implies that there were few or no women before the one woman who “made it,” and it still categorizes women into a subset of history that could be labeled “other.”

On this point, I think women are in a double bind here, which Plait does not acknowledge.

Culturally, we revere people who are pioneers, people who do something ‘first’, who discover something, invent something, do something ‘cool’, etc etc. We have done this forever, and will continue to do it forever, because we have limited attention and our first question when we are asked to give some of it away is “Why?”. If you can’t answer that question for your reader immediately, you will lose them, and we already have the problem that people are less interested in finding out about women than they are men because of their subconscious biases.

Constantly within popular culture pioneering men are celebrated without question. ‘First’ is a milestone that is granted an almost completely unquestioned legitimacy, and the men who are pushed aside because someone else got there first go largely unremarked.

Women who are the first woman to do things are often not the first person to do things. First woman astronaut is not the same as first astronaut. The first default is still male and in exceptional cases such as Lovelace’s, where she was the first computer programmer, the desire to hold on to that default results in people doing whatever it takes to delegitimise her. So women firsts are already at a disadvantage, without artificially undermining them with this idea that we are spending “a lot of energy and effort on only a select few women”.

Firstly, that’s not true. The fact that only a few select women in STEM - eg Curie, Nightingale - are routinely discussed is a symptom of sexism, it’s a symptom of the lack of plurality in women’s storytelling, it’s a symptom of male domination of the historic narrative. It’s not a sign of women’s myopia, or that there are so few women pioneers that we can only repeat the same stories ad nauseam at the cost to all the other women.

Secondly, the actual double bind: if we are not to celebrate the achievements of one subset of women because that “sidelines” another subset of women, which fucking women do we celebrate? No one, literally no one, makes this argument about men.

One answer posited is to celebrate teams of women, as the Trowelblazers do, and as several chapters in the ALD books do. But the problem again there is a double standard. There is not the same insistence on only celebrating teams of men – indeed, the biography section of your local bookshop will be awash with individual men, celebrated up the wazoo.

We need biographies of women, individual women (even if within teams), to whom others can relate. We need those stories to be compelling, and to immediately answer “Why should I care about this person?” That means we have to include stories of pioneers, first, inventors, discoverers, adventurers. Exceptional women.

We cannot say “Look, women can be as exceptional as men” if we turn our back on exceptional women because they are exceptional. This doesn’t mean that all the women we celebrate need to already be famous, nor does it mean that we can’t write about teams of women, but we always need to be able to answer that question “Why should I care?”. It may be that we sometimes need to work a bit harder to find the answer to that why, especially when we’re looking at historical figures whose ability to be exceptional was blunted by the sexist society they lived on. But there’s nothing wrong with celebrating firsts.

Of course we need to provide historical context for women, but we also need to provide that for men as well. That’s just being a good historian. Yet calling out the telling of women’s history, using the working assumption that women’s stories are bound to be poorly contextualised, when the same attention is not given to men’s histories is just fucking sexist in and of itself.

But I’ve seen this argument before, with relationship to ALD, and I reject it. It’s merely a way to hold the narration of women’s history to a different, more difficult standard to that of men’s history, and to devalue the exceptionality of exceptional women. I don’t know about anyone else, but I bloody well want to know about exceptional women, because I want to see women that I want to strive to be like.

Finally, I wonder if Plait’s confusing exceptional with famous. Yes, the same small set of women get the majority of the attention, but the way to combat that is through increasing the number of women that we talk about, not to try to create some higher bar that they have to clear before we’re allowed to tell their story.

Sorry, this makes me really cross. If anyone has any good links to articles posing an opposing point of view, that really make a solid argument why celebrating firsts and pioneers is damaging, I’m all ears. I can’t see it myself, but I’m keen not to just be blinded by the red mist.

(Originally, I was just going to question the name Lady Science. I can’t really describe why, but it makes me super uncomfortable. Something to do with ladygardens, I think, and the overuse of ‘lady’ when people mean ‘woman’.)


Beatrix Potter

I completely agree about the double bind. It seems that women face an awful lot of them, from the very basic ‘Madonna/Whore’ to the more subtle ‘stand up for yourself and be called a bitch, stay quiet and be considered a doormat’. It actually reminds me of the discussion we were having about Star Wars where you noted that Finn can’t be “all things to all black men (and women)”. It’s the same problem in STEM - as you say, the lack of plurality.

I also agree that there is a difference between being exceptional and being famous. Without wanting to denigrate their achievements, I do often feel that the ‘pioneers’ of science in the 18-early 20th centuries weren’t always particularly exceptional people, they were just working in brand new fields of research where discoveries were waiting to be made. Yes, you had to have certain skills to be able to make those discoveries but these weren’t lone geniuses toiling away making discoveries that no-one else could. Look at calculus and the argument over who discovered it first; look at Evolution - we praise Darwin for his theory but there was Alfred Russel Wallace who had almost the same idea at the same time. If Wallace hadn’t bothered to contact Darwin and published anyway, it could be ‘Wallacean evolution’ we learn about in school. Discoveries of elements, physical laws, etc, were all going on at such speed that it was a race to be the first to publish, yet we remember people like Davy, Boyle, Lavoisier, as if they were singular minds doing something no-one else could. They weren’t, there were others equally capable but long forgotten, toiling away.

If anything, I’d say what we need to do (which is never going to happen) is to get away from the idea that first means exceptional. We remember Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, but Michael Collins has been relegated to the answer to a quiz question because everyone forgets him. Are we really saying that he was less exceptional that Armstrong or Aldrin? (Fun fact - when he was orbiting the moon while Armstrong and Aldrin were on the moon, he was the most isolated person ever!) Are we saying that they are more exceptional that other Apollo astronauts? We don’t think we are, but we are. It’s silly and wrong. However, that’s not to say that we should ignore their achievements just because there were others who could have done what they did. Thinking about it, the Apollo missions are the perfect example of something that couldn’t have happened without immense teamwork yet it’s only a few individuals who are ever remembered. Yet no-one is crying for us to stop being interested in Armstrong and Aldrin out of fear of denigrating those nameless scientists and engineers who actually designed the rockets and the modules that took the astronauts from the Earth to the moon.

Actually, thinking about it, there’s an inherent problem with using ‘firsts’ as role models in that you literally cannot emulate them because they’ve done it. They discovered it, invented it, formulated it, did it. That cannot be repeated. It also gives a really bad impression of science as being all about ‘eureka’ moments which happens so rarely it seems that Archimedes was probably the only person to ever really have one!

As an aside, the name of the book really bothers me too. For me it’s because it feels like it’s saying that there is science for Ladies and then there’s science for Gentlemen, and we all know who got the more interesting deal when the divisions were made. I have stereotypical images of ladies in pretty dresses and bonnets delicately pressing a fern. The problem is we either use the word to actually refer to a Lady (and in Lord and Lady Smythe-Preswick or whatever, to make up a poncy-sounding name) or we use it disparagingly. As I don’t see the book catering to the landed gentry, it comes across as derogatory. Now, that could be my Britishness and the Americans may not see it in the same way, but it definitely sounds off to me. To the extent that when I saw the article in my reading list I thought it was a satirical title (I read it as “Lady” Science with a distinct sarcastic tone on the ‘lady’).



Totally agree about the difference between being exceptional, and being famous, and on the good luck afforded many of the pioneers of science in the 18th-early 20th centuries. Mary Anning’s a great example of someone who was genuinely exceptional - she was a great palaeontologist, not just because she dug up some awesome fossils, but because she worked very hard, for little money, under trying circumstances and was entirely denied the network of support afforded to the richer white men who became famous because of her work. Her story is, to me, absolutely inspiring, though like many inspiring stories, also tinged with sadness at the way she was treated.

With regards to firsts, there are firsts and there are firsts. The example of Armstrong/Aldrin and Collins is a good one: There’s no reason why Michael Collins could not have been chosen to be the first man on to step foot the moon, but someone had to stay behind, which means that celebrating Armstrong/Aldrin and ignoring Collins is wrong. (Fun fact: Kevin interviewed Buzz Aldrin at his hotel room many years ago, and Aldrin chose to wear only his vest and boxer shorts for the interview…)

But if you look at a different sort of first, like Dr Susan LaFlesche Picotte, who in 1889 was the first American Indian woman to get a medical degree, that’s the result of her persistence, hard work and determination, and it says something about the challenges facing American Indian women at the time. Or Sarah Jerome, the first woman to hold a British patent in the 1630s for a wood mills saw. It’s somewhat surprising to hear of a woman in industry in 1630, but it reminds us that women were active in these roles, but their achievements are largely ignored and written out of history. (And, of course, there’s no definitive documentation of Jerome’s work, ergo some people argue she was patenting someone else’s design. :sigh:)

So some firsts are well worth celebrating, and they form important milestone markers for women’s history. But we do have to be careful about when and why we choose to mark a woman’s first, in particular to make sure that we’re not accidentally denigrating her by drawing an unfavourable parallel with men’s achievements.

On emulation of firsts, I think it cuts both ways: Yes, you can’t copy them exactly, but you can still be inspired by them to do something different but equally cool. And yes, there’s definitely an issue around the ‘euraka’ problem, which usually means we need better contextualisation of a particular discovery or event. That just means we need to tell more stories in more detail!

I think the problem with ‘Lady’ might well be very cultural. I think it’s an American project, and it’s likely that the word doesn’t have the same baggage here as it does in the UK. I’ve noticed before in feministy circles that there’s a gulf between US and UK attitudes, language and context, and that quite often makes for discomfort and even conflict.

Anyway, this is all good food for thought!