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