M. Susan Lindee-Opening Statement

From: akapur@edc.org
Date: Wed Dec 01 1999 - 10:22:07 EST

Opening statement, M. Susan Lindee

Who can speak for nature?

In my study of juvenile biographies of Marie Curie, I
found that her biographers emphasized her sacrifices in
her pursuit of a disembodied life of the mind. Curie appears
in these books, intended for children from preschoolers to teenagers,
as someone who does not eat unless forced by her solicitous brother in
law or worried sister. Her meals of radishes or boiled eggs loom
large in these brief texts, as do the details of her living conditions
as a student in Paris, where she went without heat or
physical comforts of any kind in order to study her science.
She also appears as someone who does not care at all for clothing, and
must be bludgeoned into buying a new dress for her wedding, insisting
that it be black so that she can wear it in the lab. Throughout her
life, even as she emerged as an internationally renowned scientist in her
50s, an "honorary man" whose presence alone could heighten the prestige
of any gathering, she is presented as a sort of secular saint, someone
who lived without curtains, carpets, decorations, indeed, without any of
those domestic things so strongly associated with femininity. It may
well be that Curie lived a life of simplicity, but it is also true
that the selection of these specific details of her life for emphasis in
juvenile biographies (texts which might have very few words) is a way of
constructing the woman scientist as someone who operates
outside the feminine world of food, dress, domesticity and even emotion.
Like a secular saint, she subsists on spirit alone, thinking only of
While many women scientists have told me that they were moved by Curie's
story of overwhelming self-sacrifice, and that reading such biographies
inspired them to become scientists, I wonder if a model of
science as a profession utterly outside the realm of normal life (for women)
is a productive one. I wonder if we might think about some other
models that would not require young women to see themselves as
dramatically,fundamentally unique in order to see themselves as scientists.
There have been women scientists for as long as there has
been anything that could be called science, or natural philosophy.
Yet women have long practiced science under conditions that mitigated and
limited their ability to contribute visibly to the central activity of
science, the creation of new knowledge for which individual credit could be
One of the critical activities of science as a knowledge production system
has been the exclusion of persons who, for whatever reason, were not
interpreted as reliable witnesses to nature's ways. Over the
last three centuries women were interpreted as unreliable witnesses in a
variety of ways. At some times their economic dependence seems to have
shaped their status as unreliable--so for example women in the seventeenth
century were sometimes constructed as "like" the lower classes in that they
could not speak freely what they thought, and they were therefore not
suitable to fill the role of the scientist/philosopher. At other times
scientists constructed an entire system of data and reasoning around the
biological inferiority of women, and the flaws of the female body.
Scientific studies of the pathological female body and mind flourished in
the nineteenth century, coinciding with increasingly rancorous public
debates about women's rights and women's legal status.
Women have also, in the twentieth century, been seen as
incapable of rational thought, their minds confused by emotionality,
feminine desires, and so on. More recently, as the formal status of women in
science was renegotiated in the 1960s and 1970s, they seem to have often
been excluded simply made male scientists uncomfortable, without any
necessary intellectual scaffolding. Hence their almost total exclusion
from the field sciences until the late 1970s or 1980s, on the premise
that female bodies in the field were somehow dangerous or threatening to
the business of science, or to men in the field.
Now, at the close of the twentieth century, the participation of women in
science is discouraged in much more subtle ways. The recent
MIT study on lab space and tenured female scientists suggests just how
overwhelming and difficult to confront such discouragement can be--even for
the most privileged women scientists, at the most elite institutions.
But these are women who have already overcome the many subtle barriers to
female participation, from elementary school to graduate school. How
to manage such barriers? How to permit young women to see themselves as
potential scientists?


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