Saturday, January 11, 2020

The Madame Curie Complex

I relied on this book for facts about the women computers at the Harvard Observatory in the late 19thto mid-20th centuries. (The article was for the Sidereal Times newsletter of the Austin Astronomical Society here see p. 6-7. ) Despite the helpful inventories of names and thumbnail biographies about women in astronomy at Harvard and physics at Los Alamos, this book is largely what the author denies that it is: a victimology. And it is true that women have been victims of discrimination. Who has not? 

Not one of the professors who gave me the A grades that resulted in my summa cum laude baccalaureate would write a letter of recommendation for me for graduate school. They did not like my political views. As it was, I slipped in by taking a blended 500/400 class which put me in the graduate school while I was a senior. So, my MA in social science and BS in criminology are from the same alma mater, Eastern Michigan University.

The Madame Curie Complex:
The Hidden History of Women in Science
Feminist Press, 2001.
Des Jardins opens the book by telling of her failure to overcome math anxiety, even though she had been an arithmetic prodigy as a child. She opted out of calculus class in high school and never even considered majoring in biology in college, despite having an obvious passion for science. I understand. I should not have taken calculus and physics, but I did, for C+ grades in high school. In college, I failed Calculus I. I just took it over for a C+. Then, I earned an A in a short course in computer programming for calculus. I took freshman physics three times (at three different schools) until I got an A in it. I liked physics. It was just hard to do. So, I have no sympathy for Julie Des Jardins. I do respect her reporting—most of it.

Des Jardins never identifies the Madame Curie Complex. She does write around it. From that, her definition of the problem is that women are at once required to approach science as men would – cold, dispassionate, detached, working long hours—and yet are forced to accept their cultural roles as wives and mothers, keeping the home running for her husband and their children.  Moreover, women are expected to be passive in social settings, allowing administrators and peers and sometimes subordinates to exploit them. I would never argue against so obvious  a truth. 

I would put it in context. In Nelly Hanna's biography of Isma'il Abu Taqiyya, Making Big Money in 1600 (American University of Cairo Press, 1998) she tells of a Bosnian slave woman, living in Cairo, who sued in court three men who attempted to cut her out of a deal she brokered for her master. Hanna points out that no noble woman in London or Paris of 1600 could be a plaintiff in a court of law. It is not that women today would be better off under Islamic law. The salient fact is that by 1800, in the wake of the Enlightenment, the status of women in the industrialized nations was changing. In fact, everyone’s status was changing. Capitalism brought equality of opportunity.

She cites the opinions of Kant, Rousseau, Newton, Descartes, and Locke who claimed that women naturally lack the rational disinterest required of science. On the other hand, Herbert Spencer argued otherwise. But Spencer is disliked by academics. Some sociologists cite his later opinions after his intellectual prime, but they do so just to underscore the inherent injustice of capitalism. 
"... transgess the domestic sphere..."

The book is spiced throughout with the buzzwords of postmodernism. Des Jardins apparently failed to see the humor. Even as I agree about the social problems cited in Thomas Kuhn’s history of science, I would never “transgress the boundaries” of anything, nor "give voice" to "nuance"; and I would not "privilege" [as a verb] a sociological "space." Calling the book a hidden history is another postmodernist strategy. Hidden by whom? Hidden from whom? And how was it so easy to uncover? Of necessity, the book is about some women in some science occupations. Des Jardin chose her narratives.

"... transgress the bounderies of female behavior..."
Des Jardins contrasts the stories of women torn between the male roles of physical science (often as underpaid helpers) and their social roles as wives and mothers with the narratives of Jane Goodall, Biruté Galdikas, and Diane Fossey who left traditional family and home life far behind to take on grueling, debilitating, dangerous work in isolation. Moreover, the “Trimates” owed their opportunities to Richard Leakey, a man who loved women. Perhaps he loved them in the collective abstract. He seemed to have loved several of them in the particular concrete. In any case, Leakey receives praise here pointedly not granted to Edward Pickering of the Harvard Observatory. Beginning in 1879, Pickering created jobs for women, some of whom published in peer reviewed journals. 

Explaining the works of the “Trimates” Des Jardin readily accepts the innocence of the apes. She does not identify the fact that they can be duplicitous. Deception may be an inborn strategy. Certainly, some apes give evidence of purposeful misdirection. Des Jardin does not follow that path. 

Des Jardin never states her premise. She never says clearly what she thinks the ideal social situation would be. Des Jardin apparently believes that a woman should not have children. Or if she does, someone else should raise them. She also seems to believe that if a woman chooses to raise her own children, she should be employed for wages and be promoted in salary whether or not she actually shows up in the laboratory or office. 

Des Jardin also does not identify what female traits she considers genetic, cultural, or chosen. Throughout, she calls women's work intuitive and collaborative. Echoing Evelyn Keller's biography of Barbara McClintock, women have a “feeling for the organism” even if the organism is a stellar nebula or an atomic nucleus. For her, it is unfair that women are forced to practice science in a dispassionate, objective, and, she insists, therefore manly mode. 

Des Jardin makes much of McClintock's seeming sexlessness. The same lack of physicality hallmarked Sir Isaac Newton, of course, but also other men. (See The Man Who Loved Only Numbers reviewed here.) Maybe she did not know about those men, or maybe she did not care, or maybe (I believe) those data contradicted her theory.

She does praise Richard Leakey for taking over household duties so that his wife could write and publish. I agree that marriage is the kind of relationship where 50-50 is the failure mode because both partners need to give 100%. I never expected either wife (serially, not in parallel; please) to be the downstairs staff. Through the ‘eighties and into the ‘nineties, I was Mr. Mom. “He washes dishes. He washes clothes. He’s so ambitious, he even sews. But no regrets, folks. That’s what he gets, folks, for making whoopee.”  That song was written in 1928. The times they were a-changin’ …

I heard Isaac Asimov speak at MIT on my spring break from the College of Charleston, March 21, 1968, on “The Coming Disappearance of Women.” He said that he could have called it “The Coming Disappearance of Men” but likely no one would have been interested enough to show up. When he called the typewriter a great liberator, he was  booed. The women who were displeased did not want to be kept down as secretaries. And he agreed. But he pointed out that office work requires few muscles and a lot of brains. Women would seem to have an advantage.

Des Jardin does not appreciate the fact that while the women of the Harvard Observatory worked in their offices and sometimes from their own homes, the men were on frozen mountaintops. Someone had to take those astronomical photographs. Men are just natural born hearty and hale hunters. Send them. No one then cared about the inequality of sex roles when the men’s nuts were freezing. Today, of course, arctic gear comes in all shapes and sizes. So, everyone gets to go. 


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