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Women in science: contrary to popular belief, some of us are actually alive - Lindsey Kuper [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Lindsey Kuper

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Women in science: contrary to popular belief, some of us are actually alive [May. 10th, 2011|03:22 am]
Lindsey Kuper

Update, May 11: I was asked to contribute this post to the Geek Feminism blog as a guest post. Thanks to all those who "Like"d it, or who simply liked it!

I'm happy to see that today's xkcd about "Zombie Marie Curie" has been making the rounds, because the "I make a sorry role model if girls just see me over and over as the one token lady scientist" bit gives voice to my long-held frustration about the predictable and repetitive trotting-out of the same handful of historical women as the go-to examples of women in science.

Those women were amazing and groundbreaking, but to always focus the discussion around them to the exclusion of actual, living, breathing female scientists is to make actual, living, breathing female scientists feel even more invisible than we already sometimes do.

Here's an example of what I mean: the first page of Flickr search results for "women scientists" is top-heavy with results from the Smithsonian's "Women in Science" photo set, which consists entirely of black-and-white photos of women, most of whom died in the middle of the twentieth century sometime. Why not call that photo set "Pioneering Women in Science" -- or, uh, maybe just "Women Scientists from the Age of Black-and-White Film Photography", since there were women in science before that, too? To not show any contemporary scientists under the heading "Women in Science" is to pathologize and exoticize the idea of simultaneously being a woman and being a scientist, and that's about the last thing scientists need.

I like Photos of Mathematicians. It's exactly what it says on the tin -- one person's collection of photos of living, working mathematicians, many of whom are actual regular human beings who you might run into on the street. Some of the photos are of women. I wish that, instead of seeing Marie Curie and Ada Lovelace over and over, we saw them sometimes, or their counterparts in physics or CS. A color photo of a living person1 feels more immediately relevant than a painting or a black-and-white photo of an (un)dead person, even if the (un)dead person has more Nobel Prizes.

  1. There's nothing special about the four photos I chose, aside from the fact that they are, as far as I can tell, of women. I hesitated about picking particular photos to link to, but I decided that sharing some photos of modern women mathematicians who are probably actually alive is important enough to me that I'm willing to risk being wrong about someone's gender identification in the attempt.

[User Picture]From: _tove
2011-05-10 02:30 pm (UTC)
Agree, and:
I think there's something to be said about the "[women/POC/whatever] who had to really struggle to get recognition" trope, in that it conflates various parts of the story. Marie Curie was really awesome at perseverance, but she was also really awesome at science, and these are different things. I'm not saying that one can be a good scientist[/mathematician/politician/artist] without any perseverance, but I think the trope puts undue onus on the creator and not on the societal norms that require some subsets of humanity that have to work twice as hard for half the recognition (or ten for one-tenth, or...). It makes it too easy to dismiss minority creatives who aren't quite Marie Curie: "well, if you really cared about your project, you'd be attending illegal night schools (potentially physically and monetarily endangering yourself and your family), etc." One interesting definition of true equality that I've heard is that "equality will be when a mediocre woman gets the same recognition as a mediocre man."

Internet synchronicity is such that I read this comic within a few days of reading about the death of Joanna Russ (and therefore about her book, How to Suppress Women's Writing), and also about this.
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From: simrob
2011-05-10 03:10 pm (UTC)
Wow. Somehow I can't even intellectually engage with the fact that the second link is real enough to be outraged about it.
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[User Picture]From: gwillen
2011-05-10 03:43 pm (UTC)
Those silly Jews.

(No, I don't have any particular point to make; I'm just sort of shaking my head and tsk'ing at the insane backwardness.)
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[User Picture]From: _tove
2011-05-10 04:17 pm (UTC)
Yeah, the actual newspaper is, as one of those comments points out, essentially the Jewish equivalent of Westboro Baptist Church. What I find more interesting is how many other people (that is, people probably not affiliated with the paper) seem to waffle in whether or not it's an outrageous thing to have done. It seems to me that it's obviously over-the-top (and of course founded on some really unsavory beliefs about women) -- even cropping the photo in half would have had some plausible deniability -- and the fact that "we do not show women out of respect for those women" is considered maybe a reasonable explanation is what causes me to shake my head.
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