Sunday, 4 November 2012

Neofeminism Confounded

In my daughter-in-law’s downstairs john hangs a beautifully embroidered good news / bad news aphorism. The bad news asserts “Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men,” a gloomy prognosis suitably softened by the good news kicker, “Fortunately that is not hard to do.” I thought of her think-while-you-sit wisdom while watching “Sara the Scientist,” the beguiling 21-minute play be Heidi Arneson about the difficulties our culture puts in the way of the girl who would become a scientist. (At one point her high school math teacher announces a contest, first prize for which is a tie-clasp!)

Sara is the kicker for The Franklin Institute’s major fall exhibition, “My Daughter, The Scientist,” a touring show originating from Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry and in the midpoint of a three-year national tour organized by the 175 member Association of Science and Technology Centers (1972). The “minds on” show explores the contradictions that account, say, for women forming only 12 percent of the scientist / engineer  workforce in America although they constitute 40 percent of all those working. And female enrollment in science and engineering curricula is falling off, not building.

The dearth did not begin with Miss America contest-type distractions but reaches deeply into the heartlessness of Western patriarchal stereotyping. The entrance is garnished with bios of winners who long ago fought the good fight and won, such as Sophie Germain (1776-1831) a French mathematician who pioneered advanced theories of numbers underlying our understanding of solid vibrating surfaces. “She learned mathematics at night despite parents who tired to discourage her by taking clothes, candles, and heat from her room” so she couldn’t study. 

In “Sara” we learn that Sophie prevailed, on the edge of frostbite, by hiding candles for her nocturnal self-tutoring. Today discussion is more diffuse and perhaps harder to deal with, I learned from 21-year-old Pam Brooks, fresh out of Bucknell El Ed, who is teaching science at Upper Moreland Middle School. She hasn’t yet psyched out why her girls are noticeably more phlegmatic in their science studies than her boys. She was elated at all the ammunition the show was giving her to get her females back on a higher track.

A.T. & T., a major local sponsor was also exhibiting the fruits of its affirmative action programs at its Murray Hill, N.J. lab by scheduling two of its female luminaries to whip up the troops’ enthusiasm at opening ceremonies. First there was the statuesque brunette beauty Dr. Suzanne Nagel (soft yellow suit, grey spikes) who has just returned from a Smith College middle management seminar to back up her ambition as the first women / science department head at her lab. She supervises the research of thirty others (five female) into high tech ceramics. She was the only woman in most of her classes at the University of Illinois / Champaign. (She proudly notes that her Ph.D. in ceramics was the fifth in the country.) She laughingly noted that she could tell lots of “war stories,” but graciously but very, very firmly refused to cite any when I interviewed her. 

Her absorption of corporate culture seemed total, making friendly noises about how nice it was to meet her A.T. & T. colleagues from Pennsylvania, and elegantly reaffirmed the team line that technical education was a must in a technology driven society, and seemed to imply that we could regain international business competitiveness if only we gave women a chance to enter labs like hers. Quizzed about her outside reading, all she could come up with was Time. In short, a highly educated specialist with outsized corporate ambitions, a long tressed version of the NASA crew-cut types we have begun to wonder about. I am sure she will soon make lab, then division, head. But it occurred to me for the first time that feminist victories do not necessarily mean human victories. I see very little nurturing in this tunnel vision success story.

Dr. Shirley Jackson is a scientist of a different color, literally. I think it reveals the depth of our expectational stereotypes that my mind caught its breath when this black lady ascended to the dais. Plain dark blue suit, close-cropped Angela Davis neoAfro soft-ended by broad brown glasses, Jackson was less visibly an A.T. & T. teamer than her colleague Suzanne. For a start she had a lovely, lively wit. She allowed as how her career path to physics was a trifle circuitous. She was working her way through M.I.T. (where doomed astronaut Roland McNair was her close confidante) as a part-time Science of Nutrition worker when the disciplines of weighing rats and feeding chickens palled on her. 

The D.C. bred Sputnik-era scientist-to-be always was interested in the sciences but was continually counseled against. She not only started a distinguished career fleeing the rats and chickens into physics, she snared a husband in the physics seminar (“He made the move on me,” she smilingly insisted, when I teased her about her non-scientific pursuits at M.I.T. She blesses McNair as well for her career ideal, “Be More Than Good Enough.” I even tried out my scientific semi-literacy on her pedagogical power to explain her specialty Low Energy Scatter Physics. Before you could say Semiconductor I was beginning to understand how laser and fiber optics work. And that, brother, takes some clarity and eloquence.

When I revealed my misgivings at breakfast about A.T. & T. career women to my daughter-in-law with the thoughtful downstairs toilet, she explained, with the patience it takes to be a graphic designer, that all that meant was different kinds of women would achieve in science—the same way men have over the millennia. But the chiding didn’t stop there. When I raised the ugly new ogre of Neo-feminism (which argues that American feminists have been their own worst enemies over the past twenty years by pushing too much for ERA, abortion on demand, and lesbian rights, thereby alienating the mainstream American female from their movement), she explained that the “we are the equals of men” mentality of American feminists simply betrayed their middle-class status—they could take care of daycare with their own resources. European women, with a strong tradition of social democracy and a greater solidarity with blue-collar peers, strove more equitably for paid maternity leaves, daycare, and job tenure security. She assured me, newly a mother herself, that the movement will begin to think more ecumenically of all the women who need support in the United States, not just the best off ones.

Significantly, WARM (the Woman’s Art Registry of Minnesota) to celebrate its tenth anniversary is holding a national conference in the Twin Cities October 15-19 to consolidate the kinds of gains made by such arts cooperatives locally and nationally and look ahead to the role of feminist art politics and criticism for the next ten years. WARM’s initiatives in the arts and the Franklin Institute’s in the sciences come at a time of shaken confidence within the movement caused by “friendly” critics like Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s A Lesser Life which alleges that European women are leagues ahead of their testier American counterparts because they haven’t alienated Mrs. and Miss European the way we have. 

Noreen Connell, New York State president of NOW, is having none of that argument: “A convincing case can be made that feminists and the progressive movement have done more for families, real flesh-and-blood families, than the neo-feminist right will ever do. We’ve lobbied, demonstrated for child care, flexible work schedules, changes in insurance coverage, parental leave, food stamps, the enforcement of child-support judgments, work sharing, housing, decent working conditions and good health care. The right’s reaction to these family support measures is that they’re too expensive—something that doesn’t trouble them about new weapons.” “’A Lesser Life’ and Other Lies: Feminists and Families,” The Nation (August 18/23, 1986, p.106).

Whatever the merits of neo-feminist critiques of feminist politics, there is no faulting the dazzlingly orchestrated smorgasbord of exhibits, lectures, plays, almost everything but the tactically desposed kitchen sink, emblems of earlier servitudes, which the Franklin Institute has mounted in support of its commitment to broader access for women to the science and engineering professions. In the nineteenth century, the Institute took care of crucial trivia like standardizing the size of screws to make American industrialism more competitive. 

Keeping up to date, that ebullient bearded bear of a honcho Joel Bloom contends, involves more than deaccessioning priceless books that no longer support the Institute’s revised mission. If Rockwell had been a Norma, she would have had herself a readymade Saturday Evening Post cover opening night when A.T. & T. superstars Nagel and Jackson posed for a photo with the exhibits W.I.S.E. Guides, as ecumenical a mix of bright high school female students from the Delaware Valley as you could ever pick and choose. 

Black, brown, yellow, white, whatever: the young Viet guide was sitting with her mother who didn’t seem comfortable at all in English. But her daughter babbled away in high tech talk that was sweet to my ears. Who said we can’t make progress in this melting pot if we just fine tune our Bunsen burners. A.T. & T. may be an unfriendly broken up monopoly, but it’s really reaching out to a more enlightened future in this toll call.

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