Repost: Why Are There No Great Women Scientists?

More vintage TSZ. First published on 8/19/2005, Why Are There No Great Women Scientists? was written in response to a commenter who suggested, basically, that there are only so many "stars". Institutions can't be expected to manufacture them. And what are gonna do if all the stars just happen to be white dudes. "What can you do if all the great scientists are men?" is related to the question "Why are there no great women scientists?" And that question has already been thoroughly addressed.  Read on:

 

...we immediately recognize this as a problem that has been solved, in Linda Nochlin's classic essay "Why Are There No Great Women Artists?"  (All quotes here are drawn from the version of Nochlin's essay printed in the 1971 Basic Books edition of "Woman in Sexist Society: Studies in Power and Powerlessness" ed. V. Gornick & B. K. Moran.) 

As we proceed, just think "scientist" wherever you see "artist" and "science" for "art".  Let us consider the opening paragraph of Nochlin's tour de force:

"Why are there no great women artists?"  This question tolls reproachfully in the background of discussions of the so-called woman problem, causing men to shake their heads regretfully and women to grind their teeth in frustration.  Like so many other questions involved in the red-hot feminist controversy, it falsifies the nature of the issue at the same time that it insidiously supplies its own answer:  "There are no great women artists because women are incapable of greatness."  The assumptions lying behind such a question are varied in range and sophistication, running anywhere from "scientifically" proven demonstrations of the inability of human beings with wombs rather than penises to create anything significant, to relatively openminded wonderment that women, despite so many years of near-equality - and after all, a lot of men have had their disadvantages too - have still not achieved anything of major significance in the visual arts.

So then, the response:  re-discovering neglected heroines of the past; staking a claim for women's different approach to the subject at hand; and then, the next, more interesting stage.  Nochlin says this is when we begin to realize "to what extent our very consciousness of how things are in the world has been conditioned - and too often falsified - by the way the most important questions are posed."  Who is formulating these questions, she asks.  The woman problem is too uncomfortably similar in formulation for her to the Nazi phrasing "Jewish problem".   She opines: 

Obviously, for wolves...it is always best to refer to the lamb problem in the interests of public relations, as well as for the good of the lupine conscience.  Indeed, in our time of instant communication, "problems" are rapidly formulated to rationalize the bad conscience of those with power.

Oh my, she does have a way with words.  Finally, she says:

...the Great Artist is conceived of as one who has genius; genius, in turn, is thought to be an atemporal and mysterious power somehow embedded in the person of the Great Artist...It is no accident that the whole crucial question of the conditions generally productive of great art has so rarely been investigated, or that attempts to investigate such general problems have, until fairly recently, been dismissed as unscholarly, too broad, or the province of some other discipline like sociology. 

So relevant for us today, as we are just beginning to explore what conditions are necessary to the production of a diverse science and engineering workforce!  Now all this is old hat to the PoMo humanities folks who have moved way beyond and would laugh that we are even discussing this.  But I have been trying to tell my friends over on the other side of the university for a long time that science and engineering are 30 years behind in the feminist revolution.

Anyway:  so, why no great women scientists?  why do all the great scientists happen to be white males?  You are asking the wrong questions, dudes. 

And if you still can't resist obnoxiously wagging Albert Einstein under our noses (as if his life should be reduced to an example), then may I offer for your consideration Marie Curie and her two Nobel Prizes?  When you can show me some guy who spent his days out in a shed stirring two tons of pitchblende in a cauldron over an open fire to isolate a tiny little dot of radium, and was at the same time completely responsible for the care and raising of two children, one of whom grew up to be a scientist and win her own Nobel Prize, then we'll talk. 

One response so far

  • Elly Zupko says:

    Man, what is it with dudes asking the wrong questions? (over and over and over...) I just found your blog and this post really hit home with me. I am working on a project called "STEM: Women Are All Over It" aka #ThatOtherShirt. After the unfortunate Rosetta "shirt storm" incident, I designed a shirt that is covered in notable women from STEM. Guess what: TONS of great women scientists!

    I launched a Kickstarter to fund production of the shirt, and we reached our goal in just 11 hours. It's now over 325% funded, with 25 days left to go!

    I thought this story would be of interest to you, your colleagues, and your blog readers. You can find more information at my blog: thatothershirt.wordpress.com and at our Kickstarter page: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1222758308/stem-women-are-all-over-it-thatothershirt/

    Thanks for everything you do for women in STEM!