Gender, Writing, Science

While I get ready for the new semester (and before I disappear from the world for a bit) I want to point to a great post on Jeff VanderMeer’s site on Gender and Writing.   It has been discussed at length elsewhere * that the problems now facing women writers are less of the overt editorial bias kind, and more to do with women not submitting as much as their male counterparts do (which latter has, I suspect, been true historically).  Part of it seems to be that women are not writing as much as men seem to do, although I wish someone would do a Ph.D. thesis on this and give us some data.  I speculate that women writers not writing very much is a consequence of the fact that we live in a gender-biased society, as Jeff’s article and the various responses, including a blog post by Rachel Swirsky, seem to agree.  

 Thank goodness somebody is talking about the dreaded second shift in the context of women writers!  I think women writers need to have a conversation amongst themselves about this, and whatever else is holding them back.  And I suspect that the reason why there are fewer female scientists than male might be rather similar.

Following that train of thought…

I recently read a fascinating book by anthropologist Sarah Hrdy called Mother Nature.  A couple of things struck me about the book.  One, Hrdy argues that the widespread notion among humans that mothers are naturally self-sacrificing (in terms of giving up everything for their offpsring) is actually the exception rather than the rule among other primates.  It seems that female baboons, for instance, spend more time foraging and doing what baboons do than looking after their young.  The reason they are able to do this without destroying their species is because they share childcare with a number of allomothers (other caretakers such as aunties).  Hrdy does not suggest that human behavior is necessarily derived from baboon behavior but proposes her observations as a counterargument to the old (possibly Victorian?) notion that women must be kept in their place as minders of the young, because that is what Nature demands of women.  (I’m oversimplyfying a bit but that is the gist). 

Apparently studies done on male and female human response times to distress calls from infants indicate that women have only a slightly lower response threshold than men.  We know for a fact that when men (on the average) have had to take care of babies they have generally learned how to be good caretakers.  However, Hrdy argues, this slight assymmetry seems enough to throw out of balance the roles of mother and father as caretakers (I’m reminded of the hypothesis that a slight matter-antimatter assymetry in the early universe led to a universe dominated by matter).  Thus the mother ends up taking care of all or most of the child’s needs. 

In another book that I haven’t yet read (Mothers and Others) Hrdy apparently argues that when humans lived in foraging societies, there was much greater parity among genders with regard to child-rearing.  Permanent settlements, on the other hand, required men to be guards and protecters (from wild animals and other tribes).  The thesis of this book, from what I’ve been able to glean from descriptions, is that what made it possible for the human race to survive and our big brains to evolve had to do with the fact that human babies are so fragile and helpless for so long.  This needed human beings to develop communication strategies and social networking so that many adults could participate in the rearing of the children.  According to this notion, if early human mothers had to bring up their kids without help from the rest of the tribe, there’s no way the human race would have made it. 

Hrdy’s ideas deserve a long, well thought out post, which this isn’t, but I want to put her ideas out there because they topple so much conventional wisdom about our origins and about gender roles.  Hrdy has gotten a lot of respect for her ideas.  But (and this is the second thing that struck me from my reading of her work) she hasn’t stopped there — she appears to have applied them in her life.  It turns out apart from being a top-notch, paradigm-shifting anthropologist she’s raised three kids with her husband and various allomothers.     

For a long time I’ve been thinking about nuclear families and how new they are in human history.  In fact my mother has bemoaned nuclear families through much of my childhood.  She used to tell me how it was for her, growing up in a joint family with many siblings, cousins, uncles, aunts, parents and grandparents under the same roof.  For a child, she said, it was wonderful, because if you got upset with someone, there was always someone else to talk to.  There was no lack of entertainment or playmates, and she and her siblings didn’t even notice that they hardly had any toys.  I suspect also that having so many adult influences would perhaps dilute the effect of a parent’s neuroses on the child! 

Traditional joint families have their own set of problems and I would never advocate going back to them.  My mother admits this as well.  But surely we can invent some modern version of an engaged community that together raises the children while avoiding the problems of feudalistic and sexist hierarchies in traditional joint families!  I’d like to see more of such imaginings in fiction, since SF seems to be dominated by nuclear families (a notable recent exception being Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge and its multi-person households). 

I grew up in something that was in-between; although my siblings and I lived with our parents in our own flat, there were multitudes of relatives close enough for frequent visits.  For two years I had a taste of a joint family when we lived with my grandparents, and that has left such a deep impression on me that the scenes and locations of many of my stories appear to have unconsciously arisen from my memories of that time.  Also when I was a teen my parents were away abroad for a year and we lived with a much-beloved aunt, uncle and cousins.  So while I was growing up many adults were (and remain) a deep and abiding influence in my life, apart from my parents. 

Anyway Hrdy’s own example made me curious and I started looking at various female scientists who had made major contributions to their fields and also raised children, and had long-term relationships with their partners.  I haven’t had a chance to dig deep, but I found, apart from Hrdy, biologist Ursula Goodenough and astrophysicist Vera Rubin.   In at least two cases of these three cases I noticed that when these women were young mothers they worked part-time so that they could be there for their kids, while their husbands supported the household financially.  Somehow they managed to stay connected to research despite the difficulties of being part-time, and eventually got full-time positions.  But research institutions are notoriously unsupportive of working mothers and the tenure policies of most American institutions make it very difficult for women to continue in academia once they have children.  So I have to wonder if these women were also rather lucky in terms of where they worked and who they worked with.  Apart from luck, it seems that one other necessary requirement is a partner who is not only understanding and gender-enlightened but is willing to share in the often dirty work of childcare and household.  Perhaps another factor is the existence of a group of trusted adults who help raise the child — the allomothers of ancient human societies, resurrected.  I’d love to see some studies done on all this. 

I’m hoping to read Hrdy’s second book during spring break since her work tends to be mentally all-consuming, but in the meantime it would be interesting to continue to think about why women seem to still be so short-changed in our world, whether as writers or scientists, and (in the case of the SF writing community anyway) what women can do about it.  I’d also love to find other examples of female scientists and writers who have somehow done it all.  I once saw a feminist poster in India which showed a bunch of women with their arms raised, and the slogan said: Holding Up Half the Sky.  Which seems to imply that there must be a community of partners, friends and relatives holding up the other half.

* Note Added on January 21, 2010:

Clarification: I am NOT for a moment suggesting that there is NO bias against women writers in the SF world today, only that there is less OVERT bias than there used to be.  Subtle biases are still alive and kicking, expressed through what editors consider a “good” story, for instance.   But this post is specifically about the issues on the home front that cause women to not write as much as they would otherwise; that is, the wider sexism in society at large.


5 Responses to “Gender, Writing, Science”

  1. steveshervais Says:

    In addition to being on the quarter system, and thus already on Week 2, I find I am in the worst part of my class cycle right now. This looks to be a fascinating essay, but one which I shan’t be able to touch for a few days yet.

    See you soon.

  2. Non-Guilt Through (Somewhat) Association | The Crotchety Old Fan Says:

    [...] refer to THIS from Vandana Singh, in which SHE says it has been discussed at length elsewhere that the problems [...]

  3. Jha Says:

    If you haven’t read it, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland features a society that’s almost exclusively focused on mothering and motherhood. Everything in the society is geared towards educating children, which in turn benefits the adults, since they all share motherhood duties. There’s some skeevy stuff wrt to eugenics in the novel, but I think it’s right up the kind of SF you’re looking for!

  4. steveshervais Says:

    Without having read the source materials, let me throw out a couple comments.

    1. It may be that the child-rearing stereotyping is due to what Hollywood would call ‘type-casting’. If you are an actress known best for your comedy roles, you will have a hard time getting a romantic lead. The guy who was the first Dr Who in the latest revival only did it for two years because he didn’t want to be typecast. From a child-rearing standpoint, the infant needs pretty-much constant mother support for the first two years or so, until weaning. Well, if you’ve done it for two years, why not continue? Furthermore, you may well have another babe-in-arms by that time. The mother gets some relief if the kid can be taken care of by the other mothers of the pack, tribe, anarcho-syndicalist group, but it’s mainly because she rotates in and out of the mommy crew herself. As the tribe collapses into the extended family, and that becomes the nuclear family, the child tasks keep being assigned to the women…woman. As a parallel analogy, in the early 1800′s, when many nuclear families had servants*, the womens’ magazines wrote articles about managing her staff. Later, when the maid was replaced by the hoover, the articles turned to how to manage her use of the appliances.

    2. As for women in science/writing, there was a web article a couple of years ago that raised the idea tha women were too smart for science. You see, science careers are pretty chancy things — you work for years and go even deeper into debt to become a Ph.D. in Astronomy, and then you find there are only about 50 openings per year, nationwide, and those depend on continuing grant money. If you are lucky, you end up like Clifford Stull, former astronomer now computer security consultant. Even for men, the pay is poor**, the hours are terrible (yes, the actual minutes may be fun), and the probability of career success is low. For particle physicists, the most common career path is: Ph.D. at some place with a cyclotron, a couple of post-docs at places like CERN and FermiLab, and maybe a short stop at a community college, followed by a lucrative career on Wall Street, designing derivatives. Women, being smart, aren’t buying the snake oil the way the men are. Writing is much the same — don’t quit your day job, because very few people actually make it as writers. Most women recognize this, and don’t put a lot of time into writing, because other activities either pay better or are almost as much fun.

    Of course, all the above may be simple male rationalization to keep down the competition.

    * who presumably were still living in extended families
    ** a grad student friend of mine once said “there’s lots of money out there, if you don’t need much money”

  5. vsinghsblog Says:

    Thanks for the comments, Jha, and for the recommendation, which I will track down.

    Steve, if women are too smart for science, maybe it is time to make science and science careers intelligent enough for women. Alas, perhaps in another universe, or in a science fiction story.

    But seriously, I have a suspicion that often scientific culture tends to be “masculine” and if not hostile to women then still rather discouraging. I have to say particle physicists have got to be among the worst. Perhaps it has changed since I was a wee graduate student and post-doc in the field. If so I’d be very (and pleasantly) surprised.

    I think this culture within science selects for certain behavorial traits which exclude a lot of women and probably some men. I am going to post something long and speculative about this at some point.

    I guess the point I am making is that there are a lot of reasons why there aren’t more women in science and my post looks at the home front, but there are institutional issues as well that should not be ignored. And so with science fiction writing too.


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