Women In Science Sore And Soar


I was wearing my best pastel multicolor weave suit as I walked up the stairs of a drab gray Victorian mansion converted into a medical office on the outskirts of large mid-western city. It was a bit cool, early spring, and I had been through all of the other principal personalities in a fairly large and well respected neurosurgery department.  The emeritus chief of the department — older, semi-retired, wrote hunks of textbooks about 20 years before; was the last one I had to see.  Although nobody seemed wildly excited, I had “passed” the interviews to make it this far.

The Victorian mansion was the office building of the neurosurgical group that was the residency faculty.  I was ushered into a richly furnished Victorian style office with antimacassars and gigantic velvet wing-backed chairs.

The father-to-us-all type neurosurgeon spent over five minutes asking me about France and my passion for the brain before asking me if my period gave me any problems.

First I gulped.

Then I said “No, sir.”

I was not sure saying anything else would do any good, so I waited for him to speak.

He went on to tell me something about how expensive it was to train a specialist physician, so he wanted to make sure I was not expecting to take days off from the surgical schedule when I had a period.  I told him in as matter-of-fact a way as I could that it had not caused me to miss any time in my academic or medical career, and I had no reason to expect it would.

I felt my pulse and blood pressure rise.  I found myself thinking that if he ordered an exam of me; or worse, tried to do one himself, then I could maybe get him in trouble, but here we were, no witnesses, and he told me he would take me at his word.

At that time, working day and night trying to be more learned than anyone else and scraping for credentials, I could not see risking anything of that, and I did not.  I will never know, the world will never know, how many women have swallowed the kind of insults I have swallowed, or worse, in the name of achievement.  I could not see another way, then.  I want to believe things are a little different, but I must admit, I cannot really know.

In medical school, in France, there had been a hospital attendant, a veteran, married with children.  I had no particular interest in him; not even as a friend, for I did not think him terribly bright.  But one night, I was a bit later at the hospital doing physicals, and he cornered me alone in the exam room  I felt his erection as he pinned me against the wall and kissed me energetically.  I fought and tried to beat him and yelled, but I knew I was where it would be hard for someone else to hear.

He seemed surprised and asked, “You do not give **** ?”

It was not hard to shake my head, and he relaxed and let go.  He actually thought, it seemed, that I somehow desired him and he was doing me a favor.

I was quite certain I had done nothing to provoke him.  His attitude in general was one I heard from many men in France, so he must not have been the only one who thought of women in that manner.  Still — a married man with a family!

I looked him straight in the eye and told him directly that I was willing to forget what had happened if he did, but if he ever laid a finger on me again, I would make certain that his career and position were over.

He actually shook hands with me and agreed.

In my mind the only thing I could think of is what kind of an international incident this could become.  Would he try to have me deported? Would I have to get the diplomatic service involved?  Would such an incident delay — or even cost me — the diploma for which I was working so hard and had sacrificed so much?

Once again, fear I suppose, although I hate to admit.  Or, to make it sound more noble, sacrificing personal feelings in the name of what was, at that time, still only a potential achievement.

This one I never told my parents.

In a foreign country, with all the courtesies extended to me, I made the decision. Made, and carried on.

But in the 1981 American midwest, I did not think that another doctor, however senior and distinguished, should be asking me about my menstruation.

At that time I thought the Equal Rights Amendment could get ratified, but there have been  slowed and rescinded and I think things are down for the count right now, because people were afraid women would be drafted, mostly, as I have understood things.  The argument heard against it is that we should not need it, any more than voters or citizens need their rights affirmed.

Like many things, the ERA at least has its own website.

Until people like the neurosurgeon who asked me this crap have all died off, we might need something.  Sex roles are changing, albeit slowly, but it seems to me like glass ceilings are being more scratched at than shattered.

I was two or three years through my graduate training in psychiatry when I became a volunteer docent at the local (midwest, again) science museum.  I was the first female to do so and as far as anyone could remember, the only female to do so.  I kind of enjoyed playing with the science toys, like the lenses or the Van de Graff generator.  I even got some of the school kids to listen to my little lectures and play on their own.

I remember with horror the time a troop of Brownies — Junior Girl Scouts — came to the museum.  They only wanted to buck and run.  The only way I could get anybody interested at all was when I used one girl as a model to demonstrate that static electricity could make someone’s hair stand up and get all “fuzzy.”

I could not believe that the girls had been socialized so young that this was not their game.

I actually met some fairly interesting young men by being the token female in the astronomy club and space travel society that were attached to that science museum.  They all felt it was “special” that a female human was interested in science.  Smiling and condescending, they all wanted to “explain” things to me, but nothing with that group of male humans ever showed any signs of progressing toward even a semi-normal human relationship.

I remember when my prep school got a book, the first (as far as I could tell) about women in science.  I do not remember the author but I do remember that it was written as the expansion of some kind of sociological study.  I looked up the statistics.  I was less likely to get married, less likely to have children, maybe even less likely to have a happy marriage.  There was no question of that discouraging me.  I then thought boys (at least the kind I met at prep school mixers) were trivial and that the male sex was generally unworthy of my attentions.

As for medicine, the situation was at least a little different.

I had read about the first woman medical doctor in America Elizabeth Blackwell and her work in medicine.

In France, women broke into medicine in about the same era. (NOTE: the link opens a French Language page but you can have the computer translate it using Google Translate or some similar free online service).

The first woman doctor in France was technically Elisabeth Garrett (I guess someone else did it in her second language!!)  But soon after Madeleine Bres, daughter of a doctor, had to get her husband’s permission to present and defend her thesis (See, you can get married!)

As for me, I was about nine years old (fourth grade) when I first mentioned the passion for medical care and maybe some research to my father, who mentioned the name of some Jewish woman who had studied at Harvard long before (presumably during his time there in the WWII era). When I sat there silent, shocked that it was going to be that easy to convince him, he looked straight at me and said “If one Jewish girl can do it, so can another.”

I did not believe then, nor do I believe now, that ethnicity confers academic ability.  Much has been made of the tendency to seriously value academic achievement in my ethnicity. The way that my father said it, however, made me sound like an “also ran.”

All I knew for sure at that stage of life was that at the Countway Library of Medicine (Harvard-a place where I was about to start spending an awful lot of time) there were a whole bunch of portraits of historically important doctor types.  No, there were no women, even though I learned later that there had been women physicians in ancient Rome.  I thought of my mother and grandmother sitting patiently with friends in a caring way; knowledgeable amateurs, but caring.  That had to be a good hunk of the job.

I remember sitting in the car with my mother, trying to explain to her a little about DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) as hereditary material and she sighed angrily and told me that if I could not explain what I knew to a woman who had graduated from Commerce High School in Springfield Massachusetts as she did, then I was not a competent explainer.

This was my role model, my direction.

At this point, I am really doubting if politics, even something as onerous as a constitutional amendment, can make women “equal.”  All differences I know about between male and female brains are more quantitative than qualitative.  I am reasonably convinced that much more comes from teaching and learning than could come from a neuron or neurotransmitter.

I am really glad that my parents of blessed memory had the insight to tell me not to listen to my grandfather of blessed memory when on many of his 6AM Sunday visits he said things to the effect that a “really” smart girl would find a good man to work for her, and give her a good life, instead of looking for problems they didn’t need.

Ever since I was a child there was no doubt that thinking in general and scientific thinking in particular was and had to continue to be a significant part of my identity, my life, and my joy.  To do these things involves the brain — penises and vaginas are simply not directly involved.

The only way to cultivate intelligence in an individual or society is to value it, reward it.  To do that it must first be recognized.  This presupposes a certain indifference if not downright blindness to race and sex and most of the characteristics we easily identify in people.  Unfortunately, these same characteristics are the basis of prejudices.  It i easier, simpler, to blame visible group characteristics than to judge skills or intelligence in the abstract.

I just don’t see politics or laws getting inside people’s brains to fix this.

Individual teaching or mentoring relationships; maybe.  A kind of positive caring that transcends these simple-to-blame visual characteristics of humans.

Nobody practices medicine or makes scientific breakthroughs with anything other than their brain.

Love me, love my brain.  The physical stuff; well, the world can see the clothes, but anything underneath is for my husband, only.

A nice touch — maybe this could help a little.


ADDENDUM:  Is science failing us?  Are politial interests perverting scientific progress in the US?  My next subscription-only newsletter will examine this.  If you aren’t on the mailing list, there is no charge — just fill in the form at the upper-right corner of this page and click the box.  You can also read back issues.




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