Space Exploration And The Invisible Women

Yesterday being a snow day in New York City–for school-going children and college professors alike–I spent it with my daughter at home. Diversion was necessary, and so I turned to an old friend–the growing stock of quite excellent documentaries on Netflix–for aid. My recent conversations with my daughter have touched on the topic of space exploration–itself prompted by a discussion of the Man on the Moon, which had led me to point out that actual men had been to the moon, by rocket, and indeed, had walked on it. A space exploration documentary it would be. We settled on the BBC’s ‘Rocket Men’ and off we went; I wanted to show my daughter the Apollo 11 mission in particular, as I have fond memories of watching a documentary on its flight with my parents when I was a five-year old myself.

As the documentary began, I experienced a familiar sinking feeling: my daughter and I were going to be watching something ‘notable,’ ‘historical,’ a human achievement of some repute, and yet again, we would find few women featured prominently. Indeed, as the title itself suggests, the documentary is about men: the astronauts, the rocket scientists, the mission control specialists. The only women visible are those watching rockets blast off or worrying about the fates of their family members in them. This used to happen in our watching of music videos too as I introduced my daughter to ‘guitar heroes’ as a spur to her guitar lessons. After a couple of weeks of watching the likes of Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page et al, my daughter asked me, “Don’t girls play the guitar?” Well, of course they do, and so off we went, to check out Joan Jett, Nancy Wilson, Lita Ford, Chrissie Hynde, the Deal sisters, and many others.

It had been an easy trap to fall into. In the case of music, I had a blind spot myself. In the case of space exploration the problem lay elsewhere: there were no women pilots qualified for the astronaut program as the initial selection of the astronaut corps came from the armed forces. Both instances though, were united by their embedding in a culture in which women were women were less visible, less recognized, less likely to be promoted to the relevant pantheon. After all, as in literature and art and philosophy, women have been present in numbers that speak to their ability to surmount the social barriers placed in their paths, and yet still rendered invisible because of the failure to see them and their contributions to their chosen field of artistic endeavor.

As I watched a video of the first seven American astronauts being introduced at a press conference, I felt I had to say something to my daughter, to explain to her why no women were to be seen in this cavalcade of handsome crew cut men wearing aviator sunglasses. So I launched into a brief digression, explaining the selection process and why women couldn’t have been selected. My daughter listened with some bemusement and asked if things were still that way now. I said, no, but there’s work to be done. And then we returned to watching the Gemini and Apollo missions. Afterwards, I walked over to my computer and pulled up the Wikipedia entries for Valentina Tereshkova and Sally Ride and Kalpana Chawla and showed them to my daughter, promising her that we would watch documentaries on them too. She seemed suitably enthused.

Donald Trump’s ‘Hot-Mic’ And Men Talking About Sex

A friend offers the following reaction to the latest ‘sensational’ disclosures about Donald Trump’s misogyny:

To all the guys on my feed posting their shock and outrage over Trump’s hot-mic comments about women: give me a break. “How could America possibly elect someone who talks like this about women??” you ask. Do you honestly think we haven’t elected guys who talk like this about women before? Do you think Bill Clinton never talked like this? George W Bush? Come on. This is quintessential Americana, right here. Boys talk like this about girls in ELEMENTARY SCHOOL, for pete’s sake. Men have talked about women like this for EVER. And you’re so shocked that **Donald Trump** talks this way? One of you posting your shock once forcibly blocked my entrance to a restroom and shoved your tongue in my mouth, some years ago. I bet you don’t even remember, because it was a total non-event or you felt like, because you liked me, it was OK. This is normal, every day behavior. Yes, it sucks, but please don’t pretend this is your first time experiencing this reality. Your b.s. outrage is an insult to those of us who have been aware of this reality since we were children.

Indeed. Men talk like this about women all the time. Many conversations like this take place when men get together to talk about women, about sex, and about their sexual ‘conquests.’ The distinctions that many are seeking to draw between sexual assault and sexual ‘conquest’–which, supposedly, makes these conversations worse than normal ‘locker room banter’–is easily blurred precisely because for so many men this line is blurred in their ‘locker room banter’ about sex and their sexual partners:

[M]en, when talking about sex, cannot drop the language of conquest and domination, of conflating sex and violence (‘Dude, I fucked the shit out of her’ or ‘I was banging her all night’) [they] imagine sex to be a variant of rough-and-tumble sport (‘scoring touchdowns’), [and] associate weakness with womanhood (‘Don’t be a pussy’ ‘Man up’ ‘Put your pants on’).

Men have been used to talking like that about women for a very long time. It’s how they’ve learned to talk about sex and women in the company of men. In general, when men brag to other men about their sexual conquests, they do not describe how they generated intimacy–physical or otherwise–with conversation; rather, they speak of how they ‘overcame’ the barriers that the woman had put up between herself–as a sexual target to be attained–and sex. In these circumstances, getting a little pushy goes with the territory; don’t you have to get women drunk before you can have sex with them? And if a women doesn’t resist your advances, then men can talk about what a ‘whore’ and a ‘slut’ and a ‘dirty bitch who really wanted it’ she was as she got ‘down and dirty.’

To this toxic mix, add a little entitlement and arrogance and you get the Trump conversation. Indeed, with probability one, hot mics would reveal conversations like this in most public figures’ portfolios. It is not just ‘deplorables‘ who ‘talk like that.’

Madeleine Albright, Simone De Beauvoir, And Hillary Clinton’s Responsibility To Women

There is a truth, however uncomfortable, to be found in Madeleine Albright‘s recent remarks–at a Hillary Clinton campaign rally–that women who don’t support other women (in politics) have a special place in a very hot place reserved just for them.  (Albright, justly notorious for her infamous remark suggesting the deaths of thousands of Iraqi children as a result of the sanctions against their nation following the First Gulf War was ‘worth it‘, obviously attracted some particularly pointed flak.)

But Albright was right about one thing. Women must support other women politically; when they vote, assume political power, draft legislation, organize politically, support candidate campaigns. Women will come to attain power and retain it when women see themselves as a political bloc, and vote accordingly. As Simone de Beauvoir noted in the famous Introduction to her opus The Second Sex:

If woman seems to be the inessential which never becomes the essential, it is because she herself fails to bring about this change. Proletarians say ‘We’; Negroes also. Regarding themselves as subjects, they transform the bourgeois, the whites, into ‘others’. But women do not say ‘We’, except at some congress of feminists or similar formal demonstration; men say ‘women’, and women use the same word in referring to themselves. They do not authentically assume a subjective attitude. The proletarians have accomplished the revolution…but the women’s effort has never been anything more than a symbolic agitation. They have gained only what men have been willing to grant; they have taken nothing, they have only received.

The reason for this is that women lack concrete means for organising themselves into a unit which can stand face to face with the correlative unit. They have no past, no history, no religion of their own; and they have no such solidarity of work and interest as that of the proletariat. They are not even promiscuously herded together in the way that creates community feeling among the American Negroes, the ghetto Jews….They live dispersed among the males, attached through residence, housework, economic condition, and social standing to certain men – fathers or husbands – more firmly than they are to other women. If they belong to the bourgeoisie, they feel solidarity with men of that class, not with proletarian women; if they are white, their allegiance is to white men, not to Negro women….The bond that unites her to her oppressors is not comparable to any other.

Beauvoir is supporting a particular form of identity politics, and asking for women to organize themselves into a political unit. She wants that unit to demonstrate a solidarity of work and interest, one that is not forthcoming so long as women remain as separated as they are, by class (social and economic) and race.  Women, all to often, are called upon to display solidarity with their class or their race, and they comply; for true political power to be attained, by women, for women, it will have to be sought from other women, and not just those whom they have persuaded to stand shoulder to shoulder with them. They will have to break the bond that unites them to their oppressors, and to do that they will have to disdain older ties, from older forms of political solidarity and build new ones–with other women.

These considerations are especially important for the Hillary Clinton campaign but not exactly in the way Albright and Clinton might have intended–at that  moment, standing together on stage. For they apply equally to those women seeking power, as they do to those who would support them. If those women are to expect the support and solidarity of other women, they must support those women themselves, through action and deed. That is, we can reframe Beauvoir’s remarks as rendering the burden of extending solidarity, a shared, mutual one: if Hillary Clinton expects and demands women’s vote because she is a woman candidate, then she must have shown she is a woman who takes care of other women, whether white, black, rich or poor. She must have supported them because they were women, and she, as a woman, understands the life experiences and stations which women undergo and occupy; her politics must show such a concern for other women.

As I noted in a recent post, it is not clear to me Hillary Clinton has done this, or will. (That case has been made much stronger by Michelle Alexander‘s essay in The Nation, and will be made even more so when Liza Featherstone‘s anthology of feminist writings on Hillary Clinton is published later this year.) There might be, for all I know, a special place in that very hot place for women who don’t support other women; we can only wonder who will sit in that particular hot seat.

Mary Wollstonecraft, Philosopher Of Education

In ‘Observations on the State of Degradation to which Woman is Reduced by Various Causes’ (Chapter IV of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman), Mary Wollstonecraft writes:

Reason is…the simple power of improvement; or, more properly speaking, of discerning truth. Every individual is in this respect a world in itself. More or less may be conspicuous in one being than another; but the nature of reason must be the same in all…can that soul be stamped with the heavenly image, that is not perfected by the exercise of its own reason? Yet outwardly ornamented with elaborate care, and so adorned to delight man…the soul of woman is not allowed to have this distinction…But, dismissing these fanciful theories, and considering woman as a whole…the inquiry is whether she has reason or not. If she has, which, for a moment, I will take for granted, she was not created merely to be the solace of man…

Into this error men have, probably, been led by viewing education in a false light; not considering it as the first step to form a being advancing gradually towards perfection; but only as a preparation for life.

The power of generalizing ideas, of drawing comprehensive conclusions from individual observations, is the only acquirement, for an immortal being, that really deserves the name of knowledge. Merely to observe, without endeavouring to account for any thing, may (in a very incomplete manner) serve as the common sense of life; but where is the store laid up that is to clothe the soul when it leaves the body?

In the second para quoted above, Wollstonecraft, after asserting the existence of reason in women–via a theological claim–goes on to establish a normative standard for education: its function is not purely vocational but also a spiritual and moral one. The task of education is the development of reason, the business of bringing to full fruition the divine gift granted all human beings by their Creator. The task of education is not mere ‘preparation’ for a narrowly circumscribed sphere of profane responsibility; it is, rather, to elevate and uplift each human being by making it possible for them to exercise their reason–as part of a process of gradually ‘perfecting’ their souls. Education is not prelude to the ‘real business’; it is the real business itself.

In the third para, Wollstonecraft asserts the importance of abstraction and generalization–implicit in these claims is the importance of pattern recognition. Humans cannot be content with particulars, with living from moment to moment; they must, through the mastery of these powerful intellectual tools, rise to a vantage point from which disparate phenomena can be tied together into explanatory wholes (and serve as the basis for future theory-building.) The ‘common sense of life’ is not the only standard that humans should aspire to; there are far loftier goals visible, the journey to which may only be made possible by the right kind of education.

Note: My Political Philosophy class and I read and discussed some excerpts from Vindication of the Rights of Woman yesterday; these two paragraphs led to a very interesting digression (ending up in computer science and binary numbers). Which is why I make note of them today.

Praising One Partner, Dissing The Other

Sometimes, on Facebook, an innocent will post a photograph of himself and his female partner, and be greeted with a slew of admiring comments and ‘likes’. These will often be things like ‘you guys look great together’ or ‘fabulous couple!’ Sometimes there are  comments about the wife or girlfriend’s looks: ‘X is beautiful’ or ‘X is so lovely.’ And sometimes, some comments make the same point while taking a dig at their male friend: ‘Dude, she is so above your pay grade’ or ‘you are batting well above your average here’. Or something like that. These are all friendly enough, I suppose, but I must admit to feeling a little uncomfortable about the last cluster. (Perhaps people make these kinds of remarks in face-to-face settings as well, but this behavior is more easily and often observed on social media.)

The folks making that last kind of remark are indulging, of course, in some good-natured joshing: man, you really lucked out. This commentary–which women also direct at their male friends–is a sub-species of that special way that men have of expressing affection for each other wherein they call each other vaguely derogatory names as a sign of affection. Still, I wonder, don’t these kinds of comments also ‘good-naturedly’ tell the woman she is slumming it with her partner? You know: Hey, you’re being charitable here, dispensing your favors to our ‘plain’ friend? That she could have, you know, done better? Are the folks making this kind of joke, one directed at their male friends, also as comfortable making this kind of implied remark about the woman? (Note: this kind of commentary is almost never directed at women by their female friends. No one ever, as far as I can tell, tells a woman that she has really gotten lucky by ‘snagging’ such a hottie who is so clearly deserving of someone better looking than her.) I know the folks making this kind of remark are complimenting the woman’s looks–but in an odd sort of way, really, because they also seem to be suggesting she has lost out in the ‘looks stakes.’ Despite being blessed with an abundance of good looks. So not only is she unlucky, but she also lacks judgment.

I wonder if the discomfort that I’m expressing has as its root, an acute discomfort at the idea that people ‘snag’ or ‘catch’ partners, that there is some ‘physical matching’ involved between people, so that folks with similar rankings on our scale of aesthetic appreciation should be paired off with each other, and that thus, a ‘mismatch’ in looks is notable. In a way. I get that physical attraction has a great deal to do with the initial expression of romantic interest but still, we know enough about what makes relationships work to know that there is a great deal beyond the initial ‘flush.’ Most of which has to do with our complex personalities and the way our partner addresses our most felt needs. Which only emerge, more often than not, once the initial stage of courtship is over, and are rarely known to those outside the intimate circle partners create for each other.

I don’t mean to be a pedant here, or a killjoy. I’m just curious about whether the folks who talk like this have thought about some of the possible implications of their seemingly innocent remarks.

Note: On reading a draft of this post, my wife remarked:

I feel like you touch on but don’t explicitly say something that seems the most problematic about such comments. I think the reason that the same thing would not be said to a woman is because society believes a woman’s looks to be the most important thing about her whereas they are only a minor component of a man’s overall status. You can insult a man’s looks without insulting a man, but you can’t do the same to a woman.

She’s right.


Unsung Heroines and Premature Glory

News Scientist  is currently featuring a story titled “Unsung Heroines: Five Women Denied Scientific Glory.” The woman scientists featured are: Hertha Ayrton, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Gerty Cori (an odd choice given she was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize), Rosalind Franklin, and Lise Meitner.

For my money, of the stories told here, those of Burnell, Franklin, and Meitner are especially poignant. The little bio provided for Burnell includes a pair of interesting remarks made by her:

In 1967, as a postdoctoral physicist at the University of Cambridge, she discovered the first pulsar using a radio telescope she had built with her supervisor Antony Hewish, astronomer Martin Ryle and others….Bell Burnell was the second author named on the paper that announced the discovery (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/217709a0), but it was Hewish and Ryle who received a Nobel prize for it in 1974. She has made light of this, saying that “students don’t win Nobel prizes” and “an award to me would have debased the prize”.

I take Burnell to be making the point that Nobel Prizes–descriptively 0r normatively–recognize not isolated achievements, but a sustained record of scientific excellence. Of course, Burnell was not ‘only’ a “student” – she was a post-doctoral fellow, and thus already a practicing academic. Her concern about the prize being “debased” seems misplaced in two respects: 1) she had not made an accidental, flukish discovery 2) the Nobel Prize is awarded for both lifetime achievement and singular inventions or discoveries.  I suspect that besides her suggestion that the Nobel only recognize careers worth of scientific work, Burnell had also internalized some cultural prejudices about excessively early recognition serving as a disincentive for future effort. It is, if I may say so, an old-fashioned attitude.

Burnell’s remarks remind me of an incident in my own career. Shortly after I finished my doctorate and began work as a post-doctoral fellow, I was asked by a colleague, then working on a highly technical book on computational learning theory, whether I’d be interested in co-authoring a chapter that would explain the philosophical significance of the new formalisms being developed.  I would not be a co-author of the book, but would be listed as a co-author for that chapter alone. I agreed; my friend’s work was fascinating, and I looked forward to fleshing out its conceptual foundations. And the co-authorship line on the CV wouldn’t hurt one bit.

There was one small problem though: my colleague was working with two other logicians on his book. They needed to approve of my writing that chapter. One of them, a senior academic, refused. His stated reason was straightforward: I would be spoiled by such ‘early success’; I should not expect co-authored chapters in books to come my way so easily; I needed to build a ‘track record’ before I could earn such distinction.

As a reminder: I was a Ph.D, not a fledgling graduate student; I was not going to be made co-author of the book but only of one chapter.

I’ve had many head-shaking moments in my academic career; this was one of them.

Crossfit, Women, and ‘Tough Titsday’: A Woman’s Perspective

I have often blogged on Crossfit here in these pages. In large part that is because I genuinely enjoy my experiences at Crossfit South Brooklyn (CFSBK), a very unique and distinctive space in which to work out and pursue the ever-elusive objective of being mens sana in corpore sano. It is also because I find a fitness phenomenon an interesting context within which to think about–among other things–the issues of masculinity, militarism, sexism, and misogyny. So, I’ve blogged here on Crossfit and strong women, the question of Crossfit’s relationship to the military, and for a long time, have wanted to write something on whether Crossfit provides a female-friendly space.

That last post will get written soon, but for the time being there is this: yesterday Jezebel ran a blog post that accused Crossfit South Brooklyn of sexism and/or misogyny.  I found the charge baseless, and so did many of the other folks that work out with me. Crossfit South Brooklyn, for its part, posted a rejoinder here. (The comments are worth reading to get a broad perspective on all the issues raised by the article and CFSBK’s response.)

My wife–who works out at CFSBK like me–and has participated in the Tough Titsday program and meet, was moved to email me the following:

If anyone could take something good and misread it completely, it is cheap and frivolous publications like Jezebel. That article, loaded with preconceived notions of what Crossfit is, and armed with the rantings of a single, incredibly imperceptive female visitor to the gym, actually does a great deal to strengthen a misogynistic view of women in its attempt to “expose” Crossfit South Brooklyn’s imagined affront by naming its female-centered strength training course and competition “Tough Titsday”.

As someone who has both participated in the course and who has done quite a bit of strength training at Crossfit, I find the article itself insulting. First, it is clear that the author, Ms. Katie J.M. Baker, could not be bothered finding out anything about the institution she seeks to criticize. Although each Crossfit affiliate is its own entity with cultures varying widely depending on the coaching staff and the location, Baker chooses to assume all participants and Crossfit gyms are some sort of stereotypical “bro-fest.” And despite the fact that the Tough Titsday class was actually created by an incredibly forward thinking and badass woman as a way to encourage other women, many whom were initially intimidated by heavy weightlifting, to get on the platform, Baker insists on creating her own imaginary universe, one where the “douchey bros” in the gym simply decided to form a class for us, their harem girls, in which they could sit around and comment on our tits or something. It insinuates that the women that participate in this course are perhaps too dumb or self-effacing to realize that they are being insulted. Perhaps Jezebel imagines us as a bunch of air-headed sorority girls all too happy to be on display at the meat market.

Well, Ms. Baker may get her rocks off with her fantasies, but if she took a couple minutes to get off her lazy ass and do some real journalism, she would have found out that I share the platform with female economists, philosophers, prosecutors, stand-up comedians, teachers, mothers, and other genuinely impressive women who find strength in each other’s companionship and are motivated by one another’s accomplishments. And, unlike our disgruntled visitor, we think the name is funny.

This is not to say that we are unaware of sexism. Context is everything. If you don’t believe me, think about this joke: three women go for a job interview, one with a degree in economics, one with a law degree, and one with 10 years experience. Who gets the job? Answer: the one with the biggest tits. Told by a 40-year old white man, the joke is crass and offensive, but told by a 40-year old woman, it becomes social commentary. Without placing CFSBK and its Tough Titsday training program and meet, in the context of what it is– a gym attracting a wide array of people of different backgrounds, genders, and body types–and refusing to find out what type of community is being created, the article misleads and misinforms. It seems too obvious to have to point out, but because programs like Tough Titsday go out of their way to promote women’s strength, the context renders the name inoffensive.

As a woman and a feminist, I begrudge Jezebel for carelessly demonizing something that gives myself, and many other women at our gym, strength and confidence. But frankly, I don’t really have time to get too bothered over half-baked writing like that in Jezebel, I’m too busy kicking ass on the platform and in the courtroom, and playing with my beautiful 4-month old daughter.