Sunday, May 15, 2011

Chautaquaed or It's just wrong.

I'm nearing the end of a piece for the International Year of Chemistry, thinking about why there have been so few women Nobel prize winners in chemistry. I have theories and am enjoying the chance to be a bit provocative.

One persistent theory (myth?) is that women really don't want to do science, a thread that I hear echoed in a current discussion on The Deacon's Bench (women don't want to be deacons). John Tierney espouses it here (and I respond here). George Will said it here. Women who do are (pick one or more)
  • rare birds
  • have an agenda
  • are bullied into it by someone else who has an agenda
  • aping men (seriously, someone once said that to me)

Given that in the environment of a women's college, women are many times more likely to major in math or science (6 times more likely to major in chemistry at Bryn Mawr than at a co-ed college), it's hard to argue that the dearth of majors is due to lack of general interest on the part of women in these subjects. (Though I suppose you could counter that it's not evidence that we aren't bullying students into majoring in science...) (And really, hardly anyone majors in science anyway, it's only 1% in the US.)

Anyway, I ran across this bit from an article published by Rudyard Kipling (p. 185) in 1890 about his visit to Chautaqua, which voiced similar sentiments:
"It has shown me a new side of American life," I responded. "I never want to see it again—and I'm awfully sorry for the girls who take it seriously. I suppose the bulk of them don't. They just have a good time. But it would be better"
"How?"
"If they all got married instead of pumping up interest in a bric-a-brac museum and advertised lectures, and having their names in the papers. One never gets to believe in the proper destiny of woman until one sees a thousand of 'em doing something different. I don't like Chautauqua. There's something wrong with it, and I haven't time to find out where. But it is wrong."

9 comments:

  1. At the end of my freshman year, I was told by my advisor that women don't major in Chemistry and I should find another major. 1977 - not so long ago really and attitudes really should have changed by then.

    This was like waving a red flag in front of a bull - nothing could have persuaded me to change at that point. I finished my B.S., worked as a Chemist for over a decade, and now teach HS Chemistry. I still love it - some days I think I should contact that so-called advisor.

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  2. Oh! I wrote a long comment and it vanished. Let's see . . .

    I can't wait to read your piece on women in the sciences.

    As a product of a Catholic girls' school (3 years), a Protestant girls' school (3 years) a women's college (2 years) and Chautauqua (many summers), I know that I am privileged, but hardly rare or in possession of an agenda or bullied or seeking to ape men -- unless one defines an agenda as seeking to respond to God's call in the fullest possible way.

    I have been following the discussions on women deacons and priests with great interest, though as a Protestant I have not commented in those forums. I am dumbfounded by the misogyny, by the characterization of women as some sort of alien creatures, and by the insistence that faithful Catholic women cannot/do not possibly experience a genuine call to the diaconate or priesthood. I can only presume that women who do recognize such calls refrain from articulating them to those who would respond with such ridicule and hostility.

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  3. I was thrilled that at my son's confirmation, the female pastoral associate at my church was allowed the same role as priests for most parts of the service. It was a higher role than that allowed for deacons who did not participate in assisting confirmation or communion.

    Still it was limited in that she was not a participant during the consecration. My church WILL change just not soon enough for my liking.

    My bishop is amazing and used to allow a wider role including preaching for women in our diocese but then the mean-spirited people got involved and he was rebuked. I am so sad that he will retire in a year and hoping that this liberal diocese will continue to be just that.

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  4. I am an accountant and in my year was one of two women trainees. We were abused by clients, collegues and partners in a number of ways. Thirty years ago complaining would get your fired and if you wanted the training you endured. I was told that I would not ever make partner because they beleived I could not raise children and work as hard as required. Bear in mind that I wasn't married at the time.

    Mercifully it is easier, or so I thought, for women today and last year there was even a woman Chairperson of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Zimbabwe.

    But at a recent meeting they still complained of a great deal of prejudice. Progress might have been made but women as leaders in my profession are still regarded as an oddity here.

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  7. Comment deleted to add:

    To quote chemist X (Kiplingesque) at the conference, "Well, lah di da for you!"

    I know of Chautaqua as a cultural series of events in the 1800s, but what did it/they have to do with women?

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  8. The original Chautauqua in NY is still going strong. It was originally founded in 1874 to offer continuing summer education to Sunday school teachers (many of them women) - Sunday school being one of the main places folks in that era might engage in adult education --in a beautiful environment on a lake and gradually expanded to include recreation, music, theater, visual arts and all kinds of education.

    My guess is that Mr. Kipling didn't quite know what to make of an entire summer community of learning in which women were active participants.

    http://www.ciweb.org/community/

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  9. Robin: thank you for the link and explanation; that's a fascinating community!

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