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Naomi WeissteinHow can a little girl like you teach a big class of men? by Naomi Weisstein

"How can a little girl like you teach a big class of men?"--the Chairman Said and other Adventures of a Woman in Science.

(Editors Note: Naomi Weisstein was a brilliant research scientist when she wrote this essay in 1977. In it she tells an incredible story of sexism in science and the monumental arrogance of its male establishment. Naomi is now battling Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, but is still an active feminist and does her best to keep up to date in her scientific field of psychology. Naomi is a former member of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union).

I am an experimental psychologist. I do research in vision. The profession has for a long time considered this activity, on the part of one of my sex. to be an outrageous violation of the social order and against all the laws of nature. Yet at the time I entered graduate school in the early sixties, I was unaware of this. I was remarkably naive. Stupid, you might say. Anybody can be president, no? So, anybody can be a scientist. Weisstein in Wonderland. I had to discover that what I wanted to do constituted unseemly social deviance. It was a discovery I was not prepared for: Weisstein is dragged, kicking and screaming, out of Wonderland and into Plunderland. Or Blunderland, at the very least.

What made me want to become a scientist in the first place? The trouble may have started with Microbe Hunters, de Kruif's book about the early bacteriologists. I remember reading about Leeuwenhoek's discovery of organisms too small to be seen with the naked eye. When he told the Royal Society about this, most of them thought he was crazy. He told them he wasn't. The "wretched beasties" were there, he insisted; one could see them unmistakably through the lenses he had so carefully made. It was very important to me that he could reply that he had his evidence: evidence became a hero of mine.
It may have been then that I decided that I was going to become a scientist. too. I was going to explore the world and discover its wonders. I was going to understand the brain in a better and more complete way than it had been understood before. If anyone questioned me, I would have my evidence. Evidence and reason: my heroes and my guides. I might add that my sense of ecstatic exploration when reading Microbe Hunters has never left me through all the years I have struggled to be a scientist.

As I mentioned, I was not prepared for the discovery that women were not welcome in science, primarily because nobody had told me. In fact, I was supported in thinking---even encouraged to think--that my aspirations were perfectly legitimate. I graduated from the Bronx High School of Science in New York City where gender did not enter very much into intellectual pursuits; the place was a nightmare for everybody. We were all, boys and girls alike, equal contestants; all of -us were competing for that thousandth of a percentage point in our grade average that would allow entry into one of those high-class out-of- town schools, where we could go, get smart, and lose our NY accents. I ended up at Wellesley, and this further retarded my discovery that women were supposed to be stupid and incompetent: the women faculty at Wellesley were brilliant. (I learned later on that they were at Wellesley because the schools that had graduated them- the "very best" schools where you were taught to do the very best research couldn't or didn't care to, place them in similar schools, where they could continue their research.) So they are our brilliant unknowns, unable to do research because they labor under enormous teaching loads, unable to obtain the minimal support necessary for scholarship - graduate students, facilities, communication with colleagues. Whereas I was ignorant then about the lot of women in the academy, others at Wellesley knew what it was like. Deans from an earlier, more conscious feminist era would tell me that I was lucky to be at a women's college where I could discover what I was good at and do it. They told me that women in a man's world were in for a rough time. They told me to watch out when I went on to graduate school. They said that men would not like my competing with them. I did not listen to the deans, however; or, when I did listen, I thought what they were telling me might have been true in the nineteenth century, but not then, in the late fifties.

So my discovery that women were not welcome in psychology began when I got to Harvard, on the first day of class. That day, the entering graduate students had been invited to lunch with one of the star professors in the department. After lunch, he leaned back in his chair, lit his pipe, began to puff, and announced: "Women don't belong in graduate school."

The male graduate students, as if by prearranged signal, then leaned back in their chairs, puffed on their newly bought pipes, nodded, and assented: "Yeah."

"Yeah," said the male graduate students. "No man is going to want you. No man wants a woman who is more intelligent than he is. Of course, that's not a real possibility, but just in case. You are out of your natural roles, you are no longer feminine."

My mouth dropped open, and my big blue eyes (they have since changed back to brown) went wide as saucers. An initiation ceremony, I thought. Very funny. Tomorrow, for sure, the male graduate students will get it.

But the male graduate students never were told that they didn't belong. They rapidly became trusted junior partners in the great research firms at Harvard. They were carefully nurtured, groomed, and run. Before long, they would take up the white man's burden and expand the empire. But for me and for the other women in my clan, it was different. We were shut out of these plans; we were shown we didn't belong. For instance, even though I was first in my class, when I wanted to do my dissertation research, I couldn't get access to the necessary equipment. The excuse was that I might break the equipment. This was certainly true. The equipment was eminently breakable. The male graduate students working with it broke it every week; I didn't expect to be any different.

I was determined to collect my data. I had to see how the experiment I proposed would turn out. If Harvard wouldn't let me use its equipment, maybe Yale would. I moved to New Haven, collected my data at Yale, returned to Harvard, and was awarded my Ph.D. in 1964, and afterward could not get an academic job. I had graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Wellesley, had obtained my Ph.D. in psychology at - Harvard in two and one half years, ranked first in my graduate class, and I couldn't get a job. Yet most universities were expanding in 1964, and jobs were everywhere. But at the places where I was being considered for jobs they were asking me questions like

"How can a little girl like you teach a great big class of men?" At that time, still unaware of how serious the situation was, I replied, "Beats me. I guess I must have a talent."


"Who did your research for you?" This last was from a famous faculty liberal at another school, who then put what I assume was a fatherly hand on my knee and said in a tone of deep concern, "You ought to get married."

Meanwhile, I was hanging on by means of a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellowship in mathematical biology, at the University of Chicago, and attempting to do some research. Prior to my second postdoctoral year, the University of Chicago began negotiations with me for something like a real job: an instructorship jointly in the undergraduate college and the psychology department. The negotiations appeared to be proceeding in good faith, so I wrote to Washington and informed them that I would not be taking my second postdoctoral year. Then, ten days before classes began, when that option as well as any others I might have taken had been closed the person responsible for the negotiations called to tell me that because of a nepotism rule my husband taught history at the University of Chicago- I would not be hired as a regular faculty member. If I wanted to, I could be appointed lecturer, teaching general education courses in the college; there was no possibility of an appointment in psychology. The lectureship paid very little for a lot of work, and I would be teaching material unconnected with my research. Furthermore, a university rule stipulated that lecturers (because their position in the university was so insecure) could not apply for research grants. He concluded by asking me whether I was willing to take the job; two days before the beginning of classes, he asked me whether I was willing to take the only option still available to me.

I took the job, and -sat in,- so to speak, in the office of another dean until he waived the restriction on applying for research grants Acknowledging my presence he told a colleague: "This is Naomi Weisstein. She hates men."

I had simply been telling him that women are considered unproductive precisely because universities do their best to keep women unproductive through such procedures as the selective application of the nepotism rule. I had also asked this dean whether I could read the provisions of the rule. He replied that the nepotism rule was informal not a written statute, flexibility being necessary in its application. Later, a nepotism committee set up partly in response to my protest agreed that the rule should stay precisely as it was: that it was a good idea, should not be written out, and should be applied selectively.

Lecturers at major universities are generally women. They are generally married to men who teach at the major universities. And they generally labor and conditions which seem almost designed to show them that they don't belong. In many places, they are not granted faculty library privileges; in my case, I had to get a note from the secretary each time I wanted to take a book out for an extended period. Lecturers' classrooms are continually changed; at least once a month I would go to my assigned classroom only to find a note pinned to the door instructing me and my class to go elsewhere- down the hall, across the campus, out to Gary, Indiana.

In the winter of my first year, notices were distributed to all time, to the courses I was teaching, announcing a meeting to discuss the next years syllabus I didn't receive the notice. As I was to learn shortly this is the customary way a profession that prides itself an its civility and genteel traditions indicates to lecturers and other "nuisance personnel" that they're fired: they simply don't inform them about what's going on. I inquired further. Yes, my research and teaching had been "evaluated" (after five months: surely enough time), and they had decided to "Let me go" (a brilliant euphemism). Of course, the decision had nothing to do with my questioning the nepotism rules and explaining to deans why women are thought unproductive.

I convinced them to "let me stay" another year. I don't know to this day why they changed their minds. Perhaps they changed their minds because it looked like I was going to receive the research grant for which I had applied, bringing in money not only for me, but for the university as well. A little while later, Loyola University in Chicago offered me a job.

So I left the University of Chicago. I was awarded the research grant and found the Psychology Department at Loyola at first very supportive. The chairman, Ron Walker, was especially helpful and especially enlightened about women at a time when few academic men were. I was on my way, right? Not exactly. There is a big difference between a place like Loyola and a place with a heavy commitment to research--any large state university, for example-a difference that no amount of good will on the part of an individual chairman could cancel out. The Psychology Department was one of the few active departments at Loyola. The other kinds of support one needs to do experimental psychology-machine and electrical shops, physics and electrical engineering departments, technicians, a large computer-were either not available or were available at that time only in primitive form.

When you are a woman at an "unknown" place, you are considered out of the running. It was hard for me to keep my career from "shriveling like a raisin" (as an erstwhile colleague predicted it would). I was completely isolated. I did not have access to the normal channels of communication, debate, and exchange in the profession--those informal networks where you get the news, the comment and the criticism, the latest reports of what is going on. I sent my manuscripts to various people for comment and criticism before sending them off to journals; few replied. I asked others working in my field to send me their prepublication drafts; even fewer responded. Nobody outside Loyola informed me about special meetings in my area of psychology, and few inside Loyola knew about them. Given the snobbery rife in academic circles (which has eased lately since jobs are much harder to find and thus even "outstanding" young male graduates from the "best" schools may now be found at places formerly beneath their condescension), my being at Loyola almost automatically disqualified me from the serious attention of professional colleagues.

The "inner reaches" of the profession, from which I had been exiled, are not just metaphorical and intangible. For instance, I am aware of two secret societies of experimental psychologists in which fifty or so of the "really excellent" young scientists get together regularly to make themselves better scientists. The ostensible purpose of these societies is to allow these "best and brightest" young psychologists to get together to discuss and criticize each other's work; they also function, of course, to define who is excellent and who is not, and to help those defined a excellent to remain so, by providing them with information to which "outsiders" in the profession will not have access until much later (if at all).

But the intangibles are there as well. Women are treated in ways men hardly ever experience. Let me give you one stunning example. I wrote up an experiment I thought was really good and its results, which were fascinating, and sent the paper to a journal editor whose interests I knew to be close to what was reported in my paper. The editor replied that there were some control conditions that should be run, and some methodological loose ends, so they couldn't publish the paper. Fair enough. He went on to say that they had much better equipment over there, and they would like to test my ideas themselves. Would I mind? I wrote them back, told them I thought it was a bit unusual and asked if they were suggesting a collaboration, and concluded by saying that I would be most happy to visit with them and collaborate on my experiment. The editor replied with a nasty letter explaining to me that by suggesting that they test my ideas themselves, they had merely been trying to help me. If I didn't want their help in this way, they certainly didn't want mine, that is, they had no intention of suggesting a collaboration.

In other words, what they meant by "did I mind" was: Did I mind if they took my idea and did the experiment themselves? As we know, instances of taking someone else's idea and pretending it's your own are not at all uncommon in science. The striking thing about this exchange, however, was that the editor was arrogant enough, and assumed that I would be submissive enough, so that he could openly ask me whether I would agree to this arrangement. Would I mind? No, of course not. Women are joyful altruists. We are happy to give of ourselves. After all. how many good ideas do you get in your lifetime? One? Two? Why not give them away?

Generally, the justification for treating women in such disgraceful ways is simply that they are women. Let me give another spectacular example. I was promised the use of a small digital laboratory computer, which was to be purchased on a grant. The funds from the grant would become available if a certain job position entailing administration of this grant could be filled. I was part of the group which considered the candidates and which recommended appointing a particular individual. During the discussions of future directions of this individual's work, it was agreed that he would of course share the computer with me. He was hired, bought the computer, and refused me access to it. I offered to put in money for peripherals which would make the system faster and easier for both of us to work with, but this didn't sway him. As justification for his conduct, the man confessed to the chairman that he simply couldn't share the computer with me: he has difficulty working with women. To back this up, he indicated that he'd been "burned twice." Although the chairman had previously been very helpful and not bothered in the least about women, he accepted that statement as an explanation. Difficulty in working with women was not a problem this man should work out. It was my problem. Colleagues thought no worse of him for this problem; it might even have raised him in their estimation. He obtained tenure quickly, and retains an influential voice in the department. Yet if a woman comes to any chairman of any department and confesses that she has difficulty working with men, she is thought pathological.

What this meant for me at the time was that my research was in jeopardy. There were experimental conditions I needed to run that simply could not be done without a computer. So there I was, doing research with stone-age equipment, trying to get by with wonderwoman reflexes and a flashlight, while a few floors below, my colleague was happily operating "his" computer. It's as if we women are in a totally rigged race. A lot of men are driving souped-up, low-slung racing cars, and we're running as fast as we can in tennis shoes we managed to salvage from a local garage sale.

Perhaps the most painful of the appalling working conditions for women in science is the peculiar kind of social-sexual assault women sustain. Let me illustrate with a letter to Chemical and Engineering News from a research chemist named McGauley:

There am differences between men and women ... just one of these differences is a decided gap in leadership potential and ability ... this is no reflection upon intelligence, experience, or sincerity. Evolution made it that way.... Then consider the problems that can arise if the potential employee, Dr. Y (a woman) [sic: he could at least get his chromosomes straight] will be expected to take an occasional business trip with Dr. X.... Could it be that the guys in shipping and receiving will not take too kindly to the lone Miss Y?

Now what is being said here, very simply, and to paraphrase the Bible, is that women are trouble. And by trouble, McGauley means sexual trouble. Moreover, somehow, someway, it is our fault. We are provoking the guys in shipping and receiving. Women are universally assigned by men first--no matter who the women are or what they have in mind--to sexual categories. Then, we are accused by men of taking their mind away from work. When feminists say that women are treated as sex objects, we are compressing into a single, perhaps rhetorical phrase, an enormous area of discomfort, pain, harassment and humiliation.

This harassment is especially clear at conventions. Scientific meetings conferences, and conventions are harassing and humiliating for women because women, by and large, cannot have male colleagues. Conversations, social relations, invitations to lunch, and the like am generally viewed as sexual, not professional, encounters if a woman participates in them. It does not cross many men's minds that a woman's motivation may be entirely professional.

I have been at too many professional meetings where the "joke" slide was a woman's body, dressed or undressed. A woman in a bikini is a favorite with past and perhaps present presidents of psychological associations. Hake showed such a slide in his presidential address to the Midwestern Psychological Association, and Harlow, past president of the America Psychological Association, has a whole set of such slides, which he shows at the various colloquia to which he is invited. This business of making jokes at women's bodies constitutes a social-sexual assault. The ensuing raucous laughter expresses the shared ending of what is assumed to be women's primary function to which we can always be reduced. Showing pictures of nude and sexy women insults us: it puts us in our place. You may think you are a scientist, it is saying, but what you really are is an object for our pleasure and amusement. Don't forget it.

I could recounting the horrors, as could almost any woman who is in or who has ever been in science, but I want to stop now and ask: what conclusions can we draw from my experience? What does it all add up to?

Perhaps we should conclude that persistence will finally win out. Or that life is hard, but cheerful struggle and a "sense of humor" may make it bearable. Or perhaps we should search back through my family and find my domineering mother and passive father or my domineering father and passive mother, to explain my persistence all these conclusions are beside the point. The point is that none of us should have to face this kind of offense. The point is that we must change this man's world and this man's science.

How will other women do better? One of the dangers of this kind of narrative is that it may validate the punishment as it singles out the few survivors. The lesson appears to be that those (and only those) with extraordinary strength will survive. This is not the way I see it. Many have had extraordinary strength and have not survived.

Much of the explanation for my professional survival has to do with the emergence and growth of the women's movement. I am an experimental psychologist, a scientist. I am also a feminist. I am a feminist because I have seen my life and the lives of women I know harassed, dismissed, damaged, destroyed. I am a feminist because without others I can do little to stop the outrage. Without a political and social movement of which I am a part-without feminism-my and persistence, my clever retorts, my hours of patient explanation. my years of exhortation amount to little. If the scientific world has changed since I entered it. It is not because I managed to become an established psychologist within it. Rather, it is because a women's movement came along to change its character. It is me that as a member of that movement, I have acted to change the character of the scientific world. But without the movement, none of my actions would have brought about change. And now, as the strength of the women's movement ebbs, the old horrors are returning. This must not happen.

Science, knowledge, the search for fundamental understanding is part of our humanity. It is an endeavor that seems to give us some glimpse of what we might be and what we might do in a better world. To deny us the right to do science is to deny us our humanity. We shall not have our humanity denied.

Woman symbol

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