can a little girl like you teach a big class of men?
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
male graduate students, as if by prearranged signal, then leaned
back in their chairs, puffed on their newly bought pipes, nodded,
and assented: "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."
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.
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.
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
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."
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."
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
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
"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).
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.