Thursday, 17 October 2013

Women's history 101

People often ask, why are there so few famous women writers, artists, scientists, and intellectuals?

They seem to be forgetting that, in previous centuries, it was rare for women to be educated. Women also often died younger due to infections contracted in childbirth.

Women were not allowed to attend university until the 1870s, and even then they were not allowed to graduate.
At the beginning of the 20th century it was very difficult for women to obtain a university education. In 1870 Emily Davies and Barbara Bodichon helped to set up Girton College, the first university college for women, but it was not recognised by the university authorities. In 1880 Newnham College was established at Cambridge University. By 1910 there were just over a thousand women students at Oxford and Cambridge. However, they had to obtain permission to attend lectures and were not allowed to take degrees. 
Without a university degree it was very difficult for women to enter the professions. After a long struggle the medical profession had allowed women to become doctors. Even so, by 1900 there were only 200 women doctors. It was not until 1910 that women were allowed to become accountants and bankers. However, there were still no women diplomats, barristers or judges. (John Simkin)
The first social groups to routinely educate their daughters were the Unitarians and the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), starting in the 1840s.

When women did succeed in producing literature or scientific research, quite often someone else got the credit for it, or their contribution or achievement was minimised. Even now, there are people who dispute that Ada Lovelace wrote programs for Babbage's calculating engine, and want to impute authorship of the Brontë sisters novels' to their brother Branwell. The scientific achievements of Lise Meitner, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Hedy Lamarr, Dorothy Hodgkin, Rosalind Franklin, Katherine Jones, Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, Caroline Herschel, and many others, are forgotten or sidelined. I did not learn about any of these women at school - I found out about them by researching on the internet, and reading blogposts from the Finding Ada project.

Many nineteenth-century female scientists and mathematicians were told that their scientific and mathematical activities were bad for their womb. Many were prevented from attending university, or not allowed to graduate, or made to work in a separate laboratory from the men.

The work of female writers, poets, artists, composers, and playwrights suffered a similar fate. Artemisia Gentileschi's paintings were attributed to her father. The Nobel Prize for Jocelyn Bell Burnell's discovery of pulsars went to her male PhD supervisor. The work of the women Pre-Raphaelite and Impressionist artists is largely forgotten.

A similar fate happens to Black & minority ethnic (BME) and LGBT scientists, authors, and heroes. And if you are a woman and BME and LGBT, then you are doubly or triply doomed to be sidelined. Just look at the marginalisation of Mary Seacole, Edward Carpenter, Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, and many another BME and/or LGBT person.

Even today, women's novels are marketed as less serious than novels by men. They also receive less reviews in serious journals.  The novels of white male authors are taught on English literature courses; the novels of female authors are taught on courses of women's studies or women's literature. Maureen Johnson writes:
For much of history, women read the works of men. Every once in a while we see a woman cracking through, maybe changing her name, maybe hiding her work, or maybe breaking through the strength of her genius or good luck or both. Then we see a huge break in the early 20th century, a flux of brilliant women. Women start to climb into the bestseller charts, but not so much into the reading lists.
There is no doubt that women (despite massive disadvantages) have achieved great things in every field of artistic, literary, and scientific endeavour, but all too often, they are forgotten, sidelined, their achievements dismissed or diminished, their work not taught in schools or universities. The corpus of literature that is considered "the canon" is overwhelmingly by white men (usually dead white men, usually heterosexual). No-one is saying that these authors should no longer be taught; just that "the canon" should include women, BME people, and LGBT people.

Inspirational women

All my Finding Ada blogposts in one place:

Katherine Jones, Viscountess Ranelagh, sister of Robert Boyle. She conducted chemistry experiments.

Wendy Hall, computer scientist

Anita Borg, computer scientist

Caroline Arms, metadata pioneer

Hedy Lamarr, inventor

Lisa Barone, SEO expert

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (May 10, 1900 – December 7, 1979) was an English-American astronomer who in 1925 was first to show that the Sun is mainly composed of hydrogen, contradicting accepted wisdom at the time.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Her name was Reeva Steenkamp

The other day, I attended a talk on feminism, and one of the women on the panel described how South Africa was gearing up for a major campaign on rape and violence against women, when (and I quote) "a fluffy two-dimensional model got murdered and it was all over the news" (thus knocking the campaign out of the headlines).

Her name was Reeva Steenkamp. She was a lawyer as well as a model. She was a feminist. She had tweeted support for the anti-rape and anti-violence campaign. It was not her fault that she was killed. It's not her fault that the media were more interested in her good looks and her modelling career than in the fact that she was a lawyer and a feminist.

As feminists, we should look behind the headlines and the media hype to see what is really going on, and not mistake the sexist and patriarchal nonsense peddled by the tabloids for anything resembling reality. And we should not refer to other women with the sort of insults that patriarchy dishes out.

I would have challenged the woman on the panel who said this, were it not for the fact that a woman in the audience had said something even more outrageous, which I also felt the need to challenge.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

What about teh menz?

"But what about racism against white people?" is a tactic used by racists to minimize and deny racism against people of colour.

"But what about violence against men?" is a tactic used by misogynists to minimize and deny violence against women. In 2009, 9000 men and 69000 women were raped - and that's just the reported rapes. Often the rape of a man by another man is designed to 'relegate' him to female status.

And "but what about the whole cause of the Left?" and "it's mean to call me cisgender" are tactics used to minimize and deny transphobia.

We need to examine the specific causes and instances of oppression in order to dismantle the systematic abuses of the kyriarchy.

Oppression and prejudice are perpetrated by people with privilege and power against people without them, because they want to hold on to their power and privilege and think that it is a finite resource. Power structures are maintained in such a way as to exclude the marginalised from power. If you don't think, dress, and act like a neurotypical white heterosexual man, you are more in danger of being killed, raped, beaten up, underpaid, unemployed, and disenfranchised. Look at this post outlining how people of colour are erased from violent crime statistics towards other marginalised groups. It shows that the more minority groups you belong to, the more in danger you are (especially if you are a person of colour).