Women’s History Month: Marie Curie and Beyond

As Women’s History Month begins, I find myself wishing I’d planned a series of blog posts about amazing women in history (similar to my daily posts for horror movies in October); unfortunately, however, I only thought of this today and this month is looking to be a beast, so that won’t be happening. I’m going to try to post more than once this month, but I can make no promises!

387px-M.Curie_1925

I wanted to begin with Marie Curie. Really, this post is not about her specifically but is more about what she represents. My dissertation (No Longer Estranged: Women, Science, Science Fiction) explored the relationship between feminist science fiction and feminist science studies, and, as part of my research, I was interested in how people think of women in science and what female scientists people know about and think of immediately. The answer essentially boiled down to Marie Curie. A few people could list other female scientists (Jane Goodall sometimes comes up, for instance, or Rachel Carson), but for far too many people, their list of female scientists begins and ends with this one woman.

This has happened many times. Just recently, I was discussing gender in STEM with my Technical Communications students and they repeated this pattern yet again, failing at naming any other female scientist beyond Marie Curie.

Don’t get me wrong – Marie Curie is an amazing figure and I’m glad people know of her and that she gets the credit she does. I hope, however, that we can get past the one token woman in science model and learn to appreciate all the women in science (past and present).

In case I don’t get a chance to write about them later this month, here are a few personal favorites:

  • Rachel Carson
  • Jane Goodall
  • Mary Anning
  • Sylvia Earle
  • Ada Lovelace
  • Rosalind Franklin
  • Barbara McClintock
  • Ellen Swallow Richards
  • Lynn Margulis

For further reading, I’d highly recommend Rachel Ignotofsky’s Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World for readers of all ages as an introduction to women doing science across history and across a range of fields. Reading this book, I learned about women I’d never heard of before, and it has lovely illustrations to boot. And Julie Des Jardins’ The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science provides a more analytical approach to the topic, providing more depth (but fewer illustrations) than Ignotofsky’s book.

Shirley Jackson & Biography

I don’t often read biographies. I only have 12 books on my Goodreads shelf labelled “biography” that I’ve actually read, and a couple of those might be stretching the definition a bit (e.g., Kate Bolick’s Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, which includes biographical sketches as part of a more autobiographical project). Looking over the short list of biographies I’ve actually completed, it appears I’m primarily drawn to biographies of women, including the following: Rachel Carson, Judith Merril, George Eliot, James Tiptree, Jr. (aka Alice Sheldon), Rosa Luxemburg, Octavia E. Butler, and Shirley Jackson. The list also includes Rachel Ignotofsky’s Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World, which is a collection of short, illustrated biographical sketches of female scientists throughout history. There are only three books on the list that are about men (and here I want to mention Philippe Girard’s Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life, which I listened to on a long car ride and would highly recommend).

I’m not sure what it is that has me reading mostly biographies of women. It’s not a conscious choice to focus on women. Some of this focus certainly grows out of my scholarly interests; my dissertation was about feminist science fiction and feminist science, after all. Rachel Carson, Judith Merril, James Tiptree, Jr., and Octavia E. Butler are all relevant to that work. But my dissertation didn’t focus on any of these women and didn’t require biographical research anyway.

Certainly there’s also an element of admiration in my choices. All of these are biographies of women whose work I value: Rachel Carson’s scientific work as well as her writing about science; James Tiptree, Jr.’s brilliant and disturbing fiction, much of it reflecting on gender and sex; Judith Merril’s writing and editorial work and the way she helped shape science fiction as a genre; Octavia Butler’s revelations of power in her fiction (I especially love Dawn); Rosa Luxemburg’s fight for freedom and justice. And so on.

Another unfortunate pattern, however, seems to be that the biographies I have enjoyed most (is enjoyed the right word? perhaps not) are those of women who have led somewhat painful, constrained lives: Rachel Carson, James Tiptree, Jr., Octavia Butler, Shirley Jackson.

This pattern seems especially to be highlighted by Ruth Franklin’s recent biography of Shirley Jackson (Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, 2016), which I just finished reading. Franklin emphasizes Jackson’s always strained relationship with her mother, her feeling of never fitting in anyplace, the hurtful ways her husband (scholar Stanley Hyman) treated her, frequently lukewarm responses to her fiction with a couple of significant exceptions, the tension she felt between her life as wife and mother and her life as writer, her late-in-life agoraphobia and serious anxiety, and her early death. Despite some real success as a writer and what seem like largely positive relationships with her children, Jackson’s life is marked by pain, anxiety, and a sense of her lack of freedom.

Reading her fiction with this in mind is illuminating. For instance, her work frequently circles around the supernatural. She typically stops short of relying on the supernatural as an explanation, but it is always a possibility, and it was something she studied for years.

Witchcraft, whether she practiced it or simply studied it, was important to Jackson for what it symbolized: female strength and potency. The witchcraft chronicles she treasured–written by male historians, often men of the church, who sought to demonstrate that witches presented a serious threat to Christian morality–are stories of powerful women: women who defy social norms, women who get what they desire, women who can channel the power of the devil himself. (261)

Shirley Jackson didn’t identify herself as a feminist, but she certainly fits into a feminist tradition. And Franklin points out how her observations about her own life, as well as her fiction, presage Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Like many women of the time, Jackson felt she had little to no control over her own life, little to no say in what was possible. Witchcraft, even as a thought experiment, allowed a window out of that world of control.

Later, Franklin’s discussion of The Haunting of Hill House includes a significant, telling detail about Jackson’s sense of the book and, potentially, about her sense of herself. At one point, Franklin observes that, in her notes, Jackson referred to a particular line as the “key line” of the novel. This line comes after Eleanor has been clutching Theodora’s hand in fear as she hears a child crying for help in the next room. When the lights go on, however, Theodora is not in bed with her but in the bed across the room: “Good God,” Eleanor says, “whose hand was I holding?” This line always gives me chills but I hadn’t considered it as central to the book in the way Jackson apparently did.

Franklin’s interpretation builds upon Jackson’s biography:

The people we hold by the hand are our intimates–parents, children, spouses. To discover oneself clinging to an unidentifiable hand and to ask “Whose hand was I holding?” is to recognize that we can never truly know those with whom we believe ourselves most familiar. One can sleep beside another person for twenty years, as Shirley had with Stanley [Hyman] by this point, and still feel that person to be at times a stranger–and not the “beautiful stranger” of her early story. The hand on the other side of the bed may well seem to belong to a demon. (414)

This is an intriguing reading that I will have to consider when I re-read the novel. Whether I find it convincing as a reading of this line or not, however, it is a compelling take on Shirley’s mindset and the feelings about her marriage she struggled with for many years.

Franklin’s biography – as in these two examples – provides potentially useful ways of reading Shirley Jackson’s work through her biography. The next instance raises questions about the limits of such readings, however.

Late in her life, when she became (temporarily) unable to leave her house, she found herself also unable to write. Franklin writes, tying Jackson’s anxiety to her relationship with Stanley, “It was an issue of control, she thought. How could she wrest control of her life, her mind, back from Stanley? And if she could, would her writing change?” (477). Jackson wrote in her diary at this time, “insecure, uncontrolled, i wrote of neuroses and fear and i think all my books laid end to end would be one long documentation of anxiety.” Her books do all seem to wrestle with anxiety and fear, and this is the source of much of their power. Would she write such books if she were a happier woman? If the world made room for her to be who she needed to be? Likely not. But what other books might she have written instead? Her books gather force from her anxiety and fear, but to leave it there is to discount her talent and skill as a writer. I suspect that a less unhappy version of Shirley Jackson could still have been a brilliant writer, but she might have spoken to different concerns. Or perhaps she would still have reflected these fears, for they are not unique to her or to her situation as a woman in an unhappy marriage in the mid-20th century.

Some of Jackson’s commentary on her own writing from earlier in her life indicates the broader reach of her ideas:

In a publicity memo written for Farrar, Straus around the time The Road Through the Wall appeared–only a month before “The Lottery” was written, if the March date on the draft is accurate–Jackson mentioned her enduring fondness for eighteenth-century English novels because of their “preservation of and insistence on a pattern superimposed precariously on the chaos of human development.” She continued: “I think it is the combination of these two that forms the background of everything I write–the sense which I feel, of a human and not very rational order struggling inadequately to keep in check forces of great destruction, which may be the devil and may be intellectual enlightenment.” In all her writing, the recurrent theme was “an insistence on the uncontrolled, unobserved wickedness of human behavior.” (224)

I take this as a reminder that although her personal demons may have shaped her writing, these feelings and themes are not unique to her or to people with similar problems. In fact, this quote seems to sum up horror fiction in a nutshell: rationality attempts (and fails) to control that which is beyond rational, humanity attempts (and fails) to control itself or its “wickedness.”

ASLE 2017 Roundtable

Today, my usual co-conspirator (Bridgitte Barclay of Aurora University) and I got our acceptance for ASLE, the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment. The conference will be held in Detroit this June and centers on the theme of Rust/Resistance. I am so excited to be going again! ASLE is my scholarly home, where I find the most interesting connections, meet the coolest people, and come away the most excited about new possibilities for scholarship and teaching.

Our roundtable is called “Resistant Discourses and Strategies of Recovery: Exploring Gender and Environment in Science Fiction.” Aside from Bridgitte and myself, it will feature Carter Soles (The College at Brockport, SUNY), Michelle Yates (Columbia College), Stina Attebery (University of California, Riverside), and Tyler Harper (New York University). It will include papers on sf texts ranging from the 1950s to the last year or two, including 1950s creature features (like The Wasp Woman), Soylent Green, WALL-E, the Mad Max franchise, Upstream Color, WALL-E, Her, Ex Machina, and – our lone novel – Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312.

Our paper titles given an even better sense of the roundtable’s specific topics and theoretical concerns:

  1. “Remixing Reproduction: Queer Intimacy and the Ecology of Sound in Upstream Color” – Stina Attebery
  2. “Saving Eden: Masculinity, Civilization, and Environmental Nostalgia in Soylent Green and WALL-E” – Michelle Yates
  3. “Mad Max: Beyond Petroleum?” – Carter Soles
  4. “‘Either you’re mine or you’re not mine’: Controlling Gender, Nature, and Technology in Her and Ex Machina” – me (Christy Tidwell)
  5. “(En)gendering Nature in Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312” – Tyler Harper
  6. “Camp Resistance: Animal Avatars and Gender Exaggeration in 1950s Creature Features” – Bridgitte Barclay

I’m a particular fan of Carter’s paper title. I agonized over my own, on the other hand, and still don’t love it. Someday I’ll develop a knack for title-writing, I hope.

This should be a fun and productive conversation about gender, environment, and resistance across a range of sf texts. Any readers who may be at ASLE this year should come see us!

On Teaching While Pregnant

Last week was the first of the new semester, and I was 39 weeks pregnant. These two things do not fit comfortably together.

I’m not interested, in this post, in complaining about my situation; there are far harder jobs to have while pregnant than English professor, and I have been lucky to get to spend most of the huge and uncomfortable part of my pregnancy resting during the summer. Instead, I want to reflect on the experience of teaching while pregnant – and the conversation (or, really, the lack of conversation) about this experience. Women teach while pregnant all the time, but I still went into this having heard little of others’ experiences and having little idea hor it might feel or what particular issues might arise.

Some of this silence is, I suspect, a reaction to fears that if we (as pregnant women) talk about what it feels like to be pregnant and teaching, it will encourage others to see us primarily as our pregnant bodies. They may find us wanting or think of us as weakened by our pregnancies. We may miss out on important career opportunities or be sidelined – not maliciously, and perhaps out of intended kindness, but this is still something I feel pretty sure pregnant academics want to avoid.

And then there’s the question of how – or whether – to address it with students. This semester, my pregnancy is obvious, and I cannot hide it from students. On the contrary, it is one of the first things I have had to talk about with them, since I’ll be on leave for part of the semester and since my belly is very present in class. Last semester, however, I found out I was pregnant before the spring semester began and of course talked to my department head and some of my colleagues early on, but I never mentioned it to my students. Not once, all semester. I strongly suspect that although some of my students would have been interested and sympathetic, others would have instead pinned any weakness I showed on my pregnancy (as opposed to the weaknesses that come with basic humanity) and wondered why I was teaching while pregnant at all. They may have used my pregnancy to explain away my reactions to the topics we discussed in class and dismiss them instead of taking me seriously.

Of course, there were definitely days when I wished I could take advantage of all of the assumptions about pregnant women and say, “Hey, guys, I feel extra tired and sick, so we’re all just going to sit quietly for a bit now.” Or days when I wanted to say, “Even though I feel like vomiting, I’m teaching up a storm here. I’d like some credit.” But neither of those approaches really leads anywhere productive for the class. Best, I figured, to just pretend everything’s normal.

Having said that, pretending everything is normal ignores the fact that it is not normal. Pregnancy is a normal human experience, of course, but it is not representative of the vast majority of my life. It is unusual and demands physical and emotional energy that my non-pregnant life does not, and this change affects what I am capable of doing in class. I didn’t call in sick any more than usual; I showed up and did my job – teaching classes, meeting with students, etc. But I did so at a much lower energy level than usual. And I believe this affected my students’ response to me and to the class they were in. I noted a drop in my evaluation numbers (yeah, I know, such numbers are flawed (at the very least), but I have to look at them) in the spring semester, and I firmly believe that part of that drop can be explained by my pregnancy. One thing I usually have going for me in my teaching is that I am excited about the topics we discuss and clearly invested in what we are doing. Students comment on this regularly. During a semester when simply standing up for the entire class period was sometimes too much, I obviously wasn’t able to be so energetic. I still cared, but I couldn’t show it in the same way, and even without the ability to compare my performance across semesters, I think my students felt the drop in energy. They simply saw it as my normal, however, and judged me accordingly. Perhaps an acknowledgement of my circumstances could have changed that. Or perhaps not. I am still not sure what the best way to address this might have been.

I wonder how other pregnant professors have dealt with this. I have definitely heard stories of students negatively judging women for teaching while pregnant, but are there stories that show the opposite? I actually wouldn’t be surprised if those more positive stories are few and far between, given the judgment I’ve seen leveled at female professors and their female bodies for far less significant issues (dressing in ways the students disapprove of or dislike, dying or cutting their hair, being fat or short or whatever).  How do other pregnant professors balance the demands of teaching and growing a human being? What about balancing the desire to be seen as normal with the desire to recognize the specifics of the experience? And can this be done without pathologizing pregnancy? Can we be normal and pregnant at work at the same time? The answer to this should clearly be yes, but I’m not sure most departments or universities are at that point in practice.

I don’t have any answers to any of this. But I do think it’s something that should be discussed more broadly and acknowledged as an issue. Not just by people experiencing it or by people who do research on these topics, but by academics (and administrators) in general. After all, if universities want to hire human beings – many of whom, as it turns out, have or want to have families – and if they want those human beings to put down roots and stay a while, they need to be prepared for this eventuality, and, furthermore, the institutional and disciplinary culture regarding pregnant professors should go beyond tolerance (abiding by the law, etc.) to become welcoming.

Gender + Environment in Science Fiction (revised CFP with extended deadline)

Building on our previously posted CFP, we are inviting contributions focusing not only on non-print SF media and expanding our project to include any form of science fiction. We believe this will lead to a stronger and more inclusive examination of gender and environment within the genre.

CFP: Gender & Environment in Science Fiction (edited collection)

There are many important studies of gender in science fiction and a growing number of studies of environmental science fiction, but more work is needed to bring these fields together. We wish to fill this gap and invite contributions exploring the intersections of gender and environment in science fiction.

The central question of this project is as follows: How do gender and environment intersect and/or influence each other in or across science fiction texts and media? Projects might also address the following questions: How do varying media forms influence representations of gender and environment in science fiction? How might examining gender and environment together influence ideas about or definitions of science fiction as a genre? How do the language and/or imagery of science fiction contribute to our conceptions of gender and environment?

We have previously solicited essays focusing primarily on non-print science fiction, but we are now interested in expanding the project’s scope to include print science fiction as well. At this point, therefore, we invite abstracts addressing the intersections of gender and environment in any science fiction text or media.

Please submit abstracts of no more than 300 words and a brief CV to Christy Tidwell (christy.tidwell@gmail.com) and/or Bridgitte Barclay (bbarclay@aurora.edu) by October 1, 2016. We have been strongly encouraged by the editor of the Ecocritical Theory and Practice series, published by Rowman & Littlefield’s imprint Lexington Books, to submit a proposal. For those asked to contribute, we anticipate completed essays of approximately 15-18 pages will be due by April 1, 2017.

CFP: Gender in Science Fiction Ecomedia

Bridgitte Barclay and I are currently working on a book proposal exploring gender in science fiction ecomedia. The following is the call for papers for the project. We hope to receive lots of exciting proposals! Please pass this along to anyone you know who might be interested.

CFP: Gender in Science Fiction Ecomedia

There are many important studies of gender in science fiction and a growing number of studies of environmental science fiction, but these fields rarely come together and are even more rarely specifically applied to science fiction film, television, and other media. We wish to fill this gap and invite contributions exploring gender in science fiction ecomedia. Projects might address the following questions:

  • How do gender and environment intersect and/or influence each other in or across science fiction media?
  • How do varying media forms influence representations of gender and environment in science fiction? Does television, for instance, provide different opportunities than film? Or video games than either of those? Etc.
  • How might examining gender and environment together in non-print media influence ideas about or definitions of science fiction as a genre?

We are open to projects on any non-print science fiction, but we particularly wish to encourage projects exploring new media and forms outside of traditional film and television.

Please submit abstracts of no more than 300 words and a brief CV by August 1, 2016, to Christy Tidwell (christy.tidwell@gmail.com) and/or Bridgitte Barclay (bbarclay@aurora.edu). We have been strongly encouraged by the editor of the Ecocritical Theory and Practice series, published by Rowman & Littlefield’s imprint Lexington Books, to submit a proposal. For those asked to contribute, we anticipate completed essays of approximately 15-18 pages will be due by March 1, 2017.