Despite the Odds

by M. Ainley,
ISBN: 0919890962

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Forgotten Genius
by Heather Menzies

THE WORLD OF "women in science" is one viewed through a prism, with different landscapes visible or not depending on the eye of the beholder. Most often, the eye follows the mainstream (also called malestream) frames of reference to find women who`ve made a contribution to science and technology in the recognizable terms of professional work and achievement -- at university, in government or industry labs. Yet there are also the women who`ve worked outside these categories, often on their own chosen terms and not necessarily as excluded outsiders. There is a whole history, ranging from native women herbalists such as Molly Brandt to innovative farm-woman cheesemakers like Lydia Chase Ranney to more contemporary social-activist women. Through the science they have done, the technology they have created, and the methods they have used, these women suggest a broader, more diverse understanding of what science and technology is and can be. It`s not surprising that this, the first book to address the women in science question in Canada, adopts the mainstream liberal approach of recognizing forgotten women in formal career areas of science. As the title suggests, its major theme is that women have made it into male bastions of science "despite the odds." Unfortunately, this leaves unchallenged the construction of the issue in such male-centred terms, as well as the related assumption that science is something outside women to which they adjust themselves if they wish to participate. On its own terms, it does make a com mendable contribution to both the histo ry of science in Canada and the history of women. It shocks us with the wealth of forgotten genius: consider Harriet Brooks, who worked with Marie and Pierre Curie in Paris, discovered the recoil of the radioactive isotope, and made other sig nificant observations about radioactivity while working as a student for Ernest Rutherford at McGill University at the turn of the last century. The intervention of powerful men as mentors -- Donald Smith and Sir William Van Horne in the case of the McGill botanist Carrie Derick -- is part of the pattern in many of the often welldrawn personal histories presented. The most significant of the recurring themes is the faceless institutional hand of sexism. In instance after instance, a woman (albeit an "exceptional" woman with goldmedal marks) was championed by male colleagues and friends but denied recognition by anonymous institutional gatekeepers: boards of governors, etc. There is some insightful writing, specifically by Margaret Gillett, M. F. and G. W. Rayner-Canham, Susan Hoecker-Drysdale, Karen Messing, and Gillian Kranias. Many chapters, however, are weak and even naive. Too often, contributors don`t understand the difference between women as individuals and women as a social group. Or they focus on the external rather than the internal barriers to participation associated with a competitive, hierarchical, often class-ridden, and sometimes racist culture. The most off-putting weakness is the tendency to read the lives of these women from the point of view of scientific careers rather than from the perspective of the women themselves. This not only underplays the felt experience of these brave, often lonely women; it also comes dangerously close to perpetuating the same sexist denigration of women scientists that the book was launched to rectify. In her chapter on women natural scientists, Marianne Gosztonyi Ainley mentions native women in passing: "As these women were familiar with local plants and animals, it is quite likely that some of them were instrumental in providing much-sought-after specimens." She doesn`t consider these women to be natural scientists on their own terms but goes on to state that "the earliest naturalists in Canada were men" -- European men. Yet evidence from outside the annals of science speaks of the Mohawk woman Molly Brandt preparing a herbal potion for Elizabeth Simcoe, the lieutenant-governor`s wife, when she was sick. Later, Ainley seems to repeat the double standards of the day when she wonders whether the geologist Helen Belyea`s "Volatile personality" prevented her from being offered administrative positions. A strong personality is often denigrated in a woman, while applauded in a man. The final section, on contemporary concerns in science and technology, contains some fascinating information: one essay describes the male-dominated computer culture associated with high-school computer classes and teaching labs; another asks why so many young women who enter science and technology fields of study end up dropping out, often despite having some of the highest grades in their class; another documents the work of a participatory research group that has broken the traditional subject-object alienation through their socially work investigating genetic hazards in the workplace; another examines the currently declining position of hazards in women in science and technology at the Ph.D. level. Overall, Despite the Odds is an uneven and fairly weak book, but its mitigating strengths and insights make it worth acquiring

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