Printer Friendly

A contradiction in terms.

ox'ymo'ron, n; [fr. Gr. oxy-moron, deriv. of oxys sharp, + moros foolish] Rhet. A combination for epigrammatic effect of contradictory or incongruous words

- Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary

Traversing liminal spaces, traveling the hallways of academia, at the borderlands of disciplines... Almost there, but never quite. Meandering, half mesmerized, half muddled, always mumbling. Dare I speak? Almost there, but never quite. Almost a scientist, yet a feminist; almost a feminist, yet a scientist; almost a resident, yet an alien; almost an alien, yet a resident; almost a heterosexual, yet homosexual; almost a homosexual, yet heterosexual; almost an Indian, yet American, almost American, yet an Indian; almost an outsider, yet inside; almost an insider, yet outside... Almost there, but never quite. A life held captive in oppositions. How did I find myself in this tantalizing, much celebrated place, the home of the oxymoronic feminist scientist, this magical yet insane place...nowhere, yet everywhere all at once?

It all began when I got on the plane at the Bombay Sahar International Airport on a warm still night ten years ago, with visions of donning that revered white lab coat amid a sea of white-skinned, white-lab-coated male scientists studying the proverbial white male rat. The visions and dreams of white lab coats and white male scientists were so shaped by a postcolonial education that paraded the triumphs of dead white men, I was so enraptured by the worlds of science, of rationality and objectivity, that the incongruity of a large brown woman in a sea of white men scarcely occurred to me. And so I crossed the oceans and joined a PhD program in the biological sciences, full of dreams, ambitions and unbridled enthusiasm.

My new home seemed, on the surface, a very friendly place. Anyone I passed on the streets said hi, which is astonishing and uplifting to anyone coming from a large city anywhere in the world. My heart began to sing and with a skip and a smile 1 went merrily on my way. The orientation for international students tried to prepare us well. This is America, they told us. You must arrive on time to your meetings. None of that third-world time here. They told us about culture shock and what to expect.

And culture shock it was. The Gap, Bounce fabric softener, currency of coursework in credits, units, hours, Frosty the Showman, the eating of spaghetti with a fork and knife, ATM machines - it was all quite giddying and disorienting. How wonderfully you speak English, everyone said in astonishment. I smiled and thanked them without recognizing their notions of India and Indian women, which were to be part of my life from then on.

It wasn't any one thing that triggered my growing sense of marginalization, but small and seemingly insignificant events. The professor who said of me: "She came with a stone on her forehead and look what we've done to her"; a fellow student who asked if it were true that somewhere in India, during a religious festival, Indians stood in line and jumped down into a river below and drowned (as some article she read had suggested). The women job candidates who were always "much too quiet," "with no opinions," "dying to pick a fight," or "too argumentative." The prochoice rallies that repeatedly warned, "Illegal abortion happens in third world countries, but we are part of the industrialized West."

I had crossed the oceans wanting to be a scientist. It had been comforting to imagine an intellectual life free of national, cultural and social norms of gender, ethnicity, sexuality. It seemed like the ideal place for the tomboy, the third-worlder, the woman. I could fit in effortlessly. Or so I thought. For it was precisely the cultural and social norms of gender, ethnicity, sexuality and nationality that came to be the most demanding.

I felt increasingly invisible in classrooms where loud voices viciously shredded scientific articles. Having come from a small college in India with few resources and little equipment, I was not used to playing with expensive equipment or experimenting with costly materials. It wasn't a lack of initiative or seriousness, as it was often interpreted, but mere prudence. Having grown up in cities all my life, images of nature (apart from roadside trees, house lizards, cockroaches and crows) lay in the alien realm of David Attenborough and Jacques Cousteau - not the best set of credentials for a budding ecologist. It is curious how people who assume you cannot speak the language begin to assume so much once they discover you can speak it. The world of the alpha male, constantly preening, showing off, always looking for opportunities for self-promotion and visibility, was growing uncomfortable and repugnant. The competitive culture was getting to me.

My only other passion besides evolutionary biology was my feminism. And so I went knocking on the door of women's studies to see if I might be able to change programs. Thanks to a wonderful group of faculty and staff, I started taking courses in women's studies whilst continuing my graduate work in biology.

What a joy those courses were. They situated my insecurities in a historical framework and helped me articulate my emotions. The under-representation of women in science was the result of a problem not with women but rather with science. Not only was the social organization and culture of science infused with masculinity, but gender norms in the larger culture were also embedded in the construction of scientific knowledge. I grew to understand scientific culture as a set of practices and behaviors bound by the historical roots of science in Western, anglo, male, heterosexual culture. Graduate school was a gateway to these credentials and was about policing these boundaries the weeding out of those who cannot and will not participate in these cultural practices. A feminist framework was precisely what I needed.

Ironically, rather than lead me away from science, these tools are precisely what allowed me to recapture my earlier fascination for evolutionary biology, to stay in and finish my degree. Feminist critiques of science were exceedingly persuasive and resonated with my own experiences. Once introduced to them, I found it impossible to return to my idealized dreams of the naive, apolitical scientist. Instead my passion for scientific and feminist scholarship came together in dreams I had never imagined. I dreamt of building a vision of science and a practice of science that would expose the inadequacies of "science as usual." With the conviction that this was an important and exciting project, I entered the fray of interdisciplinary work with high hopes. In due course I received my doctorate in evolutionary biology and a graduate certificate in women's studies. I continued my work in both disciplines, by now housed in women's studies but with a joint appointment in the biological sciences.

And so began my oxymoronic life as a feminist scientist - the years in these liminal zones of disciplinary boundaries and codes of behavior that made me "the feminist" in the sciences and "the scientist" in women's studies. The former, I must say, was not new to me. I had encountered it ever since I began work in women's studies as a graduate student. Bemusement, confusion, hostility, occasional grudging support. "She's doing her woman's thing." "Women in the sciences need support and that is important, but that is not science." "What do you expect from a butch?" "A third world woman - we ought to support her new-found feminism." "She can't cut it as a scientist." "There go the angry feminists, the femi-Nazis."

Among some scientists, the notion that the culture of science is hostile to women scientists gains a certain degree of acceptance. But the notion that science is socially constructed is consistently rejected. While most scientists admit the examples of eugenics, the Tuskegee Study, Nazi medical experiments, as horrors in the history of science, they mostly subscribe to a progressive teleology - that science eventually self-corrects its mistakes. Within this framework, feminism or the larger social studies of science have little to contribute to scientific practice or process. A feminist scientist, not merely one who believes in women's rights, but one who wishes her science to be informed by feminism, is a contradiction in terms.

Housed in women's studies, I expected less resistance to my project of integrating feminism and science. But it was not to be so easy. Women's studies colleagues were eagerly supportive of the transformation of science, happy to discuss the resistant scientists out there, jubilant about the integration of feminism into the sciences, and emphatic about the hostility of scientists to feminism. But were feminist scholars welcoming of the sciences? I was not prepared for the answer.

Women's studies, I began to discover, is primarily constructed as a social sciences/humanities discipline. This is reflected in the faculty we hire, in the courses we teach and the way we train students. At best, feminist scholars work on or about science, but rarely in the sciences. I have watched too many feminist scholars, teaching or giving public lectures, apologizing for their own technophobia with a laugh - "I can never figure out these machines" - as they fumble with VCRs, overhead or slide projectors. The audience is quick to laugh in sympathy. Never mind how much I try, I am the exotic, authentic native of science, but the alien in their realm. Any question about science - be it about an asteroid, the latest "Star Trek" episode, the new VCR, a drug or wet nurses - is passed on to me as the resident scientist.

I am not the obvious choice, however, when it comes to a burning question in feminist theory. On occasion my identity provokes hostility, became as a scientist I am already corrupted by the patriarchal designs of science. Most often it is persistent sympathy that accompanies the "Oh! you work with scientists! It must be so difficult to recruit them." But, inevitably to my surprise, I never have problems recruiting scientists to projects on gender and science, especially if it involves graduate or undergraduate education. It is the feminists who are too busy.

Women's studies teachers are all too eager to blame the sciences for the difficulties of the project of feminism and science, but less eager to examine their own complicity in the problem. If the sciences have developed as a world without women, then women's studies, it would seem, has developed as a world without the sciences. While we incorporate feminist critiques of science and medicine into women's studies courses, we rarely use the opportunity to incorporate primary literature from the sciences in training scientifically literate feminist students.

Though feminist critiques of biological determinism were and continue to be crucial to feminist politics, and ones 1 am deeply committed to, the only space we create for science in our classrooms and in our scholarships is one of critique. To many feminists, the examples of eugenics, the Tuskegee Study, Nazi medical experiments as horrors in the history of science, are the only visions of science they can and will imagine. Very rarely have I seen a demonstration of a constructive alliance between feminists and scientists, where we imagine and engage in education and scholarship as collaborators. At the heart of it all, a feminist scientist, not merely one who wants to transform the sciences, but one who wishes her feminism to be informed by her science, is equally a contradiction in terms.

So I continue muddling through these liminal visions and nightmares. Fragmented by oceans, time, space, disciplines, cultures and nations. Marginal in so many worlds, constantly trading one margin to be part of yet another. Split appointments, split offices, multiple cultures, languages, worlds, working in the lab, in the field and at the desk. This liminality is precisely what women's studies celebrated at its inception - the liminality that attracted so many of us to its doors. The freedom to think beyond individual disciplines, the wisdom that comes from the ability to be everywhere at once, the exhilaration of challenging conventional thinking.

And yet it would seem that through years of institutionalization, women's studies finds itself just another discipline, with its own center, culture and practices, policing its own boundaries of sacred scholarship. As our theories grow, as our jargons multiply, we find at our disposal an ever more sophisticated vocabulary to lull us back into the self-serving, self-fulfilling world of the academy.

In saying that, I realize that I am but another voice in the wilderness bemoaning the loss of the radical and activist roots of women's studies. We need to find new ways of defining who we are and what we are about. What I would like to add is that if we are serious about working with feminist scientists, we have to be willing to offer scientists something more than trading one marginal location in the sciences for yet another in women's studies. And in order to shift the margins, women's studies will have to give up some of its power as it engages with feminist scientists and reconstructs and reenvisions this project. I think it is time that we begin to explain and explore what it is about women's studies that has made the project of feminism and science a contentious and difficult one. As we reconceptualize this project of women's studies, it is my hope that the sciences and scientists will not be left out yet again.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Old City Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:reflections of a feminist scientist
Author:Subramaniam, Banu
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Date:Feb 1, 1998
Words:2228
Previous Article:Models and mentors.
Next Article:Chronicle of higher education.
Topics:

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters