Autism and Gender: From Refrigerator Mothers to Computer Geeks
By Jordynn Jack
Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois, 2014, 306 pp., $30.00, paperback
Reviewed by Ellen Herman
Long before autism existed as a clinical syndrome, it described a state of being that placed gender at the heart of selfhood. In 1911, the Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler used the term “autism” in a book about dementia praecox, a debilitating psychotic disorder that was synonymous with stigma, hopelessness, and institutionalization. As Bleuler understood it, autism summarized one particular characteristic of adult mental illness: a state of insulation from reality so complete that it locked out other human beings while locking its victims into unreachable interior worlds. By the late 1920s, schizophrenia had overtaken dementia praecox as a diagnosis, but autism was still applied to children and adults whose emotional and interpersonal experiences appeared remote, solitary, and cut off, and therefore not really emotional and interpersonal at all.
Extreme isolation was profoundly debilitating, but observers have always appreciated that milder variations were linked to qualities such as self-reliance and independence. It is therefore no surprise that autism was observed far more often in boys and men than in girls and women. This pattern became even more entrenched after autism was declared a discrete condition and not merely one feature of other mental pathologies. In the early 1940s, Leo Kanner at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Lauretta Bender at Bellevue Hospital in New York, and other pioneers in child psychiatry documented the constellation of symptoms we now call ASD, or Autism Spectrum Disorder.
At that time, children were classified as having “childhood schizophrenia” or “childhood psychosis”; however, their behavioral profiles would make them recognizable as autistic today. Affected individuals were mesmerized by objects but indifferent to people, often had feeding difficulties in infancy, reacted fearfully to loud sounds and other sharp sensory inputs, enacted peculiar rituals obsessively, possessed unusually restricted interests and, if they had language at all, routinely confused “I” and “you.” Some displayed echolalia, repeating other people’s words rather than communicating with words of their own. These children tended to come from well-educated, affluent families in which fathers (and sometimes mothers too) worked in professions such as science, engineering, and medicine. The “outstanding” problem in autism, according to Kanner’s now iconic 1943 article, “Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact,” was “the children’s inability to relate themselves in the ordinary way to people and situations from the beginning of life [emphasis in the original].” The motor driving autism was “a powerful desire for aloneness and sameness.”
Almost everything about autism has changed since 1943: the words we use to describe it, the researchers who study it, the debates about what causes it, the number of people affected by it, public attitudes toward it, and the treatment options and educational opportunities that face parents whose children live under its description. But one might also say that nothing has changed. Social disconnection and emotional distance were the quintessential signs of autism from the beginning. They remain so today.
One recently influential theory is that autism amounts to a highly concentrated version of masculinity. The British researcher Simon Baron-Cohen proposed this in his 2003 book, The Essential Difference: Men, Women, and the Extreme Male Brain. We are all familiar with the cultural stereotypes that tie autism to male gender. From Dustin Hoffman’s character in the film Rain Man (1988), to Star Trek’s Dr. Spock and The Big Bang Theory’s” Sheldon Cooper, autistic archetypes are male. Representations of Asperger Syndrome are overwhelmingly so. Asperger’s is named after Hans Asperger, a Viennese pediatrician whose 1943 article describing autism wasn’t widely known in the English-speaking world until the British researcher Lorna Wing rediscovered and publicized it in the early 1980s. Asperger’s is widely designated as “high-functioning” autism. It has cemented popular associations between technical and quantitative skill, on the one hand, and social and emotional cluelessness, on the other. Mark Zuckerburg, the founder of Facebook, is rumored to have Asperger’s, and so are many other Silicon Valley titans. During the current moment of technological and neuroscientific dominance, few obstacles remain to asserting that there definitely are male and female brains, or that geekdom has neurological underpinnings.
The move from masculinizing autism to feminizing its opposite appears effortless. While boys specialize in systematic and abstract cognitive operations that make them good at math and bad at appreciating the mental states and emotional experiences of others, girls are empathizers. They do not find the ABCs of relationships mysterious. Their brains are wired to detect interpersonal subtleties, and they devote considerable time to thinking about what other people are thinking. In the language of autism research, girls are experts in “theory of mind.” There is less resistance to these propositions among feminists than in the past, perhaps because so many younger women have grown up with and now work in the neurosciences. We may have cheered when Maryam Mirzakhan became the first woman awarded the Fields Medal, the biggest international prize in mathematics, in August 2014. But it was unsurprising to learn at the same time that 83 percent of Google’s engineers and seventy percent of its managers were male. The combined pressures of nurture and nature tenaciously push girls and women toward work and family lives centered on emotional intelligence, relational know-how, and caring labor.
One central complaint of Jordynn Jack’s Autism and Gender is that the autistic condition has so systematically excluded girls and women that we often cannot see autism when girls and women experience it, a fact that leads, in circular fashion, to skepticism that female experiences qualify as autism at all. Jack is right. Many autism studies do not even include female subjects; their premise is that boys typify autism. Even though a woman, Temple Grandin, is the most famous autistic individual alive in the United States today, her powerful voice cannot singlehandedly stem the flood the stories that implicate male gender in autism. Just think about how parents respond to princess preoccupations or ballerina fantasies, or how they manage some girls’ insistence on having the color pink everywhere. These represent restricted interests and obsessions with sameness, but we tend to categorize them as harmless aspects of femininity, even when they become enduring traits of personality.
Jack’s field is rhetoric, and her argument is that gendered narratives litter our cultural conversation about autism. Stock characters shape whom we think has autism, what we think their families are like, and whose voices we take seriously on the subject. Autism and Gender explores four gendered characters in depth: the refrigerator mother, the mother warrior, the computer geek, and the autism dad. A final chapter asks whether neurodiversity, a concept dating to the late 1990s, might undermine the deeply gendered foundations of autism narratives. Jack’s conclusion is that it probably won’t. “For now…autism remains, and likely will remain, a rhetorical disorder,” she writes. Whether or not readers are acquainted with Jack’s academic vocabulary, her point is that there is no autism without gender. One cannot contemplate the former without bumping headlong into the latter.
Jack details well-known and obscure episodes in autism’s cultural history. She outlines the familiar contours of mother-blame in the mid-twentieth century but also illustrates how new stories about maternal responsibility emerged through creative use of rhetorical strategies that transformed women from villains into heroes. The best example of this is Clara Park’s 1967 book, The Siege. Even without knowing anything about Park’s family, the title implies a lengthy, quasi-military campaign to breach the fortress of autism. Park’s memoir about the first eight years of her daughter’s life was also a remarkable and moving story about Park’s own intelligence and perseverance. At a time when many believed that maternal indifference or hostility provoked autism, Park worked tirelessly and without bitterness to recruit her daughter into the ordinary routines of family life. Jack interprets the book as a “quest narrative,” a genre emulated by countless writers in subsequent decades as they set out on autism journeys of rescue and cure (and one that, in literary history, has usually involved a male protagonist). .
By the end of the twentieth century, the poisonous “refrigerator mother” was replaced by a very different gendered character, the “mother warrior.” The term was coined by Jenny McCarthy, a celebrity champion of the movement against childhood vaccines after her son, Evan, was diagnosed with autism in 2005. How could McCarthy, a fierce activist determined to save her child and others by any means necessary, not signal progress? According to Jack, this total motherhood imposed its own punishing discipline on women. “Mother warriors” were required to sacrifice everything—work, romantic partners, and all their time and money—before they could claim the credentials of the “good mother.”
Jack speculates that behind the autism supermom lurks the citizen that neoliberal economies and governments demand: one who accepts full responsibility for his or her own physical and mental health. This is intriguing and merits further investigation. Mothers of disabled and sick children have been on the front lines as “mother warriors,” but Jack’s suggestion links them to virtually everyone else. Why are we now all being asked to continually monitor ourselves and our children for early warning signs of depression, obesity, dietary allergies, and environmental toxins, to name only a few risks? Has old-fashioned mother-blame morphed into a comprehensive new standard of self-policing? There is nothing wrong with taking care of one’s body and spirit. It’s something we should all do! But emphasizing personal responsibility so exclusively retreats from the core insight of social welfare and public health: for individuals to take meaningful charge of their health, well-being must be sustained in communities. It is both ironic and tragic that childhood vaccines epitomize this logic. No individual or family can control measles or whooping cough absent population-wide immunity. Yet parents who have refused vaccines since 1998, when their possible implication in autism was first publicized, have helped to spread dangerous, preventable childhood diseases.
Jack’s perceptive book probes the persuasive power of autism’s characters. It is less concerned with whether storytellers actually believe they are warrior mothers or fix-it dads than with the effects of those circulating narratives. (There is a long history of paternal narratives about autism, probably because of the disproportionate impact of the diagnosis on sons.) Jack is inspired, as many feminist scholars have been, by philosopher Judith Butler, who described how “performativity” reveals gender as a tacit consensus about what is and is not normal in men and women. Before Butler, the sociologist Irving Goffman devoted his career to documenting the dramaturgical construction of identity, illustrating how “the arts of impression management” made people up. For Goffman, the social world of masks and roles was the only world, no matter that acting out identities was treacherous and subject to error. Declaring theater to be authentic and placing nature on our social stage remain provocative moves. They are all the more bracing during this time of technological triumph, when the headlines insist that our genes are us, our biochemistry is us, and, above all, our brains are us. Autism and Gender directs our attention elsewhere, to the essential selfhood that inhabits the realness between us.
Good Catholics: The Battle over Abortion in the Catholic Church
By Patricia Miller
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014, 332 pp., $34.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Mary E. Hunt
Competition is keen from some Mormons and evangelicals, but the Roman Catholic Church takes the prize when it comes to thwarting women’s reproductive justice. Patricia Miller, with a journalist’s eye and a historian’s training, chronicles movements of “good Catholics” to counter the institutional church’s power, both political and theological. That US Catholic women now use birth control and have abortions in virtually the same numbers as other religious people is one measure of change. Another measure, perhaps more important, is that the official church has been thoroughly discredited, due to priest pedophilia covered up by bishops.
Miller’s detail-dense prose makes her book a serious study instead of what could have been a partisan puff piece. Having been involved in Catholic feminist efforts for years (including a decade on the board of Catholics for a Free Choice), I, like Miller, know many of the players and events quite well. Still, I learned a great deal from this book, in which the author concludes that “the forty-year fight over reproductive rights had never been about abortion; it had always been about women and sex—specifically, the ability of women to have sex without the consequence of pregnancy.” (By implication, queer sex is also off limits, but Miller would need another volume to unravel that saga.)
Women’s power to make decisions, to be priests, to function as full human beings is simply anathema to male church authorities. Miller captures the widespread commitment to change that is the work of many different people and groups. Progress is slow; backlash is virulent. These days, fewer and fewer people seem to care. With this study we can see why: religion can be a dirty business.
The abortion battle is really only the latest skirmish in an ongoing struggle for women’s equality. The Catholic manifestation of that has been almost exclusively in what the prochoice Catholic theologian Daniel C. Maguire terms “pelvic zone” issues. The first half of Miller’s book traces the history of birth control and abortion from the early 1960s through the 1984 presidential election. The second half focuses on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which has developed as a powerful lobby. Its recent, muscular opposition to the Affordable Care Act made the bishops’ politics crystal clear.
As contraceptives became widely available in the 1960s, a number of courageous and creative Catholic women began to question their tradition’s antisex teachings. On April 4, 1964, theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether published “Why I Believe in Birth Control: A Catholic Mother Speaks Out” in the Saturday Evening Post, one of the first articles in the popular press naming the problems faced by Catholic women who wished to have careers as well as families. Their faithful efforts to use natural family planning were all too often rewarded with another child, and childcare was, and remains, primarily a woman’s task. Gradually, Catholic women joined others in taking control of their own reproductive lives, incurring the wrath of some parish priests and being told by others that they should follow their consciences but not discuss this publicly. Neither approach was acceptable in the long run, as both discrimination and duplicity eroded people’s respect for the clergy.
Miller points out that Catholic women organized from the mid-twentieth century on. Theologians Mary Daly, Jane Furlong Cahill, and Elizabeth Farians, groups like the Ecumenical Task Force on Women and Religion, the NOW Women and Religion Task Force, the National Coalition of American Nuns, St. Joan’s Alliance, and eventually Catholics for a Free Choice (CFFC) gave the institutional church a run for its money.
Miller points out that Catholic women organized from the mid-twentieth century on. Theologians Mary Daly, Jane Furlong Cahill, and Elizabeth Farians, groups like the Ecumenical Task Force on Women and Religion, the NOW Women and Religion Task Force, the National Coalition of American Nuns, St. Joan’s Alliance, and eventually Catholics for a Free Choice (CFFC) gave the institutional church a run for its money.
Humanae Vitae, the 1968 papal encyclical that continued the ban on so-called artificial birth control even though Pope Paul VI’s own handpicked committee had voted against it, was the last straw for Catholic feminists, who had been hoping for something better. Many theologians opposed the ban, while many laypeople simply washed their hands of clerical counsel. The “contraceptive mentality” condemned by the bishops was simply common sense to those whose lives were most deeply affected. Thus the gap between lay and clerical Catholics began to widen and deepen. That process continued, Miller reports, through the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, with the bishops realizing that they were on the losing side of an important cultural shift.
Roe was not the end of the road on abortion, but rather a catalyst for long years of institutional Catholic Church opposition. The Catholic bishops backed the 1976 Hyde Amendment, which continues to limit Medicare funding for abortions, and asserted themselves as representing tens of millions of people. However, CFFC embodied another Catholic constituency. In 1982, the group hired a new director, Frances Kissling, who develop the organization into a powerhouse, making it into an important voice in the larger prochoice movement, which raised moral questions about women’s well-being and abortion.
During Kissling’s more than twenty-year tenure, CFFC grew from a small, informal, underfunded group to much larger, highly professional, well-endowed organization with global reach. Affiliate groups emerged in a number of countries, including Brazil, Mexico, and Poland. Their programs addressed local and national issues from the perspective of those whose lives were touched directly by legal and theological matters. Feminist theologians, notably Ruether, played significant roles. They refuted the claims of those who would relegate women to second-class status in the name of the divine. Thus empowered with new theological concepts and self-understandings, Catholic women became a force to be reckoned with.
In the US, the 1984 nomination of Geraldine Ferraro, a prochoice Catholic, as the Democratic vice-presidential candidate led the bishops to ramp up their opposition. CFFC answered them with an ad in the New York Times signed by theologians, nuns, and priests, which claimed the right to discuss abortion without censure. The Vatican realized that the genie was out of the holy water bottle. Many signers paid high prices, in Catholic academia, in their own orders, and in the wider community, where they were sanctioned. Nevertheless, the movement of Catholic support for reproductive justice was well underway.
Meanwhile, the bishops joined forces with antichoice groups from other religions to beef up their lobbying efforts, aware that they no longer held the uncontested right to the word “Catholic.” CFFC and other Catholic organizations, such as the Catholic lesbian and gay group DignityUSA, Catholic Organizations for Renewal, and the Catholic-rooted Women’s Ordination Conference, to name just a few, emerged as a new face of Catholicism. Although Miller passes over it, the Women-Church Convergence, of which CFFC is a member, is the coalition of progressive Catholic-rooted feminist organizations that brought women’s religious communities into the fray. These groups formed a countermovement that continues to erode the authority of the bishops and offer alternative Catholic spaces for worship, fellowship, and action.
Miller sketches the contours of the Vatican’s many attempts to keep women out of power worldwide. Both at the UN International Conference on Population and Development, in Cairo in 1994, and the Fourth World Conference on Women, in Beijing in 1995, the Vatican made common cause with other conservative countries to prevent consensus on reproductive justice. Their attempt to have CFFC denied accreditation as an nongovernmental organization only served to heighten CFFC’s profile. It launched its own “See Change” campaign, to contest the Holy See’s claim to nationhood and its resultant participation in world forums, where it touts its antiwoman agenda.
The turf battle over who owns the company logo flared again in the effort to pass the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010. In the years leading up to the congressional vote, the USCCB tangled not only with proponents of the bill, claiming that it would include abortion coverage, but also with its own people, notably the Catholic Health Association, led by Sister Carol Keehan. She and Sister Simone Campbell, director of NETWORK: A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby, published a letter indicating that the bill would do no such thing. They assured Catholic members of Congress that they could vote for the ACA and remain in the good graces of the Catholic community, despite the bishops’ insistence to the contrary.
When the successful bill was signed, it was the nuns, not the bishops, who were credited with delivering the Catholic votes. Miller does not point it out, but some more progressive Catholics wished that the nuns had said that in their view the government should provide funding for abortions lest women who are made poor be left out. Alas, that remains to be done. But an important shift in public perception of just who was a “good Catholic” was in the record books.
Negative repercussions for women religious ensued. The bishops assessed correctly that women religious had eclipsed them in the public eye, and especially in the view of many decision makers. One Vatican department put the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in receivership, with three bishops vetting their every move. Another department raised serious questions about the writings of the ethicist Sister Margaret Farley and the theologian Sister Elizabeth Johnson. The bishops began revving up their machinery to oppose marriage equality.
This book ends with the election of Pope Francis, at a time when the future direction of the Catholic Church is unclear. Miller concludes on an optimistic note, quoting the pope as stating, “Women are asking deep questions that must be addressed.” While affable and arguably far more progressive than his two predecessors (although the bar is low, as both of them were archconservative), he has shown no signs of understanding, much less accepting, women’s full personhood. He has made banal jokes about women, reiterated the ban on women priests, and failed to lift the sanctions against the nuns. I find little reason for optimism, my own or Miller’s.
In subsequent writing, especially on ReligionDispatches.org, where Miller publishes frequently on related themes, she seems increasingly realistic about the uphill struggle at hand, more consistent with the data she offers in this book. I marvel at her equanimity in rehearsing some of the egregious antics of the prelates, which Mary Daly, for one, long ago eschewed in favor of outrage. Miller’s real service is in highlighting the proud history of feminist-led dissent against the outmoded views of women enshrined in laws and policies around the world. With this helpful history, “good Catholics” and their colleagues have more tools to dismantle them.
Mary E. Hunt is a feminist theologian. She is the codirector of WATER, the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual, in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Out in the Union: A Labor History of Queer America
By Miriam Frank
Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2014, 221 pp., $29.95, paperback
Steel Closets: Voices of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Steelworkers
By Anne Balay
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014, 172 pp., $34.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Bettina Aptheker
In the avalanche of writings “queering” many fields of scholarship, very little has been written about working-class gays, lesbians, and transgender people, and even less about those in the labor movement. This is to say that these two books, the one by Miriam Frank and the other by Anne Balay, fill a critical gap in queer and labor history. Both engage oral histories as a primary methodology, and both tell stories of extraordinary courage and perseverance.
In 1990 Miriam Frank and Desma Holcomb published a handbook, Pride at Work: Organizing for Lesbian and Gay Rights. It was used all over the country and became a key tool for LGBT activists working in the labor movement. Over more than twenty years Miriam Frank went on to do interviews with more than 100 LGBT workers, many of whom she met as a result of the handbook’s circulation. Those interviews, and Frank’s vast knowledge of the US labor movement since World War II, provide the foundation for this book. Frank captures the driving courage of LGBT workers as they participate in the labor movement, come out, and help others to do so. She reveals the crucial role they played in organizing campaigns, especially of teachers and public service workers, and in independent, left-inspired initiatives, for example, for gender and racial equality.
Engaged by the insights of the late gay historian Allen Bérubé, in his (unfinished) work on the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union (an excerpt of which was published in his posthumous essay collection, My Desire for History ), Frank considers Bérubé’s notion of “queer work” as she recounts unionization struggles among workers in occupations that are queer-dominated: that is, “restrictive but . . . where queers can feel they belong and which queers have shaped to meet their needs.” As Bérubé demonstrated in his study of the Cooks and Stewards Union, between the 1930s and 1960s, job categories traditionally classified as female were held by gay men aboard many luxury liners. The men called each other by female names—e.g. Miss so-and-so—sometimes referred to each other as queens, and creating an altogether queer culture “below deck,” so to speak. They were also among the most exploited workers aboard ship.
Frank found similar cultural formations in San Francisco and New York in the 1970s and ’80s, when gays and lesbians were concentrated in what she calls couture, as well as in the service industries and sections of retail sales. For example, she reports, “Barney’s [department store] in New York City, in the 1990s, was the gayest union workplace ever”; as one worker told her, “The whole store was out.” They were members of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. Frank also describes the painful and challenging efforts to unionize the mostly gay and lesbian workers in community-based clinics in San Francisco in the 1980s at the height of the AIDS crisis. The boards of trustees of these nonprofits were mostly male, white, straight, and wealthy, with strong anti-union biases.
Another significant theme in Frank’s work is the connection among the women’s liberation movement, women’s struggles for employment in traditionally male-dominated fields, and a gay and lesbian presence. In the traditionally male-dominated fields, whether or not women identified themselves as lesbian, male co-workers assumed them to be—and of course, some of them were. The hazing and hostility these women faced were intense. Frank describes life-threatening abuse, for example, by men at Michigan Bell Telephone Company, that was truly terrifying. Yet in virtually all cases, whether or not the union intervened, the women persevered through their own stubborn grit.
Frank organizes her study thematically, using her interview material as commentary about the struggles as they unfold. She divides her study into three sections: “Coming Out,” “Coalition Politics,” and “Conflict and Transformation.” In “Coming Out,” Frank focuses on the struggles of queer workers in unionized construction jobs; the highly segregated craft industries, such as carpentry, plumbing, and electrical work, that have until recent years excluded both women and people of color; and the auto industry.
In “Coalition Politics,” she presents a terrific account of the role the LGBT community in San Francisco and elsewhere played in promoting and sustaining the boycott against Coors Beer, which began in 1974. The coalition the community built with the Teamsters Union was as unlikely as it was enduring. LGBT communities went on to forge alliances with the labor movement to defeat antigay ballot measures in California, Oregon, and Florida in the late 1970s. In California, the so-called Briggs Initiative, named for the conservative state legislator who introduced it, John Briggs—would have defined “public homosexual conduct” as “the advocating, soliciting, imposing, encouraging, or promoting . . . private or public homosexual activity directed at, or likely to come to the attention of schoolchildren and/or other employees,” and provided for the dismissal of employees engaging in such conduct. Ultimately defeating this initiative, with 58 percent of the vote, were “blue-collar unions—locals of the Construction Trades Council, the American Postal Workers Union, . . . the Teamsters, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union… [which] joined public and service sector unions to constitute . . . a vigorous coalition of religious, political, neighborhood and civil libertarian groups,” writes Frank.
Frank considers the psychological and personal pressures LGBT workers experience when they must remain closeted, and reviews the extent to which various union contracts protect sexual minorities against discrimination. At the beginning of the book, she provides a helpful the chronology that identifies many of the individuals and struggles she will cover.
Frank had an enormous amount of material to synthesize and organize. In a way, she has two books here; for this reason the work sometimes feels unwieldy. One book—the one she wrote—is a narrative of union and coalition struggles, an account of what happened from the 1970s onward for LGBT workers. She uses the oral histories primarily to enhance this narrative. The number of unions and coalitions and abbreviations becomes confusing, despite Frank’s best efforts to remind us of their definitions. And, having read and/or heard some of her oral histories, I know how rich they are, and I’m hoping to see an additional book based on them some day soon.
Anne Balay’s Steel Closets is a brilliant, theoretically astute study packed with insight about the steel industry and emotionally staggering stories of the LGBT workers who persevere in it. The conditions for work for everyone are horrendous, arduous, and dangerous. For LGBT people, these are compounded by extreme homophobia and misogyny. And yet Balay succeeds in conveying the humanity of everyone within this hellish environment through her compassion for her subjects and her understanding of the difficult and dangerous labors they perform. Although Balay is now an academic teaching English, she once worked in a male-dominated industry as a skilled auto mechanic, and she understands hard work, overalls, and perpetually greased-stained hands. It is this background that encourages the straight steel workers to talk to her; while her own queerness encourages gays and lesbians, many of them terrified of coming out, to share their stories. She finds her queer subjects by frequenting gay and lesbian bars in the corner of Indiana in which the steel mills were operating. Balay does the best she can to change names and disguise identities yet to maintain the integrity of their stories.
Many of us have driven past steel mills and have seen the massive structures and smoke stacks rising into the sky, but most of us cannot imagine the intensity of the 4,000-degree heat required to extract iron ore, which is then bonded with carbon to make steel. The sheer mass and weight of the machinery; the particles in the air casting a gray dust over everything; the filth; and other details are mind-boggling to me. I had no idea how steel was made!
Modern technology in the steel mills has changed much of the day-to-day labor, even though the basic process of making steel remains the same as it’s always been. The shift in the conditions of production has drastically reduced the workforce, causing massive unemployment. Everyone who still has a job worries about losing it.
New technologies have changed the work day, too. “Working in a steel mill,” Balay explains, “typically involves rushing around frantically on deadline and then recording the work on a computer, followed by lots of waiting.” While the workers wait, they cluster together in break rooms, sharing personal stories to pass the time. Closeted LGBT workers, however, cannot share stories. They often either invent a family that doesn’t exist or remain silent—which others may read as hostile. In addition, Balay explains,
steelworkers often do their work in pairs or groups, depending on their co-workers for their success and their survival, a situation that creates a certain solidarity, reinforced by the exclusion of difference (of some or all of women, black, ethnics, or queers).
The filth generated by the production process requires workers to shower before leaving the plant in a collective space without privacy. Most will shower again when they get home to reduce the gray dust and grime that settles over their clothing, hands, hair—everything.
Paradoxically, despite the often-forced camaraderie, mill work is isolating. Most steelworkers work alternating shifts: one week, 7:00 AM to 3:00 PM; the next, 3:00 PM to 11:00 PM; and the next 11:00 PM to 7:00 AM. Shift work creates isolation, especially for anyone trying to sustain a family life.
The pay for mill work is high, and the union is strong. Balay appropriately lays out these material conditions in detail, because they produce a particular, desperate challenge for queer workers. The isolation, shift work, forced personal conversations hour after hour and day after day, the collective and dangerous labor, group showers, and pervasive misogynistic and homophobic cracks create a hellish environment for queer steel workers; women workers, straight or gay; and black workers, gay or straight. “My interviews reveal that an incredible level of violence toward and harassment of queers is part of the basic steel work environment,” writes Balay. Predators take advantage of the vast, dark caverns of the mills; one worker tells Balay of a brutal rape. Supposedly straight men sometimes have sex with closeted gay co-workers, but instead of considering themselves to be gay, they subject their erstwhile partners to homophobic invective. Balay does not describe this as forced sex or harassment, but simply as a matter of course in the factory. The union provides little or no protection from such hostility and attacks, so most victims don’t bother to report them.
Analyzing the steel workers’ culture, Balay describes it as one of “hypermasculinity,” in which pornography, objectification, and sexual violence are embedded. As a form of self-protection, many women, not all of them lesbian, exaggerate their masculine traits. For example, she quotes Olshana, a lesbian, who says she had “no prior mechanical or industrial experience, but took the job as part of a leftist commitment to working with unions and among workers.” Olshana says,
I was pretty awestruck by how these guys could fix anything with very few resources. Sometimes to fix something really old they’d have to make a part, or find a part, or scavenge or something. I think that influenced a lot of how I behaved in there because it was so cool that they were able to keep these things, these old things and these big gigantic things, running. I wanted to be a part of that.
As Olshana strives to become as competent and inventive as her male co-workers, she achieves a highly skilled position as a motor inspector. Balay concludes that, however butch Olshana may have been before starting in the mill, ultimately it’s the dynamic of her work experience that shapes her female masculinity—more than her gender or sexuality.
Anne Balay has produced an astonishing work of ethnography. As a testament to the sheer magnitude of suffering, resourcefulness, and perseverance of our queer sisters and brothers in steel, she has written a labor of love.
Bettina Aptheker is a professor of Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her most recent book is a memoir, Intimate Politics: How I Grew Up Red, Fought for Free Speech and Became A Feminist Rebel (2006). She is working on a new book, tentatively titled Queering the History of the US Communist Left.
Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America
By Rachel Hope Cleves
New York: Oxford University Press, 2014, 167 pp., $29.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Marla R. Miller
In Charity Bryant’s 1844 memoir, she records that, “On the 3rd day of July 1807 [Sylvia Drake] consented to be my help-meet and came to be my companion.” Bryant had originally added “in labor,” in recognition of the two women’s shared enterprise in the clothing trades, but in striking her pen through those final words, she signaled the more encompassing nature of their union. The household of Charity Bryant (1777-1851) and Sylvia Drake (1784-1868)—which flourished for nearly forty years in the rural community of Weybridge, in Vermont’s Champlain Valley—may have been atypical, but it was by no means closeted. The pair were beloved in their home community, and welcome (eventually) among (most of) their friends and relatives. What’s more, in 1843, Charity’s nephew, the celebrated poet, journalist, and editor William Cullen Bryant, published an account in the New-York Evening Post of these two “maiden ladies” who “took each other as companions for life,” linked by a bond “no less sacred than the tie of marriage.” They “slept on the same pillow,” he wrote, “and had a common purse.”
Rachel Hope Cleves’s fascinating book Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America recovers, examines, and celebrates the lifelong partnership of these extraordinary women. Drawing on correspondence, diaries, poems, memoirs, account books, tax and probate records, portraiture, and other materials, Cleves—a historian at the University of Victoria—offers a richly detailed account of what was by all accounts a de facto marriage between two women in Federal New England. Her engrossing narrative offers readers a narrative of early America that they likely have not encountered before, where more women than we have heretofore imagined were able to test, and violate, the boundaries of prescription and pursue romantic, passionate, physical relationships with other women.
The first half of this joint biography tacks between the early lives of its two protagonists. Born in May 1777, in North Bridgewater, Massachusetts (a farming town south of Boston), Charity Bryant entered a world in chaos: Britain’s North American colonies were engulfed in a violent war for their independence, and Bryant’s mother died of consumption just weeks after giving birth. Young Bryant acquired a stepmother, but the two were of very different temperaments, their household frictions exacerbated by larger generational tensions that separated mothers who had suffered through the worst the Revolution had to offer from daughters coming of age in a new and independent nation.
Sylvia Drake—the youngest of eight children born into an Easton, Massachusetts, family already struggling to wrest a living from their meager landholdings—arrived after peace had been restored, but the Drakes had weathered the tumult of the rebellion only to succumb to the deepening postwar financial crisis. Bankrupt, the family split up, and the older children were sent to live with, and work for, relatives. After bouncing around New England for a time, Sylvia’s brother Asaph made his way to Vermont, putting down roots in Weybridge. He achieved a measure of success, and in time his parents and siblings joined him there.
Cleves posits that both Bryant and Drake in their teens and early twenties began to stray discernibly from the path usually assigned to white middle-class women in the early Republic. Like many women of her generation, twenty-year-old Bryant found work as a teacher. She didn’t especially like it, Cleves writes, but she appreciated the benefits it conferred. Working in schools around New England, she could live independently of any parents or husband, earn her own income, and resist, if only for a time, the tyranny of domestic labor. She could cultivate relationships with other young educators steeped in art and intellect, embrace a life of the mind, and nurture her poetic voice.
These kinds of clusters of likeminded women provided fertile ground for the formation of “romantic friendships.” Bryant seems to have been a particularly charismatic personality, her wit and intelligence sparking almost immediate devotion. To a point, the parents of her companions did not seem to mind these affections, as they assumed the young women would eventually outgrow their youthful affinities. The problems came when they didn’t, jeopardizing their marital prospects. Cleves suggests that gossip about inappropriately intense relationships drove Charity out of Dartmouth, Massachusetts, and then followed her West to Cummington, where she moved to join the household of her brother Peter and his wife Sally (William Cullen’s parents), but trouble there too drove her on to other family members in Pelham.
In these years, Cleves says, Bryant formed a series of intense associations (intellectual, emotional, sexual) with several young women. But Bryant left the romances of her youth behind when, in 1807, while visiting her friend Polly Drake Hayward in Vermont, she encountered Hayward’s youngest sister, Sylvia Drake. Raised with little access to the expansion of women’s education flowering elsewhere, Drake had struggled to find ways to feed her lively curiosity. Cleves suggests that Drake’s determination to remain in school served, at least in part, as her own effort to dodge courtship, a concern hinted at in family letters. She was perhaps already displaying an aversion to marriage when Bryant appeared in Weybridge.
The two women felt an “immediate mutual attraction,” writes Cleves. In order to cultivate their affections with privacy, Charity took on Cleves ostensibly as an assistant in her Weybridge tailoring shop, but their association was romantic and devoted from the start. Both women, ever after, observed July 3, 1807—the date on which they committed to living together—as the anniversary of their lifelong union. As a couple, they became members of a church, taxpayers, and good citizens of their town, Bryant assuming the role of husband, and Drake that of wife, a measure of conformity that Cleves says facilitated their acceptance by the local community and their relatives across the region. Bryant would no longer be chased from town to town by gossip and rumors; she and Drake—beloved “aunts” (literally in their family and metaphorically in the village)—spent their lives united in what seemed to all a genuine, and generally accepted, marriage.
Cleves’s project appears at an auspicious moment in the history of and fight to secure same-sex marriage, as well as in the writing of early American history. The study of sexuality in early America is thriving, and though same-sex love, sex, and intimacy haven’t claimed as much space in those conversations as they could or should, Cleves’s important study joins a growing body of literature on same-sex relationships in the United States before the nineteenth century that includes William Benemann’s Male-Male Intimacy in Early America: Beyond Romantic Friendships (2006); Thomas A. Foster’s 2007 edited collection Long before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America; John Gilbert McCurdy’s Citizen Bachelors: Manhood and the Creation of the United States (2009); and Richard Godbeer’s The Overflowing of Friendship: Love between Men and the Creation of the American Republic (2009).
Cleves had a fairly slender archival base on which to ground her study. Of more than 1,500 letters Bryant penned over the course of her life, only 36 are known to have survived; while only fifteen of Drake’s appear to be extant. Both women kept diaries, but Bryant’s was destroyed, and only a fraction of Drake’s survives. Drake preserved Bryant’s poems, their shop ledgers, and letters from friends and family. Their (shared) gravestone still stands in the Weybridge cemetery where they were buried, side by side, and the book’s (lovely) cover art draws on a pair of silhouettes that today reside among the collections of the Henry Sheldon Museum in Middlebury, Vermont. From these fragments, Cleves has nevertheless been able to construct for readers a remarkably rich account of the world these women inhabited, created, and shared. Beyond the book’s central themes, Cleves paints a vivid portrait of the lives of early American women: the world of this generation of women schoolteachers, the ways families scattered across the region cultivated and sustained ties, and small town life in nineteenth-century Vermont.
But of course the book’s main preoccupation is the relationship between the two protagonists, and here Cleves is determined to show not only that their union was, both in private and in public, the equivalent of a marriage, but also that it was grounded in physical, sexual desire. As she considers Bryant’s several flirtations before she met Drake, and of course the bond between the two women, Cleves makes plain that these are not the so-called passionate friendships—essentially same-sex crushes—that other historians have described; nor was the marriage an asexual partnership of convenience: she is emphatic about the erotic, passionate, sexual nature of Bryant and Drake’s attachment.
The question of whether women could behave as lesbians a century before the category was formally articulated (in the 1890s) has been asked in a number of academic settings, and Cleves’s book, which draws on the techniques of both social and cultural history, offers readers the chance to do some methodological soul searching of their own. In many ways, the book is an evidentiary Rorschach test: your response to individual passages and lines of analysis will reveal the contours of your own analytical temperament and comfort with interpretative risk-taking. Though I occasionally found myself skeptical of Cleves’s reading of some sources, for me a whole greater than the sum of its parts clearly emerged. Apart from its significant contribution to the scholarship of early America, this provocative study would be an excellent addition to any seminar on research methods, as well as on the art and craft of biography.
Whatever your reaction to Cleves’s take on individual pieces of evidence, a strikingly fresh view of early American womanhood emerges from these pages. Some of Cleves’s most compelling discussions capture the aspirations and optimism of the generation that came of age in the aftermath of the American Revolution, just as the bundle of ideas comprising “Republican Motherhood” (that is, that women’s contribution to the new nation would be domestic rather than political) gained traction. Cleves’s study paints a fascinating picture of a community of young, middle-class, white women striving toward some not-yet-articulated option, embracing passionate relationships with others similarly straining against cultural expectations. As her subjects struggle to find words that can describe how they feel about one another—more than friendship, more than sisterly affection, more even than conventional romance, relationships so steeped in delight and optimism that they seemed to defy any known category of association—Cleves conveys beautifully a moment in time (in these young lives, and in the young nation) when many new things seemed possible. It seems almost paradoxical that Bryant and Drake, having found each other in such heady times, ultimately gained acceptance by embracing and replicating (at least partially) fairly conventional roles.
Cleves’s main aim is to convince her readers that the “historical record is littered with Charities and Sylvias; we need only open our eyes and see.” In the wake of this pathbreaking study, it will be very difficult to do otherwise.
Marla Miller is a historian of women and work in early New England. Her most recent book is Rebecca Dickinson: Independence for a New England Woman (2013).
The Price of Silence:
The Duke Lacrosse Scandal, The Power Elite, and the Corruption of Our Great Universities
By William D. Cohan
New York: Scribner, 2014, 653 pp., $35.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Laura Pappano
Given the growing alarm about the problem of sexual assault and rape on college campuses, it is difficult to consider The Price of Silence, an investigative retelling of the Duke lacrosse scandal that riveted, divided, and enraged the public in 2006 and 2007, as an isolated tale of bad actors.
It is true that the particulars may not be relevant outside of this case. But the slippery challenge of getting at the truth, and of whose version of events is to be believed, by whom, and to what end, has become overly familiar. Recent allegations of rape or sexual assault at the University of Virginia, Hobart and William Smith, Dartmouth, Brown, Yale, Stanford, Vanderbilt, and Florida State—to mention only a few—make clear that this problem needs a better approach.
It’s not news that intoxicated undergrads may make poor decisions that have horrendous, life-altering results. As universities puzzle about how to manage off-campus acting out, one point to be drawn from reconsidering the Duke case is this: leaving the policing of student behavior to law enforcement is risky. College administrators must set and enforce expectations for conduct (yes, even off campus) and have an internal review system for incidents even when police are involved.
Had either or both of these systems been in place, the Duke case might not have become the focus of a spate of books, the latest, this one by William D. Cohan, a Duke graduate and the author of The Last Tycoons: The Secret History of Lazard Fréres & Co. (2007); House of Cards (2009), about the final days of Bear Stearns; and Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World (2011). For those needing a refresher (and who doesn’t, given the twists and turns of the Duke case), the problems began around midnight on March 14, 2006, when two strippers, Crystal Mangum and Kim Roberts (both women of color), were hired to perform at a party attended by 41 of the 47 members of the Duke University lacrosse team (all but one of whom were white) at the off-campus house of three of the players. Mangum later said she was raped in the bathroom by three white players.
The accused players—David Evans, Collin Finnerty, and Reade Seligmann—were picked by Mangum from a photo line-up created by the Durham, North Carolina, police that, counter to standard practice, contained photos only of Duke lacrosse players. Even so, it took Mangum several sessions to identify her attackers. Inconsistencies began to show up in the timeline of events: Seligmann was at an ATM, in a taxi, getting take-out, and talking to his out-of-state girlfriend on his cellphone during the time Mangum said the rape had occurred. Forty-six players provided DNA samples. DNA from Mangum’s rape kit revealed DNA from four men, none of them the Duke lacrosse players—evidence the prosecution did not immediately share with the defense.
Findings such as the DNA evidence and Seligmann’s alibi, which he corroborated with time-stamped photos and the taxi driver’s testimony, did not give the case’s prosecutor, District Attorney Mike Nifong, pause. Instead, Nifong, who was in the midst of a campaign for re-election, seems to have decided to burnish his image as a tough prosecutor by moving ahead with indictments. He eventually stopped speaking to the media, but initially, he regularly appeared on national television making presumptive statements. He did not hesitate to declare that a rape had occurred, telling MSNBC he was handling the case himself because “of the racial animus and hostility,” and because he “felt this was a case that we needed to make a statement [about] as a community, that we would not tolerate this kind of behavior in Durham.”
In addition to these problems, the police work in the case was sloppy: for example, members of the lacrosse team had cleaned the house before the police even thought to search for evidence. Over the course of the investigation, Mangum changed her story many times, providing surprising twists (once claiming she was raped by twenty men), and finally asserting that she was unsure if penile penetration, the legal definition of rape in the state, had occurred.
Eventually, Nifong was removed from the case, ejected from office, and disbarred, and North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper took over. He had his investigators review the evidence and conduct interviews, including with Mangum, whose story changed yet again, leading Cooper to claim that, “the inconsistencies were so significant and so contrary to the evidence that we have no credible evidence that an attack occurred in that house on that night.” He described the dangers of “a rogue prosecutor who goes out on his own” and took the unusual step of not only dropping all charges but also proclaiming that “these three individuals are innocent of these charges.”
The case is infuriating on many levels, perhaps most profoundly because the apparent false accusations by Mangum and the arrogant grandstanding by Nifong whipped up such a frenzy across the nation and on campus that the backlash left the Duke lacrosse players looking like heroes for enduring the public vitriol with quiet confidence. But this narrative of prosecutorial wrongdoing camouflages questions about a troubled team culture and an environment that may have encouraged the charges in the first place.
It is notable that the Duke administration did little to counterbalance the antics of the parties in the case. Dithering on the sidelines, unsure of whether to throw the bums out or stand by their kids, Duke’s weak and measured response may have been the only one available to an institution that lacked an effective internal method for handling charges of off-campus crime. But it did serious damage. By waiting for law enforcement to act, the administration left the Duke community in limbo. The protracted and tainted process sowed deep divisions at Duke and in the city of Durham, which could have been ameliorated if the university had played a more active role.
Part of the university’s job should have included putting a check on a fraternity culture that fed what is, at a minimum, a threatening environment for women. The lacrosse player Dan Flannery called the Allure Agency seeking two strippers because, according to Cohan’s reporting, the team typically went once a week to a topless bar in Durham. But on the night in question, some underage players had lost their fake IDs, so the partiers decided to have strippers come to them. And they had the cash to throw a party with strippers and alcohol because, according to player Ryan McFadyn, hours earlier, at practice, the team’s coach, Mike Pressler, had handed out “something like $10,000” to the players as meal money for the eight days of spring break. While not excessive ($26 per day per person), it gave them the easy financial means to hire strippers and purchase alcohol.
In addition, the subculture of male athletes who obtain summer jobs in finance is problematic. According to Cohan, John Danowski, who became the Duke lacrosse coach after Pressler was fired, observed in USA Today that these male students are “around forty- and fifty-year-old men all summer,” and “they see that for those men, hiring strippers and dancers is acceptable behavior. But the rules of private behavior on Wall Street are different than the rules at college.” If the role of colleges is to promote gender equality and respect, having students spend off-campus time, when they’re supposed to be learning, emulating men who frequent strip clubs creates an obvious tension. Are women sex objects for hire—or are they colleagues? Or—equally troubling—are some women to be treated as sex objects, and others not.
This last question is particularly relevant here, and—if I can speculate—may have driven Mangum to make her rape charges. Cohan writes that the two dancers were only a few minutes into their performance when one player grabbed a broomstick and threatened to “shove this up you.” Roberts grew concerned for her safety and Mangum’s, and cut the show short, angering the players, who had paid them $400 each.
Roberts says the players began calling them racist names, and one yelled, “Hey, bitch, thank your grandpa for your nice cotton shirt!” Another complained to the dancers that the agency had sent the wrong girls: “We asked for whites, not niggers.” Did this sexual and racial degradation trigger Mangum to seek revenge? We will never know, and because the case was so mishandled, the players’ behavior got a pass.
It’s not clear to me that, as outrageous as this case was, it makes a good story. The book’s subtitle, The Duke Lacrosse Scandal, The Power of the Elite, and the Corruption of our Great Universities, announces all the juicy elements. But readers receive little help from Cohan in drawing any lessons from his book, whose major contribution is to offer an exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) retelling. Cohan seems unable to muster the editorial discipline to select key parts of documents and speeches. Instead, he routinely dumps long excerpts into the text, including quotations in which interview subjects repeat themselves. The book runs to more than 600 pages. Just when a reader craves analysis and judgment, there is mere description. For example, when the defense attorney Joe Cheshire speaks on behalf of the indicted players at a news conference after Nifong dropped the rape charges (sexual assault and kidnapping charges stood for a time), Cohan quotes him for more than a page, pausing only to announce that “Cheshire continued, in another virtuoso performance.”
But none of the information in Cheshire’s extended quote is new, since we’ve already seen the situation unfold. At this crucial moment, after more than a year of grandstanding and pain for all involved, Cohan fails to convey what hearing this news must have felt like, what kind of energy pervaded the room, what was going through the minds of players on all sides of the story. What did it mean that Nifong was backing down? We get only some official verbiage. Duke President Brodhead calls on the DA to “put this case in the hands of an independent party who can restore confidence in the fairness of the process,” Cohan writes, and the “Friends of Duke, which had been hypercritical of Brodhead, applauded his statement.” Cohan follows with another official statement: “We are glad to see our faith in President Brodhead has not been misplaced.” It continues this way. I will not.
I question, too, Cohan’s decision not to include source notes. He argues that in “an era when digital access to documents of all stripes is becoming increasingly ubiquitous,” providing notes “seems somewhat superfluous.” I disagree. The ability to quickly find sources is critical, especially about an event this controversial, and the lack of them makes the book less valuable.
My point: it is great to be so close to the action—privy to primary documents, interviews and reports—but it is disappointing not to be able to feel the impact of events. Cohan has put a terrific catalogue of information all in one place. He deserves credit for tireless reporting and interviews with key subjects, including Nifong and Mangum (from prison, where she’s serving time for second-degree murder in the death of a boyfriend). What is lacking in The Price of Silence is the author’s experienced guidance, to provide analysis and a thoughtful narrative. Eight years after this case captured public attention, it still feels like a tragic mess.
Laura Pappano, writer-in-residence at Wellesley Centers for Women, is a journalist who writes about education and gender in sport. She is part of the Women’s Sports Leadership Project at WCW.
Girls Coming to Tech!:
A History of American Engineering Education for Women
By Amy Sue Bix
Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2014, 359 pp., $34.00, hardcover
Searching for Scientific Womanpower:
Technocratic Feminism and the Politics of National Security, 1940-1980
By Laura Micheletti Puaca
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014, 261 pp., $34.95, paperback
Reviewed by Nina E. Lerman
Lack of diversity in the STEM fields (Science-Technology-Engineering-Math) has come under much discussion in the early twenty-first-century United States. “Diversity” masks an amalgam of many stories and many intersecting categories, all needing histories—and the twentieth-century exclusions from these targeted fields have remained underexplored. The two books under review here address important gaps in a long, gendered history of access to knowledge, illuminating gender disparities and feminist strategies. They also remind us that the gates to STEM have until quite recently been guarded, and even when officially opened, the political and pragmatic road leading through them has been a rough and rutted one indeed. Reconfiguring access to knowledge economies has rarely been a smooth journey.
Amy Sue Bix, faced with a limited literature on women in engineering, chose the advent of co-education as lens. Girls Coming to Tech! offers a rich account of experience on the ground at a range of engineering schools, combining administrative reasoning and student perspectives as well as a century-long view of institutional gatekeeping and gradual change away from a single-sex educational norm. In Searching for Scientific Womanpower, Laura Micheletti Puaca is most interested in the histories and politics of feminisms and women’s movements, and the kinds of arguments deployed in making education and jobs available for women in scientific fields. Puaca’s policy-driven history explores strategies of change, from funding to workplace organization, and the implications of these strategies, from 1940 to 1980.
World War II figures centrally in both books as a rupture when women were not only allowed into these fields but actively encouraged and recruited, as industry and research were mobilized in new ways. Readers are invited to consider the era of Rosie the Riveter not only in terms of home, work, and pay but also, as Bix points out, as an important reframing of women’s access to knowledge, whether of rivet-guns, aviation, or electronics. As Puaca emphasizes, women’s advocates during the war had a new argument at their disposal: if “science” would “win the war,” while simultaneously many male bodies were called to fight it, then women trained in science offered an untapped and non-draft-eligible resource. As in Rosie’s iconic arenas of female manufacturing work, mobilization in science, engineering, and technical work was substantial: not only women already possessed of degrees in the sciences but also high school graduates with willingness and aptitude could enroll in newly invented training programs and work in drafting, calculation, writing technical manuals, and more. Programs such as the Curtiss-Wright Cadettes, built on collaborations between industry and higher education; jobs opened for female mathematicians and scientists; formerly single-sex engineering opened admission.
Historians have explored the changing post-war options for Rosie and her rivet gun, but what of Sadie Sliderule and Susan Science? The answers vary, as these two rich accounts—separately and especially together—attest. In Searching for Scientific Womanpower, Puaca argues that the tensions of the mid-twentieth century offered a crucial new frame for granting women access to scientific knowledge, as “winning the war” expanded into the broader Cold War rubric “national security.” 1 Concerns about “scientific manpower” led to a quest for boosting American “brainpower,” allowing activists in education and science to highlight the “wasted” resources of so many female brains. For reasons of national security, then, training women in scientific and technical fields could be made acceptable to otherwise uninterested, inaccessible, or radical- averse sources of power and funding. Puaca finds that especially during the first few decades of the Cold War, again in the 1980s under the foreign policy of President Ronald Reagan, and similarly in the wake of 2001 terrorism, “national security” arguments were common in discussions of girls’ education and women’s work in the fields now referred to as STEM. Only relatively briefly, during the height of “second wave” equality feminism, did arguments—and subsequent policy change—based solely on equal opportunity prevail.
In Girls Coming to Tech!, the potential patriotic contributions of female brains figure as one thread among several in the arguments for institutional change. She points out that historically, unlike in science or medicine, women had no role in the daily work of engineering, even on the sidelines: no botanical drawings or ladies’ chemistry; no healing or nursing. At best women provided administrative and secretarial support, which was kept well away from the construction site or the shop floor. Citing formal engineering’s military and industrial foundations, Bix argues it should not be lumped together with science, medicine, or the cleaner applications of mathematics. The female engineer, even more than the female scientist, was a blatant contradiction in terms for much of the twentieth century: greasy or military or mountaineering, (male) engineers prided themselves on a pragmatic technical masculinity so foreign to female humanity as to make the “lady engineer” simply laughable, or easily (sometimes, loudly) dismissible.
Bix prepares the reader for the intensity of wartime activity with a chapter on women pioneers, as the field of engineering professionalized and claimed a place in higher education. She then details the many World War II education and training programs, from drafting schools to engineering degrees, open to and encouraging of young women students. Girls Coming to Tech! offers the students’ perspective and particularities of institutional context, in complement to Scientific Womanpower’s policy-level emphasis. But while some degree programs stayed open—for example Columbia’s engineering school and Renssalaer Polytechnic (RPI)—other doors closed again when the veterans returned. The later case studies provide much of the rich material Bix musters precisely because they are not salient examples of national security logic: in 1952, for example, Georgia Tech admitted its first white females even as the state continued the policy of paying out-of-state tuition elsewhere for black males; in 1968 CalTech admitted women as it worried about losing “good men” to co- ed competitors. In this wider picture, early racialized feminism and oddly retrograde stereotypes vie with national security to produce (some) women’s engineering opportunity.
The policy-driven historical sources in Scientific Womanpower (reports from committees and councils and commissions, and the attendant popular journalism) tend to mix engineering and sciences together behind the door more women should enter. In these venues, concern with “scientific” training could quite easily be voiced in terms of statistics on the numbers of Soviet women in engineering, and conferences often included representatives of multiple fields of science and engineering. It is worth noting that the “brainpowered” women themselves often organized according to their particular knowledge identities and credentials, just as their work and institutions were organized: the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) met and shared tactics with Sigma Delta Epsilon, the society for women in science. But in many meetings and conferences, “scientific” offered a broad moniker for the contributions American women had the potential to make, in a range of masculinized and internationally competitive fields.
Under this large umbrella, Puaca sorts through a host of collaborations driven by Cold War security concerns: in chapter three, for example, “Scientific Womanpower Enters the Sputnik Era,” gatherings focused broadly on women, or broadly on science, could generate attention to the policy nexus of women in scientific fields: the Commission on the Education of Women of the American Council on Education considered science; the NSF Committee for Scientific Personnel and Education considered women. Targeted activism such as the 1958 National Conference on the Participation of Women in Science, scheduled in tandem with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meetings, further highlighted the issue. Such gatherings routinely included multiple voices: the American Association of University Women (AAUW), Sigma Delta Epsilon, SWE, representatives of women’s colleges, of universities, of industry.
But none of this busy activity should be taken to mean that women’s participation had become natural or obvious in wider discourse, because proposing “scientific womanpower” as a gendered contribution to the nation clashed directly with the now-familiar cold war assumptions about female domesticity and motherhood as a key component of democracy and American freedom. In spaces where female participation in the sciences was not the core issue, the attitude Dean Mary (Polly) Bunting of Douglass College (the women’s college of Rutgers University), came to call the “culture of unexpectation” was pervasive: male policy makers made no comment on reports, for example, that students in the top ten percent of their high school classes who did not go on to higher education were ninety percent female. Bunting herself read this as a “waste” of American brain resources—but fellow committee members noticed nothing unusual. Similarly the difficulty married women scientists faced maintaining their careers and keeping up with their fields were often assumed to be natural (or even a reason not to bother training them), rather than a glaring challenge to existing workplace organization and a site for targeted interventions. National security issues offered a promising gateway into the brainpower conversation, but like so many other feminist arguments in US history, it had much to work against.
In engineering schools, meanwhile, the culture was often more actively exclusionary than simply “unexpectation.” In multiple instances, Bix finds, the idea of admitting women immediately troubled men because it would (obviously) lower the standards of their institutions. Girls Coming to Tech! accordingly offers a deep exploration of structural and cultural resistance, illuminating the other side of the gendered barriers to knowledge access: when discussion at CalTech centered on how many excellent (male) prospective students might be choosing co-ed Berkeley or Stanford, it also fretted about the social adjustment of the (male) Caltech engineer in an all-male environment. MIT had been educationally co-ed for decades, but had no women’s dorm and routinely used housing as a reason to cap female enrollment, until in 1960 Katherine McCormick (of the class of ’04) pledged $1.5 million to build on- campus women’s housing. After the dorm opened in 1963, MIT doubled the number of women it admitted each year: from twenty to forty, in an institution enrolling over 5,000 students.
The commentaries Bix accumulates expose the cultural infrastructures. At MIT the dorm discussion did indeed invoke the specter of cold war Soviet competition, as needed. But the media cast McCormick’s substantial philanthropy in gendered discomfort: MIT “dedicated its first women’s dormitory to go with its first women’s dean, an attractive blonde lured from nearby Radcliffe,” reported Time magazine, apparently distracted from national security issues in the face of “striking equations—long legs, wind-blown hair, fresh faces—attached to creatures who turn out to be working on doctorates in fluid dynamics.” Fellow students at Georgia Tech ranged from supportive, to interested in “vital statistics,” to dismissive of femininity (“For the few women (neuters?) we would get, why mess up Tech?”); the administration enforced a 10:30pm curfew on the women—an hour earlier than library closing time. At Caltech—the institution providing the book’s title headline—women’s admission was often discussed in terms of social life: “Coeds are sure to get a very warm welcome at Caltech. But will there be enough to go around? Don’t fight, boys!” These glimpses may help explain the data: despite significant growth in sheer numbers, women constituted barely more than seven percent of American scientists and engineers by the late 1950s, and in 1957, female engineering students nationally remained less than one percent of total engineering enrollment.
These ground-breaking analyses expose multiple themes worth further pursuit. Given the expectations and stereotypes rampant in most of these discussions, sexuality, now well established as a key tension of cold war culture, is one obvious intersection. Class status is of particular interest in the history of engineering, a path known for many first-generation success stories among the sons of the (white) immigrant working class. Existing studies of individual female scientists, and mentions of more than a few of the female engineers here, suggest that family influences and connections helped support women’s early forays into these male-dominated fields. Explorations of race and gender together might build on these two works along with, for example, Amy Slaton’s 2010 Race, Rigor, and Selectivity in US Engineering: The History of an Occupational Color Line. Access to knowledge has been blocked, and brainpower “untapped,” not only for women. And what of women of color? Georgia Tech admitted its first three (male) African American students quietly in 1961, nine years after its first two (white) female students. A further nine years passed before the enrollment of a small cohort of women of color, braving the double-othering of being a minority presence within two existing minority categories of student.
Both authors emphasize the insights of longer-term histories and bring the discussion into the recent past as they conclude their works. Puaca echoes calls for a longer history of feminism, spanning the obvious activist “waves” and studying the strategies between. In choosing the decades from 1940 to 1980, she hopes to incorporate wartime and cold war conversations about women in science before the more familiar activism of the 1960s and ’70s, as well as the ways arguments for equality could facilitate a different level of change. Bix takes her readers through challenges to girls’ socialization toward the end of the century, spanning multiple feminist waves; the book can be read as a topical study laid out in rich and readable archival detail, but it is also a formidable lesson both in practices of female activism and in various forms of deep exclusion and masculinist entrenchment. The slowness of women’s acceptance in engineering, ironically, offers a long vista of gendered struggle and strategy. As we read through the insults endured, the triumphs over “climate” as well as over problem sets, we might be inclined to echo Puaca’s assessment of the national security argument as “less successful [than equality]... in tackling the deep-rootedness of women’s subordination in science and society.” Bix, however—considering a full century of history—“underlines just how dramatic a revolution” has been effected: “Its most essential lesson lies in the simple fact that today’s young women take it for granted” that access to engineering knowledge is theirs if they want it.
Both books leave readers to contemplate the deeper histories of the twenty-first- century discussions of STEM “diversity.” Current statistics in these fields are uneven: of bachelor’s degrees in the biological sciences in 2012, 59.3 percent went to female graduates; in the physical sciences 40.6 percent in engineering (all fields), 19.2 percent. Echoing Polly Bunting’s comment from a half-century ago: what is today’s culture of (un)expectation?
Nina Lerman is a research scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, on leave from the History Department at Whitman College in Walla Walla Washington. Her current research explores access and categorizations of knowledge in the industrializing nineteenth century.