Why Can’t Women Do It?

A book review and reflection on Julie Des Jardines’s The Madam Curie Complex 

Sewa Bhattarai

If women really are talented and can do anything that men can, why are there few famous women philosophers, scientists, writers, musicians, and politicians? Why have women been unable to achieve anything notable in history? Are women really oppressed or are they making much ado about nothing? Underlying these questions continuously thrown at women is the assumption that opportunities are available equally to men and women, but women are just not capable enough to utilize them. This issue of women’s inability to break the glass ceiling seems striking to education in general and ELT in particular, because growing up I have heard these limitations resonate in the experience of every female teacher in Nepal (my mother and several aunts being among them).  Though teaching is a popular occupation with women, very few women are found in positions of leadership. The widely adopted explanation for this phenomenon is that women can only do women’s work: housekeeping, cooking and raising babies. In this post, I first share a review of the book “The Madam Curie Complex” by Julie Jardines, who completely overturns this traditional view. I then ask readers to consider how the situation compares to the field of Nepalese academia.

Jardines has researched and listed a number of limitations faced by women in science. Interestingly, those limitations sound eerily familiar to any woman in higher education, and even more so in societies like Nepal. Jardines begins the book by tracing the image of science right from the foundations of Western thought. The earliest philosophers like Aristotle and Plato declared that men are objective and analytical, while women are feelers and sentimental beings. Other rational thinkers also Descartes followed in the tradition and perfected this image. The field of science, as a result, has come to be seen as very virile and physical. In the post- World War II era, following the success of atom bomb, scientific victories were treated like military or sports victories. Male scientists, including Albert Einstein, became a prominent part of art and culture, featuring in superhero movies. Already, the well was poisoned against women who wanted to become scientists. How did the definition of science as male affect women scientist?

Madame Curie is probably the most famous woman scientist of all. After radium was discovered, the French academia lobbied to have the prize given only to her husband, just because Marie curie was a woman. Even though she had started the work on radium before her husband Pierre joined the team, and she was the team leader even after her husband joined. Her husband insisted to the Committee that his wife was the driving force in the research before the committee relented and awarded the prize to the couple. Even so, at the award ceremony the prize giver quoted the biblical story of Adam and Eve “God saw that man was alone and sent him a helpmeet.”

Such condescending attitudes awaited all women who wanted to pursue a career in science. Jardines lists the case of a woman whose examiner did not come to take her oral exam and said he had been sleeping, though it was 2 pm. Women who graduated in the traditionally male fields did not find employment. Like many other women, Ellen Swallow Richards took on menial job as a janitor and sweepers just to be a fly on the wall and learn about her subject anyhow. A talented woman like Rosalyn Yalow who later went on to win the Nobel prize in physiology had to take stenography courses because no one would employ her.Due to anti nepotism policies active in those days, only one of the spouses was employed by an organization. Unsurprisingly, it was mostly the male half of the couple who was employed, even if he was less qualified than his wife. Marie Curie’s husband was appointed a professor at university while she was not. And after the death of Pierre, she was allowed to take over his post, but not as a full professor that he was, only as an assistant professor. Laura Fermi, the wife of Enrico Fermi was herself a fully qualified scientist before she gave up her career to pave the way for her illustrious husband.

Besides the sneering attitudes of the top people in the field, women also faced many practical day to day problems. There were no often no women’s bathrooms in the buildings. Women were often barred from attending public lectures because there were no female seats. Men bonded over nights out at bars and made work related decisions while socializing, which women were not allowed to attend.

And what was happening to these women’s home lives as they struggled inthe professional arena? Today, Madame Curie is remembered as a motherly figure who had nothing on her mind but to discover a cure for cancer through radium. But the reality was far from it, Madam Curie had no interest in curing cancer, but instead was a very passionate scientist. This image of a motherly, caring woman was created for the sake of publicity so that more women could identify with her and fund her to get more radium. The slightest departure from this image could be disastrous: when Marie Curie won her second Nobel Prize, it did not make much news because the newspapers were busy writing about her alleged affairs. These allegations destroyed her reputation; in contrast, the affairs of Albert Einstein were treated indulgently by the press.

Other women scientists also struggled to maintain such an image, without which they were shunned by the larger society.  Even though they were scientists, they were expected to fulfill all the duties of a mother. Rosaline Gilbraith was said to sew buttons, make lunch, and attend all the school plays for her children, while Rosalyn Yalow lived only one mile away from her laboratory so that she could walk there after she had put her children to sleep. Even Marie Curie’s otherwise supportive husband left the childcare to Marie and his father. Jardines quotes Charlotte Whitton who famously said that “a woman has to work twice as hard to be thought half as good as a man.”

And if any woman, despite these hardships, managed to climb the ladders of her professional career, she would face the biggest roadblock of all: the Nobel Prize. The Nobel Prize is awarded to at most three people at a time. Rosalind Franklin unluckily happened to be the fourth partner in the team that won the prize for discovering the double helix structure of DNA . Naturally, she was the one axed from the team, even though it was her photograph that provided conclusive evidence of the structure.

For a woman, it was not enough to be talented to be recognized. They also had to be patronized by the men in the field. Exceptionally talented women like Lisa Meitner, whose work contributed to building the atom bomb, ended up losing out on the prize. Meitner’s partner of thirty years Otto Hahn received the prize alone. As a consequence, Jardines calls the life of Maria Mayer charmed, even though she had taught without pay for most of her life as no one would give her work. Mayer won the Nobel prize for her work. Her husband was a physicist and she socialized with other respected physicists like Enrico Fermi. In contrast, talented women like Eleanor Lamson, Florence Sabin and Williamina Fleming, who had no defending husbands like Pierre Curie, were employed in subordinate positions while the credit for their work was taken by their male superiors. Jardines acknowledges that Nobel Prize discrimination sometimes happens to men too. However, the ratio of discrimination towards deserving women is much higher than the same for their male counterparts.

Many of these problems do not exist any longer. We have laws in place that bar discrimination, and many people have begun to concede that women can be successful in scientific careers. Many (not all, but many) men are willing to help out in the house and coordinate double careers. Thankfully, women can usually find bathrooms at workplace. And yet, the ratio of women in science remains low. A typical engineering class contains about 10% of girls. Girls are even rarer to find in pure science subjects like pure math or physics.

Many of the social glitches that dogged these earlier women still continue to pester today’s women in all fields of career. Jardines writes that once at a conference, a humorous picture of a bikini clad woman was displayed, and the men present burst out in raunchy jokes. How is a woman to handle a misogynist joke? Should she laugh along and hurt her feelings? Or should she express her feelings and jeopardize her career?Most of the socializing takes place in the evenings over drinks. In Nepal, most women still do not stay out late and drink. Work ideas are shared and camaraderie is built over the socialization, out of which most women are shut off.

In conclusion, this book gives an insight into the systematic exclusion of women from science. Jardines explains why it was so hard for them to make inroads into science and proves that the absence of women in science is not a factor of their genetic makeup. In fact, these insights are helpful for women in any field to realize the limitations facing them, and to gradually face these challenges. Hopefully, as time passes and more and more women enter all kinds of subjects, the path will be easier for future women.

As stated above, teaching is a popular career for women, maybe because it falls in the traditionally feminine fields of caring and nurturing children. Today there may even be more female teachers than male teachers in Nepal. But it would be laughable to say that a Nepalese woman can move ahead in her career as well as her male counterparts just by the dint of her talent and hard work. First, the gender hierarchy that prevails in the Nepalese culture as a whole largely shapes the roles that men and women play within the academia: men are expected to, want to, and quite often have the privileges to take relatively superior roles like that of administrators and supervisors compared to women. Second, the burden of work that women have at home doesn’t allow them to invest nearly as much time, to gain as much academic/professional expertise, and to aspire as much as men at work. Third, women who do desire and get into leadership positions are not given the same respect by men simply because they are not men. Fourth, when women are elected or invited to take on roles with authority and leadership, men tend to see their very entry into the position as representation. It would be rare for men to see the entry of a woman into the scene as a privilege for the men to have a female colleague who can add new perspectives and strengths to the institution/organization and its mission. I could go on, but I will leave it there and ask you to add your own perspectives on the issue. I hope you will join the discussion and point out issues that you have observed or experienced in Nepal.

Which of the situations described in the review above have you seen happen in Nepal? Does a particular example resonate with your or one of your colleague’s professional experience in the academia? How far have we come from, say, 30 years ago in terms of women leading or shaping the field of education? I would be delighted to read comments from the NELTA community about this subject.

12 thoughts on “Why Can’t Women Do It?

  1. Sewa
    How could you acquire such a force, clarity and power of expression
    You read quite possessive and wonderful in the review
    Mother read early morning and me now
    I guess I must take an untrodden path
    in order to rectify the past

  2. I think the Ideas here are presented honestly and innocently, however it seems that the history and the society are so complex to interptrete that a singular perspective can virtually do nothing other than unearth only a tiny facet of the reality. We can also argue that the females were not under male domination historically, and to put it through a cultural perspective, it is the male being that was and is the most suppressed, dominated and ostracised. It is evident from the cultural practices of worshipping ‘female gods’- goddess symbolic of wealth, knowledge, bravery, and so on. Not only that, any religious offering to be made to these deities are the ‘male victims’- that a male goat is to be cut, not a female one; that a male cock is to be sacrificed, not a female hen; that male persons fought to protect the land and were butchered at the war fronts, but females stayed massaging at home; that the whole of a village still contains only a single ‘he buffalo/ he goat/ ox’, but tens/ hundreds of ‘she buffaloes/ goats/ cows’; that people feast hardly with ‘she- goat and other she- animals’ but they plan of celebrations along with the birth of any ‘he- animal’. There are many other cases to prove the suffering of the masculinity. A husband, even if he is a doctorate one does accept a wife even if she is illerate. The husband becomes caring for her. But the reverse of this situation is hardly imaginable. What I believe, therefore, is in the individual specialities and the uniqueness of the male- female relationship among different people of different locations at different points of time. I do not think one specific case can be generalized to all, be it the case of ‘The Madam Curie, or ‘Indira Gandhi’ or anybody else. Each case is different as each child is, and each case should be interpreted and understood differently.
    Thank you.
    Dinesh Thapa

    1. Dineshji,
      I find your response to this post intriguing, to say the least (and this is my personal response to your comment, not a defense of the author). I agree with you that the author’s critique of men’s domination of the world of science (and her review of the book) constitute an interpretation of history from a feminist perspective, and that may be a “part” of the reality, as you say. But I fail to understand how “females were not under male domination ‘historically’”—and my focus is on “history” as opposed to myths, symbolisms, and mere semantics. I am assuming that you did read the entry carefully, and I am surprised that you are responding to a review of concrete historical examples with a bunch of mythical and symbolic points that make me wonder if you are saying what you say in a tongue in cheek manner, as a half-joke. But if you are not joking, from what “cultural perspective” are males “most suppressed, dominated and ostracized”? (assuming that you agree that culture includes reality of a society’s lived experience and not just symbolic acts and abstract ideas).
      I also agree that the Hindu-patriarchal society/culture must be given credit for “worshipping ‘female gods’- goddess symbolic of wealth, knowledge, bravery, and so on,” but do you really think that sacrificing male goats and buffalos constitutes domination of men by women? This is one of the reasons why I thought you are just having fun with words rather than responding seriously to the ideas of a female scholar who knows what she’s talking about when you use the idea that men’s sacrifice in war (“to protect the land” etc) as a “logical” response to the author’s argument that male dominated societies have consistently failed to give women the opportunities in the field of science and, when women do somehow make the same contribution, again fail to give the same respect for the contribution. If you read the book that is reviewed, or just read the examples in the review, isn’t it clear that these are historical facts, and the point of the conversation is how as societies we can solve the problem and strive for a more equal world? Is it even a matter of debate that we need to discuss the original issue of the blog post that it is time for societies like ours to increase the role and contribution of fellow women scholars in the field of education, as well as science and technology? Do you really doubt that men and women get the same opportunities and rewards for their work? I think it would be quite insensitive, for instance, to say that our mothers’ and sisters’ work—of bringing up children, of managing the home, of sacrificing their lives for others—gets the same rewards in society, or by the same token to say that men do not have privilege over women in the social, political, and scientific domains. In other words, I think it is insensitive to respond to an intellectual commentary on human gender roles with examples and analogies of buffalos and cocks and hens and cows and goats—seriously.
      I also further agree with you that men “suffer” and have unique roles in societies, including taking more burdens in many areas of life. But I don’t think the author is out to denigrate men’s positive role. I was most shocked by how you go on to suggest that it is a favor when a doctorate husband still “accepts” his wife even if she is illiterate. Jeez, colleague, what a worldview! It’s good that you added that “the husband becomes caring for her”—but why not? Are you suggesting that the husband could stop caring for the wife when he gets his doctorate, when in reality, most of the times, the husbands get to do their doctorates with the support and sacrifice of their wives?
      Finally, whether and to what extent men dominate women depends on individual men-women relationships—to a great extent (and often the reverse may be true). But I don’t think that that’s the point of the review, and of the book. The book and its review are about societies, their actual histories, stark realities/facts represented in the concrete examples. It is one thing to question the authenticity of the examples, but quite another to go on a tangent like that and analogize those things with animal sacrifice and so on. I don’t think that any “one case” is generalized, because the individual story of Curie is indeed presented as one example (albeit a major one). But the point behind the story—that of the phenomenon of male-dominated societies’ attempt to not recognize women’s contribution even when they do make it—is the point of the review, isn’t it? I wished you gave a concrete human example to make the conversation less embarrassing that it could seem in front of the world.
      Again, I have no fish to fry in terms of whose idea I agree with and whose I disagree with; I just happen to be on one side of the debate–and I shard the above with the hope that we can get to read other colleagues’ responses. I look forward to reading other responses.

  3. So the question then should not be why cant women do it but it should rather be why have women not been able to do it? It is mostly the cultural and social factors that play a greater role. And we cannot point to only one because it is so embedded in the way we were brought up. I have not seen a boy play with bhadakuti and a barbie doll and learning how to dress that girl up, and its hard to find girls play with action figures as well. Its not just at the higher level that women are not given a chance but from the beginning we are taught what is to be done and what not. So, its difficult to distinguish where it starts from. And also we should take into notice that pregnancy is what effects a girls body not a guys and she needs to make decision with regard to her career when it comes to marriage. Patriarchy prohibits a woman to be as free as a man. No matter how much we say that i wont let this happen to me, we are bound to fall into the trap because it is hard to find a way out. But there is a vast difference between what used to be in the past and what is now, but there are some obstacles that women still need to overcome. If a guy agrees to come live with your parents once you marry him, like its a given that you are suppose to leave your house to go live with him, that will be the day when there is absolute equality and i dont see that day coming in cear future.

  4. Dinesh ji, let me address your points one by one
    1. there are as many male gods as female gods, so the existence of female gods is no proof of males being dominated.
    2. Let us limit our discussion to human subjects, shall we? As Shyam suggested, the issue of animal sacrifice is not just tangential but simply ridiculous in this context.
    3. Females don’t stay “massaging” at home. They run the household, bring up the babies, take care of the old, do the farming and take care of the cattle, and at the end of the day are treated condescendingly by the likes of you.
    4. The rules regarding he/she goats are made by men (all religious scholars who made these rules are men). Why am I even addressing this point? This is ludicrous.
    5. The question of imbalance in marriage is sorely in the disfavor of women, An educated woman cannot get any husband who accepts her. Hence, women are often forced to leave their education to get married in certain communities. A man doesn’t need to accept an illiterate wife, nobody forces him to, but most men do so because they think such women are subservient.
    6. I have quoted Madam Curie the most because she is the most recognizable figure in science. If you read the blog, you would see that I have named many female scientists, many more were listed in the book, and many, many, more are struggling in real life. I meet these women everyday and you would too if you didn’t live in a self made mythological bubble.

  5. @ Shristy, I think the title is a rhetorical question which means something like “it’s not that women can’t do it, but ‘why’ they can’t”… and/or an echo question implying “Are you asking ‘Why can’t women do it?'”

  6. Dinesh Ji,

    I would first advise you to have a better grip on the English language before commenting. It is perhaps your rather limited knowledge of the finer nuances of the language that have prevented you from understanding the context that the author is writing in. After reading your comment, I would like to ask you, are you even a real person? With at least some knowledge of your surroundings and the social scenario? Or do you enjoy making these kinds of outlandish observations just for the sake of stirring up trouble? As Shyam Sir said, my opinion is based entirely on your comment and not as a defense of the writer. However, if this is all the opposition you can muster, let me tell you that it is an entirely baseless and ludicrous one, as has already been logically shown by the writer herself.

  7. Wanna copy ur Buwa’s comment ..simply no words- ” Sewa
    How could you acquire such a force, clarity and power of expression
    You read quite possessive and wonderful in the review”

  8. I have watched Sewa and Richa growing up with cutting-edge razor-sharp academic brilliance. And the brilliance is radiated so powerfully in the lines above. I am not here just to praise these powerfully upcoming female writers in Nepali academia but to add on to the perspective presented by Sewa. The men-women debate is not new, it’s rather eternal. The society has erred on not acknowledging the most important contribution made by a woman as a mother, or a sister or a wife or a colleague. In fact, the most important of her work at home, without which we can’t imagine what life would be like has not been even acknowledged as work at all. It is the work done by a woman at home alone that fuels the work of the men or women outside.
    The Old Testament refers to the Judeo-Christian hoax. We all are told that Eve was created from the left rib of Adam. This quite easily goes on to make woman the second sex! But there is another, not so much heard of story of Genesis. The Old Testament refers to Judith, the counter part of Adam, who was created of the same clay as Adam was. She wanted to have equal status as Adam and when it didn’t work out, she said adieu to the Garden of Eden and left. She portrayed as an evil in Bible. Such kinds of tricks have always been there.
    However, in modern times, feminist movements and sensitization on women’s issues have contributed in putting women almost at par with men, at times even above par. With women of younger generation becoming more and more assertive of women’s issues, I have no qualms about saying that we are now entering into the era of women.
    To understand what a woman must have been going through in a man’s world, it would do good to understand of Khasi society in Meghalaya of India. It’s a matriarchal society and it’s a woman who marries a man and takes him to her house, with the youngest daughter being the most powerful of all, who inherits parental property and takes care of the parents. The groom, plays with the broom on the floor, does the wash ups and baby-sitting whereas his Wife (or would you like to call her ‘husband’?) goes about managing the business or teaching in the college. There the men are fighting for ‘men-empowerment’! This is, however, only one case in isolation. But it is an interesting case.
    Paradigm is shifting in modern times. The age when men was powerful was the age that required more of brutal energy when economy was based on the use of brutal force be it farming, mining or industries. But the modern age is the age of service-economy be it hospitality, banking, IT or academics which is mainly women’s domain and comes easily to them and women are doing better in these fields than men. And obviously women are ruling and doing better jobs.
    After such a long time, after the launching of neltachoutari, to have the first write up by a woman and such a powerful one has added value to this platform.

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