Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The historic ABSENCE of women's space in academia - Rosalind Franklin at King's College London

Recently, we have seen a renewed attack on the few surviving women's colleges in the U.S. as "exclusionary." The attackers include a motley coalition of "gender neutral" liberal feminists, transactivists, and men's rights advocates--not to mention the random anti-woman types from all ends of the political spectrum. Given that that number of women's colleges has dropped precipitously since the late 60s, it truly looks like a "mop up" operation to end women's colleges once and for all. And we're told that this is being done in "fairness."

What gets lost in all this is how precarious any women's space has been in academia (including the so-called coed universities), and how the men's spaces within these institutions have been carefully walled off and guarded from attack even as they (superficially) "admit" women students, staff, and faculty into "shared" areas.  Which, of course, are supervised and monitored by men.

I was reminded of this recently when re-reading the Brenda Maddox's biography of Rosalind Franklin, the woman scientist who was viciously treated by certain male scientists who also stole her work on DNA--work for which they later received the Nobel prize.

Rosalind was up against far more than a few "mean guys." She was struggling to work within institutions that quite literally preserved and defended male-only exclusive spaces--while generously creating "coed" ones to be "shared" by women and men. There were no women spaces. No place where women scientists could hang out, have lunch or tea together, and talk about their challenges without blokes interfering or calling them out.

The following section refers to Kings College, University of London, where Rosalind started working in 1951:

Rosalind was soon informed that women were not allowed in the King's senior common room where some of the staff ate lunch. With happy memories of Labo Central's disputatious dejeuners at Chez Solange, she felt angry and excluded. It seemed as if her work was not going to be taken seriously. But she ought not to have been surprised. It was hardly a unique arrangement in London at the time, certainly not in a bastion of the Established Church. Women were still not employed at Keyser's bank. Even free-thinking University College, the first to admit women with full status, had one common room for men only, and a separate, joint common room - for men and women; known familiarly as 'the joint', it survived well in the 1960s; UCL women, when polled, chose to retain the status quo.

Like UCL, King's had two dining rooms, one for men and women, the other for men only, both served from the same kitchen. Many of the men preferred to eat in the communal dining room, overlooking the Thames, and some of the scientists refused to go at all into the male preserve because of the preponderance of 'hooded crows' (clerics).

How nice that the male scientists were free to saunter into any common room or dining room they pleased, depending on their whims and inclinations. But then this is typical. Even if a space is labeled as being for women, men barge in and claim it as their own anyway and any woman who dare utter a word of protest is seriously sanctioned or punished. So historically, the theme has been clear: men's space is exactly that. Women's space is only temporarily or provisionally for women at best, and is basically available to men if and when they decide they want it.  

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