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Women in the interim: thoughts on International Women’s Day, 2018

Yesterday was International Women’s Day. I didn’t say anything at the time, because I had no idea it was coming. I’m in the thick of the pre-tenure scramble, and a lot going on both at work and at home, and hadn’t prepared anything thoughtful or inspiring. I only knew something was happening because I logged on to Twitter to discover I’d been tagged in a bunch of tweets, most by women, thanking me or highlighting me as an inspiring figure to follow. I scrolled through dozens of these posts, celebrating the accomplishments of women scientists, leaders, thinkers, artists, activists, and politicians. In odd moments in the car, the grocery store, the bathroom, I felt this persistent itch, like there was something I was supposed to say, but I kept falling short. The words wouldn’t come. I talk about diversity, and women in particular, a lot. But in the flurry of exuberance, in this celebration of women, I felt like I occupied a sort of liminal space, like an airlock on Mars. Not in danger, not in safety. What kind of place is this, to celebrate?

I feel like this is where we are, now, as women. Over a year after we failed to elect the first woman president, and one of the most qualified politicians to run for office, I am still grieving. I felt that loss deeply. It was hard not to see the collective mistrust of women in power and not take it personally, as a woman on a trajectory to a very public kind of service. I am not running for office, but I am a scientist with a voice: I argue strongly for evidence-based decision-making in one breath, even as I fight for the space to do that in the next. Logical or not, that rejection of female power in 2016 felt like a rejection of everything I was, and was working to be, and it sent me into a depression that I am just now climbing out of.

And then came #MeToo, and the daily ritual of ripping off duct tape band-aids as the list of public abusers grew larger. Some of these men were academics, scientists, and there are many left still to be named. Many of us women are wary, watching as our scientific societies and funding agencies are starting to take public stand, and our workplaces are proclaiming new efforts in their support of women. We are still wondering what this will mean for us, in practice. Are we really safer? Will we all get the same support? Which women will be included? When will the backlash begin?

I’ve been watching a lot of media from the 80’s lately, searching for comfort in my childhood. I’ve noticed myself pulled towards films and shows with “strong women” archetypes like 9 to 5, Working Girl, Alien, The Golden Girls. These role models are often corporate, white, able-bodied. They are nascent. They are experiments. They are flawed. And yet, watching these stories nearly forty years on, I see how little progress has been made — in our workplaces, in our feminism, in our field, in our movement. What does that leave us with, as we celebrate one another? How do we begin in the middle, over and over?

I still return to these stories, that feel somehow both terribly dated and urgently contemporary. I grip them like broken talismans, these powerful women. Somehow, we got stuck along the way. Rather than seeing a broader range of women, we stopped telling their stories altogether (though that, now, is changing). We evoked these powerful women not so much to fill void, but so that we could see ourselves reflected. So, like us, they are incomplete. In that way, too, they are like our goddesses: creative and destructive, perfect and flawed. Athena, Durga, Ixchel. Mothers, warriors, crones. I wish our stories, and our gods, reflected more of us. In the meantime, I take what I can get.

As women, we are used to holding space for complexity and contradiction, because we have always had to compromise. Growing up playing video games, I celebrated Tomb Raider, and overlooked the main character’s physics-defying body, because I was so starved to see myself in pixels. I dressed up as Lara Croft for Halloween. My science role models growing up were also fictional: Ellie Sattler, Dana Scully. Today’s girls have so much more — we are telling the stories of living women in science now, and finding more to tell all the time. We are uncovering them, like artifacts, blowing off the dust to know them better. We are pleasantly surprised to find that many of them are still alive. They are women in the present tense.

Last fall, digging into old papers for a grant proposal, I found some of these women. My shock was just as great as if I had pushed aside a stone slab to find the contents of an ancient tomb intact. I’d had no idea. I cried at my desk. They had been here, all along. I had dedicated my dissertation to these “nameless women” who had worked, even in the margins — typing manuscripts, drawing specimens, collecting samples. I had not even thought to imagine them as having names.

I have now come to think of barriers in science not as walls, but as membranes. They aren’t so much broken as weakened with every breach. We pass through, in ones and twos, at first leaving little trace but thinning the integument in imperceptible, but permanent ways. More and more are coming through, every day. Some of us are reaching back now, once we pass through, grasping hands, pulling. There are many membranes left. But they are getting thinner.

A few years ago, I was in South Dakota, working on an excavation of ice age fossils. While others went into the cave, I stayed on the surface and sorted the matrix– the sediment around the larger bones. Like an old-timey gold prospector, I screen-washed the soil and rocks away, revealing tiny treasures: mouse toe bones, rabbit teeth, snake vertebrae, ancient pellets of rodent poop. As someone who usually works with plants, this was a novelty for me. Sorting through sand and rocks with a hand lens and fine tweezers, each find was a wonder.

What I didn’t know is that while I was marveling over these ice age remains, oblivious to my surroundings in the present, something was happening, in the moment, all around me. I discovered a strap in my Chacos, chewed through. The seams in my hiking boots, nibbled. Small holes in my field backpack. A 50-meter field tape, unraveled and clipped into tidy, 10-cm sections. A severed cap on a Nalgene bottle. The modern descendants of those ancient rodents were insisting upon themselves. It was as if they were saying, “We’re right here. We have always been here.” The cave is named “Persistence.” I should have known.

I study extinction, and here was resilience. In times of change, there is loss, but there is survival, too. The mammoths are gone, but the mice remain. The nameless women had names all along. Time marches on; it cannot go backwards. The membrane thins. More are coming through, every day. Out of the margins and the liminal spaces, we are creating something new. We are pluripotent. We have always been here. We are still becoming.

We were given a day, but we are taking the rest for ourselves.

Categories: Academia Commentary Diversity Women in Science

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Jacquelyn Gill

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