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Campus Women Lead

Winter 2011

Volume 39
Number 3

40 Years of PSEW


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For Your Bookshelf

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For Your Bookshelf

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The Madame Curie Complex

The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science, Julie Des Jardins (The Feminist Press 2010, $16.95 paperback)

With this beautifully imagined series of portraits, Julie Des Jardins builds a vivid mosaic illustrating how women across generations have struggled against and within the prevailing myths of what a “scientist” looks like. Beginning with the title figure, Des Jardins illuminates how several talented women came to practice science within the boundaries of what was expected of them—from Marie Curie, accused of drawing on her husband’s genius; to the women of Los Alamos, whose scientific contributions were framed as clerical work; to Rachel Carson, whose environmentalism transformed the biological sciences even as her image helped establish the myth of woman as essential voice of nature. As these examples illustrate, each of the book’s subjects walks a fine line, balanced between social expectations on the one hand and the science that fueled her creativity on the other.

The women’s stories fuel Des Jardins’s riveting account of the shared journey women in science have traveled over the years. Des Jardin’s portraits serve to illustrate the shifting relationships between femininity and science as much as the historical contexts surrounding individual circumstances, and with evocations of Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath, the author hints at tragic artistry in her subjects’ lives. Yet she paints none of her subjects as victims, and her portraits are thus tinged with subtlety, dignity, and occasional brilliance. The book is a delightful read, particularly for anyone contemplating the mythology surrounding women in the sciences and wondering what might lie behind and ahead.

Degrees of Inequality

Degrees of Inequality: Culture, Class, and Gender in American Higher Education, Ann L. Mullen (The Johns Hopkins University Press 2011, $50.00 hardcover)

Sociologist Ann L. Mullen explores class stratification and gender divides in this eye-opening comparative study of students at two New Haven colleges: Southern Connecticut State College and Yale University. Using data drawn from interviews with students at each institution, Mullen parses the decisions that determine students’ life trajectories, from where they apply to college to their choice of major. She finds that to a large extent, students’ academic aspirations, attitudes about knowledge, and general approach to liberal education are frequently informed by socioeconomic status and gender. These aspects of identity sometimes obscure the idea of choice entirely, as when students enrolled at Southern not “because their applications to Yale were rejected, but because they never applied to Yale in the first place” (208). In other cases, they serve as molds for standard outcomes, such as the gendering of fields and majors at both Southern and Yale.

Some of these findings are far from surprising, and Mullen spends significant space exploring how her work illustrates Pierre Bourdieu’s celebrated ideas about habitus and capital. Nonetheless, the study is eye-opening for the real if anonymous human faces it puts on these concepts, and the reader can’t help but be moved by the stark differences in students’ realities. The book’s discussion of students’ attitudes toward liberal education is one of its most interesting contributions: the finding that privileged Yale women are more likely to choose majors without concern for future employability, while Yale men select majors that might lead to lucrative careers, makes a powerful (if ultimately unsurprising) statement about gender and class norms. While the author offers several possible policy solutions to the stratifications she describes, she is most effective in illustrating in microcosm the strength of the structures that hold inequality in place.         

The Rise of Enlightened Sexism

The Rise of Enlightened Sexism: How Pop Culture Took Us from Girl Power to Girls Gone Wild, Susan J. Douglas (St. Martin’s Press 2010, $15.99 paperback)

Anyone who scratches her head at how popular representations of supposedly strong, independent women can somehow seem disempowering will celebrate Susan J. Douglas’s latest contribution to feminist cultural criticism. In this smart and sassy volume, Douglas pinpoints how contemporary media depictions of women deploy irony as a shield, a mantle of “girl power” that masks shockingly retrograde messages about women’s role in society. As Douglas sees it, in the twenty-first century, sexism cloaks itself in an enlightened veneer, shirking off criticism by appearing either so justified or so ridiculous that it’s hard for anyone to take it seriously. But Douglas cuts through this act with wit and wisdom, exposing the troubling messages circulating throughout the media in this supposedly postfeminist age.

Originally published in early 2010 under the title Enlightened Sexism, this new paperback traces one possible map of popular culture from late 1980s sitcoms through the 2008 presidential election. It’s a compelling read, although one can get lost in the twists and turns of irony that are both discussed and deployed here. Douglas—who peppers the text with uses of “like, so” (as in, “that’s, like, so postmodern”)—criticizes viewers for performing their disdain to mask their true love of sexist entertainment. Perhaps—but one sometimes gets the feeling that the author, like her subjects, must secretly enjoy what she publicly criticizes. Ultimately, Douglas plays ambiguity to her advantage, making her point while seeming only occasionally judgmental. She succeeds in embracing her self-defined role as “vintage female” without dismissing younger generations, as unwelcome as her concern for their well-being may be (particularly in the case of her own teenage daughter). Ultimately, the book presents a much-needed argument about the dangers of irony as a form of criticism, and is an excellent read for young and “vintage” feminists alike.

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