Saturday, April 13, 2013

Pride of Ownership: Sexism in Science and Pop Culture

It occurred to me recently that sexism is rampant and insidious when it comes to science and culture. Many of you are thinking: “And you’re surprised because?” It’s not the rampant part that caught my attention; it’s the insidiousness. I’m not sure exactly how this came on my radar. Retirees have a lot of time for ruminating.

I believe I was posting on Facebook about something philosophical or spiritual and mentioned Pascal’s Wager. Or maybe it was one of those daily mishaps that have us muttering: Murphy’s Law. This prompted me to begin collecting these “owned” phrases of our language and culture.

My list quickly expanded to science, and included Ockham’s Razor (for which I had no idea of its meaning but have since looked it up and hence corrected my original spelling) and Mobius Strip (which I can easily fashion from a piece of paper). I scribbled these on the back of an envelope, confident that the list would somehow grow into a blog post one day.

More of these phrases that I’m describing as “pride of ownership” came to me as I was driving to Vermont recently to visit my sister. Fortunately, I carry a small note pad that I was able to fish out of my purse, along with a pen, without weaving out of my lane on the Interstate. I’m quite good at fishing by feel. I’m often forced to do that to find my earplugs in the tray on my bedside table when Jagdish begins snoring in the middle of the night. I’ve also learned to write short reminder notes in the dark.

So, tools in hand, or actually on the passenger seat (the pad) and in the center console (the pen), I jotted down other phrases as they came to me. As you might expect, some of them were torturous versions of their proper selves.

Somewhere around the Massachusetts/New Hampshire border, one of the CDs keeping me awake led me to write: Elton’s John. Of course, Brits will tell you Elton wouldn’t have a john; he’d have a loo. But Elton’s Loo doesn’t fit my blogging needs. That quickly led me to Paddy’s Wagon and soon after that, Fanny’s Pack. I was feeling quite clever at that point, and I had not had even a drop of wine.

Greek mythology and the Bible provided a source for several additions to my list. The most obvious was Achilles’ Heel. And hot on Achilles’ heels, Pandora’s Box, Noah’s Ark and Jacob’s Ladder. I was on a roll. Somewhere around the mid-trip rest area and after a lot of figurative head-scratching, I added the Midas Touch and Gordian Knots.

As I neared the New Hampshire/Vermont border, it dawned on me: few of these names that show pride of ownership are female. The only familiar phrase I had come up with was Pandora’s Box. That was only after I had first thought of Achilles’ Heel, which (in a fit of anatomical exploration inspired by the song “Dem Bones”) eventually connected me to Charlie Horse, too.

When I returned home and started to organize my notes, I realized that concepts and ideas were always paired with men’s names. It’s Pascal’s Wager and Ockham’s Razor and Murphy’s Law. Only the inconsequential utilitarian objects on my list were named after women. A pack, a box—both female ownership. The wagon, the ark, even the ladder—male. An insidious show of sexism if ever there was one.

One area where women have historically been recognized as “owners” is in the naming of hurricanes and tropical storms. It took until 1978 for the National Hurricane Center to finally share the glory of devastation with men, and that was done in phases; (North Pacific storms in ’78; Atlantic Basin in ‘79.) I suppose I should look upon this as a great equalizer in the “pride of ownership” battle. As my mother always said, “Thank the Lord for small favors.” Small favors indeed.

And as I always say, “Thank the Lord for a fine red wine, no matter whose name it carries.”

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