Sunday, December 27, 2009

Women in science

I mentioned in the last post a story in Time magazine for June 12, 1944, on DDT. Let me note today another story in that same issue of the magazine that relates to Rachel Carson.

The story notes the publication by Dr. Helene Deutsch, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, of a scholarly tome called Psychology of Woman, based on 30 years of research.

According to Deutsch, the normal feminine woman is passive and masochistic by nature. She enjoys her own suffering. She is always conservative and matriarchal. "Woman's intellectuality is to a large extent paid for by the loss of valuable feminine qualities," wrote Deutsch. "Everything relating to exploration and cognition, all the forms and kinds of human cultural aspiration that require a strictly objective approach, are with few exceptions the domain of the masculine intellect, or man's spiritual power, against which women can rarely compete."

The intellectual woman is masculinized, said Deutsch; she has yielded her warm intuitive knowledge to cold unproductive thinking. An aggressive woman is often concealing a fear of her own femininity.

Few psychologists today accept Deutsch's view that women are by nature passive and masochistic. She is sometimes accused of having given a stamp of inevitability to self-denigrating female behavior. The feminist writer Kate Millet attacked Deutsch for advocating a "doctrine of female subjugation." Certainly, as Linda Lear's biography makes clear, Rachel Carson encountered these very stereotypes in her own work as a scientist and writer.

Deutsch was a female psychiatrist working in a world of mostly male professionals, dominated by the influence of the great male myth-maker Sigmund Freud, whose student she was. The world was at war -- a war presided over and fought by men. Women were peripheralized as at few times in history. All of this personal and social history was undoubtedly reflected in her work.

Helene Deutsch's science may have been flawed, and its influence pernicious, but she was herself a woman of impressive force and intellectuality. She grew up in a time and place -- the Austro-Hungarian Empire -- when women were denied access to higher education and important clinical positions. Nevertheless, she carved out for herself a considerable reputation in international psychiatry, and had a long, productive life as analyst, spouse and mother.

Today we celebrate our daughter Maureen's 50th birthday. Her successful career in paleoclimatology puts paid to the notion that science is "the domain of the masculine intellect."