Barbara McClintock once stated that she was “not a feminist” which would, in effect, disqualify her from being on this site. But because her life was completely determined by being a victim of a sexist culture, especially the subculture of a life dedicated to scientific pursuit, and she fought to hold her own and not let it stop her, not let it enslave her, not let it own her, she was, in effect, a feminist. If she lives like a feminist and fights like a feminist and sounds like a feminist then she probably is: A Feminist!
She said she was not a feminist in a letter written in response to congratulations she received upon being elected into the National Academy of Sciences in 1944, the third woman to receive such honor since its founding in 1863.
“It was both thoughtful and generous of you to write me as you did concerning the National Academy. I must admit I was stunned. Jews, women and Negroes are accustomed to discrimination and don’t expect much. I am not a feminist, but I am always gratified when illogical barriers are broken—for Jews, women, Negroes, etc. It helps all of us” (FO:114).
She is acknowledging discrimination and low expectations created by such discrimination, that said discrimination is “illogical” and that it “helps us all” when one breaks through discriminatory barriers, but, she is “not a feminist.”
It is unclear why she chose to distance herself from this title but the contradiction in and of itself is instructive and may I say, common, (for me, Theresa, infuriating) and a thorny issue feminists have dealt with over time. To be transparent, #Nastywomenwriters is recognizing that she said this, but upon reviewing her life, her work and her fight, still claiming her as a #Nastywoman of STEM.
McClintock’s personal and professional biography along with the story of the book, A Feeling for the Organism, written about her by Evelyn Fox Keller are interesting trajectories to follow with regard to gender studies and feminism.
McClintock loved science, was in intimate relationship with the plants she studied, was rigorous in her scientific method and yet, because of her sex she was discriminated against, labeled non-scientific, and her work dismissed.
In other words, her sex limited her and was used against her, even as grounds to ignore and disappear her groundbreaking findings on transposition for 30 years until confirmed by men in subsequent research in molecular biology. And then, the story goes, it was “all good.” Or was it?
McClintock had by then almost quarantined herself off from human contact and intimacy. Does recognition that follows neglect and ridicule really make that neglect and ridicule ok?
In a racist, sexist and homophobic culture, the ends do not justify the means. People suffer under systemic oppression in visible and invisible ways that change the way they experience themselves, their lives and their community.
The experience can cause people to shut down, isolate and endure intense loneliness. McClintock suffered all these things. And though she bore it stoically and with integrity, what if she had not had to, what then? The battle itself is wearying, degrading and stressful. It must stop having to be fought.
How would McClintock’s life have been different had she not lived in a sexist society? How many women and other minorities work(ed) this hard, fight this battle, but do not ultimately receive recognition? How many #Nastywomen do we not know about? How many died unknown, unacknowledged and dismissed, with a broken heart?
Barbara McClintock is one of the foremost biologists of our times. She received a Ph.D in Botany from the college of Agriculture at Cornell University in 1927. She went on to pioneer the study of cytogenetics (cell genetics). Through her study of corn chromosomes, she discovered translocations, inversions, deletions and ring chromosomes. In her work at Cold Spring Harbor in the 40s she discovered transposition—the capacity for normal DNA to rearrange itself, change position—which was widely ignored until a molecular basis for it was discovered in the 70s.
Transposition was outside of the worldview and belief system of genetics at that time. It was radical and it was groundbreaking. Though most of us know about it today and accept it as fact, it was a hard sell in the 40s and because she was a woman, it was easy to dismiss these radical findings even from a very esteemed scientist. McClintock was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1983, when she was 82 years old.
“During the 1940s and 1950s, McClintock discovered transposition and used it to demonstrate that genes are responsible for turning physical characteristics on and off. She developed theories to explain the suppression and expression of genetic information from one generation of maize plants to the next. Due to skepticism of her research and its implications, she stopped publishing her data in 1953” (https://scientificwomen.net/women/mcclintock-barbara-65).
One of the main characteristics that made McClintock stand out was her ability to think her own thoughts clearly and confidently. She was a child of extraordinary parents who allowed their children to listen to and articulate their own minds from a young age. If she did not feel like going to school and preferred stay home to ride horses, that was fine with her parents. It seems to have been a formidable mixture for McClintock’s later years.
Her biographer, Fox Keller, describes McClintock’s unusual ability to be alone from a young age, not needing the company of others, and her propensity for being absorbed completely in a subject. McClintock herself describes a hilarious time that she was so excited to take an exam, she began without writing her name on the front of the exam book and once completed, she could not remember her name. She sat there for 20 minutes trying to think of it. (FO 36)
McClintock’s methodology and attention to scientific detail were unsurpassed. She excelled at understanding how to run a scientific study and was very thorough and meticulous in her method. She did not cut corners and was extremely rigorous in her research. She was uncompromisingly demanding of the people she worked with and often, it was said, hard to understand for the dense material people were required to wade through and understand in order to work with her.
At the same time that she was able to see the reduced parts and components she was studying, she remained in relationship to the whole of the organism. She was in intimate relationship to her maize (corn) plants and knew them all as friends. This dual ability helped her reach conclusions that seemed “mystical” to others, but there was nothing unscientific about McClintock. She was in the category of naturalist in that she never lost touch with the whole organism of the plant she was studying.
She was able to move her consciousness down to the level of the cell and communicate and look around at the small scale. On exploring chromosomes through a microscope, she said:
“I found that the more I worked with them the bigger and bigger [they] got, and when I was really working with them I wasn’t outside, I was down there. I was part of the system. I was right down there with them and everything got big. I even was able to see the internal parts of the chromosomes—actually everything was there. It surprised me because I actually felt as if I were right down there and these were my friends”(FO 117).
Do we want to attribute this to the fact that she was a woman or that she was a genius? I prefer to think this is part of her genius and leave sex out of it. That people want to attribute this to her sex, I feel, is another discriminatory practice. If someone is able to see the whole in a field that had become and was becoming ever and ever increasingly reductionist is a gift. She was a maverick and she stayed in relationship to the corn she was working with but this is McClintock’s genius regardless of her sex and this should have been appreciated and evaluated in that vein.
When her biography, A Feeling for the Organism, came out, many claimed it as a feminist tome to women in science, illustrating the point of view that women have the ability to see things as whole in contrast to the male reductionist lens. That because she was a woman, McClintock could see and think this way but the biographer, Fox Keller did not intend this. She intended to write about McClintock herself and her work, and this strength in her work and did not necessarily attribute it to her sex.
The tragedy for McClintock is that she could not get a job, and therefore did not have a lab. She was the top in her field and could not get hired. And it was clear it was because she was a woman and those jobs were not open to women. She was not allowed a professorship in a college; only instructor titles were open to women. She was labeled “difficult” but that is because she would not be pushed into the small boxes and positions allotted to women.
“Without question, McClintock posed a severe problem for her colleagues. Fair-minded men, they readily acknowledged her merit. They recognized fully just how able she was and how important her contributions were to the growth of genetics, and they were willing to go out of their way to help her find support. As individuals, they did not hold the fact that she was a woman against her. The difficulty was that jobs for women were few. And compounding that difficulty was McClintock’s own attitude. In effect, she was refusing to accept a woman’s place. She would not be a “lady scientist” any more than she would be a “lady” in a more conventional domain. She had come to insist on her right to be evaluated by the very same standards as her male colleagues. Instead of being grateful for the efforts made on her behalf and the reward she did receive, she resented the palpable disparity between her opportunities and those of her colleagues. She insisted on equating merit with rights”(FO 77).
Sounds like a feminist to me.
She was eventually offered a research position with a lab by the Carnegie Institution at Cold Spring Harbor in New York and remained working there, continuing her research with her maize for the rest of her life.
Barbara McClintock is a #Nastywoman of STEM.
© Theresa C Dintino 2018
Fox Keller, Evelyn. A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock. Henry Holt and Co: New York. 1983
History of Scientific Women. https://scientificwomen.net/women/mcclintock-barbara-65