Monday, January 05, 2009

Social Beavers and Normal Women

I hope that I am winning a way which others will keep open. Perhaps the fact that I am not a radical, and that I do not scorn womanly duties, but deem it a privilege to clean up and supervise the room and sew things, etc., is winning me stronger allies than anything else… I am useful in a general way, and they can’t say study spoils me for anything else.

~ Ellen Swallow Richards in a letter to a friend in 1872. She was the first woman admitted to MIT, where she earned a BS in chemistry in 1873.
I was browsing through the videos in MIT's TechTV collection and stumbled on "The Social Beaver". It was filmed in the early or mid-1960s, and depicts "typical" student life at MIT. It spends a few minutes focusing on the few women who were enrolled there.

In the embedded the video below, the segment about "girls" starts at about 6:15.

Looking back 45 or so years, the whole campus appears terribly old-fashioned. The filmmakers seemed to want to emphasize how "normal" the girls are. We see them relaxing in the girls-only dormitory ("no men allowed") in what the narrator calls "typically feminine fashion": knitting, chatting about boys and dates, and singing around a piano. Of course they study too, but "the studious beaver is also the social beaver"1, and one young woman turns out to be doodling an evening gown instead of boning up on multivariable calculus.

What is particularly striking to me is where the young women aren't. The film shows all the different extracurricular activities open to students - the newspaper, the yearbook, band, radio station, rocket design club, a variety of intramural sports, student government and more - and all you see are male faces. It wasn't just because women "chose" to not participate: of all the sports in MIT's extensive intramural program, only sailing and fencing were open to women. While women were at the Institute it seems that they weren't really part of the Institute.

Of course part of the reason we see so few female faces was that women only made up about 5% of the student body in the 1960s. They wouldn't be particularly visible even if they did participate in campus activities. But they also had to contend with the attitude that all they really were interested in was boys and babies. Take, for example the 1964 symposium on Women in Science and Engineering hosted by MIT. One of the invited speakers was well-known psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim2 who stated:
As much as women want to be good scientists or engineers, they want first and foremost to be womanly companions of men and to be mothers.
That's a helluva broad brush to paint half the human population with. Any woman who was focused on her research and career, happy to be single or childless, or uninterested in dating men would be considered unwomanly, at least by Bettelheim's standards. I doubt he was alone in that attitude, considering that even today many people still assume "normal" women are primarily interested in marriage and children. It's the usual no-win situation: traditionally feminine are assumed to not be focused on their careers, and women who focused on their careers were aren't "normal" women.

Interestingly, the percentage of women in the MIT student body began to shoot upward beginning in the early 1970s. This was correlated with two significant changes: the opening of co-ed dorms, so that the open slots in the women's dormitory didn't limit women's enrollment, and a switch to gender-blind admissions. Currently women make up more than 40% of the MIT undergraduate population and 30% of the graduate school population. And they definitely participate in intramural sports.

1. Yes, you have a dirty mind. However it may be noted that the sports teams at MIT are currently called the Engineers, rather than the Beavers.

2. Bettleheim is best known for popularizing the "refrigerator mother" explanation for autism. The idea is pretty much how it sounds: "emotionally frigid" women cause their children to become autistic. This has been discredited here in the US, but apparently is still a popular notion elsewhere.

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Anonymous said...

Wow, I love that the men's study areas are celebrated for the help that is constantly available while the women's study area is called a place of absolute silence. I also like how nothing in the women's section actually reflects true studying. And we wonder about the perceptions that still remain with us?

Heather said...

I went to Wellesley, a women's college which considers itself the "sister" school to MIT, and even the films about Wellesley in that era portrayed women like that.

My dad was at MIT around that time and women were just another invisible minority like racial minorities. He found himself a smart date from B.U. instead.

Anonymous said...

Caltech's teams are still the Beavers. Who's up for a rousing cheer of "Beaver fever, snatch it up!" at a women's sporting event?

Anonymous said...

thank you