Science and Solstices

Jun 21

Early in the planning for Science Fair, Molly Ledford was considering writing a song called “Raised By Scientists” for Lunch Money to perform.  That didn’t happen (yet?), but I really like the idea of it — it is a very specific way to be raised.  To give one hint of what it was like, at least in the Childs household, I’ll direct you to a piece I wrote three years ago about having a chalkboard in our dining room.  (Incidentally, I just repaired that chalkboard, so it will again have a place of prominence after our move to Austin.)

But for the song of my childhood to be complete, it’d have to be “Raised By Scientists and Feminists.”  To give a hint of that, as I’ve also mentioned, and as the Deedle Deedle Dees memorialized in song, I chose Susan B. Anthony as the subject of a book report, and then dressed up as her to present it — that, along with the fact that I am reliably informed that my first question to potential preschool friends was, “Are you for the ERA?,” should give you a sense of that side of our childhood.

Thus came Science Fair.  The CD, as the liner notes indicate, was inspired by the lives of my parents, Ves and Holly Childs.  My dad (an electrochemist and feminist) died three years ago today — on the summer solstice, which, that year, was also Father’s Day.  I chose today for the Paste Magazine-hosted premiere of the video for Mates of State‘s contribution to the record in part to honor the date.  And then I also asked my mom, whose background you can read about below, to write a little about being a feminist in science and engineering.  Here’s what she wrote:

I was slow in coming to the realization that I was drastically underpaid and disrespected compared to my male coworkers. It was 1964 and I was in my second year of my first off-campus job, at Phillips Petroleum Company. I was using the company’s new IBM 7094 mainframe computer to model and optimize nonlinear systems like gasoline plants, a somewhat harder group of problems than those most of my coworkers were working on.

I knew that my job title (engineering aide) was different from those of my peers (research scientist, computer analyst), though my job was similar; I thought that was because I had been hired more recently than everyone else. I was grateful to have been hired at all, though I had a solid BS degree with a double major in math and chemistry and had done better on the pre-interview tests than anyone else who had ever taken them. The matrix algebra courses I had taken, expecting them to remain entertaining but useless, had actually given me a head start on understanding the project I was hired for.

Two things happened about the same time to open my eyes. First, the project my boss and I had been working on was ready to be written about and published. Second, the company hired another “engineering aide” in my department.

I learned that my boss was hiring another person to work on our project, primarily by writing a journal article; he and my boss would coauthor the article, and I would not. I got to figure out most of the computer coding and engineering simulations and to draw the illustrations for the paper. The article was so long that there was no room even to express thanks to me.

The new engineering aide was a young man with a high school diploma and a drafting class. His job was more clerical than technical. He was paid slightly more than I was.

Because I was a woman, I was classified as a low-paid, low-prestige employee and I was not eligible to publish technical work that I had done. I was enraged. But there was nothing to be done. Sex discrimination was perfectly legal, and, indeed, expected, by everyone except me.

Starting in college, I had worked on “desegregation,” as civil rights activities were then known. I hadn’t realized that women needed protection for their civil rights too. I knew that women in the sciences were regarded as “cute” or as interlopers; a physics professor referred in a class I was in (50 men, two women) to “girls in college looking for their M.R.S. degrees.” I knew that not many women actually worked in science or engineering. But my parents had encouraged me to pursue chemistry, though my high school had offered no science at all – my mother always told me that I could do anything I wanted, and that the women in my family were strong achievers. It had never occurred to me that I might be underpaid or disrespected at a fairly won job that I was doing exceedingly well.

Partly in reaction to my own experiences, soon after our third (and last) child was born, I started working for the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have forbidden having different laws for men and women (excepting obvious areas like privacy and wet nurses). I spent ten years as a full time volunteer; another woman and I ran the field organization in Oklahoma. We lost the last legislative vote by one vote (that of a legislator who told our lobbyists he was going to vote yes, walked onto the floor, and voted no). I believe that, even though we lost, our ERA work made gender discrimination less socially acceptable.

Women still do not have constitutional protection, and job and educational discrimination continue, albeit in more subtle ways. I would really like to know for sure that my children and grandchildren will be treated fairly in school and on the job, regardless of their gender. I would particularly like to be sure that any of my beautiful little granddaughters who wanted to be a scientist or engineer, like me, would have a full opportunity to do so, and to be published when deserved and to be paid equitably. Perhaps this record will contribute toward that end.

- Holly H. Childs

I’m so grateful to my mom, and my entire family, and so proud of all of their work.  It’s not done: One, two, three.

You can pre-order Science Fair now, if you don’t have a local retailer that will be carrying it on its release on July 3.  Proceeds will benefit Girls Inc.’s science education programming.

One comment

  1. I came here from Cool Mom picks – this sounds really neat! I will have to check it out. Thanks for sharing your mom’s story. It’s hard to believe what the entrenched ideas about the abilities of women were as recently as the 60s. We still have a way to go but I am still so glad for those women who worked hard so that those of us who came after could be amazed by how things were.

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