Moving past the creeping stupid

Posted by mouthyb | Posted in | Posted on 10:20 PM

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This set of rambles brought to you by my childhood, Butterflies and Wheels and Science Sushi.

One of the absolute boons to being a feminist, atheist and skeptic has been the slow process of dismantling the social pressure not to 'compete' with men by being competent at problem solving, a not uncommon problem for women, especially those interested in the STEM disciplines.

Some of the problem was the broader social problem with the harassment, sexual and physical, which revolves around gender roles. The well known problems which women experience based on gender and conformity to gender roles engenders fear. While I disagree with one of the premises of this study, the conclusion that confidence is seen as risky is one I am intimately familiar with: it came up often enough when I was growing up.

Case in point: my father, as I've previously mentioned, is a Southern Baptist. The SBC has views on uppity women, and the seminarian who wrote that particular piece of crap is also internet infamous for a 2008 sermon blaming wives for domestic violence, for trying to subvert their place in a rightful, godly relationship. The consequences for this point of view are obviously not limited just to the act of violence. In my case, it meant that my capability for reason and unwillingness to stop asking questions was the attempt to wrest control of the family from him and to violate my proper place in terms of gender roles, even though the questions I asked did not necessarily concern him, though I certainly asked some pointed questions about his role in the family, religion and why I ought to know better than to think I could be good, as a woman, at math or science or reasoning.

The ensuing violence and degradation was bad enough to prompt my mother to give me the advice that if I were smart, I'd learn to stop being good at things, so that the men around me would not feel compelled to punish me for competing with them by being good enough to be a 'threat.' Coupled with the treatment at the religious schools I often went to, the general sexism of society and the whole narrative about women being deficient at math and science, my natural tendency to aggression, competition and problem solving became something I learned to dread.

And yet, it called to me. I stole my father's copies of Godel, Escher and Bach: The Golden Braid, his college algebra and then calculus books, books on electrical engineering and anything I could find in the closet he stored his textbooks in.

But whenever it came time to demonstrate that knowledge I choked; my body remembered being beaten, and I felt like such a failure, a faker. Nevermind that I could read those books (my father, in fact, when he caught me reading GEB, quizzed me on the contents to make sure I couldn't understand it), I couldn't demonstrate or use what I understood of them because no one would believe me, even if I understood well: in the face of a man or male figure, I would inevitably wind down, red-faced, stammering and sometimes even crying in frustration, the same way I would wind down when my father questioned me closely on what I read, demanding that I could not possibly understand it and greeting my attempts to explain with poorly contained contempt or condescension, leading to a corrective beating and having my books taken away.

After all, I was only a girl. I did manage to talk him, after three years or so of asking, into buying me a chemistry set, instead of dolls, one Christmas. I was allowed to keep it for a few months. To be fair, I managed to explode a test tube after making a copper sulfide mixture and adding salt and random things from the chemistry set, and cut myself to see what blood looked like under the microscope I got with the chemistry set.

I cried when my family disposed of the chemistry set.

I kept coming back to STEM ideas, lurking around the edges. Reading, but not daring to comment too often, hopelessly loving something I did not think I had a hope of being allowed to be close to. Until recently, many of the comments I dared to make were roundly rejected on the basis of vagina: a disproof by that famous method, Redarguo ad Cunnus.

Part of the long process of distrusting social narratives has been the joy of rediscovering the world of math and science. That process started in grieving: the loss of family (we cannot have a close relationship), the loss of years of productivity, that I had a panic attack when asked to test in math or science, and grieving the loss of self, the profound alienation of being forced to hate a portion of yourself. Feminism was where I started, because it gave words to that pain and a community of others who had suffered it. I was no longer alone, nor alien, nor aberrant or defective. Feminism has whole reaches of theory, places where I could be intelligent and express that intelligence, and in fact the gains we start to see in STEM disciplines are a direct result of feminism and feminist activists who fought, in my lifetime (the Summers speech at Harvard, for instance, was made in 2005), for the larger society to see past the stereotyping of women as incapable.

From being enabled to express logic and critical thinking as a result of feminism reassuring me that I could, as a woman, defeat that creeping stupidity and fear, I started to branch out. I needed to keep trying to understand, to move past that grief and fear and into something more. My natural tendency, even when beaten, is to ask questions. I am one of nature's own skeptics.

Atheism, for me, has been the result of that; without feminism, I wouldn't be here. Atheism merely allowed me to start to tidy up the loose ends of religious indoctrination about gender.

The result: oh, how I love my geeky self.

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