In this edition of Blogging 101, we’re featuring Lady Science, a blog and publication started by Anna Reser and Leila McNeill. Anthropology and geek culture also involves studies in science, technology and medicine, subjects explored through a gender lens at Lady Science.
The three of us met in Seattle at the 2016 PCA/ACA Conference. Leila and Anna, how did the two of you meet? What are your areas of expertise?
Leila: I hosted Anna as a prospective student to the University of Oklahoma at my apartment during graduate student recruitment weekend, during which I made a lot of unfunny jokes and tried too hard to make a friend. When Anna joined the department the following Fall semester, we shared an office and a penchant for good beer.
My first interest was literature, and from there I became interested in the history of science. While I was studying literature, I became interested in a lot of work that women writers were doing about nature and science, but according to history, would not be considered scientists themselves. I wanted to know why this was. From there, I started to become interested in all of the ways that women engaged with science on the fringes of the scientific institutions from which they had been excluded. Much of my academic research still focuses on women writers and intersections of literature and science. But through working with Lady Science, I have by necessity had to become well-versed in other areas of historiography and other time periods, and I think I’m becoming a better researcher and thinker because of it.
Anna: I came to the history of science from art school. When I started graduate school I was working on the visual culture of the American space program and not really engaged with feminist history or gender studies. As that part of my education became more important, I wanted to make space for it in my own research and in my life as a whole, which is where Lady Science came from initially. I still work on the history of the American space program, focusing on visual culture and the built environment and my work has really benefitted from the diversity of methods and materials I’ve encountered while working on Lady Science.
Where did Lady Science come from? What’s the story behind the creation of the website and the anthology?
When Leila finished her MA and moved away, we really wanted to keep working together so we decided to put together a little feminist newsletter. The project has really grown since then, both in terms of scale and what we want to accomplish with this work. At the end of the first year we moved our website from Tumblr to a dedicated url and published all of the first year’s essays in an edited volume. This was a way to repackage the work for a new audience, hopefully as a teaching tool, and to get some extra eyeballs for our own essays and especially for our contributors. We joke that we’re building a feminist media empire, but if we keep adding things to the project–we have a blog now where we publish different kinds of writing in addition to the monthly essays–that might eventually be the case.
What were some of the issues you wanted to cover in the first anthology? How do you pick topics to publish?
In the beginning, we started with TV criticism because we were both a little unsure about publishing our own research, but that quickly expanded into using Lady Science as a way to cover topics we were interested in but maybe didn’t have time to add to our individual research schedules. We decided on topics on the fly, and based on what our contributors wanted to research. We always try to do something new each month, or to offer a new perspective on things we may have covered before. We hope that in the future these decisions will be more and more directed by our contributors and based on what they are interested in and want to publish.
What makes a convincing pitch for you? What is your editorial process like and what are the backgrounds of some of the writers and contributors you’ve featured?
A good pitch should reveal that the writer has thought through the idea all the way to the conclusion. We really like narrowly-focused essays that don’t pull any punches and don’t hedge about making pointed critiques. Once we’ve accepted a pitch, we really try work with writers to draw out the best possible version of that essay, which is always difficult to do in 1000 words especially if you’re a historian or an academic. Leila and I both do developmental editing on each essay to help sharpen the argument, check reliability of sources, make sure evidence is being used correctly, and then line editing for clarity and to draw out the writer’s individual voice. We do this whole process, including copy editing and formatting, in 2 weeks. There’s nothing worse than endlessly waiting around on your editor, so we try to expedite that process as much as possible while making sure it’s rewarding for the writer and yields a great essay. Many of our guest writers have been historians of some stripe, but we’ve had independent researchers write for us as well. We’re open to writers with any kind of background, and we hope that more people with different backgrounds would consider writing with us.
Ladies in Science
A lot of your articles discuss the role of gender in science, technology and medicine. Why do think it’s important to spotlight women’s voices and stories in science?
Leila: There is no single answer to this question, I think. For the sake of brevity, I’ll only give one. It’s important to show that women have been active creators of culture, and that includes science. So often, we talk about how women, people of color, and other marginalized groups have been victimized by science, and those are certainly essential conversations to have. But it is also important to show that these groups also were at the center of scientific thought, both by actively creating and cultivating it and by being the “other” that scientific authority created itself in opposition to.
What do you think are some of the biggest obstacles or challenges women face in science, technology and medicine today? What are the issues you think people aren’t paying attention to?
Sexual assault in academia is an enormous problem and a huge obstacle for women pursuing scientific careers. We hear a lot about how the gender gap has improved in science over the last 50 years or so, and certainly compared to the historical women we write about, it is much easier to gain access to science as a woman now that it has ever been. But we need to talk more about what the culture of science is like, because it really hasn’t changed much even since the 19th century. Women are still treated as inferior minds and sexualized objects, and the direction of their careers is still largely under the control of male elites. There is also a lot of attention funneled to getting more women into STEM, how do we get girls interested in science, etc. instead of first solving the issues of getting them to stay once they are there. We believe that the study of history is essential to understanding how oppressive cultures and social structures come to be. It’s not just about finding a way for women to get into science and navigate the culture once they are there; it should be about dismantling that culture and understanding that history is essential to that process.
One of my favorite series’ from Lady Science is “Science at the Fringe: Gender and the Paranormal.” How do you approach the supernatural through a scientific lens? Are the two incompatible?
Anna: Science and the paranormal are, at various times in history, the same thing. Thinking about the paranormal is one of my favorite ways to explain the history of science to people who may not know what we do. The ways that we draw distinctions between mainstream science and the fringe are deeply informed by the history of science, which shows us that the line has been continually shifting for centuries. Once you can see that there is no absolute, objective difference between the mainstream and the fringe–only the lines that humans have drawn–you can really start your attack on scientific objectivity, and that opens up a whole new set of possibilities for understanding science as socially constructed.
You’ve referenced Anna Tsing’s feminist approach to the Anthropocene. What would be some of your recommendations in a manifesto for a feminist Anthropocene? What do we lose without an ecologically and gendered awareness of mankind in this new epoch?
Leila: First, I just want to make clear that I am by no means an expert in the Anthropocene, so any recommendations I have are based on my approach of feminist theory. My first recommendation would be to decolonize the Anthropocene, both in practice, don’t only have scientists from the Global North studying it, and in theory. One of the problems that I highlight in my piece about the Anthropocene is that those studying it tend to ignore how imperialism and colonization have contributed to the onset of Anthropocene. If these things aren’t taken into account, solutions to learning how to live in the Anthropocene, the very question on liveability on this planet, will only apply to the most privileged.
My second recommendation is that a critical intersectional feminist lens must be part of the approach to studying the Anthropocene. When we are dealing with the issue of liveability, women and children, historically and presently, are disproportionately affected. Solutions to living in the Anthropocene must take into account how women and children will experience the effects of Anthropocene globally, but the solutions must be addressed locally– intersectional feminist theory can help us do this.
What are some of your favorite science fiction books, short stories or movies?
Leila: One of my favorite science fiction book series is Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood series. I love how she reimagines gender and addresses slavery with such subtlety and complexity. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything else quite like it. For short stories, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and We Can Remember it for You Wholesale are probably my favorite, or at least the ones had left the biggest impression on me when I first started reading sci-fi. I also love Star Trek in a way that is borderline obsessive and probably unhealthy.
Anna: I am a huge fan of Kim Stanley Robinson’s novels, the Mars Trilogy in particular. I like hard sci fi with no aliens, for the most part. Unless it’s Alien, which is probably my favorite sci fi movie. I also love TV, Battlestar Galactica is my all-time favorite show in any genre.
Why are you invested in the equal representation of lady scientists in pop culture, literature or movies?
Media representation is absolutely crucial for naturalizing our conceptions of what is normal. If we don’t see any women scientists in popular culture, and we understand pop culture to be a reflection of the real world, we begin to believe that there aren’t any women in science. When women are represented as incompetent or limited by their emotions, we begin to internalize attitudes about who is fit for participation in science. We live in a world that is completely dominated by science and technology, and often media representations show us that science is completely dominated by men.
Who do you think of as your audience for Lady Science? Who are you hoping to reach through your published work?
We hope everyone feels like they can access and enjoy Lady Science. A portion of our audience does consist of people in our field, history and history of science, but also academics in the sciences and engineering and the general public. We would also hope that Lady Science is a place for women who feel underserved by science writing that doesn’t account for gender to have access to feminist writing on the open web. We take a lot of care to ensure that our essays are appealing to everyone, not just people with academic or scientific training.
What are your plans for the future? What recommendations do you have for women working in science today?
As we said above, we’re laying the groundwork for a feminist science writing media empire, so we’ll let you know how that’s coming along. We’ve recently expanded our team to include two contributing editors, Kate Sheppard and Joy Rankin, a managing editor, Nathan Kapoor, and a grant writer Jaime Tillotson. We joke often that we’re going to end up falling dick first into running a magazine if we’re not careful.
Lady Science is always accepting submissions for critical long form essays and shorter blog posts. If you’d like to contribute a long form essay, please fill out our pitch form, and if you’d like to contribute a blog post, just send us an email with your idea. We’d love to write with you!