Thursday, December 11, 2008

Vintage Sexism: Pop Science from Centuries Past

Google Book Search has recently added a massive collection of vintage Popular Science magazines dating back to the 1800's and, throughout the decades, most issues spend a considerable number of pages dedicated to the controversial questions of Lady Brains and The Woman Question. Here are some classics:

From May 1872 (p. 87): "...excellent suggestions are frequently made by those who are not fitted by Nature to carry their own ideas into operation. This is especially true in the case of women, who, if they were to devote their whole energies to science or politics, would do violence to their physical organization." (Read: oh noes, if we let them have power or education, their titties will fall off!)

From May 1872 (p. 91): "Women, however, with intellects truly masculine, are, and have always been, more rare than women with masculine development of muscles. There are few, if any, distinctively masculine pursuits in which any woman has ever succeed..."

From October 1872
(p. 165): "It is a lamentable truth that the troubles which respectable, hard-working married women of the working-class undergo are more trying to the health, and detrimental to the looks, than any of the irregularities of the harlot's career."

From March 1872 (p. 553): "It is true that the actually existing generation of women do not dislike their position. The consciousness of this haunts Mr. Mill [as he argues for women's rights] throughout the whole of his argument, and embarrasses him at every turn."

From August 1910 (p. 161): "One phenomenon in this connection is almost embarrassing to mention, in view of the present growing sentiment in favor of women's rights and woman suffrage. It appears from the effects of a recent earthquake on the American people, that human reason is more readily inhibited in the gentler sex and in children, than men... This statement will hardly pass for anything new. This distinction is implied in the wording of one report, which states that 'men were excited, women and children frightened.'"

From February 1920 (p. 36): "'I care nothing for style; I can wear the suit I have on indefinitely,' said Miss Fanny Harley... That, presumably, is why she wears trousers instead of skirts... She is convinced that women's success in the business world is threatened by their traditional, fashionable clothing. Undoubtedly, she would prefer to see our stenographers dressed in white trousers... We gravely doubt that would add to their efficiency."

Of course, today's Popular Science is not much better, as you can see by looking at the stories currently on the front page:

1. Science Dweebs Often Virgins - in which we learn that Science Dweebs are always male: "He blames a dearth of sexy role models for today’s blossoming men of science..." (emphasis mine)
2. Sex, Thighs and Video Games - the audience of this book review is assumed to be all-male as it discusses the depiction of women in video games. Here's an actual quote: "So have a read, ogle the pictures, and then grab your, er, controller and get your game on."
3. An article that dares to ask 'are men more likely to fall fast asleep after sex?' in which the author quotes a "sex expert" as saying "Men go to sleep because women don't turn into a pizza" - creepy image there, dude.

So, Popular Science still delights in gender stereotypes. I'll leave it to you to decide how far we've progressed in our popular notions of both science and gender over the last 136 years.


Casmall said...

60 mph! Someone definitely died on that thing!

frau sally benz said...

This post made me laugh out loud and stay up about an hour later than I originally planned. My favorite is the last one, to which I respond by daring Popular Science to test the hypothesis that wearing white trousers will make stenographers more efficient.