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Artist, Heather Oliver             

Ever-Receding Mirage: Non-Default Legitimacy

“…Breathe deep! No hurt, no pardon
out here in the cold with you
you with your back to the wall.”

– Adrienne Rich, the ending of “Orion”

LoughEske Alexander crop

Nature (once a single magazine, now a constellation of suffixed clones collectively called NPG) is part of the scientific holy trinity in terms of prestige. Of course, neither Nature nor Science are above publishing (and hyping) sloppy articles they deem “hot” – as exemplified by the “arsenic” bacteria jawdropper and the ENCODE non-news. To get anything accepted in Nature, whether a peer-reviewed article, a fiction piece or even a letter is a Big Deal and the gatekeeping and power politics are geared to emphasize this core fact. I know whereof I speak first-hand: I have one (mid-author) paper in Nature, reviewed manuscripts for them, and made the short-short list for an NPG senior editor position a few years ago.

Nature and Science do the periodic “women/minorities in science” recap, though their own percentages of non-defaults remain dismal across categories (in fairness, that simply reflects larger academia). Two recent events at Nature highlight the issues of navigating life while not in the auto-approved NPG list.

The first was the decision to republish a comment in their correspondence section. What did this comment say that was so worthwhile that a Nature editor singled it out, assigned it a doi number and reprinted it? In the impeccable tradition of Larry Summers and essentialist evopsycho, it stated that bias has nothing to do with women’s lesser status in science – it’s all about the fact that they have kids. What are the author’s credentials? An internet search reveals he just graduated with a hazy B. A. from a small Texas college and his LinkedIn profile lists his occupation as accounting.

Right on the heels of this, the senior biology editor of Nature (who also handles their Science Futures where “hard” SF gets published) decided to name an outspoken pseudonymous science blogger; the two had been feuding since 2009. The blogger is a non-Anglo woman in the early stages of her faculty career, although her pseudonym was unusually transparent. The NPG editor called her “an inconsequential sports physio”.

I know neither combatant personally. I’ve dipped occasionally into the posts of the now-named blogger and also have occasionally read the uneven Science Futures short stories curated by the Nature editor (several SF authors I know had stories published there but the less said of Ed Rybicki’s “Womanspace”, the better). From parallel experiences of my own, I think the naming was the act of a settled insider who considers in-your-face criticism an affront to his self-definition – but “inconsequential” was even more corrosive. Such terms always aim to raise doubts in those of us whose legitimacy is always on trial, no matter how lengthy or weighty our credentials and achievements.

When I started publishing books, stories, poems and essays, I made a conscious decision to do so under my real name, aware of the risks and penalties of this choice (many of which promptly materialized, with significant repercussions). There is no question that pseudonymity is crucial for those at the lower end of power differentials and that real harm can come to those deemed to be “too vocal” (especially if they’re women, non-white, poor, queer or a combination thereof). I also hear the argument that knowledge should count, rather than appeals to authority – although that slides fairly often towards disdain of bona fide expertise. On the other side, there is equally no question that pseudonymity can be used to snipe without consequences and occasionally hides an impostor: recall the “endangered Syrian lesbian” who turned out to be a straight American man?

I decided to do everything under my real name because I wanted to plant a flag, so to speak. I wanted to make it clear that someone like me – an unfeminine, dark, “uppity” woman with an accent, a zero-generation immigrant who doesn’t conform to cultural gender in either her native or adopted culture – can get scholarships and degrees from Harvard and MIT, can be the PI of an NIH funded lab, can run a department, can write a popular science book, can conceive of and execute a paradigm-shifting SF anthology. All done cold turkey, without any dynasty cushioning or insider connnections. And I wanted to be able to do all my various activities without the fear of blackmail dangling over my head. I got my share of rape, etc threats with “We know your home address” notes appended to them. But I had lived six formative years in a real military dictatorship, where people, including first-degree relatives, got tortured and disappeared. Internet trolls are drooling babies compared to real secret police.

Did use of my real name restrict me? Well, I could not be a shock jock (mind you, I prefer less lazy ways of denoting disagreement than profanity). Neither could I spend much time detailing my serious health issues for extra pittypats – I find dwelling on such matters boring anyway. Did it cost me gigs and tenure? Probably, despite the lip service of both academia and the “progressive” blogosphere to the importance/desirability of diversity and outreach. Would I have done it differently, knowing what I know now? Unlikely. I don’t have the stamina or patience for creating more than one persona/lity.

In short, I wanted to live an undistracted, integrated life, where my personal could indeed be political and vice versa. By a combination of attributes and circumstances, I was able to do so, more or less. It helped that I eventually realized I would never be deemed legitimate, even if I won Nobels, Pulitzers, Hugos, you name it. My “otherness” suffices to make me Johnson’s dog walking on her hind legs. Along the same lines, the fact that an entitled insider named a non-Anglo woman scientist with intent to intimidate was vile but almost secondary: she was classified as “lesser” the moment she made it clear she was non-default.

Non-defaults are never treated as fully human. All else springs from that.

Athena Andreadis Sitting smRelated articles

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Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?

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So, Where Are All the Outstanding Women in X?

Images: Top, Lough Eske by Brendan Alexander; bottom, yours truly by Peter Cassidy – just so there is no doubt about the identity of the author of this post.

9 Responses to “Ever-Receding Mirage: Non-Default Legitimacy”

  1. Asakiyume says:

    I decided to do everything under my real name because I wanted to plant a flag, so to speak … I wanted to live an undistracted, integrated life, where my personal could indeed be political and vice versa.

    I admire you tremendously for this, and for all that you’ve accomplished. It’s a real triumph.

    But I had lived six formative years in a real military dictatorship, where people, including first-degree relatives, got tortured and disappeared. Internet trolls are drooling babies compared to real secret police. –I am quite, quite sure that’s true.

  2. Caliban says:

    Yes, I’ve noticed (speaking as a person who is pretty much default in every imaginable way) the idea, among defaults, that there once was some prejudice against non-defaults, but we–we being defaults–have magnanimously gotten rid of that prejudice and every thing is absolutely fair and equal and to even question that supposed lack of prejudice and barriers is tantamount to discrimination against defaults. I could give you many example of this, but you certainly know even more than I do.

  3. intrigued_scribe says:

    …she was classified as “lesser” the moment she made it clear she was non-default.

    A view that invariably speaks for itself, all the more when attempts are – tellingly – made to paint calling it what it is as “reverse discrimination”.

    In short, I wanted to live an undistracted, integrated life, where my personal could indeed be political and vice versa.

    Truly great accomplishments.

  4. Athena says:

    Dear Francesca, thank you for the kind words. I do wish I had achieved more, but our imaginations always exceed us. Also, I think a lot of the internet flame wars (although they address real issues) often come from rather sheltered perspectives.

  5. Athena says:

    Frankly, old friend, I wish I didn’t need to experience/watch/discuss any of this. It has eaten up a significant portion of my time and stamina.

  6. Athena says:

    Dear Heather, thank you. You’ve seen how I envision truly undistracted lives in my fiction — and you’ve given them breathtaking visual rendition.

  7. Walden2 says:

    Athena, I know it must be tiring to be the brave pioneer and role model, but think of how much your actions and being true to yourself have helped paved the way for present and future women – and men for that matter. I can say with deep honesty and gratitude that I, while I have a long way to go, I am much more aware of women’s issues and my own self because of your knowledge and examples.

    So thank you. Plus as someone once said, when you do not have to lie you don’t have as much BS to remember or deal with.

  8. Walden2 says:

    By the way, I find it ironic that you chose Orion as the image for this piece, as it is not often mentioned at least in children’s astronomy books that his visage in the sky is chasing after the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters, while Taurus the Bull is rushing to their protection.

    :^)

  9. Athena says:

    Thank you, Larry! I’m happy to hear my actions words made a difference.

    Orion has specific connotations for me beyond standard mythology — you can find some of them in the poem by Adrienne Rich whose ending I quoted. I think of him more like Prometheus, pinned by the stars that shape him.

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