Once all the wittering and twittering over the Tim Hunt affair has died down, what are we left with? Ill-judged comments that deserved to be ridiculed, a glimpse into the sexism that female scientists and academics encounter on a daily basis and a well-respected Nobel prize winner’s career clouded in controversy.
As the storm in a test tube begins to abate, what remains is a simple but wearisome idea – women really, REALLY shouldn’t have a presence in spaces that men self-identify as theirs. In the Lab, opined Hunt in his subsequent non-apology, it’s TERRIBLY IMPORTANT that people are on a level playing field. The implication being that scientific playing fields which are made up solely of chaps, will always be level and that class, education, sexual orientation, experience, personality, personal and professional allegiances will make not a jot of difference. No, its the GIRLS that are the problem. Girls (not women) are distracting, they cry if you criticise them and oh, you would not believe the sexual tension that arises over a Bunsen burner. With so many chemical substances already flying around the lab, the introduction of oestrogen into the mix is just too much and it is the poor innocent science that suffers!
It’s all utter nonsense, but perhaps the reason his comments touched a nerve and the whole incident spiralled into Twittermob meltdown is that they typify both the anti-female zeitgeist of our current times and the age-old misogyny that has proved to be remarkably cockroach-like in its ability to evolve and survive.
From Gamergate to Twitter, from campaigning for Jane Austen to be on the £10 note to presenting BBC history programmes, from a presence in the boardroom, laboratory or lecture theatre to any sort of online presence, women are currently being horrendously abused and threatened simply for being there and participating. Since Hunt’s now-notorious speech, we’ve had London’s Garrick Club voting to remain a male-only enclave and Ellen Pao forced out of her job with Reddit due to vicious online abuse, to name but two recent examples of the desperate desire of some men to colonise various places and spaces.
Why? Because of the simple contention that men and women are different and within that difference lies inequality. This is nothing new and the shadow of Eve hangs over us still. For millennia female subordination was predicated on the outcome of the most ill-fated garden stroll in history, and for some, it still is. Even when Enlightened science and philosophy began to undermine the old, long held prejudices, Eve’s legacy lived on in the new ways people found, and continue to find, to justify the subordination of women. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, science began to replace God as the reason for female inferiority and it was biology, rather than sin, that justified women’s submissive role. Women have children and for that reason, their own reason is subordinated to their womb. To produce and raise their husband’s children is both the only, and supreme, role of women.
“The whole education of women ought to relate to men. To please men, to be useful to them, to make herself loved and honoured by them, to raise them when young, to care for them when grown, to counsel them, to console them, to make the lives agreeable and sweet – these are the duties of women at all times and they ought to be taught from childhood,” wrote Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1764, summing up the new attitude of a world which was no longer quite so sure of the validity of the old religious truths, but desperate not to allow women to think all the chatter around the new and exciting concept of ‘rights’ could apply to them.
Trouble is, women were already thinking exactly that: “If all Men are born Free, how is it that all Women are born Slaves?” asked Mary Astell in 1700, beating Rousseau’s revelation that, “Man is born free, but everywhere is in chains” by sixty-two years and signalling the beginnings of the intellectual debate about the basis on which male superiority was built.
Women have always challenged the idea that there are spaces, physical and metaphorical, into which they should not enter and for it they have been sneered at, abused and too-often killed. They have been branded heretics and witches; infuriated the sour-faced John Knox into blasting his first trumpet against their monstrous regiment; likened to hyenas in petticoats, and dismissed as unsex’d creatures. Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea summed it up in verse:
“Alas! a woman that attempts the pen,
Such an intruder on the rights of men,
Such a presumptuous creature, is esteemed,
The fault can by no virtue be redeemed.
They tell us we mistake our sex and way;
Good breeding, fashion, dancing, dressing, play
Are the accomplishments we should desire;
To write, or read, or think, or to inquire
Would cloud our beauty, and exhaust our time,
And interrupt the conquests of our prime;
Whilst the dull manage of a servile house
Is held by some our outmost art, and use.”
The vitriol directed at these women has always revealed more about the insecurity on which the gender hierarchy has been based, than the women themselves, and has largely been based on the notion that there is a naturally ‘right’ way for women to behave, and the natural space in which they should exist is the domestic one. If they should they have ambitions beyond it or don’t behave in the way sanctioned by society as feminine, then they should be made to know their place. They should be threatened, harassed and intimidated back into the dark places of subservience and submission.
Today, after the first, second and third wave feminisms which has fought for and won many victories for the notion that women are, in fact, rational creatures and not children of a larger growth, we find ourselves once again facing the vitriol of gender insecurity. The language is different, but the arguments are the same. Women shouldn’t intrude on the rights of men. Whether it is the right to science, business, politics, the digital space or the public space, somehow we are still labouring under the notion that these are spaces that are presumptively gendered and that gender is male.
Glimmers of hope exist. The Garrick Club’s vote to continue to exclude women didn’t pass without controversy and many of its members were infuriated not that women should be allow in, but that they continue to be kept out. But they are glimmers only, and they are lost in a culture still saturated by a petulant sexism; a sexism that ultimately hurts both men and women in its continued desire to draw rigid and uncompromising lines of demarcation between the genders.
So maybe the real significance of Tim Hunt’s comments is that they have no significance; they are simply a continuation of Eve’s legacy, reminding us of the battles still ahead. But history tells us that too much progress has been made by too many people, men and women alike, for us to sink beneath its shadow now.