Author Archives: Ruthi

About Ruthi

Went to graduate school for love of mathematics. Intensely passionate about social justice, I want to use my superpowers for good: let's use math to make the world better.

Do you believe in conservative feminism?

Here’s an interesting video at the New York Times website showing Camille Paglia talk about a column she wrote 20 years ago about her view of feminism as an all inclusive tent and why she believes that Madonna is a feminist. A quote from the original article

Madonna is the true feminist. She exposes the puritanism and suffocating ideology of American feminism, which is stuck in an adolescent whining mode. Madonna has taught young women to be fully female and sexual while still exercising total control over their lives. She shows girls how to be attractive, sensual, energetic, ambitious, aggressive and funny — all at the same time.

In this day of postmodern feminism, it’s funny to consider that there was a time when mainstream American feminism completely rejected and demonized Madonna. However, Paglia extends the idea that feminism is broad: in the video, she claims Sarah Palin and the many conservative women running for office who have recently come to the spotlight.

Personally, the idea of this makes me sick to my stomach, but I have to think carefully about why I am different from feminists who rejected Madonna in the 80s. For me, the root of the issue is that I feel the policies and ideologies that Palin supports end up limiting possibilities of life for women. I suppose the anti-sex feminists of the 80s argued against Madonna on the grounds that she was promoting the view of women as sexual creatures define by the male gaze. I think there are two things that I see as different. First, as a feminist who sees sex as something contextual that can be either feminist or anti-feminist depending on the hows and wheres and whos of it, I am not convinced that Madonna’s blatant sexuality is anti-feminist (in fact, I personally see Madonna as a feminist figure). The policies that Sarah Palin advocates are not just contextually anti-feminist; they actively prevent and oppose equality. Secondly, while celebrities have big influence on the state of our society, there is a big difference between the political influence of a politician and the political influence of a pop star. The idea that super right wing politicians are being considered as legitimate contenders to political power on what is being hailed as a feminist platform sends shivers done my spine.

That’s not to say I believe conservatism and feminism are completely mutually exclusive.

Personally, I see this as depending on what you mean by “conservative”. There are some traditionally conservative positions that I believe are intrinsically anti-feminist. But I do believe that, especially when it comes to fiscal conservatives, it is very possible to have views that are consistent both with strains of conservatism and strains of feminism (because, let’s keep in mind, both are multifaceted movements). I think it’s possible to be anti-tax and feminist (although the political half of my mind is pointing out that poverty and unemployment affects women at much larger rates than men, and that cutting social programs that help such women is in itself an anti-feminist act).

That being said, the idea that Sarah Palin et al could be identified as feminist. My first thought is that it’s an improvement on Shafley, Flanagan, and Coulter, but you know what? I’m not sure it is.

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Mass Meeting 2010

I hope everyone’s looking forward to a new school year as much as I am. Be sure to join us for our mass meeting, this Thursday, September 16 at 8pm in the Tap Room in the basement of the Union.

See you there!

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One more thing on John Tierney…

As a follow-up to his column last week, Tierney published a follow-up on how women aren’t being discriminated against, they’re just not as good at STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields as men. I am going to try to be short in my response, because I have two very interesting projects in arithmetic geometry to get back to working on (something I would much rather be doing than getting riled up about John Tierney).

Before I go back to talking about the actual issue, I’d like to point out the language in the following paragraph near the end:

Aided by the continuing federal grants, researchers and advocates have developed theories that women are being held back from pursuing careers in engineering and physics by “stereotype threat,” by “implicit bias” and by a shortage of female role models and mentors. Yet none of these theorized barriers prevented girls and women from dominating the fields that most interested them.

Now, through out the rest of his column, when Tierney finds data he likes, he uses language such as “Researchers found that ____ was true.” Note that when he is referring to ideas he doesn’t believe, researchers are suddenly joined by advocates, and now they develop theories and theorize barriers, rather than study data. And I don’t think I even need to mention the scare quotes. My point being (okay, I may have stolen it from Ellenberg’s blog) that it is ridiculous how biased the language in Tierney’s column is. See below for some examples on how to do it in the opposite direction.

Here are what I read to be his main points:


  1. Women are not/no longer being discriminated against in applying for grants and in getting hired. In fact, they may be at an advantage.
  2. There are less women in math because they simply choose to focus on family rather than careers.
  3. Women like people! And everyone knows that scientists are loners who spend all their time in a basement lab.
  4. The government is wasting my tax dollars by spending it on researching a gender bias which doesn’t exist.
  5. “I can’t see how we’re helping [girls] with scare stories about the awful discrimination they’ll face. ”

Here are my responses:


  1. Even if all his studies show the complete picture when it comes to grants/hiring and are accurate (which I don’t believe they are), they can hardly be proof that women are not being discriminated against/being disproportionately in the million other things that affect life in academia.
  2. This doesn’t exactly explain why women are more likely than men to give up their careers for family (which may not be an issue of discrimination but is an issue of living in a gendered world in which the expectations placed on women and men are extremely different). It is also important to note that the entire employment system we have was built . None of this (his argument or my counter-argument), of course, is specific to STEM fields, nor does it explain why women are disproportional in math and computer science, but not in biology. In arguing that it will not help for universities to become more flexible, Tierney “academia already offers parents more flexible working arrangements than do other industries with smaller gender gaps” – perhaps this is a reason to consider other factors?
  3. Bullshit. Liking to work with people is not mutually exclusive with being a mathematician or scientist. Some of the best work in science, especially in fields such as physics or astronomy, is done when large groups of people work together and collaborate on projects. Even leaving that issue aside, why is it unlikely or ridiculous that what we like might, maybe be influenced by social factors (including columns in the New York Times) which tell women that they are just not cut out for the hard world of science?
  4. I should be very careful. There are lot of gendered factors which play a huge role in influencing the gender gap, and would probably not be called discrimination or bias. It’s all in the little things, and those little things add up. An encouraging or discouraging teacher is enough to make someone love a subject or give up for the rest of their life. If teachers are just a little tiny bit more inclined to encourage men, that can make a HUGE difference on who wants to study science. If girls never see female role models in the form of mathematicians, we can’t say this is gender bias directly, but it certainly plays a role. And these details are certainly worth studying and paying attention to. (As for the complaint about the misappropriation of funds, since when is it news that people burn money on stupid shit?)
  5. I can’t see how we’re helping them with scare stories about how they just aren’t as good as boys.

Here is the bottom line when it comes to these things: The US has a huge problem recruiting scientists from its own population. We have some of the best universities in the world, with many of the very best (foreign and domestically raised) researchers in the world. These universities nurture students, these researchers have children who inherit their abilities and strengths. We should be able to build off of this. Instead, we got beat by North Korea in last year’s IMO, and since 1990, only two U.S. citizens have been awarded the Fields Medal (compared with 6 Russians, 4 Frenchmen, 2 Brits and 1 each from New Zealand, Belgium, Japan, and Australia). This problem with teaching and raising is true about BOTH genders, but it is more so about women. And this isn’t true about other countries: at the International Mathematics Competition (a college-level mostly-European competition which sorts teams by university not country) these last two years, the U.S. teams (from Michigan and Princeton) were about 1/5 female. To be fair, most of the teams were completely composed of boys (men? It’s hard to consider 20-year-olds adults). Would you like to know which country sent both the most number of participants and the highest number of girls? Iran. In fact, when talking to some of the girls one of the Iranian teams, they were completely shocked that I was the only girl on my team.

There are a lot of reasons for this and some of these are so subtly entrenched in our society that changing them seems impossible. For example, a 1999 study by researchers at UW-Madison found that both male and female academics (in this case, psychologists), were more likely to hire a candidate who was male, and more likely to give them a higher starting salary. And the million and one things which effect children as they are growing up. Because many of the influential factors are subconscious, and not easily changed, all the more reason that we should be extra careful with the things we do have control over, and open up discussion to work on those things we seem not to. This is exactly what the bill in Congress that Tierney is so upset over is meant to do. Bring people in STEM fields together to discuss the various ways that men and women are influenced differently, and what things we can do about them. That Tierney is upset about this makes me both sick at the fact that he does not find this to be an important enough issues, and a little confused as to what he has against discussion.

P.S. In my classes, I have never had a university-level math or physics instructor who was female. What do you think this does?

(Disclaimer: Yes, it’s all biased towards math. Can you blame me?)

Edit: Here’s another excellent link discussing how academia may rely on “boy’s clubs” for important awards and decisions.

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Shocker! Women good at Math and Science

The NYT recently had two articles that made my skin crawl.

The most recent one, from yesterday, is a yet another column by Ross Douhat in which he seems to think he has something meaningful to add to a discussion about feminism. I don’t feel like tackling this, but there is an excellent response by Sara Libby. The take home point: feminists realize that in voting for a candidate the most important question is whether the candidate supports policies that are feminist.

Exhibit B, which was published a week ago but I hadn’t gotten around to, is yet another article on someone who clearly has not read the literature trying to argue that evidence indicates that women might just not be as good at science and math as men.

The thing that frustrates me most about these articles is that we go through this shit every couple of years, and every time, you’ve got mountains upon mountains of data that contradicts what they’re saying, and yet people still think this is an important point to make.

Here’s the thing: I’ve argued this issue with close friends who insisted on arguing this position and didn’t seem to understand why I got so angry. Melissa McEwan at Shakesville posted a while back and I think she explains it very well. In short: well, duh, I’m pissed off. You just essentially that because I’m a woman, I should just get used to being beat by men at math, suck it up, and realize that even if I do succeed, it was a statistical fluke and not proof of anything.

Oh, and that’s not even the end of it. I’ve heard a lot of people who were confused/angry about Larry Summers getting roasted for his statements. Summers walked into a conference full of sociologists who had been carefully studying the various influences that may or may not contribute to the gender gap in math and science, and made a bunch of statements, that were not only insulting as they stood, but clearly demonstrated a lack of knowledge about the research that has been done in this field. This is as if a philosopher had walked into a conference of physicists, and complained that their data didn’t simultaneously measure position and momentum with enough certainty. There are a whole spew of responses explaining why what Summers said was so offensive, although I find the WISELI response particularly well written and to the point.

In the column from last week (which he followed up with another one this week), Tierney used a favorite argument of his camp: even if on average women are as smart as men in math and sciences, there is more variability between male intelligence scores, and thus there are more men with the extreme intelligence which is necessary to be a tenured faculty member. The problem here (and I can’t find a link with the data, but I saw it in a talk by Janet Mertz): the difference in the standard deviation is not consistent throughout the world. Different countries have drastically different results when it comes to studying these things, making it very difficult to come to any conclusions. (This is mentioned in an article in Slate from a while ago.)

I realized, as I was writing this, that I am really sick of having this argument. Anyway, Jordan Ellenberg, who I have never met but heard plenty of awesome things about, is apparently not sick of it, and posted about it on his blog.

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Support the Girls Protection Act (H.R. 5137)

For those of you interested in helping to protect girls from genital mutilation, there is currently a bill in the U.S. Congress which would make it illegal for anyone to transport girls outside of the U.S. with the intent of performing genital mutilation. You can contact your representative on this site to encourage them to help pass it.

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Bad Comparison

Alright, so I was driving back from the climbing gym, and the truck in front of me has a bumper sticker that says:

Abortion: The Hidden Holocaust

I find this comparison extremely disgusting and insulting. While I try really hard to consider other people’s viewpoints, the idea of comparing the systematic extermination of entire populations of people perpetrated by a government to what is a personal decision about a medical procedure that could affect a woman’s entire life (not to mention those close to her).

I do not want to preach and I have other things to do, so I ask you for your thoughts: Does this bother you as much as me? Is there any way this can be justified?

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Mass Meeting!

Be sure to come to our mass meeting tonight (Monday Sept 14) at 7pm in the Dana Commons (Dana is the building south of the Chem building). Hope to see you there!

Also, as a bonus: the first decision based on the Lilly Ledbetter Act. Yay!

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