Women's Studies 30

Dr. Judy Voet - Super Mom

Dr. Judy Voet, a self identified "mut" with ancestors from all over eastern Europe, was raised in a lower middle class Jewish family in New York City during the 1940's and 50's. Her sole sibling, a younger sister by four years, and her parents lived in a Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx. Although the school she attended was racially mixed she was a minority. At twelve years old her family moved to Queens where she again lived in a Jewish neighborhood, but here she attended a predominantly white school.

When graduating from high school Judy knew she was college bound and interested in pursuing a degree in science. As her parents had not finished highschool, Judy would be the first member of her family to graduate from college. When applying to colleges the thought that colleges would prohibit her from attending due to her gender did not occur to her. She ruled out California Institute of Technology because she did not want to go, not realizing they did not admit women at the time.

She received her Bachelor of Science in Chemistry from Antioch College, in Yellow Springs Ohio. It was a five year school which had an intensive work study program. Judy married as a second year graduate student at Brandeis University while working towards her PhD in biochemistry. She was three months pregnant with her daughter when she defended her thesis, after which she had several post doctoral positions in Philadelphia where her second child, a son, was born. She began teaching at Swarthmore College, where she is currently a professor of biochemistry, when her son was in kindergarten. Her daughter is now 29 and works as a sexuality educator at Planned Parenthood in New York City. Her son is 24 and works as a computer consultant in California.

It is statistically surprising that she has been able to ignore her gender, considering the culturally conservative environment in which she grew up. Yet there was never a moment in her life in which she was not endowed with a feminist perspective which allowed her to see past the gender biases imposed on her. It becomes clear, however, that Judy's success is not the result of some battle she waged against her male dominated environment. Rather, she simply refused to regard their prejudices through a combination of obliviousness and disregard for sexist opinions. It has never occurred to her that she could not jointly have a career and a family.

Even today, her own unique form of feminism made the balance between career and family simple. She wanted both, and she would have both. This epitome of the "Super Mom," however, still realized that without a combination of technology and money, Super Mom's have difficulty flying. To fill in the gaps which necessarily develop when no one in a family makes the household's maintenance one's job, she uses technology. She jokingly says the presence of two microwaves in her kitchen is a necessity; one for each Lean Cuisine. Microwave dinners are quite popular in her house as she does not get home in time to cook meals from scratch. In addition, the ability to afford hiring others to perform household duties she did not have time for because she managed her career was also vital to maintaining her Super Mom status.

The technological sophistication in her home now compared to her youth is dramatically different. While technology and wealth were not dominant influences in Judy's childhood, her family was the first in the neighborhood to get a television. It seems that some traditions die hard, for as is the case today, sporting events, such as boxing, would attract her fathers friend's to their home. Her mother also used a wash board and scrubber in their original home, but when they moved to Queens she had access to a washing machine. Although the applications of technology have blossomed in Judy's generation, she would argue that the time she spends actually cleaning is not significantly different than during her mother's generation. While her mother's generation may not have had a washing machine, or the convenience of shelves full of soaps for all occasions, we have simply added more to the "to do" lists in our homes. Cooking and shopping, however, are quite different matters. While her mother made everything from scratch, Judy finds that microwave dinners and pre-prepared foods have reduced her kitchen time significantly relative to her mother. Her car and the convenience of "one-stop" shopping have drastically made her life more convenient. Today it is much easier to be a Super Mom because women have technology to help with house work they could not do alone while having a career.

Even in the absence of this technology, however, she believes it was still possible to have a career and family. For Judy's situation it has not been technology that has allowed or encouraged her to have a career and family, but rather the commitment to the choice that she would have both. This commitment meant she was prepared to spend a significant portion of her salary on hiring other people to watch her children, prepare meals, keep the house clean, and do the other household chores she did not have the time to do because of her job. From her view, it was an underlying understanding that she could pursue whatever avenues she chose which resulted in her success. Judy sees the technology as merely an aid, not a deciding factor in her career and family choices.

This does not mean she has not met opposition from our culture. When younger her children would occasionally ask, "how come you don't stay home like the other moms?" And she would simply reply, "Well, I'm not like those other moms." At times, she has even felt the disapproval of other mothers who did not agree with her choice to maintain a career and family. In our society it is a general acceptance of women's potential, rather than technology itself, which will foster the development of Super Moms.

In addition to her success as a mother, Dr. Voet has also had an amazing career at Swarthmore College. She recognizes, however, that women of her generation were not all as eager to enter into the sciences as she was. One reason which Dr. Voet suggests may deter women from the sciences is the critical nature of the field. Technology and science are inherently goal driven, and obtaining the final technological product, or scientific understanding or innovation is the objective. To fail in this task or to follow an incorrect path can often result in severe criticism from one's colleagues. This is the result of the goal orientated nature of scientific and technological investigations. People are not concerned with emotions or the egos of others and subsequently they often are trampled upon. Judy can remember walking down the halls in places where she has worked and people simply walked right by her without acknowledging that she was there. Their minds were so absorbed in science that social curtesy was not highly valued. People in science often do not want to interact with other people and believe that only the science is truly important. They attempt to disengage themselves from their work and from the human side of their endeavors. Consequently, people are willing to dump all over the egos of others. Science is a very critical field, and this is not a an issue based on sex. If you do something that is incorrect or not entirely thought out the scientific community is not likely to think about preserving your feelings before attacking your ideas. This critical nature of science may be one reason women do not engage in science as women tend to be more sensitive to criticism.

She also recognizes the unique qualities that women have to offer in a male dominated environment. There are general ways in which women do things different from men. While individual women may not fit that stereotype, there is a generalization to be made which is that the more women in a field the more ways in which a problem will be attacked.

To a large extent women have picked up male tendencies and methodology in science. Science is such that it is a apprenticeship type of learning where you learn from others. Since the history of science is male dominated, women are learning from men whose methods have been shown to work. Women do not have the time or incentive to change these established elements of scientific inquiry. In physical sciences there is a great deal of objectivity with all of the problems because it is "difficult to interact with a test tube," as Judy would argue. In other words, the male tendency to separate one's self from the problem seems to be very effective, and other possible modes of investigation appear limited in many areas of the science. Thus, there is not room for a female's nurturing qualities.

Women's intuition, however, does have a role in what questions are asked as well as in the interpretation of the data. Establishing the experiments and the protocols may be very similar between men and women, but in data interpretational differences can emerge between the sexes. The mechanism of the fertilization of the egg is an example Judy cited, where the egg has always been conceived as the passive force and the sperm as the aggressive force. Thus, this train of thought prevented scientists from asking questions such as what the egg does to attract the sperm. Conceptualization of the questions has been very male orientated and as more women enter the process of scientific inquiry then question begin to be asked in different ways, and different topics are explored. "Back side attack", a term commonly used in organic chemistry, is an additional example of masculine attributes being imposed on science. Organic chemists have extremely war like interpretations of their data. The nucleophile is referred to as "attacking" the electrophile, but is not the electrophile attracting the nucleophile? Male biased interpretations are also possible in the physical sciences as well as the biological sciences.

Despite the differences between men and women, Judy firmly believes that the fundamental desire to investigate and explore are not sexually based traits. Both men and women will be interested in learning and understanding more about the world. Wanting to use that information to build tools to control our environment more has been traditionally a male dominated field, but that is not because women are not capable or not interested in doing so. Rather, it is due to a history of dependence on men which has dictated women's lives and generally confined them to their homes.

When I asked her why she chose science, and how her choice was influenced by the fact that it was such a male dominated field, her response was quintessential Judy. She simply responded that she liked science, and she never noticed it was male dominated. It never occurred to her that her gender should ever prohibit her from doing anything she wanted to do. If she has been discriminated against in science due to her gender she has never taken notice of it.

If ever criticized for her gender Judy is surely to ignore the comment. She recognizes, however, that often times this criticism affects many women extremely deeply, and that some women will honestly believe others when told they cannot or should not do certain things because of their gender. Judy, like myself, is curious as to why this is true, but because it is she recognizes one barrier to women may be their willingness to acknowledge sexism and succumb to it. In Judy's mind, if women wish to enter fields such as science which have been historically male dominated, women need to be alive and well, and not allow themselves to be boxed. The more people who do not accept being limited by their gender the more progress will be made, regardless of technology.

Stephanie Herring

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last updated 9/8/98