Mother Knows Best...

by Laura Barandes

My mother came of age in the 60's, and though she herself has yet to master the finer points of using a computer, she has always encouraged me to learn these technologies. Along the same lines, I have, throughout my life, rather disliked the study of mathematics and it took me a long time to realize why my mother pushed me to take all the advanced math courses in high school. It was not because she desperately wanted me to become a scientist or a mathematician; rather, she wanted that level of work in the sciences to be "expected" of me the same way it was expected of most of my male counterparts. I was often among only a handful of female students in these classes.

Interestingly, though I felt proud to be holding my own in AP Calculus class, I also felt guilty that part of my pride was derived from the simple fact that I was doing so as a woman. I suppose I was reacting to Phase II of Peggy McIntosh's (1983) system: successful women in science, though applauded, are understood as the exception rather than as the rule. I believe that women excelling in science should become an expected and "normal" phenomenon, described and observed as such by students, parents, and those who advise students in their academic careers. It is the responsibility of instructors/administrators as well as students to facilitate this process. Of course, I am not so naive as to suppose that the solution is a simple one.

I am not going to become a scientist or a mathematician -- I haven't taken a course in these areas since my freshman year at Swarthmore. Yet, I do not have a fear of them, merely a different area of focus. When I need the use of mathematics or science in my area of focus, or life in general, I return to them with a sense of familiarity and connectedness. I am not uncomfortable in a discussion about computers, and I repair many of my friends' technology problems with ease. Do I feel proud that I can do these things merely because I am a woman? I would be lying if I said the thought doesn't cross my mind. Perhaps this feeling is more of Peggy McIntosh's theory at work. But, more practically, I think I now understand what my mother was trying to achieve.

How can this goal of a Woodstock generation mother work on a larger scale? One of my main areas of interest is the issue of women and reproduction. That the wills and autonomies of women are subsumed under a powerful technocracy of medicine has been a disturbing historical trend, wrapped in politics and struggles for power. To become the authority, to become the recognized experts and "professionals," doctors have too often compromised the legitimate authority and knowledge of women themselves. Timeclocks for labor, normalized episiotomies, enemas, and administration of anesthetics have sought to "normalize" nature in a way that removes power from the women to the technocracy of recognized medical practice. Many women are made to feel that if they resist the "normal" medical process, they are "not doing what is best for the baby." As a result, the technology of birth has all too often removed the mother herself from the process, as her disembodied womb expels the baby rather than a conscious, thinking, and acting being having the autonomy to participate with any degree of authority. Notions of efficiency and a workplace-like schedule have replaced the individual uniqueness of the birthing process -- sometimes artificially increasing the use of C-sections and quick administration of heavy anesthetics in response to a factory mentality rather than a true medical need. For decades in this country, a gap between medical professionals and their women patients has been growing steadily. How do we even begin to address the mutually untranslatable distance?

For the same reason that I was pushed to take the upper level math classes, women should retake at least an active role in the science of their own bodies. The terminology and discussion of treatment procedures need not be coopted only by the doctors -- it should become part of the working knowledge of the women they treat. In this way, I am not suggesting the dismantling of modern medicine. Rather, I am proposing that treatment become more of a partnership, that the language should become a shared one. Instead of devaluing a particular knowledge (usually that of the women) in order to value a different knowledge (usually of the science-oriented technocracy), I would like to see each form used to supplement the other. Women have a responsibility to educate themselves in order to be in a position to demand that type of partnership. They don't need to be doctors -- though that would fine also -- but they need to have a comfort and familiarity similar to the one I now have with math and science.

I guess my mom was really onto something.

N.B. My father happens to be a doctor...

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Laura Barandes

last updated 9/16/98