I’m currently reading Rise of the Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt, the #wlclub pick for May. I wrote this post for the #wlclub google group and decided to store it here as well because it’s about a thousand words on how to patronize female historical subjects and exploring how/why that may happen.
So: here’s the thing. I love science and technology, I love space, I REALLY want to love this book. But I might have to nope out because I’m three chapters in and the language used about these women consistently reads as patronizing! Examples below, and sorry for lack of page numbers but these are from my kindle:
“August 1941 was a long strong of early mornings for Barby. Waking up at 5 a.m., she dressed carefully in dresses or skirts, heels and stockings… Barby, on the other hand, faithfully did her makeup each morning and smoothed the waves of her hair. Unless she preserved her curls by knotting a head scarf under her chin, they would soon be blown out on the gusty airfield. Whether wind or dust, it seemed she couldn’t escape the elements.”
I get this. I get why this was included: a strong visual of the subtext of this story, that in this ~different time, men and women were working together, on math and science and WAR ROCKETS GASP, but there were still strictly prescribed gender roles that women like Barby were very, very aware of. And like, if a studio options this book, this is probably how the movie would open: a quiet 1940s lady puts on her best dress, stocking, shoes, makeup, then goes into the desert with a bunch of dudes to blow shit up. The visual is great!
And yet, the language used reads as infantilizing: she “dressed carefully” and she “faithfully did her makeup” but “it seemed she couldn’t escape the elements.” NO KIDDING. IN THE DESERT, YOU SAY. That clause (“it seemed she couldn’t escape the elements”) turns a woman embracing her gender presentation into an act of naiveté. As if, after dressing herself and doing her makeup all her life, after adjusting to living/working near a desert for a year, she would still go through the work of putting on all these layers of self because she didn’t think this wind and sand would stick around. What a way to rob someone of their agency in the first few pages.
“While she wrote equations in neat lines, her love life was frequently messy. There were simply too many boys to choose from.”
“There were simply too many boys to choose from” sounds borrowed out of a Lichtenstein panel. Which would be hilarious if it was satire! This does not read like satire!
“Sue told her mother after the wedding that she didn’t want kids right away. Nodding with a superior smile, Sue’s mother didn’t say a word. She wouldn’t put any pressure on her daughter yet, since she knew that the fierce independence of a twenty-year-old girl often softened with time into the desire for motherhood.”
Hey what up I literally screamed.
“The work was hard on her hands. Her right index finger was lined with thick red and white calluses, the result of clutching a pencil for hours a day. Her grip on the pencil often made her hand perspire, leaving pucker marks across the graph paper.”
Again: here’s this interesting visual that was clearly taken from a primary source and yet, combined with the previous moments made this an infantilizing moment where these poor ladies didn’t know holding a pencil all day every day would callous their delicate hands!!! These women who, in addition to all of the hunched over their desks clerical work they did, likely also went back to their homes and participated in tons more 40s-era manual household chores that absolutely would have required gloves and still given them dry and calloused hands. The literal mangling of their hands in work and life can’t have been a surprise by this point, and if it was a surprise to one of these women: acknowledge that?? Otherwise, this feels like a moment dropped in to remind the reader: LOL these vain bitches and their soft little hands AM I RIGHT?! (“Vain bitches” who were privileged enough to be spared manual labor before taking up hours of calculation-by-hand at JPL.)
“White Sands wasn’t the place for a nineteen-year-old girl who was looking to be taken seriously.”
Sorry, I only highlighted the last line of this passage in chapter three- the paragraph is about the off-site pool parties and late night poker/drinking/sex the male engineers participated in with the less sanctimonious ladies at JPL, the ones who worked alongside Our Heroes but aren’t allowed names when they participate in Shocking Behavior.
TL;DR #1: A couple of theories as to why the prose reads, to me, as startling:
1) Thanks to the notes/references section at the end of the book, we know the biographical details and vignettes throughout the book were pieced together through intense primary source research, interviews with the women themselves and/or their surviving family, with that family granting access to additional materials like diaries and correspondence. I can understand if, in seeking to honor that access, there was a push to portray the subjects in their best and most forgiving light, even if it makes them sound less like human women who lived in the world and more like flat cutout shapes from the Gentle Well-Behaved Women’s Collection for Girls. Not a redundancy: the prose talks down to me as if I could never possibly understand the difficulties of living in a harsh world and yet having to present myself as a “lady” at all times.
2) In trying to recreate a historical era, the prose leans too much into portraying it as a very distant historical era, one whose complexities and gender roles and pressures are so vastly different from ours that its parameters need to be spelled out, in the smallest possible words. Needless to say: this is not the case, so the over-explaining, the over-emphasizing, the portraying a half-dozen women so far as the utter pinnacles of 1940s and 50s white women’s virtue* feels condescending, not enlightening. To contrast this with Kara Cooney’s Hatshepsut book, Cooney had to build Hatshepsut’s ancient Egypt up from scratch for people like me who had no idea what side was up; is it really necessary for someone writing in the 2010s to introduce a woman’s life in 1941 with sentiments like, If you can believe it, back then there was pressure for women to dress in a feminine manner and maternity leave didn’t exist. Really? That’s supposed to surprise me? That’s the striking cultural context being offered here?
* So far, Helen Yee Chow (later Helen Ling, who worked at JPL until 1994) hasn’t had the privilege of worrying about the state of her hair, or her hands, or babies, because there was a war during her introduction.