Productivity Moves With Our BodiesRoundup
tags: womens history, COVID-19
Ángela Vergara is a professor of history at California State University, Los Angeles. She tweets @vergara_angela.
Research topics come to us in different and unexpected ways; without much warning, they shift our methods, questions, and sources. Unpredictably, they become personal. As a pandemic dominates the news and unsettles our lives, it also teaches us the invisible ways our research intersects with our bodies, our feelings, our communities.
This winter, I began researching the professional and personal experiences of women agronomists during the first half of the 20th century. Like many other researchers, COVID-19 has temporarily suspended my project. The Digital Humanities seminar, where I planned to learn how to visualize data and use new software, has been canceled. My trips to Chile and the Rockefeller Archives have been postponed. The kids and the tedious, long hours of social distancing have disrupted my ability to research, write, and focus. I feel unproductive; this bothers me. I convince myself that I will get back to my topic, that research has its own pace. I become a slow writer, a distracted one. I read short stories. I think about the time my two children were little: writing in between their naps, breastfeeding while applying to jobs, revising a book manuscript in a playground. I accepted a tenure-track position while I was pushing a stroller, so excited that I forgot to negotiate my salary or even ask about the workload. I tell myself that research and productivity move with our bodies, physical and mental health, families, the weather, and now a global pandemic.
As with many research projects, this one had started somewhere else. At first, I wanted to understand the rise of scientific agriculture in Chile and the relationship between Chilean and US scientists during the Cold War era. But as I was collecting data on the career paths of more than 800 agronomists, I became intrigued by the presence of a few women. Their names distracted me, a constant reminder that they didn’t fit. Their presence was remarkable but unremarked on.
I created a separate spreadsheet to record their names, degrees, and publications. Even this simple task became a challenge. While married women in Chile did not legally change their last names, some used, informally, their husbands’ last names. Did Adriana Ramírez, a scientist who wrote a thesis about the dairy industry in 1940, became Adriana de Vallejos, who researched pesticides and went to the University of California, Davis in the 1950s? Is there a typo on the Rockefeller document describing the work of six men grantees, including one “Adriano Ramírez”? Maybe the Rockefeller’s Adriano is Adriana, Adriana Ramírez, Adriana de Vallejos.
I imagined writing a collective biography of these women agronomists with minimum personal or family information; I do not like intimate stories. But as I read about their professional lives, I realized that I could not leave the personal out. I needed to understand how women’s bodies, the pain of childbirth, the challenges of family life, and their fears and emotions affected their productivity: things that a male-dominated scientific community considered irrelevant. How do we research that? Scientific masculinity operates in complex ways. Gender and sexuality have influenced the working and research spaces such as laboratories, patent offices, classrooms, and field-work sites, shaped research agendas and conclusions, and contributed to the reproduction of patriarchal institutions. To fully grasp women’s professional experience, we need to interrogate language, manners, and everyday relationships.
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