Wednesday, June 01, 2016

On Female Modesty And Suspension Bridges

Here's an interesting story from the UK Bristol Post, about a woman who is now believed to have designed a suspension bridge in the nineteenth century.  But it starts with a very odd statement:

A BRISTOL mother-of-six has been added to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography with the revelation that she – and not Brunel – designed the Clifton Suspension Bridge.
Doesn't this remind you of the NYT 2013 obituary of Yvonne Brill, the female rocket scientist?   It began with a description of her cooking and mothering skills.  I'm trying to figure out how something of this kind could be used for a male scientist or inventor:

Albert Einstein, the father of three,...

Nah.  It wouldn't work, and not only because I used such a famous scientist as my example.  The reason why it's still done for female scientists and inventors is because most cultures keep defining women solely by their roles within the family (see my post on Erdogan).

So what did Sarah Guppy, the woman who is credited with the design of the Clifton Suspension Bridge, do?

Guppy was born Sarah Beach in Birmingham in 1770 but lived her adult life in Bristol after marrying Samuel Guppy, from a wealthy family which ran a Bristol sugar company.
She had six children, but was almost secretly one of the foremost engineering, inventing and designing minds of the Georgian era. Her inventions and patents, for everything from a new way of protecting ships from barnacles to a device to boil an egg from the steam of a kettle, had to be registered by her husband in the name of 'the Guppy family'.
In 1811 she patented a way of piling foundations to create a new type of suspension bridge, which provided the blueprint for both Brunel's Clifton Suspension Bridge and Thomas Telford's Menai Bridge.
She and her family were close to Brunel – her son Thomas was GWR's principal engineer – and she gave the design and plans for her bridge over the Avon to Brunel to enter into the competition.

Bolds are mine.  One reason for the disappearing women of history is evident in that bolded sentence:  the assumption that ambition and putting oneself forward were unbecoming in a woman.  The linked article notes that, too:

Sarah Guppy first patented the design for a suspension bridge across the Avon Gorge in 1811 and gave her plans to Brunel for free because she was a modest woman who wanted to see them used for the public good.

Mmm.  Female modesty, of course, is still an abiding value in many cultures.*

And so is the view that ambition is unbecoming in a woman.  Hillary Clinton's desire to be the president of the United States is suspect in a way the desires of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are not**.   There's something "unnatural" about it.

But the reverse is the truth, in my not-so-humble opinion.  Ambition is a human characteristic.  For women, however, cultural training has turned it into something they can only demonstrate indirectly, on behalf of their spouses or children or while helping powerless people or animals in dire need for help.

What has not been traditionally acceptable is for women to show ambition for themselves, perhaps because that conflicts with the traditional ideal of the all-sacrificing mother, the Virgin Mary of Christian thought.***


* The hijab, for example, has been justified on that basis.  Though there are cultures where men's behavior is expected to be modest, too, at least when compared to the American society,  the requirements of modesty are and have always been much stronger for women.  As a rather facile example, just consider what "ladylike" behavior has meant in the past.

All this makes me wonder what the societal advantages of that female modesty ideal might be and who it is who benefits from them.  What would be so bad about values which allow all people some modicum of ambition and also require from all people some modicum of modesty and concern for others?

**  I fully acknowledge that the platforms of the candidates differ widely, that Trump appears to be running on nothing more than the fumes of his own personal ambition, and so on.  But the discomfort with Clinton's ambition does seem to have at least a few roots in those traditional views about how good women behave.

*** Have you noticed that we learn nothing about Mary The Person from the Bible?  She is simply the extreme form of the modest and yielding woman, having no opinions of her own.  A frightening thought, given her position as a role model, at least within certain religious and demographic groups.