Tuesday, December 30, 2008

It's a Man's World, Hedy

By Lila Shaara, Guest Blogger

I have a book coming out today. If you’re fortunate enough to have experienced such a thing, you know it is a surreal experience; it’s equivalent to a meteor landing in your yard or aliens knocking at the door to shake your hand, i.e. an enormous and shocking event. That is, in your life. To everyone else on the planet except your very nearest and dearest, the book may ooze into the public sphere with only the tiniest of whispers. No meteors, no trumpets blaring in Times Square, no heads of state mentioning you in their press conferences. This is only my second published book, so I don’t have tried-and-true coping strategies for dealing with the stresses of publishing, and of having so few people care. I’ve done a lot of “personal work” trying to keep my expectations low. (Is that a good thing? Maybe not, but low expectations are the only ones I can muster.) But it’s amazing how vulnerable you can still feel, no matter how many times you tell yourself that even if only one person reads your precious book and finds it worthwhile, you’ve done your job and you should be fulfilled, blah, blah, blah.

Anyway, the book in question involves a female scientist who does great things, but is robbed of her research, and maybe even of her life. The story was partly inspired by the true stories of two women, both of whom did momentous work that few people know about. A number of years ago, I heard a story on NPR about the late actress Hedy Lamarr.
Her story is dramatic and complicated, including her arranged marriage at 19 to a much older Austrian arms manufacturer who happened to sell weapons to Hitler and Mussolini; he discussed his products with his clients at dinner parties where he never imagined his trophy wife understood a word that was said. Her leaving him involved much intrigue, but she eventually ended up in Hollywood at MGM. During WWII, she gave a bunch of information to the War Department that turned out to be useful, because she understood, and retained, everything that was discussed at those macho dinner parties. But that wasn’t all. Along with avant-garde composer George Antheil, she invented a system of “frequency-hopping”; its purpose was to jam the frequencies of enemy torpedoes headed for Allied ships. It would have worked, too, if there had been computers and microprocessors available, but alas, although the Navy was interested initially, their people had only vacuum tubes to work with, and so the idea was shelved. However, you know that cell phone that you used to call your plumber last week? (Well, maybe not your plumber. We live in a crumbling house, so my mind always jumps to home improvement when I need examples or metaphors.) In any case, if you called anyone on a cell phone recently, you were probably using “spread spectrum” technology, which is basically what Lamarr and Antheil came up with. No one knows how much their work influenced what is being done now, and how much was independently invented; that’s one of the prices you pay for being ahead of your time.

A while later, I listened to a course on tape about the origins of life on Earth. The lecturer, Robert Hazen, told a story about a woman named Sarah Hoffman. She was a graduate student at Oregon State who wrote a paper for a class taught by an oceanographer named Jack Corliss. The paper suggested a model for how life might have come about on Earth in the deep oceans near hydrothermal vents. Corliss encouraged her to publish the paper, which ultimately wound up having three names on it; Corliss’s, another researcher named John Baross, and Hoffman at the end of the list. Given the nature of academic citations, Corliss’s name is the only one that’s usually referred to when other scholars discuss the paper, which turned out to be a big deal. After a time, Corliss wound up taking most of the credit. Hoffman left academia and suffered other professional setbacks. The details of the full story may never be known to anybody but the participants, and though it sounds as though Hoffman was treated badly, maybe she wasn’t. (And by the way, The Fortune Teller’s Daughter is NOT Hoffman’s story.)

But I knew something about the vulnerability of women in academia, because I was in graduate school in anthropology until the mid-1990s, more than a decade after the Hoffman et al article was published. One of the professors in my department “accidentally” grabbed the breasts of female students on occasion, male grad students routinely trolled the undergraduate population for sexual conquests, and every time a visiting scholar came to speak in the department, it was assumed that the female grad students would provide the food. In the defense of the almost totally male faculty, the women complied willingly enough. But even just calling yourself a feminist caused support from faculty to evaporate immediately, and without that, you couldn’t get very far. I made brownies a few times myself, though now I wish I hadn’t. But I needed the old men to sign off on my dissertation to get the damn degree.

Trying to be heard, trying to make a positive impact on the world, trying to do something momentous, is hard. Being a woman can complicate that already uphill climb. Hedy Lamarr certainly made an impact; she was a Hollywood megastar in the 1930s and 40s, and supposedly sold $7 million in war bonds in a single evening. She also happened to be a brilliant electrical engineer, but never really got to be one. Maybe that was okay with her; she was successful enough in other ways, and she still had plenty of money when she died in her eighties. But I love a quote attributed to her:

“Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”

Lila Shaara is the author of Every Secret Thing. Today is the release date for her second book, The Fortune Teller’s Daughter. Shaara teaches anthropology at a number of Western Pennsylvania colleges. She lives near Pittsburgh with her family.


Annette said...

Welcome to Working Stiffs, Lila. I loved Every Secret Thing and can't wait to read A Fortune Teller's Daughter.

I think a lot of young women these days take for granted the opportunities for advancement available. Not that we've "made it." Far from it. We still have a long way to go. But we have come a long way, baby. And I am now a Hedy Lamaar fan. Smart women rock!

Lila S. said...

Hi Annette! Thanks for the kind words. And not only do they take it for granted, in my experience, they often trash those opportunities at the first suggestion that they're not hot enough. Sigh. Of course, I guess that was never Hedy's problem....

Joyce said...

Interesting blog post, Lila! I never knew that about Hedy Lamarr.

Lila S said...

I know what you mean, Joyce. Who knew?