Maternity, Motherhood, and Field Sciences
I received news about my post-doctoral fellowship a few months before I realized I was pregnant. While my pregnancy was planned, or as planned as it could be, it was never supposed to coincide with the fieldwork required by my fellowship. But the post-doc was also planned and hoped for. In a short time, I had to make a decision: do the field work, some of which would be very late in my pregnancy, or pass it up.
I decided to take the fellowship. This summer, I embarked on a few weeks of fieldwork while in my first trimester. Early pregnancy impacted my fieldwork in several ways. On occasion, I experienced nausea while interviewing subjects; I study public aquariums and marine scientists, so I couldn’t hide from the smell of brine and fish. I was incredibly exhausted during the long days on my feet following aquarists from tank to tank and interviewing subjects. And most noticeably, I was unable to partake in the customary drinking culture that bonds people in scientific fieldwork and would have cemented me as a comrade of sorts.
When I return to my post-doctoral fieldwork this winter, I’ll be interviewing and touring facilities at 8 months pregnant. My experience with juggling professional goals and pregnancy, and entering scientific spaces while carrying, has made me ask what historians and sociologists really know about the impact of pregnancy on scientific research. Unfortunately, we don’t have much data on this. Much of the evidence that we do have is anecdotal, and these personal narratives reflect a clear need for research into how maternity impacts women’s careers in the field sciences.
The earliest years of women working in universities doesn’t yield any more data towards this subject. In Margaret Rossiter’s first volume of Women Scientists in America, she points out that female professors entering the academy between 1820 and 1940 were often forced to resign from their positions when they married. As Patricia Warner and Margaret Ewing show in their 2002 piece on female aquatic field scientists between 1877 and 1920, male colleagues, university administrators, and female scientists struggled to find a balance between respecting ideas of proper feminine dress and behavior and working in field conditions. These restrictions prevented women from telling their own narratives about pregnancy and childcare in fieldwork.
Despite the lack of hard data and personal narratives during this time period, many women in the field sciences did, in fact, have children, and some of those children even went into science themselves. The late Mary Needler Arai was a third generation female scientist in Canada studying marine science at the St. Andrews Biological laboratory, and her family biography highlights shifts in the professional status of female researchers. Her grandmother, Edith Berkeley, married her husband in 1902 and worked as a volunteer at the Pacific Biological Station starting in 1917. By working as a volunteer, she could publish under her own name instead of her husband’s. Arai’s mother, Alfreeda Needler, earned a PhD at the University of Toronto but never held a paid position after marrying her husband. Because he was the director of the Atlantic Biological Station, she was able to continue her field research even while having three children.
Both of these women were forced to leave professional paths in the academy after their marriages, but were able to pursue their work because their husbands were also researchers. While we can see gender as a hurdle, there isn’t much conversation about childbearing and their research. Later generations of women, such as Mary herself, married, had children, and continued to research and teach professionally. However, it isn’t clear from her biographical work how the shift from married volunteer with children to professional field scientist with children occurred in such a short time, nor how those shifts were negotiated in the Institutional setting.
The second and third generations of women in the academy were, sometimes it would seem, able to balance family and research. But still, there are fewer narratives about this than one might expect.
Eugenie Clark, an elasmobranch researcher, known as the “shark lady,” was denied a postdoc early in her career because another scientist told her, "If you do finish, you will probably get married, have a bunch of kids, and never do anything in science after we have invested our time and money in you." Clark felt comfortable sharing this moment of extreme sexism early in her career, but I’ve read little about what must have been obvious sexism when she did, indeed, get married and have children. She went on to have four children while publishing and researching extensively, but while we know much about her early career and her later work, her pregnancies and parenting role—and the impact of these on her work—remains blackboxed.
Looking at the way that Sylvia Earle, the first female director of NOAA, has crafted and changed her biographical narrative over time can give us an idea of how hard it might be to get scientists to talk about these issues. Earle, like Clark, mentioned her children early in her career. In interviews from the late 1980s and early 1990s, reporters constantly note her penchant for scuba diving while pregnant. Over the years, interviewers have pushed Earle to talk about the way gender has impacted her career; she has been called an Aquahottie or Aquanaughty or “real life mermaid.” Earle often stated in early interviews that gender had no impact on her career, and when asked how she juggled her family life and career, she gave answers that didn’t reflect any impact on her work but rather how her work impacted her home life. She rarely if ever mentioned her pregnancies or any subsequent career choices resulting specifically from her role as parent.
However, her narrative has changed in the last 10 years as she has achieved even wider political and professional acclaim. In a recent 2017 interview, Earle opens up more about the impact of childbearing on her career. She claims that the birth of two of her children was the reason for her extended dissertation timetable; it took her 10 years to finish her thesis. This seemingly casual narrative about the impact of children on her scientific career is something that it has taken Earle almost 50 years to tell and is most likely the result of an increased security in her place as a well-known and respected scientific figure. It is clear that for women in these fields, it is not always professionally or personally expedient to tell their tales.
The personal narratives of women in marine and oceanic sciences can provide an entry into understanding how pregnancy affects careers with field work. In 2012, Sue Rosser, a well-known researcher and advocate for women in STEM, wrote about her experience as a graduate student in the 1960s. Her graduate advisor, knowing she was pregnant, steered her into a dissertation topic that shifted her focus from field work in Africa to comparative work at the Field Museum in Chicago. In retrospect, Rosser says she feels happy that she made this decision (she completed her degree), but also sad that it wasn’t necessarily hers to make.
There are two recent sources that portray women who have performed field research while pregnant. The first was written by glaciologist Bethan Davies who details her experiences doing three weeks of field work in Patagonia in her first trimester. While the blog is about her experience, the comments show that many female geologists and glaciologists have done field work throughout their pregnancies. The other source, “Pregnant in the Field” a photo project documenting pregnant women doing fieldwork, was started by Suzanne Pilaar Birch, an archaeologist and co-founder of TrowelBlazers.com, an online community celebrating female archaeologists. After she was asked to go on a dig in Cyprus when she would be 6 months pregnant, she reached out to the community to ask about experiences with pregnancy in the field. And what she found was a lot of fantastic narratives in her field and great images as well.
Historians and sociologists of science studying the impact of pregnancy and parenthood on field science careers are being offered new data. But these offerings will have to be taken with a grain of salt: there are hidden narratives of struggle that do not come out in these triumphant accounts of women in the field. And Sylvia Earle’s example shows, many ways that we understand impact on career trajectory takes time and personal reflection, which is not possible for younger women scholars. I hope to see more research and data as well as personal narratives on this subject, and until then, I’ll be thinking about these issues as I struggle to complete my own fieldwork this winter.