Publication Date

July 6, 2020

Perspectives Section

Perspectives Daily

AHA Topic

Research & Publications


  • Latin America/Caribbean


Medicine, Science, & Technology, Women, Gender, & Sexuality

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.

Vergara’s research on the experiences of Chilean women agronomists led her to this photograph of her research subjects taken at Smith College in 1945. From Smith Alumnae Quarterly, February 1945. Smith College Archives. Copyright: Smith College.

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.

Research and productivity move with our bodies, physical and mental health, families, the weather, and now a global pandemic.

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.

I return to stories, to the women agronomists of the 1940s and 1950s, and paste together small fragments of their lives. I stare at photographs and wonder about their personal and professional struggles. When Carmen Sanz arrived at Smith College in winter 1944, she was 27 years old and had a BA in agronomy from the University of Chile. In the early 1960s, she accompanied her husband to the University of Minnesota. This time, she stayed home and raised their three children. Like Sanz, many others had to negotiate between family and professional responsibilities, scrutinized by their male colleagues.

Looking back at my initial list, I realize that I need to pay attention to silences and gaps. Those empty cells in Excel have new meanings. Considered irrelevant by their male colleagues, women’s lives and contributions have disappeared from archives: their names misspelled, their professional trajectory ignored, their research considered irrelevant. Moreover, their personal and family decisions, as well as the emotions that shaped their professional choices are undocumented. Weaving women’s personal and professional stories is a challenge, but those silences, those gaps in productivity, those degrees not earned, those short publication lists feel more urgent today.

Weaving women’s personal and professional stories is a challenge, but those silences, those gaps in productivity, those degrees not earned, those short publication lists feel more urgent today.

Today, I think about how the number of journal submissions by female authors has reached a new low while, in many fields, the number of publications by men has considerably increased. Universities have temporarily stopped the tenure clock, giving all their faculty the choice to opt for an extra year, but the pandemic does not affect all of us in the same ways. Women, in general, have taken the toll of the domestic, caregiving, and emotional work required to sustain us through a crisis. Many women researchers must now balance writing, homeschooling children, caring for elderly parents, and housework. At the end of all of this, when things go back to normal or settle into whatever the new normal is, gaps in research and publication records will be visible, the reasons less so. More women than men will likely have a “research gap.”

In the early days of the pandemic, many scholars joked about Isaac Newton’s high productivity during the bubonic plague. Today’s experience of working during a global pandemic is something completely different. It is about finding meaning to our research in a time of uncertainty, listening to our children’s frustrations, and trying to make sense of the catastrophic impact of COVID-19 on our communities. As I try to adapt my summer research plans to current conditions, I think about how the pandemic has changed my research questions and taught me the intersections between gender, diseases, and academic productivity methods. I am looking back at the idea of writing a biography of Chilean women agronomists, but one that can fully account for their intimate, intellectual, and professional lives.

Ángela Vergara is a professor of history at California State University, Los Angeles. She tweets @vergara_angela.

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