Monday, March 27, 2017

#ThanksForTyping: Women’s Work in Academia and Courtney Milan’s The Countess Conspiracy

Over the weekend, medievalist Bruce Holsinger began sharing excerpts of the acknowledgements section of various scholarly publications, using the hashtag #ThanksForTyping.

In each excerpt, the author thanked his wife for contributions to the book, including typing the manuscript, proofreading or editing it, transcribing interviews, and conducting paleographic work. The volume of labor, much of it intellectual, was tremendous. The thanks offered was generally perfunctory; the scholar often neglected to even credit his wife by name. The hashtag presented an opportunity for the academic community on Twitter to reckon with the reality that for decades many male scholars’ careers have been supported and advanced by spouses (and occasionally mothers and daughters) whose work has been unpaid, under-credited, and often taken for granted.[1]

Courtney Milan's The Countess Conspiracy
As the hashtag began to trend and caught my attention, my thoughts immediately turned to a romance novel that deals with the history of women’s academic workparticularly in the sciencesand how it has often been erased, dismissed, or appropriated by male colleagues.

Courtney Milan’s The Countess Conspiracy (2013) tells the story of Violet Waterfield, the widowed Countess of Cambury, a scientific prodigy living in Victorian England whose work is rejected by academic journals until she submits it under the name of a male friend. When the story starts, Sebastian Malheur has been serving as the face of Violet’s work for years, publishing articles and even delivering talks on her behalf. But playing the role of evolutionary biologist has taken its toll on Sebastian, who has endured heaps of vitriol from those who object to his (Violet’s) ideas. He tells her he will no longer participate in the charade, and the novel’s arc is concerned with Violet’s personal and public reclamation of her identity as a leading scientist of evolutionary theory.

The novel introduces a second couple likewise engaged in a joint scholarly effort in which the woman’s work is disguised. Simon and Alice Bollingall, a husband and wife team, conduct research on cellular division. The text makes it clear that Alice, who also has a passion for photography that enables her to study cells in greater detail, is the truly inspired scientific mind driving the research, whereas Simon enjoys the prestige of a position at Cambridge. Sebastian comes to Simon for advice in how to abandon his charade in a way that is tenable to both him and Violet (although he does not yet realize Simon has a similar set-up with Alice). Speaking in veiled hypotheticals, Sebastian explains his conundrum to Simon, who finds the idea of a woman conducting scientific research far less shocking than Sebastian anticipated. Indeed, Simon’s response articulates a mentality that simultaneously allows a place for female contribution to scientific inquiry and ensures that contribution will go unacknowledged:

When you are engrossed in a subject, it’s only inevitable that your most intimate relations would be involved, too. Her interest is a subset of yours. Her contribution is a subset of yours. And if she’s married to you … why it’s essentially you who is doing the work after all. You’re one person in a legal and spiritual sense. Why not in the scientific sense, too? (p. 60)

Simon is offering Sebastian the avenue of marriage as a way to continue the pretense, but as a male scholar who has greatly benefited from his arrangement with his wife, he is invested in maintaining the status quo. Indeed, he describes female scholarship in the sciences as “so common […] that it ought to remain unremarked upon” (p. 59). It is precisely this failure to remark upon that has resulted in decades of erasure of female scholarship. And the novel is by no means satisfied by this complacent attitude.

In the Author’s Note to The Countess Conspiracy, Milan lays bare real-world instances of the suppression of women’s scholarly contributions, which she encountered directly while studying the genetics of violets as a plot point in the novel. In the course of researching this topic, she came across a paper by J. Clausen that off-handedly mentions the numerous contributions made by the author’s wife: “[It] had not been possible to get through without the kind and very accurate assistance yielded by my wife, Fru Anna Clausen. Artificial pollinations, back-crossings, fixations, baggings and harvesting were made almost exclusively by her, and she assisted me also in the enumeration of segregated types” (cited in Milan p. 246).[2]

This brief acknowledgement normalizes unremunerated spousal labor and trivializes female contributions as an afterthought. In her note, Milan pointed out that today Anna Clausen’s work would likely be carried out by a graduate student and that she would merit a co-author credit.

Milan also cites the well-known example of Rosalind Franklin, whose work on the structure of DNA was appropriated by James Watson and Francis Crick without her permission and published without providing credit for her contributions.

While it is too late for Anna Clausen and Rosalind Franklinand so many woman who have performed invisible scholarshipto enjoy the recognition they deserved, The Countess Conspiracy serves as a sort of retroactive attempt to redress this history of erasure and appropriation in academia.

The novel operates within a slightly alternate universe in which the discovery of the chromosome unfolded differently and somewhat earlier.[3] In placing her protagonists and various supporting characters together at Cambridge, Milan offers a route for scientific advancement that runs through the convergence of Violet’s work on inheritance and Alice’s work on the cell. Using Alice’s photography techniques for capturing cell division and blue aniline dye as a staining agent, the two are able to observe chromosomes (which they initially designate “thingy-blobbies”) within the nucleus (p. 153). Violet is then able to theorize their role in the transmission of inherited traits.

This is Violet’s crowning discovery, and it’s too big to keep to herself or to allow to be credited to anyone else. She decides to claim her achievement publicly in spite of the scandal it will bring to her family. She calls upon Sebastian (by now her romantic partner) to set up a final academic talk, using the prominence of his name to draw a crowd. When it comes time for him to deliver his remarks, he reveals the titular conspiracy to a flummoxed audience, for the first time giving Violet the public acknowledgement she has earned:

I have been given the credit for the work I have presented thus far, […] but in fact, my role has been more of a helper, if you will. So let me introduce the individual giving tonight’s lecture. This person did all the research for the work I have presented, had the brilliant insights underlying every word I have ever spoken. (p. 203)

Violet is then able to stand and deliver her lecture, claiming full ownership of her scientific discoveries and her identity as an expert in genetic inheritance. This narrative moment of public recognition and ownership of work, the emotional climax to the novel, serves as a feminist corrective for the erasure from academia to which countless women have been subjected.

The Countess Conspiracy is a romance novel, and accordingly, Violet’s happily ever after takes the form of a slew of prestigious job offers from King’s College, Cambridge, the University of Paris, and Harvard (an outcome that reads as pure escapist fantasy for just about any scholar currently on the academic job market). Violet is thereafter able to pursue her research to great acclaim, with Sebastian as a husbandly collaborator and co-author; they happily resume their scientific partnership without the subterfuge and erasure that once marred it. It is notable that when Violet gives her first public talk and later, as she discusses a recent publication with Sebastian, she prioritizes giving due credit to colleagues who made contributions to her research. Violet understands intimately what it means to be erased from her own work and rejects minimizing the labor of others.

Milan dedicated The Countess Conspiracy to Rosalind Franklin, Anna Clausen, and “every woman whose name has disappeared without recognition” (p. 3). The novel stands as a reminder of how far we have come and how much work we still have to do.



[1] Although most of the scholarly works shared under #ThanksForTyping are from the mid-twentieth century, anecdotal evidence shared by colleagues strongly indicates that the practice remains pervasive. I found one such acknowledgement from 2002 by a prominent historian who is still an active scholar.
[2] One might well wonder what work was left for J. Clausen to conduct! The paper, Cyto-genetic and Taxonomic Investigations on Melanium Violets, is available here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1601-5223.1931.tb02553.x/pdf
[3] I briefly discuss this deliberate anachronism in another post here: http://penetratinganalysis.blogspot.com/2015/01/in-defense-of-anachronism.html#more