Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Brunch Blogging: Mary Anning Wasn't Humble on Purpose

I first read the name Mary Anning at the end of this marvelous cartoon by Kate Beaton (seriously, go read it, espesh if you saw Photograph 51 last fall!), where Kate laments that reading about awesome women of the past is awesome--until you realize that almost all of them got screwed in some hugely frustrating way (cf. also Kate's cartoon about Ada Lovelace). It's a pretty exhausting narrative, and it is often told exhaustingly. Look at this woman, who beat the odds! (And then, in smaller type:) But she never got any credit. Over and over, junior high textbooks straining to find role models for the modern girl. No, seriously, you can do science. Look at how well it went for Marie Curie. Wait, how did she die? DAMMIT!

Mary Anning fits right into the pantheon of depressing heroines. She lived in England during the early 19th century and was born into the family business of fossil hunting. As a kid she'd go out on the cliffs with her dad and her brother and they'd find small fossils to sell to tourists. Except then it turned out, Mary was really good at this. And not just good at finding little fossils. She was good at finding fossils that no one had ever seen before, and she was really good at constructing the skeletons. Should be famous scientist material, but because she was uneducated, and because she was of the lower class, and because her family needed to eat, she had to settle for selling her finds to wealthy gentlemen scientists, who would then publish on her findings.

What's unique about Mary is that she didn't have her work stolen from her, really. She sold it. But she didn't sell it out of ignorance, she sold it out of need. Her family was always in the hole. Once or twice, a prominent scientist in London would raise money and send it to the Annings, but fundraisers aren't sustainable, and so she struggled. And although Mary was proud of her work and the connections she made with those London scientists, eventually she came to resent them and the credit they received. She died young, at age 47, of breast cancer (after, it should be noted, twice before dodging death--she was almost hit by lightning as a baby, and nearly killed by an avalanche as an adult). Charles Dickens wrote a kind but vaguely patronizing magazine article about her, winding up with:

"Her history shows what humble people may do, if they have just purpose and courage enough, towards promoting the cause of science.... The carpenter's daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it."

You don't say.

Reading about Mary reminded me of some of our recent discussions here on the Youngblog, in particular, our discussions about privilege. Although I'm sure Dickens thought he was being a total mensch when he patted the late Mary's head for being humble, purposeful, and courageous, I couldn't help but think, okay. Then why'd she have to sell everything she worked for? All the time? Why did she only get credit as an afterthought? Oh, right. Privilege. A woman of lower class: damn, girl. You did good with nothing.

Ain't nothing wrong with being humble, purposeful, and courageous. Ain't nothing wrong with working your rear end off, either with your marathon Mat Smart days or however else it works for you. But it's all just treading water upstream if the system stays broken, and that's why we've been beating drums here on the Youngblog. Because all us Mary Annings in the world, we already plan on working. We already plan on getting up at the crack of dawn, to dig up fossils or write ten pages before we have to go to our survival jobs. So long as we're holding up our end of the bargain, I think it's only right we keep an eye on the other end.

Oh also, I wrote a play about Mary Anning, and it's called She Sells Seashells, because also did you know that tongue-twister is totally about her?, and it's in Youngblood's SCIENCE BRUNCH, and that is happening this Sunday, April 3rd. A brunch buffet, an open bar, and five awesome plays about the most sciencey things we could think of. Buy your tickets here. See you soon.


Monica said...

Dangit, I wish I could come see it. Let me know if you're willing to part with the script :)

joshcon80 said...

I love you. I really, really do.

This is true of all minorities people who fight systemic disadvantaging, and I see it a lot with women; our culture values underdogs so long as they are hardworking and become successful sort of quietly. Women, black people, gays, the poor etc who call out systemic inequality are painted as hysterical, whiny, radical or even crazy.

Even in cases where everybody agrees there is inequality, mainstream culture kind of wants you to stfu and figure out a way around the system instead of creating a new system.

Anna said...


DJK said...

Oh man. You are the best, and I'm so sad I'm going to miss this. A THOUSAND CURSES!