Interview with Sheila Tobias2018-12-27T16:27:50+00:00


Sheila Tobias

I Am Dedicated to Getting Out Truths About Women’s Competency

2015 Conference – Cornell’s 1969 Retrospective Speaker, from Cornell University Video Archives

First, it’s great to be back – to coin a phrase. And it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to reflect on what all of that meant in my life. I’m going to talk a little bit about myself. When I came to Cornell I was essentially a failed academic. I ought to have done well in graduate school.  I started out with a Harvard degree – if you’ll pardon the expression and four years in Europe, which seasoned me.  Then I returned to graduate school to study German, history and politics.

But Something Didn’t Catch Fire In Me.

Only later did I understand that I am not set up to be the kind of researcher that’s valued in the university, namely someone who wants to have the last word on a subject. What I really need to have is the first word on the subject. And so I’m grateful to Cornell for giving me the opportunity to launch something that was brand new.  I just wanted not to talk so much about that conference because if you want to know more, the archives are filled with all the details – every one of the speakers – everything the speaker said. I decided then – even that it was historic and I paid probably out of my own pocket to have the entire conference audiotaped. You know what audiotapes where like then. I hired a student who later went on and became a long-term friend to type up the audiotape.  I wish I hired a male to do that but I wasn’t so far sighted. What I want to talk about in terms of myself was how important it is in the search for work, which is what so many of us get so much of our pleasure from. To believe really deeply in the significance of what you’re doing.

The First Word On A Subject

The reason I failed at the first bout of scholarship was that I was not impelled to have the last word on the subject. As I told my professor when I left Columbia Graduate School – I really wanted to have the first word on a subject. How do you have the first word on the subject? Years later when I had begun to study the issue of women in science – why given the brains, which have been equally distributed, we did not have the numbers or the fame or the number of Nobel laureates from the female sex that we have from the male sex. I was instructed by a professor then at Wesleyan who was historian of science who said – have you ever thought about the variable – that’s how scientists talk – called newness to the field. In the physical sciences in particular there’s a persistent view that youth is the condition for originality particularly in the physical sciences. I think in the humanities we expect maturity to bring with it more depth. But youth is attributed to the quality of originality and much of the complaint about wasting investment in Women in Science was based on the fact that they would not in their earliest years – in their 20s and early 30s when productivity is expected from a scientist, be fully focused on the work they were supposed to do. This gentleman gave me cause to think that maybe the issue isn’t youth per se but a variable, which we decided together to name newness to the field. Maybe it would pay off to invest in women in science who were coming back at age 40 or even later. Not dismiss them as unlikely to be productive just because they were 40 or 35, but rather to anticipate that being new to the field would cause them – enable them to be very original. That insight, that gift from that person – who also pointed out to me that a lot of very good musicians and scientists and people of talent-died young. So we really can’t say they did their best work when they were young because we don’t have the information as to what they might have done if they hadn’t died young. But in our century we don’t die so young.

Do Something Original

Why that’s relevant to our reunion here is that my entire post Cornell career has been characterized – if I can say so modestly – by a lot of originality. I have not just written books that weren’t written before; I’ve written books on subjects that people didn’t even think were subjects before. I invented a means of analysis, experimental models that nobody ever thought before to do. And the reason is not anything I was gifted with I don’t think as a young person. But simply being impelled one by the urgency of getting to the bottom of some of these issues. Why women are not equally represented in science specifically or mathematics in particular. But also the fact that I came at these subjects as a newcomer to the field not in any way burdened by other people’s paradigms or other people’s presumptions.

Be Brave

And so if there are any students in this audience who are still searching for how to spend your intellectual capital I really want to encourage you to be brave in addition to whatever else you are and to be motivated. I mean nothing is has been more motivating for me personally than feminism. The possibility that in my own lifetime I could make things change for women simply by what I thought and what I wrote and what I chose to study. And I have not stopped. There is no end to the topics that suggest themselves to me because I am so dedicated to getting out truths about women’s competency, which were buried really until very recently. So that Conference on Women which launched women’s studies and made a great deal of difference in many of your lives and perhaps you’ll talk about it when we have questions and answers – most of all made a difference in my life. I ceased to be a failed academic. I’m not really an academic but that’s because I choose not to be an academic. I have, I believe made an enormous contribution to the way we think about women and the way women think about themselves. So thank you Cornell.