Fine: How Russian literature helped me understand sexism in McCormick

Simona Fine, Op-Ed Contributor

I’ve never been directly confronted and told that I should not be studying engineering because of my gender. There was no big, dramatic incident of sexism that caused me to begin to feel unwelcome in science. However, any time I ponder my experience as a woman in engineering or as a female student in Design, Thinking and Communication (DTC), a culmination of smaller misogynistic comments and gestures cross my mind.

I didn’t fully understand why these little remarks and misconstrued statements bothered me so much, why they mattered so much, and how to act against them, until I was sitting in a Russian Literature lecture.

Yes, that’s right. Introduction to Russian Literature. The popular course taught by Professor Morson that is often said to be the greatest class at Northwestern.

As we read Anna Karenina, the idea of the small moment was stressed above all else.

Unlike in many novels, principal developments in the characters from the book come from camouflaged sentences that contain meaningful realizations, not from any extraordinary events. For instance, Levin, one of the protagonists, comprehends that he cannot live as a farming peasant — not after mowing fields for a day, but after catching a glimpse of Kitty, the woman he loves, as she momentarily passes him on a train.

Similarly, I find that those little remarks I referred to earlier have influenced my opinion of sexism in McCormick.

I’ll never forget how a DTC lecturer referred to inexperienced “females” learning how to use tools in the shop and how shocked I was that he felt the need to specify their gender.

I’ll never forget when a teammate on a group project said that we couldn’t trust our client’s opinion because she was only a “little girl.”

I’ll never forget when my team in DTC, which consisted of three women and one man, gave a group presentation to our class and my DTC professor approached my male teammate to give him comments on our collaborative work. Instead of also engaging with the women on the team, this professor simply ignored us.

These actions were just noticeable enough to have made me do a double take and realize that they were motivated by some form of sexism, whether actively being practiced by the perpetrator or merely ingrained in their speech.

Professor Morson also uses subtle words and phrases to characterize the cultures of families in Anna Karenina. For example, members of the Oblonsky family are ironically described as “simple” and “natural” to draw attention to their expensive taste and overwhelming vanity.

Just as miniscule details define the values of families in Anna Karenina, they have contributed to my revelations concerning the misogynistic culture in engineering. I do not believe that these instances of sexism are isolated events, but rather, an indication of the habits of people in McCormick as a whole.

The inappropriate remarks that I witnessed in DTC are not any different from what other female students in engineering have faced. Sexism is so innate to the DTC experience that my friend reported that her professor explicitly stated that they would not put a woman in a group with three men, as she was too often regulated to a secretarial role by her male teammates. There are some people that are aware this is a systemic issue at our school.

How do we change this culture? Russian literature provided the answer for that too.

Professor Morson taught that Tolstoy’s explanation for the complexity of human nature is that people are the sum total of their habits, illogical and rational, and that the only way to create lasting change to one’s nature is to adjust these habits gradually.

To combat the misogyny in engineering, we must first notice these small moments, as if we are performing a close reading on our lives. Then, we cannot simply brush them off but must call attention to these comments in an attempt to slowly change the habits of the individuals who perpetuate this sexist culture. Once we do this, these pesky misogynistic tendencies that persist may finally be eradicated, slowly, but surely.

Simona Fine is a McCormick sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected] The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.