Mary-Claire King is a feminist

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I really disliked Kevin Davies’s and Micheal White’s Breakthrough, but on the plus side, it had this choice bit of info: “It is true that [Mary-Claire] King’s unwavering opinions irritate some of the male scientists with whom she comes in contact. She has strong feminist sentiments and, although certainly no man-hater, she can be quite scathing about male behavior. On numerous occasions, she has been critical of the patriarchal aspects of scientific research. Once, in comment on those men critical of her work in breast cancer, she said, ‘My colleagues were very skeptical, and you know how skeptical boys can be. Scorn! Scorn! Scorn!'” (72).

Again, Davies and White present feminism negatively, even when it comes to one of the heroes of the BRCA1 story, Mary-Claire King,  a woman who spent 20 years looking for the genes that cause hereditary breast and ovarian cancer despite the derision of her male colleagues.

I would guess that nearly every woman in a male dominated profession has encountered the kind of “Scorn! Scorn! Scorn!” King describes, but which Davies and White seem to dismiss. In a recent interview, Mary-Claire King has this to say about patriarchal science:

INTERVIEWER: “Is it still hard to be a female scientist? Is there more pressure and competition now?”

MARY-CLAIRE KING: “The social structure of science is now very different than 40 years ago, wonderfully so. But scientific success is still difficult for young women because the years that one must be most productive, in order to establish oneself as an independent investigator, coincide exactly with the years of childbearing. It is a tremendous challenge. It can be done, but it takes a village. We need to maintain constant attention to the personal and institutional and policy details that can keep the chance for scientific life open for young women.”

So I guess that one of the few good take aways from this book is that it confirms something I’ve long suspected: Mary-Claire King is a raging feminist. Rage on, Mary-Claire, rage on.

I leave you with the trailer for the film about King’s persistence in finding BRCA1, Decoding Annie Parker, which you’ll be able to see in wide release next year. Weirdly, in the interview I cited above, King says that the makers of the film didn’t consult her about it. It seems strange and rude to make a film about an accessible living figure without even dropping them an email. Luckily, she liked the movie, but still: not cool, filmmakers, not cool.

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Anti-feminism in Kevin Davies’s and Michael White’s Breakthrough

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One word: Meh. Then a few more: what the hell?

First, the “meh.” Kevin Davies’ and Michael White’s Breakthrough: The Race to Find the Breast Cancer Gene (1996) is a boring book, even for someone as thoroughly obsessed with BRCA1/2 as myself. Breakthrough was published in 1996, so it must have been rushed into publication pretty fast after the discovery of BRCA1 in 1994. In fact, it barely covers the discovery of BRCA2–by the book’s end, BRCA2 has been “localized” on chromosome 13, but not yet located (as it would eventually be in 1996). The book may have been stronger if the authors had taken some more time to write it.

Davies and White trace the competition among scientists to find the breast cancer gene in the early 1990s, but while the discovery itself is historically important, many of the players involved are not that interesting. What’s more, the authors largely adopt an “objective” journalistic tone and they frequently miss the chance to engage in some down and dirty cultural analysis or critique. For example, they discuss Mark Skolnick’s founding of Myriad Genetics, but largely let him off the hook for allowing the profit motive–AKA his greed–get in the way of affordable mass testing and research. Gene patenting was the hot button BRCA+ issue for over 15 years before the Supreme Court invalidated Myriad’s patents on our data in 2013. Davies and White barely touch the surface of this issue.

Much of the information that the authors present on breast cancer and BRCA1/2 is out of date by now. It’s been 17 years since it’s publication, so that’s to be expected. Still, the book is often painfully and self-consciously 90s with its frequent comparisons of BRCA1 to HIV, Hillary Clinton’s attempts to establish universal healthcare in the United States, and an overwhelming sense of optimism. All that’s missing is references to the “global village” and a rhapsody about the World Wide Web. The authors believe that the discovery of BRCA1 is going to revolutionize breast cancer prevention, detection, and treatment. In the end, I’m struck by how much hasn’t changed about breast cancer treatment in nearly two decades.

Now for the “what the hell?!” parts. The book ends with a rumination on the state of breast cancer culture in 1996. The authors opine that breast cancer has taken center stage and is receiving more funding than ever. And then, bizarrely, they start attacking feminism.

For instance, in one baffling passage they note: “Curiously, the preventive mastectomy option is significantly more common in the United States than in any other country in the world, but the reasons for this are unclear. It has been said that the preventive mastectomy response smacks of hysteria or is an expression of some convoluted radical feminism” (245). The passage begs the questions: who actually said these things that have “been said”? The passive voice of this quote (“it has been said”) makes it so that Davies and White can make this ridiculous argument without seeming to make any argument at all. I can only imagine that the convoluted logic here is that feminists supposedly reject femininity and therefore want to destroy the secondary sex characteristics that seem to define femininity. That, of course, is absolutely absurd, since feminists have long fought for women to have the freedom to make uncoerced decisions regarding their bodies and health.

And then things get more weird. The authors critique Gloria Steinem for not speaking out more about her own experiences with breast cancer, as though she’s obligated to discuss the details of her health with the entire country. And this bit of what-the-fuckery:

“According to conservative author Midge Decter, NOW is simply not interested in breast cancer, ‘Theirs is a leftist, radical agenda–not a woman’s agenda,’ she claims. ‘And what’s wrong with cancer as a cause from the point of view of the feminist movement is that they can’t identify anybody who did it to them. They’re therefore just not interested.’

Feminists have been used to taking control of their own destiny, of fighting and issue head-on. When it came to breast cancer, they were trapped by their own philosophy. Feminist lore during the 1970s made it clear that the way forward was for women to look after themselves and to control their own future, so any movement endeavoring to funds from the establishment to help cure women of a disease over which they have naturally had no control was anathema to the feminist ideal” (256-7).

WRONG, WRONG, WRONG. Davies and White need a lesson in breast cancer history: as I’ve said before, second wave feminism started the breast cancer movement via the women’s health movement of the 1970s, which was an explicitly feminist enterprise. This is well documented. Furthermore, feminism is not about individual women taking control of their individual destinies. It’s about achieving equality and opportunity for women as a class–that is, for all women, not just individuals. For this reason, feminists have a huge stake in breast cancer culture and research.

It’s also pretty funny to hear the National Organization for Women being called a “radical” organization, when it is frequently attacked for being too mainstream. It is, in fact, a “liberal feminist” organization and by definition not radical. But hey, what else can you expect when the authors consider an anti-feminist wingnut like Midge Decter to be citable expert. Decter, by the way, wrote a book called The New Chastity and Other Arguments Against Women’s Liberation (1972) and founded the reactionary Independent Women’s Forum. She about as much of an authority on feminist attitudes towards breast cancer as Anne Coulter or Fox News.

Adding to the annoyances of the book, Davies and White seem to have an anti-abortion agenda as well, and the issue of abortion pops up repeatedly throughout the book in odd places.  It turns out Frances Collins, another BRCA1/2 researcher and current director of the National Institutes of Health, is also anti-abortion. They all seem concerned that BRCA+ women will start aborting BRCA+ fetuses, because clearly women can’t be trusted to make sound ethical decisions about their bodies and their fetuses. This fear has not panned out over the last 17 years at all.

There are more problems with this book, but I’ll spare you the details. To summarize: Breakthrough sucks and is annoyingly anti-feminist. Learn from my mistakes and don’t read it. It’s a waste of time.