From Motherhood the Elephant in the Laboratory,

Marilyn Wilkey Merritt, Associate Research Professor of Anthropology,
Washington University Lecturer in Anthropology,
University of America, PhD, Linguistics, University of Pennsylvania, 1976

A scientist of the so-called soft variety, I write as an ethnographic linguist, after forty years of motherhood, a decade of being a grandmother (“Mere-mom”), and twelve postdoctoral years living overseas. I grew up in America’s heartland, in small town Missouri, where my encouraging family and teachers made anything seem possible…

Wherever we are, we feel professionally stymied when there are fewer opportunities to participate, lacking a relevant job or unable to attend conferences. Even when unpaid participation can be negotiated, it takes enormous psychological energy to always be the initiator risking rejection. For me it was important to keep listening, to be part of the dialogue, and to nourish my passion with substance and the physicality of “being there.”

Then, in 1987, after seven years abroad, we returned to the United States and our old neighborhood. The work and reverse culture shock were daunting and exhausting. But we were happy to be home for Brienne’s last year at the university and Seth’s last two years of high school, to see more of our families, and to renew life friendships. Back in Washington, there were many good universities, museums, and institutions with intellectually stimulating public events. I worked on the Kenyan data, gave presentations, and looked for openings.

There were six uncertain years before Gary was posted again overseas. In my second year, I taught as a visiting faculty member at Georgetown University. I was interviewed at another university for a tenure-track position, but my heart sank when someone asked, “But doesn’t your husband travel a lot?”

Professional losses were amplified by Seth’s departure for a two-year program at Deep Springs College in the California desert, some three thousand miles away. Fortunately, Brienne returned to Washington, living nearby with friends. Two years later, my father died. Our lives as a family were in transition.

Wounded by academics, I turned to broader interests in writing and creativity and wrote commentary for a sculptor and long-time friend from Philadelphia days. I wrote more poetry and spent more time with art and nature. Networking and meeting old friends from overseas helped me to value experiences at foreign posts.

Eventually I learned of the diplomacy fellowships offered by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. I wrote the strongest application I could muster and returned to part-time university teaching. When chosen to work as a AAAS fellow in USAID’s Office of Education, I was ecstatic about the prospect of starting and learning something new and of spending two years (1990-92) applying my academic training and cross-cultural living experience to international policies during the United Nations Decade for Basic Education.

My personal experiences were reinforcing what I had learned as a linguist and social scientist. As our lives unfold, we all have complex multiple identities reflecting changing roles; these are instilled through social interaction and typically involve particular repertoires and uses of language. When we use the vocabulary and argumentation of our professions, we invoke those identities, reinforce our sense of belonging, and nourish that aspect of who we are (or were). In professional contexts, we feel affirmed when others acknowledge our hard-won credentials and slighted when a competing identity is invoked instead (e.g., Mrs. rather than Dr.). Without conversational occasions to appropriately enact our scientist selves, there is an almost inevitable erosion of confidence in that identity. Abroad, where boundaries often depend on nationality and organizational position rather than qualifications and desire, I observed my own disempowerment and that of other women who were denied participation in their fields (including lawyers and doctors). It was strengthening to at least talk among ourselves…


2 Responses to “Excerpts: Identities Looking Back over Forty Years as a Social Scientist, Woman, and Mother”

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