When Men Get All the Credit: Gender and the Construction of Knowledge
There is a common theme that often plays out in television sitcoms and movies that goes something like this: A wife and husband are trying to accomplish a task—maybe trying to put something together or convey a life-lesson to their children. The husband takes first crack at the task and fails miserably. Next, the wife tries and is eventually or even immediately successful. Despite her prowess in accomplishing the task the husband finds a way to butt in and somehow take all of the credit. The woman often gives a knowing look to her husband (or the audience) and laughs it off (along with the audience) as typical male behavior.
This scenario is not only played out in fictional settings; it also happens in real life. In fact, it even happens in the world of sociology—particularly in the construction of sociological knowledge. Let me offer a few examples.
Many students of sociology have heard of the concept of double consciousness—the notion that African Americans feel torn between two identities: that of being Black and that of being American. This term is attributed to W.E.B. DuBois, one of early African-American sociologists who coined this concept in his seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk:
It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness--an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.Although DuBois is rightly given credit for coming up with the name of this social phenomena it may not be quite accurate for us to credit him with being the first to identify this social-psychological process. Souls of Black Folk was published in 1903. Nearly ten years earlier in 1892, Anna Julia Cooper, a turn-of-the century African-American scholar, wrote the following words in her book, A Voice from the South:
The colored woman of to-day occupies, one may say, a unique position in this country. . . She is confronted by both a woman question and a race problem, and is as yet an unknown or unacknowledged factor in both.
Cooper does not use the phrase “double consciousness,” but there is no doubt that she is referring to the same sense of twoness, and inequality, that DuBois articulated a decade later. In fact, we can even go back nearly fifty years earlier to Sojourner Truth, the escaped slave who became an abolitionist and women’s rights activist, who also conveyed these themes. In her famous speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?” delivered to the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio on May 28-29 1851, Sojourner Truth bemoaned the inequality, or twoness, facing Black women:
Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that 'twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what's all this here talking about?
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?
The cases of W.E.B. DuBois, Anna Julia Cooper and Sojourner Truth are interesting because the construction of knowledge and credit were presumably established after the individuals were deceased. But as noted in the fictional vignette I described in the beginning of this post, often times women “allow” men to receive all of the credit. Such consent—acquiescence is probably a more appropriate word—seems to be the case with two other sociological examples.
Most students of sociology know C. Wright Mills as the author of The Sociological Imagination. Mills also wrote numerous other books that helped to establish his reputation as one of the leading critical sociologists of the mid-twentieth century. Mills’s books include The Power Elite—his classic critique that showed how power is centralized in the hands of political, military, and economic elites—and White Collar, a groundbreaking analysis of the middle class. Mills is the sole author of record for these books but as revealed in an interview with his daughter Kathryn Mills, these books (as well as a third, New Men of Power) seem to have had a silent co-collaborator in his second wife Ruth Harper:
It [The Power Elite] is the book that my mother, Ruth Harper Mills, and my father worked on together from the time my father first got the idea of doing the book until it was completed. As a math major, my mother did the statistics for the book, and my father referred to her as his “chief researcher and editorial advisor” in the book’s acknowledgment pages. [. . .] My mother ended up working on White Collar for three years, but unlike The Power Elite, White Collar had been under construction by my father a long time before he met my mother.
The next sociological example concerns the well-known idea in sociology called the Thomas Theorem. This idea suggests that if people define situations as real they are real in their consequences. The concept is generally attributed to W.I. Thomas even though the book in which this concept appears, The Child in America, was co-authored with his wife Dorothy. As the sociologist Robert Merton discovered through his personal correspondence with Dorothy, W.I. was responsible for the theory and analysis in this book and Dorothy’s contribution were solely statistical. Consequently, Dorothy believed that it was appropriate that the Thomas Theorem be associated solely with W.I.
Merton wrote extensively about this particular example in an article titled “The Thomas Theorem and the Matthew Effect.” The Mathew Effect is named for a passage in the New Testament, Matthew 25:29, that suggests that those who have more get more and those who have less will get theirs taken away. Merton used this concept to explain the process in the social and natural sciences whereby researchers who are well known will get more credit and fame than their less known colleagues and collaborators. Not surprisingly, there are countless examples of this phenomenon that are both contemporary and historical. When a woman is one of the collaborators, this phenomenon is sometimes referred to as the Matilda Effect.
This issue of who gets credit and recognition is really an issue of power. Whether it’s a man taking credit for a woman’s idea, whites taking credit for the accomplishments of non-whites, or the rich receiving praise for the efforts of the poor (as in the case of architectural wonders—those who actually built the structure are invisible and unknown), the question is really a matter of who has the ability and the authority to define and construct reality. More often than not, it is those with the social, economic, or political clout—a point that Marx alluded to in The German Ideology when he proclaimed: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.”
Knowing this process occurs should give us the impetus to speak up if it happens in our presence, reject it if we watch it in the context of entertainment, or challenge it if it’s something we are studying. Otherwise, our silence will be mistaken for consent and the relationships of inequality will be perpetuated.