Non-Fiction

Nevertheless, She Persisted

Here is why you’ll want to buy three copies of Smitten by Giraffe, a memoir by Anne Innis Dagg.

You will destroy the first copy you buy. Even if you can stifle your shouts of disgust at the ferocious sexism Dagg describes, you will not be able to restrain yourself from occasionally flinging the book across the room in rage.

This will render it unfit for re-gifting.

You will want to give a second copy to any woman you know who studied science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) at a Canadian university any time before 1990.

“Is this true?” you will ask in disbelief.

You will point to the passage in which the University of Waterloo’s dean of science, Bill Pearson, told a group of female PhD candidates, in the early 1970s, that “he did not hire women, no matter how talented; their place was in the family, raising children” or Dagg’s account of how the 1983 Engineering Society’s official parade at that university featured female strippers, or the 1990 article in which professor Gordon Freeman argued against women working at all because the “tendency to cheat correlates strongly with the absence of a full-time mother at home.”

Give the third copy of this book to a young person who is studying a STEM subject or who plans to. Direct their attention to chapter 9, “A Sexist University: How Bad Was It? Awful!” or chapter 12, “Women and Science at Canadian Universities.” These young people should know how hard pioneering women like Dagg had to fight for every inch of feminist progress … and how much of their fight yielded absolutely no progress at all.

How many thousands of Canadian women scientists couldn’t persist as Dagg did? How many brilliant female scientists and engineers did we lose because they simply ran out of steam in the face of such dispiriting sexism?

Dagg is a “citizen scientist,” which is to say a person who undertakes scientific research without the support of a university or government. This is not by choice: she wanted more than anything to be a professor. Dagg fell in love with giraffe when she was a girl and sought to learn everything she could about them. In 1956, after earning a bachelor’s degree in zoology and a master’s in genetics, she scrapped together some cash and convinced a ranch manager in South Africa to give her room and board for a year while she studied the behaviour of giraffe (he agreed only because she strategically signed her letter “A. Innis,” leading him to assume she was male). She was twenty-three. When Dagg returned to Canada, she undertook her doctoral research by analyzing 16 mm film of giraffe at a card table in her apartment while simultaneously caring full-time for her three young children.

But despite having a doctorate, an impressive publishing record, and teaching experience, Dagg was passed over for tenure-track positions. The hiring committee of the biology department at Wilfred Laurier University had “no interview process at all: the committee had simply chosen one of their friends whose publishing record was much inferior to mine,” she writes.

But Dagg persisted. Again and again, in the face of discrimination, in the face of lack of funding, even, when stranded in the Mauritanian desert while researching camel gait, in the face of death, she persisted. She did research on her own dime. She self-published her results when traditional journals wouldn’t. She joined local environmental groups and, later, became an activist for the equal treatment of women in academia.

Smitten by Giraffe is very readable, even for those who don’t gravitate towards books about science. It can feel disjointed, jumping as it does from Dagg’s research to her feminist activism and back again, but it is a memoir, after all: life doesn’t move in a straight line, especially for trailblazers. Some of the passages describing Dagg’s research methodology and results are dry, but they are balanced by the sensational sexism she describes, often (but not often enough) naming those who instigated and perpetuated it.

Reading her life story begs the question: How many thousands of Canadian women scientists couldn’t persist as Dagg did? How many brilliant female scientists and engineers did we lose because they simply ran out of steam in the face of such dispiriting sexism? And how much poorer is our society, in terms of knowledge and innovation, because of it? mRb

Sarah Lolley is the 2017 CBC/QWF Writer-in-Residence. She writes essays, crime fiction, and children’s literature, and is an avid fan of cryptic crosswords.

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