Reflections on mourning science on December 6

“For 45 minutes on Dec. 6, 1989 an enraged gunman roamed the corridors of Montreal’s École Polytechnique and killed 14 women. Marc Lepine, 25, separated the men from the women and before opening fire on the classroom of female engineering students he screamed, “I hate feminists.” Almost immediately, the Montreal Massacre became a galvanizing moment in which mourning turned into outrage about all violence against women.”

This summary from the CBC news archives describes well the horrifying incident of that day and the impact that it has had across Canada. At most Canadian universities the day is marked with candlelight gatherings and vigils for victims of violence against women. To this day, though, I’ve never been to one.

The Montreal Massacre had a profound effect on me as a young student. I was a 13 year old Grade 9 student, just beginning high school science. As a kid, I’d always been interested in science. I loved building things, digging in things, looking at critters in the dirt and lying on the deck looking at the stars. My parents aren’t involved in science in any way but they always recognized my interest and helped me explore science in any way they could. My dad and I spent many great days at science museums together. We did very little science at my elementary school though. Aside from picture books about animals (my favourite was about the lynx) my out of school experiences formed most of my earliest impressions of science. I learned that science was about curiosity and experimentation, about awestruck appreciation for the natural world. Grade 9 was my first exposure to more formal science education. I was introduced to ideas of controlled experiments and different types of evidence and learned about ecosystems. I didn’t do my homework as much as I should have but that’s beside the point I guess.

On the anniversary of the Montreal Massacre earlier this week, I tweeted “Dec 6 ’89: I was 13, it was the first time I realized that there was something different about being a girl in science”. Almost immediately after I posted it, though, the tweet didn’t feel right. I’ve been stewing about it all week to figure out why. Thinking about it brought me the further realization that I’ve never participated in any commemorative activities, ever. Even as an undergraduate engineering student (and chair of the engineering society’s Equity and Ethics Committee and representative to the local Women in Science Engineering group) I’d always avoided them. Thinking about it made me feel quite guilty – why could I not bother to attend commemorations of an event that had been profoundly affecting in my earliest experiences with formal science education.

The first answer that I came to is that they made me uncomfortable. Large gestures of public emotion aren’t my preferred venue for grieving and remembering. Given the choice, I would always opt for private reflection. But 21 years of avoidance seems a bit excessive if it were just a case of not liking public ceremonies. I have attended many Remembrance Day ceremonies in that time.

Instead, I’ve come to realize that it was the intent of the ceremonies that made me uncomfortable. I fully support those who approach the day as emblematic of violence against women and use the anniversary to draw attention to continuing violence. As a 13 year old budding scientist, however, that wasn’t how I interpreted it. Instead of seeing it through the lens of womanhood, I saw it through the lens of science. This was the first time that I realized that who you are can have a serious impact on your place in science. I don’t mean just in the social studies of science sense, where who you are influences the science that you do. Suddenly I saw that who you were as a physical body and as a person could determine whether others allowed your participation, that there could be serious consequences for not being the right type of person in someone’s eyes. This was a profoundly scary realization. It was not for the cause of women that I grieved at that time, but for science: for the science that I thought I knew, that had in my mind been a world purely of ideas and not bodies. As a result, December 6 has been for me a day for recognizing those who have been peremptorily excluded from science, those who are driven out by harassment, made to feel inadequate and not welcome just because of who they are, for those who have hidden their sexuality, changed their accents, acted differently or given up in frustration because they were not seen by someone as the right type of person – because someone told them they shouldn’t be there.

This realization has allowed me to forgive myself a little bit because, in fact, that view of the meaning of December 6 pervades everything that I do as a researcher and writer. Most of my research addresses insider/outsider boundaries, exclusion and the bodies and personalities of science. For example, I study the consequences of  stereotypes and social expectations on students’ persistence in science. The work that I do now including this blog, my research in identity, language and belonging in science education and science outreach: That’s my vigil.


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