Ada Lovelace Day: Susan Calvin

Posted Tuesday March 24, 2009 by John Gunders in |

It’s Ada Lovelace Day and as promised, here is my post about “women excelling in technology”. Because this is Memes, and we have our own interests and perspectives, my take on the excellent female technician is Dr Susan Calvin of US Robotics.

Susan Calvin is, of course, fictional. She features in many of the early robot stories of Isaac Asimov. The author is slightly self-congratulatory about his creation:

You will note, by the way, that although most of the Susan Calvin stories were written at a time when male chauvinism was taken for granted in science fiction, Susan asks no favors and and beats the men at their own game. To be sure, she remains sexually unfulfilled—but you can’t have everything. (Asimov, The Complete Robot, Granada, 1982: 265)

Nice. Women can be as talented and scientifically rigorous as men, but only by suppressing their identities as sexual beings. You can have science or love, but not both, apparently.

In fact, it goes further. The first Susan Calvin story, “Liar!” was published in 1941, at a time when female scientists were rare (the Second World War was changing that, but slowly). Dr Calvin rose to be chief Robopsychologist with US Robotics, the feared and respected head of research, whose name was remembered for at least 2,500 years (there is a reference to her in one of the “Foundation” novels). But in “Liar!” Asimov portrays her as insecure and worried that her lack of attractiveness meant that she would never find success in love.

In the final Calvin story, “Feminine Intuition”, Asimov has her say:

“Feminine intuition? Is that what you wanted the robot for? You men. Faced with a woman reaching a correct conclusion and unable to accept the fact that she is your equal or superior in intelligence, you invent something called feminine intuition.” (488-89)

Except that that is precisely what the author does: for all the gender equality rhetoric in the stories, they are full of sexist assumptions such as these. Asimov was right to point to the distance fiction had come from the misogynist 1940s to the relatively enlightened 1980s, when he wrote the introductions to the collection. From our perspective however, it is easy to see that there was still a long way to go before female scientists (both real and fictional) were treated as equal to their male counterparts.

The fact that Ada Lovelace Day needs to exist is evidence that we are not there yet…

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