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Thoughts on the anniversary of the Montreal Massacre.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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On December 6, 1989, in Montreal, fourteen women were murdered for being women in what their murderer perceived to be a space that rightly belonged to men:

Geneviève Bergeron (born 1968), civil engineering student
Hélène Colgan (born 1966), mechanical engineering student
Nathalie Croteau (born 1966), mechanical engineering student
Barbara Daigneault (born 1967), mechanical engineering student
Anne-Marie Edward (born 1968), chemical engineering student
Maud Haviernick (born 1960), materials engineering student
Maryse Laganière (born 1964), budget clerk in the École Polytechnique’s finance department
Maryse Leclair (born 1966), materials engineering student
Anne-Marie Lemay (born 1967), mechanical engineering student
Sonia Pelletier (born 1961), mechanical engineering student
Michèle Richard (born 1968), materials engineering student
Annie St-Arneault (born 1966), mechanical engineering student
Annie Turcotte (born 1969), materials engineering student
Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz (born 1958), nursing student

They were murdered because their killer was disgruntled that he been denied admission to the École Polytechnique, the site of the massacre, and because he blamed women occupying positions that were traditionally occupied by men for this disappointment, among others. When their killer entered the engineering classroom where the killing began, he first told the men to leave the room, because his goal was to kill the women. In their killer’s pocket, discovered after his death, was a list of more women he had planned to kill, if only he had the time.

Most of the people who believe women do not belong in science and engineering classrooms, or in science or engineering jobs, or in other domains that used to be exclusively male, will never pick up a gun to enforce their will.

But, there are plenty who will send women the clear message that they are not welcome as equal participants in these domains.

There are plenty who will assume — and proclaim loudly — that women have unfairly gained access (due to affirmative action or quotas or political correctness), that they cannot possibly perform at the same level as men (despite evidence that the women they scorn are doing just that), that they have taken the place of some anonymous deserving man who really needed that job or that spot in the class.

There are plenty who will remind women, with words and deeds, that they will always be seen primarily in terms of their sexual desirability (or lack thereof) by the men who are their classmates and teachers, their colleagues and bosses. Women in these male precincts who have the temerity to object to leering and ass-grabbing and unwelcome sexual advances can expect to be told that they are sucking all the joy out of the professional or educational environment, and that this is how it has always been (and if you wanted to be part of this world, you should take it as it is rather than ruining it), and that they should just toughen up.

There is no amount of toughening up that would have saved these fourteen women from the bullets that were fired at them for the crime of being female in a male domain.

And, when men speak passionately against women leaving their proper place to invade male dominated fields — when they go beyond placing the burden of proof on women to show they should be allowed to participate (rather than giving them the same opportunity as men to prove themselves) and argue that women’s full-scale participation will ruin science and engineering for everyone who matters — we cannot tell, just by looking, which of them may someday feel entitled to act on their convictions with weapons more deadly than words.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. eurotimbr 12:25 pm 12/12/2012

    Unfortunately, this seems to be an area where the slippery slope argument actually fits the reality to some extent.

    Link to this

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