Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Women in Science, Historical Edition: Doris Cochran's struggle for promotion at the Smithsonian

It's been bothering me lately that there aren't many women blogging about history. Sure, there are women historians blogging about grad school or teaching, and there are women historians who comment on current events, but I'm having a helluva time finding women writing about history on their blogs. I like Cliopatria but I sense very strongly the absence of women writing for that blog.

I'm not a historian, but I play one in my dissertation. And I realize I've been coy about what my dissertation exactly is about. So I thought I'd share some stories from it. I'm not going to provide much commentary here, as I suspect such explicit interpretation would be less interesting to my readers than the stories of these women's lives. Many of their less pleasant experiences are, I'm afraid to report, being relived by women scientists today. (Check out my latest BlogHer post for bloggy women-in-science news.)

Without further ado, then, I introduce herpetologist Doris Cochran.

Doris Cochran with frog, ca. 1930

Cochran’s decades-long struggles for promotion up the Smithsonian’s curatorial ladder allows for an institution-side review of a woman’s quest for recognition and remuneration. Cochran herself did not write extensively on her promotion battles, but her supervisor, Waldo Schmitt, worked through internal and external channels to support her ambitions. His efforts and communications with the leadership of the Smithsonian are well-documented in letters, memos, official forms, and personal notes. These resources not only tell, in detail, the history of Cochran’s employment at the Smithsonian, but also shed some light on the institutional culture of the midcentury Smithsonian and its attitudes toward women.

For the final twenty years of her career, Cochran struggled to be promoted to titles and pay levels consistent with her actual job duties, as well as with the quantity and quality of work she produced. Cochran joined the Smithsonian in 1919 as an aid in the Division of Reptiles. In 1941, she was promoted to salary grade P-3, which was equivalent to an assistant curator’s initial appointment. When her supervisor, the renowned naturalist Leonhard Stejneger, died suddenly in 1943, Cochran’s nearly quarter-century of experience merited her appointment as acting head of the division. Two years later, Cochran was still serving as head of the division, but her salary grade remained at P-3, and she sought appointment to P-4 or P-5. Schmitt, the head curator in the department of biology and Cochran’s nominal supervisor, wrote to the Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian that Cochran’s work was at P-5 level, but because "we can say that she is working under general supervision" he can understand why the institution would only approve her for a promotion to P-4.

In March 1950, Cochran appealed for a higher grade, this time asking for GS-13, a grade made available by a midcentury revision of the federal white-collar pay scale. (1) This promotion would elevate her from associate curator to full curator. In a letter later that year to the Civil Service commission, Cochran explained her situation:
I am supervised by the present Head Curator of Zoology [Schmitt] in just the same way that the full curators of other divisions are supervised, that is, with regard to invoices and other routine papers and official correspondence for which his endorsement or signature is required. In broad matters of policy, along with the other curators I am always mindful of his counsel and advice. But as he is not a specialist in my special field of Knowledge, he has never assigned me any herpetological problems or suggested any special procedures for the presentation of the results of my original investigations.

Schmitt supported her application with a note backing up these claims. (2) Schmitt received his start at the Smithsonian when carcinologist Mary Jane Rathbun gave up her own salary so that she might hire him as an assistant. That gesture, plus the decades of mentoring she provided to him, may have motivated Schmitt to pay off a debt of gratitude by assisting other women scientists with their careers. (3)

In October 1950, Schmitt’s supervisor sent him a memo that makes it appear that Schmitt was reluctant to supervise Cochran and that he had given her a good deal of autonomy. Remington Kellogg, who was then director of the U.S. National Museum, directed Schmitt to undertake a weekly inspection of the reptile collections and related files. Schmitt also was to review all "outgoing official letters" signed by Cochran. In a conversation with Schmitt, Kellogg apparently had cited a series of errors Cochran had made in identifying some specimens. The day after receiving Kellogg’s memo, Schmitt wrote to Secretary Wetmore, "I am shocked to hear that your chief objection to Miss Cochran is her misidentifications. It has never before come to my attention that you considered her work so low grade, in view of the papers she has written and which you approved for publication." In his personal, handwritten notes, Schmitt wrote of Kellogg and other Smithsonian leaders, "They continue to want to rate her down. [Smithsonian Secretary Alexander] Wetmore is prejudiced against career women." He noted as well that Kellogg’s complaints against Cochran "amount to rating her on secretarial work, on which no prof. on staff is rated." He believed Kellogg and Wetmore were colluding against Cochran, with Kellogg being unduly influenced by Wetmore’s opinion of Cochran. Mixed in with these papers is Schmitt’s August 3 response to Kellogg’s initial demand that he supervise Cochran; in his notes, Schmitt writes that he accepts Kellogg’s instructions to supervise Cochran. However, Schmitt never sent this memo, he writes in his notes, “on lawyers [sic] advice.” (4)

In support of Cochran’s bid for promotion, in 1950 Schmitt sought letters from herpetologists outside the institution testifying to her strengths as a scientist and curator. The letters he received in return were for the most part warm, although two of them called for a younger herpetologist—one specifies a man—to be placed under Cochran’s supervision in preparation for her retirement. Two letters also point out that Cochran’s research interests were not ideal for someone serving as curator of such a significant collection, as her research agenda was focused outside the U.S. and was not as up-to-date in systematics as some would desire. (5) Despite the general tone of commendation, the Civil Service Commission turned down Cochran’s appeal to become a full curator. Schmitt blamed "representations made by Drs. Wetmore and Kellogg." (6)

All of this raises an important question: Was Cochran undeserving of the post? In an application nominating Cochran for the annual Federal Woman’s Award in 1963, Secretary Leonard Carmichael noted Cochran had published 83 scientific papers, contributed to popular literature, described six new genera and 94 species or subspecies, and illustrated many publications by herself and colleagues. He points out that in Brazil in 1935, she collected 2,700 frogs. He also notes that she was only the second person to be elected a distinguished fellow of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists. (7) Clearly, Cochran was an accomplished herpetologist who had won the admiration of her peers.

After years of wrangling, at the very end of 1966 Cochran received a final promotion to GS-14, but with the title “Systematic Zoologist” instead of curator. She would not enjoy this status for long. Just over a year later, in February 1968, she received a letter informing her that the Civil Service Retirement Act would force her into retirement on her seventieth birthday, May 18, 1968. Cochran retired voluntarily on April 30 and died four days after her birthday, on May 22, after 50 years of service to the Smithsonian. (8)

The pressures limiting women’s advancement in the museum sciences varied by institution. In Cochran’s case, it appears the Smithsonian’s leadership, as embodied by Wetmore, Kellogg, and perhaps others, threw up roadblocks in her quest for advancement. In addition, the letters Schmitt solicited from colleagues outside the Smithsonian indicate that herpetologists at the time may have placed more faith and trust in men’s abilities than in women’s. Finally, the institutional culture of the Smithsonian may not have been welcoming of women scientists, as the hiring of women in collections positions all but came to a halt during Cochran’s tenure. Cochran thus faced a triple trap: individual, disciplinary, and institutional constraints on women.

(Messily formatted) Notes:

(1) For details, see Smithsonian Institution Archives Record Unit 7151, box 7, folder 4. Initial appointment to aid: memo from C.D. Walcott dated 27 Oct. 1919. P-3: Schmitt’s handwritten account of Cochran’s work history. Acting head: letter from Alexander Wetmore dated 2 March 1943. P-3 grade: Waldo Schmitt to Wetmore, 26 Apr. 1945. P-4: Schmitt to J. E. Graf, 20 June 1945. For Schmitt’s thoughts on this promotion, and his belief that Cochran should not push any further within a year’s time, see his green handwritten journal, undated, but probably from the mid-1940s, in SIA Record Unit 7321, Box 66, Folder 5. Appeal: Schmitt to J.B. Newman, 2 Aug. 1950. The P grade system was replaced by the GS (General Schedule) system in 1949. For more on pay grades, See the Office of Personnel Management’s historical timeline, "Evolution of Federal White-Collar Pay."

(2) Cochran to Civil Service Commission, August 1950. Schmitt, "Note by supervisor emending position description of Dr. Doris M. Cochran, Systematic Zoologist," 2 Aug. 1950. Both found in SIA Record Unit 7231, Box 7, Folder 4.

(3) Schmitt’s papers at the Smithsonian corroborate this claim. He corresponded with, and contributed to the careers of, women from across the sciences.

(4) Remington Kellogg to Waldo Schmitt, memo "Management of the Division of Reptiles and Amphibians," 17 Oct. 1950. Schmitt to Wetmore, 18 Oct. 1950. Schmitt, undated notes titled "Kellogg’s complaints." Kellogg and Wetmore’s collusion: See Schmitt’s undated notes that begin with "Nov. 1 1919." Schmitt to Kellogg, 3 Aug. 1950, memo titled "Management of the Division of Reptiles and Amphibians." All found in SIA Record Unit 7231, Box 7, Folder 4.

(5) See letters to Schmitt from M. Graham Netting (2 Nov. 1950) and Karl P. Schmidt (stamped received 30 Oct. 1950), SIA Record Unit 7231, Box 7, Folder 4.

(6) Schmitt to A.H. Wright, 14 Nov. 1950, SIA Record Unit 7231, Box 7, Folder 4.

(7) Leonard Carmichael to Katie Louchheim, 18 Nov. 1963, letter and accompanying “Nomination for Federal Woman’s Award,” SIA Record Unit 7231, Box 7, Folder 4.

(8) GS-14: "Position Description," dated 22 Dec. 1966. Mandatory retirement: Babel A. Byrd to Cochran, 28 Feb. 1968. Retirement: "Notification of Personnel Action" form, dated 26 Mar. 1968. Death announced: Announcement from S. Dillon Ripley, 22 May 1968. All found in SIA Record Unit 7231, Box 7, Folder 4.

See historical errors? Please let me know: trillwing -at- gmail -dot- com.


Jonathan Dresner said...

There are at least a few very good female history bloggers out there, many of them affiliated with Cliopatria and its neighbor blog Revise and Dissent. Aside from the bloggers who are members (even if they don't post there often), I'd highly recommend Another Damned Medievalist's blogroll, and I'd be happy to pick a few out of Cliopatria blogroll if they're not obvious.

What Now? said...

Trillwing, thanks for such an interesting post! I have often thought that one of the things we sacrifice in having pseudonymous blogs is the ability to write more specifically about our work. So we wind up writing about pedagogy and service -- things we presumably all share, and stories about which can be fairly generic -- and we avoid those things that make us distinctive. Thanks for breaking that trend!

Kristen said...

I too have noticed the dearth of female history bloggers. I agree with the comment by "what now?" and lament the fact that we must be ambiguous and vague in our postings. My blog deals in large part with teaching and graduate school, but you've inspired me to incorporate more history into my posts. Thanks for a timely suggestion!

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I love the photo of Cochran with the frog - how wonderful! (I so wish I had photos of my research subjects...)

Your post is interesting, as was Ralph Luker's recent response. Like What Now? points out, it is hard to write pseudonymously and talk about my research (and therefore history) more specifically. Obviously people know I'm a medievalist, so that's not an issue, but there's still a lot that I could "give away" if I got more specific. If I talk about medieval history in general as it comes up in my classes, for instance, I worry about students finding me; if I talk about my own research, well, other researchers might find me, and that's scary. ;-)

Collin Brooke at Collin vs. Blog had an interesting post recently about being willing to put your money where your mouth is, so to speak, and that he talks about the importance of networks of information, yet jealously guards his partially-formed ideas, in a way inconsistent with what he actually researches. It has a different resonance when you're talking about comp/rhet than history, but still very interesting.

I should add, too, that I've never been very good at talking much about my work during the writing process - something which was a problem with my advisor, in fact! Somehow I manage to respond to other people's posts on these subjects much more than posting about it myself. Hmmm. Will think about this!

Catherine Shteynberg said...

What a wonderful post and a great link addition to our Smithsonian Flickr Commons set on Women Scientists:!