Weeding out Gender Inequity in Katy Simpson Smith’s “The Weeds”

Katy Simpson Smith’s The Weeds is the kind of novel that’s like Halley’s Comet — something of its kind appears infrequently, but when it does, it leaves a significant impression. Its storyline connects two female botanists across time and space as they pursue their individual desires. In 1855, one botanist searches for and documents the plants of the Roman Colosseum. She’s indentured to the English botanist Richard Deakin, for whom she logs 420 species. Fast forward to contemporary times, another female botanist also searches for plants at the Roman Colosseum. She struggles to understand her place not only in life and society but also in academia. In its lush, defiant prose, these two women’s stories about their dedication to science and their survival in realms that threaten to overshadow or deny their scientific and academic contributions unfold. The Weeds opens an even more relevant conversation about how, despite vast societal shifts toward more and more inclusivity and equality, women in the sciences still face discrimination.

In the United States, the wage gap has not closed in 20 years, and according to a recent NPR report, women still earn only $0.82 for each dollar earned by men. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center report, women working in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) fields reported working in hostile working environments where sexual harassment and discrimination frequently occurred. The Weeds addresses these issues in its own manner. First, one must consider how it adeptly addresses the historical denial of women’s contributions to scientific fields by including a female character that is indentured to Richard Deakin. At one point in the novel, the contributions women make to these fields are described as “moon work, shadow work, pale and uncooked.” Like Sarah Mangold’s experimental poetry collection Her Wilderness Will Be Her Manners, The Weeds delves into how behind many notable, well-respected male naturalists stood a woman carefully taking notes, drawing sketches, and making discoveries. It also addresses how society and history have denied these women their rightful credentials and credit for their work, leaving the men to receive accolades.

Contemporary academia is, sadly, rife with gender bias, despite initiatives to address diversity and inclusivity. The Weeds opens another imperative question as female roles in academia and the sciences continue to grow — Has anything really changed? This question emerges as one considers the plight of the contemporary female academic, searching for plants, and dealing with an obtuse male advisor. The challenges she faces resonate with those of her 1855 counterpart: her advisor denies her contributions to his research, saying that she has to work and earn the right to be called a scientist and an academic to receive credit for her research. The Weeds closely examines the gatekeeping of the predominantly white male academic elite, which often strives to bar women and people of color from entering tenure-track and research positions.

Outside of addressing contemporary and historical socio-economic issues, The Weeds also possesses another distinction separating it from many contemporary novels — the writing itself. Despite being a novel rooted in botany, scientific study, and taxonomy, the novel’s writing is poetic, intimate, and confessional. The entries read like the quiet conversations one holds between themselves and the page on which they are writing. It possesses a quietude that reinforces each character’s fortitude and defiance, but despite this quietude, the message is very clear — silence will not be the characters’ fates. Their voices and the writing ultimately forming them, are authentic.

The Weeds is a definite page-turner, a novel in which the past adeptly blurs and blends with the present. That blurring and blending is a necessity, and it challenges readers to examine their own lives and take inventory of the figurative weeds they might need to pull or categorize in their everyday existence. Smith’s writing is fresh and urgent, and The Weeds is a needed novel in contemporary publishing and society. It’s a book meant to inspire women and minorities everywhere to lead the way and tear down the gates barring their paths in the academic and professional fields in which they work.

The Weeds
By Katy Simpson Smith
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published April 18, 2023