Women in science: a difficult history

Cross-posted from The H Word blog, where this post first appeared on 15 October 2013.

Caricature of women attending a 19th-century meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science
Caricature of women attending a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.


Today, as you’ll probably see from many tweets and blog posts, is Ada Lovelace Day. As the Finding Ada website explains, this

aims to raise the profile of women in science, technology, engineering and maths by encouraging people around the world to talk about the women whose work they admire.

Many of the talks and posts that mark the day will be about mentors and leaders in science today. Many will highlight the sometimes overlooked work of women in the history of STEM.

As I discussed on this blog last year, I find myself somewhat conflicted about Ada Lovelace Day and similar projects that focus on highlighting women in the history of science. On the plus side, I am wholeheartedly supportive of the attempt to encourage young women to think about scientific careers and to appreciate the work of women in the past, when opportunities were even more circumscribed. I am also glad to see stories from the history of science getting wider attention.

However, I am also wary. In celebratory mode, there is a tendency to overplay the work that the women highlighted actually did. There is no better example of this than Lovelace herself, who is wrongly credited with writing the first computer program. Likewise, just as with the heroic “great man” mode of history, focusing on individuals can hide the extent to which science is always a collaborative enterprise. Finally, although some women are rescued from the background shadows, other individuals and groups, equally deserving of attention, remain ignored.

As a historian, I am always likely to be suspicious of the use of history to serve particular purposes, whether that is to get more women into ormore funding for British science. Laudable though those aims might be, there is a risk that the historical evidence will be selected or distorted to suit the current purpose.

Certainly there were (are) remarkable women in all spheres of life, but the more important story is the one that explores why there were so few and how and why their talents – and those of whom we’ll never hear – were wasted. While it’s good to encourage girls and women to have the confidence to succeed in science or elsewhere, we also need them to look at the societies that have made, and still make, this a difficult task.

It always strikes me that should women of the past read some of what is written about them today, they would be hugely surprised and perhaps even offended. Before the 20th century, and often after, women who did scientific work tended to present themselves as a support to science or men rather than as pioneers. Although this is a reflection of the patriarchal society in which they lived, and they may sometimes have said things they did not privately believe in order to appear acceptable, it was their chosen self-presentation.

Recently, for example, a post was published that claimed that William Whewell had coined the word “scientist” to describe Mary Somerville. The response suggested that this is something that people really wanted to believe. However, while it is true that the first published appearance of the word was in a review of Somerville’s book On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1834), neither Whewell nor Somerville would have dreamed of its being applied to her. Women, Somerville suggested, did not have original ideas, but the female mind might, as Whewell wrote, provide a “peculiar illumination” in explaining the ideas of others.

Somerville undertook aspects of science that were “women’s work”: writing, translation, popularisation. She also frequently highlighted her role as a wife and mother. Others, who approved of and supported her, did likewise. The American astronomer Maria Mitchell met Somerville and wrote:

I could not but admire Mrs Somerville as a woman. The ascent of the steep and rugged path of science had not unfitted her for the drawing-room circle; the hours of devotion to close study have not been incompatible with the duties of wife and mother; the mind that has turned to rigid demonstration has not thereby lost its faith in those truths which figures will not prove.

Somerville and others underlined the distinction between men and women’s minds and appropriate spheres of activity because of the society in which they lived. Somerville was a supporter of women’s education and it was important to show that learning mathematics and the sciences would not turn young women into unattractive, barren spinsters. Those campaigning for women’s suffrage had a similar choice: emphasise your acceptable femininity or reinforce the stereotypes of Punch caricatures.

We like to think that we have moved on. In many ways we have: women in the UK can vote, be educated and enter careers and remain in them even after getting married or having children. Yet they are still radically underrepresented in the most highly paid and esteemed positions, and overrepresented at the other end of the scale. We are, as Alice Bell explained yesterday, still in a society that asks for female intelligence to be mitigated with the use of lipstick and a focus on domestic details.

By all means celebrate individuals, but understand them as they would have understood themselves. Make sure to think of the society in which they operated and look hard at what has and what has not changed.

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2 thoughts on “Women in science: a difficult history

  1. - thanks for posting this, which we found interesting enough to take and use as writing prompt
    19-27-bravo-echo; which, like eveything about us, is pretty much a made-up name, the “bravo-echo” part being a sound we’re pretty sure readers will never make after reading anything we write

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