Book review: Writing about women’s lives in science

An edited version of this book review appeared in the latest issue of British Journal for the History of Science (vol. 49, 2016, pp. 529-30).


Govoni, Paola, and Franceschi, Zelda Alice (eds.), Writing about Lives in Science: (Auto)Biography, Gender, and Genre. Goettingen: V&R Unipress, 2015. Pp. 287. ISBN. 978-3-8471-0263-2. €44.99 (hardback).

Biography within the history of science has repeatedly been rescued, revived and reconsidered: from Thomas Hankins’s 1979 ‘Defense of Biography’, to the essays in Telling Lives in Science (1996, eds. Michael Shortland and Richard Yeo), the 2002 workshop that led to The History and Poetics of Scientific Biography (2006, ed. Thomas Söderqvist), the 2006 ‘Focus’ section in Isis and now this collection. Many of those who have written biographies have been reflexive about their motivations and their version of their subject’s life and character. Richard Westfall, for example, produced some fascinating reflections for the 1985 collection Introspection in Biography, showing the wisdom of B.J.T. Dobbs’s comment that Newton is “something of a Rorschach inkblot test” for historians (Isis 85 (1994), 516). Those academic biographies of major figures have, after all, still been produced and, as Margaret Rossiter and Pnina G. Abir-Am led the way from the 1980s onward, so too have collections and considerations of lives of women scientists.

Thus, while it may be true, as Paola Govoni says in the introduction to this collection, that historians of science “seem to suffer from a certain uneasiness when faced with biography as a genre” (p. 8), that uneasiness has resulted in plenty of words. This book adds to them but helpfully brings together various strands to remind us of: the usefulness of biographical approaches to understanding the social and cultural worlds of science; the important insight provided by the self-reflections of historians and biographers; and the biography’s role in shaping views of what it means to live a life in science. While this last point has been made in a number of previous studies, several chapters in this collection bring home forcefully the importance of scholarship that brought women’s lives in science to light. Abir-Am’s chapter on women scientists of the 1970s in particular reveals the difficulties and impossibilities of those lives, which we must grasp if the still present “leaky pipeline” of women’s careers is ever to be mended.

Thus, although, as Paula Findlen writes, professional historians of science may have avoided biography as “too heroic, too isolating and idolizing of the individual” (p. 92), we might feel sympathy for those whose writings have done a little championing, as well as gratitude to those who did the spadework to save these lives from further oblivion, whether 20th-century feminists and women scientists or the 18th-century compilers of biographical dictionaries discussed in Findlen’s chapter. This book is, then, as much an account of gender history in relation to history of science as of biography, although it demonstrates the importance of the biographical genre for women’s history, and the direct links with campaigns for equality. The first three brief introspective chapters on biographical writing and its reception (Evelyn Fox Keller and Georgina Ferry) and gender history (Londa Schiebinger), all reflect contemporary gender politics in science and/or academia, and the authors’ sense of the “imperative” (p. 43) to address this in their work. They are, as Zelda Alice Franceschi writes in her Afterword, “women who have taken a stand” (p. 267).

As is often the way with collected volumes, there is some repetition – in particular discussions of the attitude within professional history of science to biography or to gender studies – and some unevenness. The chapters range from autobiographical reflection on writing biography to analysis of historical biographies and demonstrations of a modern biographical approach. They vary in length, structure and readability but tend to cluster their historical focus. There is particular attention to the 18th century – with discussions of the lives of Laura Bassi and other women of Enlightenment science by Marta Cavassa, Findlen, Massimo Mazzotti and Schiebinger – and the 20th century, with chapters on writings associated with Marie Curie (Vita Fortunati), the interweaving lives and writings of mid-century anthropology (Franceschi), and late-century biosciences (Keller and Abir-Am). This is not the place to find an historical overview of the roles of biography or gender in science, although the formational historiography is well covered.

While certain figures – Bassi, Curie, Barbara McClintock – receive repeated and sustained attention, the chapters reveal a range of de-centring strategies that have been adopted to avoid the perceived pitfalls of biography. Several show that looking at comparative or interlocking lives can help us to reflect better on the meaning of each, and on their relevance to and within the wider context. Cavazza writes of the “metabiographies” (p. 69) of Bassi, which do more to reveal contemporary views of gender than the women herself, while Findlen discusses the use of “eccentric biography” (p. 115). Govoni uses group biography to establish fuller networks of influence than those revealed in the autobiography of the writer Italo Calvino, while Franceschi considers genealogies of lives and life-writings, to which Abir-Am adds “ego-histoire” (p. 226) when considering women of her own generation and its impact (or lack of impact) on those that followed. On the evidence here, Mazzotti is surely right to see biography not in opposition to social and cultural studies of science but as “one of the most effective ways to explore how cognitive and social structures are constructed, sustained, and modified” (p. 136).

There is much to enjoy in this book even for those who do not have a direct interest in biography, gender or the individuals discussed. The passion of several of the authors for their work and broader mission – less often, tellingly, for their subjects – comes over clearly in their chapters. There are also some lovely stories that reveal the historian’s world and craft, with memories of career-defining finds in card catalogues, discussions with archivists and the support of partners and colleagues. Most salutary, however, is the reminder of just how difficult it was for women to forge careers in academia, not just in the 18th century but also in the late 20th. While it is clear that biographies are not today written by professional historians to provide aspirational role models, these essays demonstrate the overwhelming significance of networks, mentors, family and supporters to forging and understanding lives in science.

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