Women in science history

In a theoretical feminist bingo card, there is one square for Marie Curie: The Only Female Scientist. (If you are particularly nerdy you may also have Ada Lovelace, First Computer Programmer.) Of course this does not reflect reality, and it doesn’t reflect historical reality either – but science history books are so often focussed on the Lone (invariably male) Genius labouring away in the lab that you could be forgiven for thinking that science does actually happen in a vacuum. This is, of course, a fallacy, as these four books demonstrate.

Unknown.jpegPatricia Fara, Pandora’s Breeches: Women, Science and Power in the Enlightenment(Pimlico, 2004)

Pandora in breeches is an abomination. Pandora is already a problem: the first woman, in Greek mythology, whose existence brings all sorts of problems to the (male) world. But Pandora in breeches means that Pandora is also trying to take over the male world. In this book, Patricia Fara delves into the myth of the lone male scientific genius and exposes it as just that – a myth. While refusing the suggestion that Hypatia and Katherine Johnson could have been at all comfortable sitting next to each other at a dinner party, Fara reclaims the existence of women in scientific endeavour. She does this by taking several Lone Genius men (Descartes, Linnaeus, Lavoisier, Newton…) and examining the role that women played in their scientific lives. In some cases, this is domestically: when science is being done in the home, wives and sisters and household staff get drawn into the science almost automatically. In other cases, it is through correspondence, or through a woman’s own writing that is picked up and expanded on by a man because the woman wasn’t allowed to present her ideas in a public forum. Fara has surely only scratched the surface of the ways in which women contributed to science in this period (and, as she points out, also the male labourers who constructed equipment and so on).

Unknown.jpegDava Sobel, The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars (Viking, 2016)

When the Harvard Observatory started taking pictures of the night sky, they did so with glass plates. In order to understand what was happening on those plates, the Observatory needed meticulous ‘calculators’ to look at each one and catalogue the tiny pin pricks of light. This job was usually perceived as tedious, and therefore perfect for women – who were also cheaper to hire. So for decades, women worked on the half a million or so plates made by Harvard and in doing so, made or contributed towards the significant discoveries that form the basis of astronomy today. What stars are made of, the idea of variable stars, classifications of stars – these things were enabled by these women. An intriguing aspect of Sobel’s narrative is that as well as exploring the contributions of the women employed by the Observatory, she explores the contribution of women who gave substantial funding to it – thereby enabling the place to conduct science that might otherwise have been impossible – and the place of the male astronomers’ wives, who also helped significantly in the running of the Observatory.

Unknown-2.jpegPatricia Far, A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War (Oxford University Press, 2018)

The blurb for this book may surprise many readers, since it proclaims 2018 to be a ‘double centenary: peace was declared in war-wracked Europe, and women won the vote after decades of struggle’. Presumably this edition of the book was never meant to be seen outside of the UK. Nonetheless, this is a generally absorbing account of the scientific contribution of women during the First World War. As with her book on the Enlightenment, Fara has dug into archives and found significant records of women in various scientific establishments, doing experimental work, as well as munitions factories and other such manual labour, generally replacing the men who have gone to fight. Women were active in museums, and as doctors (why have I never heard of the female British doctors in places like Salonika?), and in intelligence work. There are also mysteries, like the unnamed clerk awarded an MBE… war secrets taken to the grave, presumably. It must be said that sometimes the book is confused about exactly what it wants to do. There are chapters on science with little discussion of any women being involved, and sections about suffrage that have very little to do with science. Nonetheless overall this book does expand the idea of who contributed to the UK’s war effort in World War 1, and explores the many reasons that women had for wanting to be involved in those efforts.

Unknown.jpegMargot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures (HarperCollins, 2016)

Thanks to the film that was made at the same time as the book was published, this story of the black female mathematicians who worked for NASA (and for NASA’s predecessor) is probably the best-known of these stories. It is a crucial one, since as far as I can tell all of the women in the other three histories were white. Black women are historically even more obscured than white women. Shetterly has done an excellent job of unearthing references to the work of these West Area ‘computers’ so that their contribution to American space exploration can be appreciated. She gives their educational and social context – which was vital for me since although I know a little about segregation I know almost nothing about historically-black colleges. Shetterly traces the connections between places, people, and influences through some specific women, like Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Goble Johnson, Mary Jackson and Christine Darden; she also sets the work of these women in the larger NASA context to show just how vital their work was. Shetterly also shows how these women fit into their communities, and how they encouraged the women and girls around them simply by being who they were, and working where they did.

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