Claire Jones

Speech given at the launch of Women’s History Month, Thursday 20th January. 

Women Scientists:  not why so few, but why so many?

Anybody in this room who ever uses a computer owes something to Grace Murray Hopper. She was one of the first ever software engineers and inventor of the computer compiler (COBOL), the  programme that allows machines to understand plain English; her work led to many other key developments in computing too. In 1969, in America, Hopper was named the first computer science ‘Man of the Year’ by the Data Processing Management Association.

Grace Hopper’s ‘Man of the Year’ award sums up a problem. Women’s participation in science has been all too often bypassed by history, because the idea of a woman  in science  was perceived as rare at best,  and,  at worse, distinctly odd –  even unnatural.  

For the cutting- edge Darwinian scientists of the later 19C , science was simply too difficult for a woman’s brain to cope with. Women’s intellectual evolution, they argued, had stopped at a stage prior to men’s; her brain was lower down the evolutionary scale, closer to the animals.  As the influential social  scientist Herbert Spencer wrote:  ‘such a thing as framing an hypothesis and reasoning upon it is incomprehensible to them [women]; thus it is impossible for them to deliberately  suspend judgment and to balance evidence’ – key attributes of the scientist!

Women, then and before, were mostly barred from elite scientific academies (it took the Royal Society nearly 300 years to admit its first female Fellow) plus they had to fight for an education equivalent to their brothers. When women started demanding a university education, and the vote, the Scottish biologist Patrick Geddes was typical in arguing against any change since women were simply not up to it biologically , or in his words ‘What was decided amongst the prehistoric Protozoa can not be annulled by an Act of Parliament’.

Due in part to attitudes such as these, scientific women were often self-taught, such as mathematician and astronomer Mary Somerville, and others practiced their science within the domestic sphere – typically in partnership with a man, husband or brother, to whom history tended to give the whole credit. To quote early 20th century physicist Hertha Ayrton, ‘no one will believe that if a man and a woman do a bit of work together the woman really does anything’.  Ayrton was a suffragette and convinced that her best contribution to ‘the Cause’ was by showing that a woman could do science. (She was a mini celebrity, a kind of Susan Greenfield of her day.)

So, with all these disadvantages, my question is not why so few women scientists, but why so many?  We’ve all heard of Marie Curie (this year is the anniversary of her winning the 1911 Nobel prize for chemistry);   & Lise Meitner, the woman who split the atom, but who was excluded from the Nobel which was awarded to her male collaborator alone (this raised questions at the time); and of course, Rosalind Franklin, whose photograph was used, but not acknowledged, by Nobel prize winners Crick and Watson in their discovery of DNA.

But there are many more scientific women who have contributed through the ages, but whose names may not be linked to any single great breakthrough or discovery. They are in the same category as many male scientists remembered today, and they are being recovered.

Back when science was ‘natural philosophy’, Margaret Cavendish debated and wrote on the new ‘science’ in response to Francis Bacon and Robert Hooke; she was also the first woman to attend, in 1667, a meeting of the Royal Society; the sister of one of the founders of that illustrious institution, chemist Robert Boyle, was just as passionate about science and experimentation as her brother. Had Katherine been a man perhaps she would have had opportunity to become remembered as a founder of modern science. Jane Marcet, whose life straddles the 18th and 19th  century, was a chemist and writer on science, a woman greatly admired by Michael Faraday and to whom he gave credit for having introduced him to electrochemistry.

We are also beginning to remember 19th and early 20th century scientific workers such as Henderina Scott, the botanist and early film maker who pioneered slow motion films of plants, showing their growth and development, in the 1890s. She called her work ‘animated photographs’. Also the female scientists at Newnham college who established the new science of genetics with William Bateson in the early 1900s.

None of these women were Fellows of the Royal Society, as women were excluded until 1945 (although Hertha Ayrton was nearly elected in 1902). However these women, and others, were members of other, newer scientific academies, and were doing interesting work in all branches of science, along with their male peers. Perhaps if these women were remembered, and  Her Story in science was as widely written and read as His (usually heroic) Story, then women and girls today may find more confidence to choose a career in science, a profession still dominated for the large part by men.

Claire Jones is the editor of HerStoria magazine, a freelance writer, part-time lecturer and ‘beginner’ businesswoman. She is an historian of women and gender, who is particularly interested in the nineteenth century and women in science.

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