&Bullet; physics 14, 49
A new book highlights the historical participation of women in science and shows that women scientists are not anomalies, even if they are portrayed as such in textbooks.
The bookstore’s science sections are full of biographies telling the lives of former female scientists. These books usually highlight women on the same shortlist that includes physicists Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin, and Jocelyn Bell Burnell.
While no one would deny that these women made important contributions to science, the repeated focus on the same few names reinforces the impression that science is and always has been a male occupation, with only the occasional female intruder, says author and historian Leila McNeill. McNeill hopes her new book, co-authored with author and historian Anna Reser, will change that narrative by showing that women have always practiced science and are in far greater numbers than most textbooks. “The regaining of women’s place in science benefits from our informed belief that she exists and that her scientific practice. . . were valued just as much as their male contemporaries, ”write McNeill and Reser in the book.
Her book, Forces of nature, the women who changed science, traces women’s participation in science from ancient Egyptian and Greek civilizations to modern times. Women’s scientific contributions are interwoven with pertinent cultural and historical details that illustrate the barriers women have faced in conducting science, the creative ways they have found to overcome those barriers, and the changes that have brought theirs Efforts have sparked in society to highlight.
For example, Latin was the scientific language of choice in Europe until the late 17th century. This tradition prevented access to the latest advances to the uneducated – mainly the poor and women, who in most places did not receive formal education until relatively recently. Some women overcame this obstacle through birth or marriage and learned from their fathers, husbands, and brothers. The astronomer Maria Cunitz did just that and in 1650 published her astronomical calculations of the planetary motions in German, which initiated a switch to other languages that expanded access to science.
Access to universities and laboratory equipment has also been a barrier for women studying science, but that sparked their creativity in the way they did science. McNeill and Reser document that many women carried out experiments at home, such as the chemist Marie-Anne Paulze, who worked with her husband in a home laboratory until his death in 1794. She then finished her experiments and published her results. (She chose to publish under his name only – women scientists usually didn’t have their names on their work at the time.)
And then there was Harriet Gillespie, a New Jersey woman who turned her entire house into a laboratory to test new technologies and methods of reducing movement in the home. Your article, published in the US edition of the magazine Good household 1913 inspired countless women to engage in home automation and science by optimizing the activities of the home. “By incorporating scientific ideas and practices into their daily lives, many women have participated in science on their own terms, creating space for themselves and others on the fringes of science,” write McNeill and Reser.
I was intrigued by the historical and contextual journey that is often missing in books or articles that focus on the “best” women scientists and their achievements. I also appreciate that McNeill and Reser mapped the contributions of “everyday” women scientists as well as the big shots. McNeill says this framing was intentional. By focusing less on individual accomplishments and more on what was happening in the scientific community as a whole at some point in history, “women scientists don’t look like anomalies,” she says. “They look more like people who have done their best in science.”
The book is littered with beautiful pictures and has a coffee table quality that has given it a place of honor on my bookshelf. My only wish for this book is that I have met it much earlier in my life. If the text had been part of my curriculum as an undergraduate physics student, where I unfortunately only heard about the discoveries made by men in my field, then my view of the historical contribution of women to science would have been very different.
Today school curricula try to shed light on women like Marie Curie and Vera Rubin, but men still dominate. A more complete picture would show that the contributions of men and women to science have been intertwined over the centuries.
People are hungry to hear more diverse stories both about the history of science and the people involved in its daily work, says McNeill. It was time to “dish that up”. She adds, “When women are given the opportunities, resources, and support to succeed, and their knowledge is valued, women have always had the power to shape science themselves.”
Forces of nature, the women who changed science will be available in bookshops from May 4, 2021. (The original April 20th date was postponed due to delays caused by the blockade in the Suez Canal.)
Katherine Wright is assistant editor of physics.