Lost women of science

A fascinating article:

Yet my re-examination of the Royal Society archives during this 350th birthday year has thrown new and unexpected light on the lost women of science. I have tracked down a series of letters, documents and rare publications that begin to fit together to suggest a very different network of support and understanding between the sexes. It emerges that women had a far more fruitful, if sometimes conflicted, relationship with the Royal Society than has previously been supposed.

I was a little worried when I read the following– afraid the author would go on to say that women had special insights because of their relational thinking, or care, or something like that:

Indeed, the Royal Society archives suggest something so fundamental that it may require a subtle revision of the standard history of science in Britain. This is the previously unsuspected degree to which women were a catalyst in the early discussion of the social role of science. More even than their male colleagues, they had a gift for imagining the human impact of scientific discovery, both exploring and questioning it.

But then he linked it instead to their exclusion from the Royal Society– a very interesting example for standpoint theorists:

Precisely by being excluded from the fellowship of the society, they saw the life of science in a wider world. They raised questions about its duties and its moral responsibilities, its promise and its menace, in ways we can appreciate far more fully today.

16 thoughts on “Lost women of science

  1. Many thanks for this link and post.

    I find some remarks in the article troubling. For instance, regardless of what is in the Royal Society archives, anyone studying well science, feminism, and the history of science knows that “the standard history of science in Britain [and elsewhere!]” requires much more than a “subtle revision”.

    In addition, sexist readers can easily read the concluding remarks on three dimensions of science in terms of typical gender stereotypes, such that we need to thank women for the “third dimension” (selectively described in the article with terms such as poetry and beauty as opposed to terms such as mathematics and logic) which sounds more like science teaching (or public advocacy) than research. Of course, good history of science requires a major overhauling and rewriting (of past and current historical treatments/writings) to include appropriately the contributions made by female scientists to all three dimensions of science (the first two described in this article as “the discovery of the nature of physical reality” and “the applications of such discoveries…”.

    I was a little surprised that contributors to this wonderful blog recently did not express more written interest/commentary on the recently discovered “lost letters” that document more details of the sexist rivalries/attitudes/activities (roughly) between and among Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins, and James Watson and Francis Crick.

    Excellent work by Evelyn Fox Keller (including but definitely not limited to or by her great stuff on Barbara McClintock), one of my favorite writers, seems especially relevant to many aspects of these matters (as well as the recent discussions/threads involving gender and pink, for instance).

    Thanks again for this link and post. Great info and material for thought/action/change! – David Slutsky

  2. Thanks, David. To be honest, I didn’t get the chance to read very far– just far enough to see that I wanted to read more. So I decided to flag it up for others! Your concerns seem like good ones.

  3. What I hear in the article resonates with the idea that those on the margins of society have a much wider view of that society than those at the center, a la bell hooks’ _From Margin to Center_. Espistemologically, there is a broad range of insights available from those at the margins in all aspects of our human existence if we were just able to ask and here. The same point is true of the other forms of oppression.

  4. When I first read it, I did look at the details and decided to skip over it. I don’t think that was a good decision, and I’m really glad Jender went ahead with it. Mostly this is for the reason Sophia gives. In addition, it does give a fuller picture of what the historical setting was.

    I did think about blogging about the letters, and perhaps we should still do so. However, I don’t know that we learned much new about the basic facts, which are shameful. And depressing.

  5. I agree with Sophia and JJ. To whatever extent to which my remarks failed to acknowledge their important points, I happily stand corrected.

    Perhaps I need to learn to read the kind of material presented in paragraphs 10, 11, 18, 22, 23, 44, 46, and the closing paragraphs (along with the rest of the Royal Society article) more carefully.

    On the other hand, in many circles here in the U.S., many if not most science “populisers” are treated as second class scientists, whose work does not deserve the attention of serious (and ‘real’) scientists, and whose abilities (allegedly) do not allow them to produce ‘real’ or ‘first class’ science. Of course this is usually not justified, and theoretical opponents often use this as an excuse to dismiss (or, worse, ignore) the important work of scientists who write for both their scientific peers and the general public. Stephen Jay Gould is a classic example. Carl Sagan is another. Daniel Dennett has managed to straddle both sides somewhat.

    The Royal Society article seems to highlight the role of women as “populisers” as much as, if not more than, their roles as serious, first rate scientists (see paragraphs 10, 18, 22, 23, 44, 46, and the end of the article) . It seems a plausible conjecture that this portrayal serves at least two different roles. On the one hand, we need good science populisers, for educating the general public and for raising consciousness generally (which arguably leads to less sexism in science in the long run). On the other hand, the more we portray women as science populisers, the more we may reinforce harmful gender stereotypes in many people. This is the concern that motivated my first comment above.

    P.S. – Sadly, we do learn new “basic facts” from the lost letters (you would know if you read them or articles about them). Of course it is shameful. Of course, it is also depressing (though I hope no one thinks that we should not read sexist material and articles about it if that material is depressing).

  6. Just to be clear, the incorrect “populiser” written in my comment above should read “popularizer” (or “populariser”). The article under discussion does go on about popularising, popularised, popularisation, and, “most particularly”, about popularisers. This spelling correction does not change the concerns I try to express in the comments above.

  7. The `subtle revision’ sentence confused me, too. Here’s the full sentence: `Indeed, the Royal Society archives suggest something so fundamental that it may require a subtle revision of the standard history of science in Britain.’ It’s odd to think that `something so fundamental’ might require a mere `subtle revision’!

    So I wonder if the author isn’t using `subtle’ in the senses of `hard to grasp; not obvious or easily understood’ or `cunning and skillful’ rather than `small; barely noticeable; unimportant’. That is, that we (or rather, historians of science) need to rewrite the history of science with a great deal of care and cleverness to deal with some fundamental issues.

  8. Thanks for the helpful point and potential clarification, Dan.

    Still, I wonder whether anyone either shares my main concerns, or can help set me straight about them. The article seems to me to acknowledge female scientists by marginalizing them. The article seems to me to suggest that we need to rewrite the history of science with a great deal of care and cleverness to deal with the important roles that female scientists have served in popularizing science and in serving as popularizers of science, which nicely coincides with gender stereotypes that progressive sexists will expect/like.

    In contrast, why not emphasize more fully the roles that female scientists serve and have served in the “first” and “second” “dimensions” of science, without repeatedly highlighting their crucial roles in scientific popularization and as scientific popularizers – which, I contend, relegates female scientists to second class scientists in the eyes of many professional scientists in many scientific circles? – David Slutsky

  9. David, I agree with you. It would be insulting to suggest to women today that that should be the role a woman plays in science now. Still, they did exploit some of the possibilities their standpoint made available to them. I suspect that the reason he doesn’t discuss more women actually involved in creating the science is that women were denied the education, resources and credibility that men got fairly easily.

  10. Here are two ways we might summarize the article:
    I. Because they were denied official membership in the community of scientists, female scientists generally had to be content with translating and popularizing the work of male research scientists. In some cases, this lead to rather nasty and deplorable internalized sexism.

    II. Despite being denied official membership in the community of scientists, female scientists frequently found ways to make significant contributions to the self- and public understandings of science, by translating and popularizing the work of male research scientists. In some cases, this lead to the widespread public acceptance of radical scientific ideas, such as Laplacean determinism.

    Both summaries are accurate, I think. But, read in line with II, the article emphasizes the agency and long-term impact of these female scientists while acknowledging the marginalization or oppression that conditioned this agency and impact. And it does so in a way that challenges the view that popularizers are some sort of unnecessary supplement to the real work of research scientists. I, by contrast, just paints them as passive and helpless victims of their marginalization or oppression, completely lacking in agency and impact.

    I think it’s common practice among feminist historians these days to write narratives more in line with II than I. It’s the sort of thing we do in philosophy when we teach Princess Elisabeth along with Descartes.

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