The sections we chose from The Mind Has No Sex? by Londa Schiebinger discussed the institutional landscapes from which modern Western science was born during the Renaissance and even earlier. Today the exclusion of all women from then-nascent academies and universities often seems like a forgone conclusion- of course they were excluded, it was the seventeenth century! In fact, the question of whether and how to include women in academic and scientific zones was very much up for debate at the time. Any time a female was nominated for membership to an academy there was an opportunity to discuss “the woman question”. Even though many of these female candidates, it was agreed, possessed sufficient merit to be admitted, it wasn’t until the twentieth century that academies like the Académie Française and the Royal Society accepted women. Unfortunately, little is known about the reasons given at the time for excluding women, as history has quite a selective memory. We do know that when Marie Curie was nominated to join the Académie des Sciences in 1910, the other members voted that no woman should ever be elected to the body. One said they found it “eminently wise to respect the immutable tradition against the election of women,” so as not “to break the unity of this elite body,” (p.11).
Schiebinger argues that the place of women in science at the time of its origins depended on their social standing in the environment from which it formed. Monasteries, universities, salons, and royal courts were all centers of learning which treated women differently. In royal courts, where nobility and prestige outranked gender in the seventeenth century, noble women participated actively in intellectual discourse. As science became more legitimized as a profession and as the prestige of the nobility waned however, women’s participation in sciences declined dramatically. Over the next two centuries women worked on the periphery of the scientific community as “assistants” or “amateurs”, and were largely confined to “women’s sciences” such as botany and midwifery.
Another interesting point that Schiebinger raises is that seventeenth and eighteenth century artwork virtually always personifies science, reason, and logic as women. When scientists published their work in book form, they often included a frontispiece which depicted astronomy, mathematics, or whatever topic the work addressed. Unfailingly, these abstract concepts were represented as women in long, flowing gowns. In our discussion we speculated that this image was tied directly to the image of nature as female, and therefore something for men and specifically male scientists to dominate. Schiebinger mentions one depiction of astronomy exposing her breasts to clothed male scientists, which seemed to support this argument.
Finally, Schiebinger discussed how science in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries became preoccupied with searching for sex differences that validated the discrimination against and exclusion of women, all the while claiming absolute neutrality to the topic. As she put it, “Though anatomists proclaimed their neutrality, the evidence they used was not itself free from the imprint of social concerns… though flawed, this evidence served as the basis for the continued exclusion of women from science. At the same time, the elimination of dissenting voices insulated the scientific profession against immediate correction of these misreadings of female nature,” (p.268). Even today we often are exposed to the argument that the underrepresentation of women in STEM is due to innate biological differences because of this type of misguided research.
Our second reading for this day, The Madame Curie Complex by Julie Des Jardins, took us from the turn of the twentieth century through the 1970s and into today. Before the 1940s most white women could only work as “amateurs” and “technicians” for male scientists in their fields. Notable in this area were female astronomers such as Annie Cannon and Henrietta Levitt, who received virtually no credit at the time for her discovery of Cepheid variable stars (a very important type of star which pulsates and can be used to measure distances to celestial objects).
In the 1940s and 1950s World War II created temporary openings for white women in scientific fields, according to des Jardins, but wartime science came with an enormous cost. Scientists, particularly physicists, were rebranded as heroes and even soldiers during the war. The image of the heroic scientist was decidedly male and nondomestic- he was a loner with a one-track mind and an innate brilliance, according to social scientists of the day. At the same time the development of quantum mechanics and the atomic bomb drastically increased the prestige of physics in America, simultaneously causing the rejection of women from the field. Perhaps these are the reasons why physics still lags behind other sciences in its representation of women.
After the war there was a push for women to return to the domestic sphere, but second-wave feminists fought for women’s place in science as well as other professions. In the 1970s laws such as Title IX and others attempted to secure equal rights for women in the workplace. Women academics could now sue their universities for discrimination, as many experienced a “revolving door” phenomenon in which tenure was often promised and then denied when the time came. Prejudice was still rampant against women scientists, des Jardins explains, citing many misogynistic reactions to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring as examples. Furthermore, the model of scientific success was (and often still is) predicated on the idea of separate spheres: a scientist must devote himself entirely to his work and leave all domestic issues to a wife at home. Female scientists in the twentieth century were expected to subscribe to this model as well as take care of their own domestic lives as well, one reason why it seems only relatively wealthy women who could afford child caretakers and house workers were successful in science.
The “Madame Curie complex” is the idea that women must perform much better than men in order to “earn” their places in science. They must be superwomen. It is true that today there excellent women in science, but not very many average or mediocre ones. Des Jardins ends her book on a bit of a somber note, stating that the pressure to outperform men in order to prove oneself is very much still felt by women in science today. Overall our class agreed with this statement- we found it chilling that many issues described by des Jardins in her work were still very relevant to today’s women in STEM.