4000 Years of Women in Science

How long have women been active scientists?

Actually, how long have people been active in science? The answer is the same for both women and men -- as long as we have been human. One of the defining marks of humanity is our ability to affect and predict our environment. Science - the creation of structure for our world - technology - the use of structure in our world - and mathematics - the common language of structure - all have been part of our human progress, through every step of our path to the present. Women and men together have researched and solved each emerging need.

The first literature appeared some 4,000 years ago. Stone and bone records stretch back further than those first alphabets, but give us no names. The very first technical name was male - Imhotep - the architect of the first pyramid. The second technical name was female - En Hedu'Anna (c.2354 BCE). Certainly women were questioners and thinkers long before that. Most myths and religions place the beginnings of agriculture, of laws, of civilization, of mathematics, of calendars, time keeping and medicine into the hands of women. The names of these goddesses may not be realized as actual people, but they must have been real women, else why preserve the mythos?

Why search out the women?

Dr. Gerda Lerner said in her address as the new president of the Organization of American Historians.

"If the bringing of women - half the human race - into the center of historical inquiry poses a formidable challenge to historical scholarship, it also offers sustaining energy and a source of strength."

Gerder Lerner, 1982, Journal of American History, 69, 1, pages 7-20

Women contributed. They contributed in all the ways there are to the technical advancement of humanity. They held the same burdens of scholarship as the men did, and they accomplished just as much. These women left a remarkable legacy. They were as resourceful and passionate about their work as any scientist today, and certainly as creative. Their stories are a clear light to the future.

How do we define science?

Today we define a scientist as someone who usually has a Ph.D. and works in a technical field. This person is a specialist in a narrow field of research, and often is well trained in only that field. Today's Ph.D. shows special aptitude and creativity in a particular discipline and rarely shows the same talent outside that discipline. Today's science has a large set of separate disciplines: astronomy, mathematics, physics, biology, chemistry, and the social sciences, all in various combinations.

This twentieth century definition of science is useful for today, but not for yesterday. We must widen the definition as we look back in time. For example, the separation into disciplines occurred only in the last few centuries. The earlier natural philosopher combined all these disciplines into one. The Ph.D. originally meant a natural philosopher whose scholarly endeavors covered the seven liberal arts - grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. So a scientist, by this definition, will appear in poetry, in school lists, in text books, letters and stories.

natural philosophy = grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy

Our list has astronomers, physicists, mathematicians, chemists, natural philosophers, inventors, writers and many others.

We include few physicians. Since astronomy and mathematics were the earliest scholarly arts, names from the history of astronomy and mathematics are easier to find than names from other areas. Astronomy and mathematics marched together through the centuries, not really breaking apart until the end of the 19th century. (The art of astrology developed from the practical science of astronomy several thousand years after the first calendars were developed.) Physics was more a trade skill than a scholar's tool until the 19th century. So to find the names of technical women, one needs to look at inventors and tool makers as well as university scholars. Since women have been physicians in great numbers for as long as there have been women, we omit them. Midwifery was almost exclusively run by women until the 19th century. So omitting physicians from this list is only for convenience. There are so many of them!

What defines success in science?

What counted as success varies from century to century. A successful scientist of the 18th century was someone who discovered a comet, or perhaps computed the orbit of a comet. A comet was world class event. Today comets are found by people around the world - often as many as ten a year. Home based personal computers can produce very nice comet orbits. We cannot omit from the list a 19th century woman such as Maria Mitchell who discovered comets just because she would not make the list in the late twentieth century. Similarly, at one time, someone who presented a solution to a particular algebraic equation was highly regarded by the entire community. Today, a solution of this type finds little merit outside a tiny set of mathematicians. So we have to include Maria Agnesi. So when we search out the women of technology and science we must avoid, where possible, using 20th century criteria to define success.

However, there is something that reaches outside our twentieth century glasses. Successful science works - repeatedly. The test of science is whether the work can be tested, repeated and used by others. The common attributes of a scientist are luck, education, ability and sweat. Both women and men share these attributes. There is no gender lurking in this definition. None.

Could any woman be a scholar?

Access to scholars and information has always depended upon gender, location, birth and luck. If one was born to a secure family then one might learn to read, write and cipher. Therefore, if a woman was literate, she was likely to be numerate and technical as well. Perhaps one had a tutor, a benevolent father, husband or brother who was willing to share knowledge. Perhaps one lived during a time when women had the great convent schools of England, France and Germany open to them. Regardless, the overwhelmingly vast majority of people, both male and female, had no access at all. The freedom to specialize in scholarship rarely put food onto the table.

How many are we missing?

We do not know.

There are many names on this list, many of which duplicate names on others' lists, and some that do not. This tells me that we all have just opened the treasure box. There must be many, many more. These women contributed much. They had the entire universe to play with, to study and to enjoy. They were not left out of this great human experience. This is a small piece of their history.

The results of science have no gender

When we, as scientists, wear blinders, about anything, we fail. I have never seen science succeed by using only one view, by using only one tool, by using only one person's thoughts, by looking at something only one way. We cannot back out of some invention, some theory, some solution whether or not the originator was female or male. We need to celebrate these women and raise them to be heros. Understanding of science and technology will only strengthen our life, our work and our world. Solutions to problems come from research, thought and technology. By the end of the 20th century we have women by the thousands achieving advanced degrees in all the technical fields. It took 188 years for American women to get the vote; in the last 15 years American women earned over 15,000 Ph.D.s in technical fields. Graduate schools in medicine and dentistry are routinely 50% female. Astronomy has over 30% of its graduates students who are women. Perhaps it is time to put our women of the past into our stories of the present and our hope for the future.



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