Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The lost women

As a female working in science, it's sometimes discouraging to see how little women have contributed historically. Admittedly, there are very few people who make it through the filter of history to begin with, but the erosion of names that leaves behind only a few pillars makes it seem like the only people who have been involved in science were those male pillars. Here is a summary/review of a book that details the lives and contributions of the women the Royal Society refused to admit to its hallowed halls but who nevertheless were important contributors to science in their day.

One quote, from Maria Mitchell, struck me especially. She said,
"The laws of nature are not discovered by accident; theories do not come by chance, even to the greatest minds, they are not born in the hurry and worry of daily toil, they are diligently sought… and until able women have given their lives to investigation, it is idle to discuss their capacity for original work."

The discussion below the article contains the typical, 'men are more accomplished because the distribution of intelligence is flattened, leading to more smarter--and more dumber--men' (debunked--entertainingly--here and here. Personally, I think Mitchell comes much closer to the mark. My experiences tell me cultural factors, especially expectations regarding women's roles, are far more important. Women are responsible for so much, especially for children. Having a small child prevents one from giving their lives to investigation completely, so as I'm struggling to finish my dissertation the tension between my two lives--my life of the mind and of investigation, and my life of the home--is quite stark. I've been extraordinarily lucky to have people supporting me through my graduate career, especially post-Sylvia, but it's much, much harder. In the end, there is nobody who can (or, perhaps more accurately, is willing to) do the job a mother can for her own children.

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