From comments: women in science, their history as told by… men?

2010 November 22

A few strands are coming together in comments.

First, our linkspam linked to Richard Holmes’s The Royal Society’s lost women scientists, and Lesley Hall then commented:

I’m somewhat annoyed at all the coverage A MAN talking about lost women scientists is getting, when we have several decades-worth of women historians of science who have been saying the exact same thing. This seems to me pretty much the standard thing of no-one listening until it’s said by a bloke (even if the women have already been saying it).

Meanwhile on the Wednesday Geek Woman post on Maria Goeppert-Mayer, Chronic Geek asks:

As a side note. I have been searching for a good book on a history of women in sciences. Can anyone recommend one?

The following have already been recommended:

  • Margaret Wertheim (1995) Pythagoras’s Trousers: God, Physics, and the Gender War
  • Julie Des Jardins (2010) The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science

Lesley Hall herself also has a book chapter: (2010) ‘Beyond Madame Curie? The Invisibility of Women’s Narratives in Science’ in L Timmel Duchamp (ed), Narrative Power: Encounters, Celebrations, Struggles.

For readers just starting out on this, what works would you recommend on the history of women in science and the invisibility of women in science? What women historians of science do work you love?

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This post was written by mary.

Mary is a Free Software contributor, computational linguistics research student and programmer at large. She can also be found at and Hoyden About Town.

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21 Responses
  1. Dorothea Salo permalink
    November 22, 2010

    Jennifer S. Light, “When Computers Were Women.” Technology and Culture 40:3 (1999)

  2. unusualmusic permalink
    November 22, 2010

    Black Women Scientists in the United States (Race, Gender, and Science)

    African American Women Scientists and Inventors (though this is high school level)

  3. Lesley Hall permalink
    November 23, 2010

    I was particularly struck by Patricia Fara’s very readable Pandora’s Breeches, which is very much about the structural reasons for the invisibility of women who were, in fact, practising science. I also liked Georgina Ferry’s life of Dorothy Hodgkin (Nobel prize winner), whose mother, Molly Crowfoot, was also interesting in this respect (became expert in ancient textiles, just by doing it).

  4. supergee permalink
    November 23, 2010

    Nobel Prize Women in Science, by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne

  5. Knitting Clio permalink
    November 23, 2010

    Groan, the mansplainer wins again!

    To answer your question, the History of Science Society has an award dedicated to this subject, named after esteemed historian Margaret Rossiter. Her two books on women in science in America are considered the authoritative works on the subject. (in fact I think she coined the term “Madame Curie Complex”) See also _Uneasy Careers and Intimate Lives_ edited by Pnina Abir-Am and Dorinda Outram.

    David Noble’s book _A World Without Women_ tells the story of how science became a distinctively masculine profession.

  6. Meg permalink
    November 23, 2010

    I give you, Privilege Denying Dude:

    • Cynthia L. permalink
      November 23, 2010

      Oh how I love PDD.

  7. Kim Curry permalink
    November 23, 2010

    I’m currently reading: Almost Heaven: The Story of Women in Space

    It is giving me a COMPLETELY different picture from all the other space history stories I’ve read.

    I know there are other similar books out there, but I haven’t read them yet.

  8. Polly permalink
    November 24, 2010

    Here’s a recent one (that I just happen to have a chapter in):
    Pioneering Women in Plant Pathology –

  9. Luciano Dondero permalink
    November 24, 2010

    Helena Cronin’s “The Ant and the Peacock” (1991) is a reconstruction of Darwin’s sexual selection theory (from “The Descent of Man”) and its subsequent assesment by various scientists.

    Elaine Morgan has written several books in defense of the “Aquatic ape hypothesis”, among them
    “The Aquatic Ape”, “The Scars of Evolution”, “The Descent of the Child: Human Evolution from a New Perspective”. They involve a re-examination of various aspects of Darwinism.

    “Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate” by Ullica Segerstrale is a detailed analysis of the science war between the E.O.Wilson/R.Dawkins/R.Trivers/D.Hamilton/etc and SJ Gould/Lewontin/Eldredge camps in the 1970′s-90′s.

    And although psychoanalysis doesn’t really qualify as science, there is Barbara Hannah’s biography of her mentor, C.G. Jung (1976), “Jung: His Life and Work. A biographical memoir”. Ok, maybe its more biography than history, I don’t know, but I found it really insightful and very useful.

  10. Luciano Dondero permalink
    November 24, 2010


    Helen E. Fisher, “Anatomy of Love. The natural history of monogamy, adultery, and divorce”, (1992)

    Judith Rich Harris, “The Nurture Assumption”, (1998), which is an historical analysis of the nature/nurture debate, with an innovative approach.

  11. Rebecca permalink
    November 24, 2010

    I found the following book fantastic:

    Marcus, Julie (Ed) (1993). First in Their Field: Women and Australian Anthropology. Melbourne University Press.

    It’s a collection of essays about several prominent female anthropologists from the end of the 1800s to the mid 1900s who worked with various indigenous tribes. Many of these women were at the forefront of fieldwork becoming an important and necessary part of anthropology.

    The essays all note the inherent issues associated with feminism at the time, as well as the entrenched racism prevalent in that period. The introductory essay by Julie Marcus details beautifully the ongoing issues of sexism in academia today, and how nothing has changed.

    I got my copy from: (an online second hand book seller collective)

  12. Sethanne Howard permalink
    November 25, 2010

    For a history book the book available through Amazon called ‘The Hidden Giants’ covers over 4,000 years of women in science. The second edition was published last year by Sethanne Howard.

  13. RachelB permalink
    November 26, 2010

    I don’t know how canonical it is, but in an intellectual history class I took as a liberal arts undergrad in the late 1990s, we read Londa Schiebinger’s The Mind Has No Sex?: Women in the Origins of Modern Science. It’s centered on women in science prior to the 20th century, and the bibliography contains a list of primary and secondary sources that I imagine would be interesting, too (e.g., 17th-century scientific papers written by women).

  14. nly permalink
    November 26, 2010

    Reflections on Gender and Science by Evelyn Fox Keller

  15. conductress permalink
    November 26, 2010

    Donna Haraway is an excellent historian of science. Her work is not about women in the sciences, but she uses gender as a framework and has written some pieces about reimagining science and history with feminist theory.

    Right now, I’m reading Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Again, not about women practicing science, but about the (unethical) uses of women’s bodies and the bodies of people of color in science. It’s a great read and, I think, approaches the issue of male dominance in science from a different but no less important angle.

  16. TychaBrahe permalink
    November 26, 2010

    On a related note: Mothers of Invention: From the Bra to the Bomb : Forgotten Women and Their Unforgettable Ideas by Ethlie Ann Vare.

    Did you know that music videos owe much of their existence to Liquid Paper? Bette Nesmith was a single mother in the 1950′s who couldn’t type properly. The method of correction at the time was to scrape away the typewriter ink with a penknife. She bought white paint and painted out her errors instead. She went on to make a fortune selling Liquid Paper.

    Her son Mike was a musician. He never made it big as a “real” performer. He did play with the Monkees, and had some minor success with other groups, but he was most successful as a songwriter and producer. He was also passionately interested in the concept of music videos, and invested much of his mother’s fortune in his dream. His show Pop Clips on Nicolodeon was purchased by Time-Warner, and went on to become MTV.

  17. elly permalink
    November 27, 2010

    “The Mind Has No Sex – Women in the Origins of Modern Science” is another title for the list… it covers much the same ground (in considerably more detail, natch) as the Guardian article.

  18. hydropsyche permalink
    November 27, 2010

    I really enjoyed A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock by
    Evelyn Fox Keller

    All though it is not a perfect book, it is an interesting account of science that was nearly lost because the scientist was a woman.

  19. AshleyZ permalink
    November 29, 2010

    “Only Nixon could go to China”. When an Israeli complains about Hamas or when a Palestinian complains about Israel, it can easily be dismissed as self-interest. People have heard it all before. But when a Jew rebukes settlement building, or a Muslim argues against rocketing, people take notice.

    This doesn’t bother me at all. The important point is that the stories are getting told and people are listening.

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