The Outer Circle: Women in the Scientific Community

The Outer Circle: Women in the Scientific Community

The Outer Circle: Women in the Scientific Community

The Outer Circle: Women in the Scientific Community

Excerpt

Since the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century, women aspiring to work in science have encountered barrier after barrier. Among the limited numbers of women who succeeded, practically none were allowed to enter the inner circles of the emerging scientific community. So antithetical were the social categories of women and science that, throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, it seemed only natural to call all practitioners of scientific inquiry "men of science." Long after the English philosopher of science, William Whewell, had coined the genderless term "scientist" in the early Victorian era, women scientists were still included in directories entitled "Men of Science."

As late as the first decades of this century—and perhaps it is still true now—only one woman of science, Marie Curie, could be said to have won great fame. Having shared the Nobel Prize in physics with her husband, Pierre Curie, she captured the public imagination as the mother of research on radioactivity. After Pierre Curie's death, she became the first woman to hold a chair at the Sorbonne and soon established herself as an independent scientific force. Her further research resulted in another Nobel Prize, this one in chemistry, making her the first scientist to be awarded the prize twice (she is still the only one to have received it both in physics and chemistry). She was not someone to be ignored by the topmost tier of her scientific contemporaries but, even so, she was never comfortably esconced in their inner circle. In fact, the Académie des Sciences excluded her from their ranks; she had missed selection by one vote. Still, no other woman scientist of her time or before had ever been accorded such widespread peer recognition.

One of Marie Curie's near contemporaries, Sonya Kovalevsky—who has since been identified as "the greatest woman mathematician prior to the twentieth-century"—found doors closed to her throughout much of her life. Barred from the study of mathematics in her native Russia, she entered into a marriage of convenience in order to pursue her education in . . .

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