Conference of Historians Celebrates Role of Women in Science

By Putney, Margaret | Science & Spirit, January-February 2008 | Go to article overview

Conference of Historians Celebrates Role of Women in Science


Putney, Margaret, Science & Spirit


When historian Margaret W. Rossiter began her 1970s probe of how women contributed to science, she was warned about committing professional suicide. A quarter century later, with her landmark 1982 book Women Scientists in America now deemed a classic, a new generation of researchers felt it was worth a silver anniversary.

So at the recent annual meeting of the History of Science Society, which convened in a Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C., women in science was a major topic across the three days of sessions.

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Many of the presentations used the two volumes by Rossiter, a Cornell University professor, as a benchmark of female influence. The first volume looked at women in science up to the 1940s--called "pre-history" by the conference--and volume two considered changes before "affirmative action" in the 1970s. The issue at hand, according to speakers, was "who helped, who hindered, [and] who stood by" as women tried to enter science careers.

The answer to another question--"Where are we today?"--was embodied in recollections of Carnegie Institution astronomer Vera Rubin, whose calculations of the gravitational forces in galaxies led to the theory of "dark matter." She found that there was more gravitational pull than the bright stars accounted for, leading to an entire new horizon for astrophysics.

But when she started in science, according to Rubin, women were not encouraged. Nevertheless, "I entered Vassar with the intention of becoming an astronomer, and it worked," she said at the November conference. Her first interviewer to enter the school had urged her to "think of a career in painting astronomical objects." Now, whenever someone struggles into the complex scientific field, she tells her joke about pursuing a career in painting stars and planets.

Rubin, who reared four children and excelled in science, traced her success to a "great husband"--suggesting that more marital equality could have opened the way for women in science long before the present.

But most social forces hindered women in science, according to several of the presenters. These included the "militarization of science" in America, the closed niche of "home economics," and the unheralded work of women in biological laboratories.

University of Pennsylvania historian Susan Lindee, who researches military spending and U.S. science, concluded that "socially sanctioned violence has affected careers and funding, and importantly, who has become scientists." The military culture of science was like a "ghost at the table" when talented women entered the field--and often drew back. She told the story of a woman scientist who worked on atomic bombs and ballistics, but finally left, speaking of it as "work that can be used to kill people. …

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