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For Most of History, “Anonymous” Was a Woman: Five Women Who Changed the Future of Science Forever

By Larissa Pienkowski

Lise Meitner with students (Sue Jones Swisher, Rosalie Hoyt and Danna Pearson McDonough) on the steps of the chemistry building at Bryn Mawr College. Courtesy of Bryn Mawr College. (April 1959)
Lise Meitner with students (Sue Jones Swisher, Rosalie Hoyt and Danna Pearson McDonough) on the steps of the chemistry building at Bryn Mawr College. Courtesy of Bryn Mawr College. (April 1959)

As the recent Women’s March(es), #MeToo movement, and countless global strikes and walkouts have made clear, women all over the world are responding to a globally fraught climate loudly and fearlessly. Some of these women take action through grassroots organizing and direct-action tactics, and some define survivorship for themselves through the arts—and still others resist by dedicating their careers and lives to fields that have been traditionally dominated by men.

As Angela Saini points out in her book, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story, famous activists and suffragettes aren’t the only women we should celebrate this Women’s History Month. Let’s also take a moment to celebrate some of the women whose contributions to science have changed the way the world spins on its axis.

Helen Hamilton Gardener
Photo credit: Wellcome Images

Alice Chenoweth Day, pen name Helen Hamilton Gardener,
Neurologist, teacher, writer, and public speaker 

Helen Hamilton Gardener (as she was better known as at that time) refused to accept male neurologists’ claims that “women’s brains were lighter than men’s, and that by extension, they must also be less intelligent.” After fourteen months of working with anatomists and doctors all across New York, she published a letter in Popular Science Monthly that not only refuted the idea that male and female brains differed at birth, but that “the weight of a person’s brain couldn’t be a measure of intelligence, anyway. It was the ratio of body weight to brain weight or body size to brain size that was important.”

Male scientists practically took up arms against Gardener, even going so far as to say things like, “It must take many centuries for heredity to produce the missing five ounces of the female brain,” in reference to the average disparity in brain weight between the sexes. In response, Gardener (who clearly had a sense of humor) left her brain to science, and while it did actually weigh “around five ounces less than the average male brain,” she was later vindicated when the correlation between brain size and body size was established.

Rosalind FranklinRosalind Franklin,
Chemist

If her name sounds familiar, it’s probably because you had a high school biology teacher who did their homework. As Saini writes in Inferior, her “enormous part in decoding the structure of DNA was all but ignored when James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins shared the Nobel after her death in 1962.” A should’ve-been-could’ve-been household name (if it weren’t for sexism), Franklin’s contributions didn’t just change science; they literally changed our fundamental understanding of human life.

 

Emmy NoetherEmmy Noether,
Mathematician 

Women were discriminated against in higher education well into the twentieth century, and unfortunately, Emmy Noether was no exception. During World War I, she was offered a faculty position at the University of Göttingen, which immediately prompted sexist complaints from other professors, such as, “What will our soldiers think when they return to the university and find that they are required to learn at the feet of a woman?”

Fortunately, that didn’t stop Noether from teaching, though not without repercussion. She spent the next four years lecturing “unofficially,” “under a male colleague’s name,” and with zero compensation. This is a sobering reminder of the pay gaps that still exist across gender and race despite aptitude—a fact made obvious later on, when Albert Einstein described Noether as “the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began.”

Lise Meitner
Photo credit: Smithsonian Institute

Lise Meitner,
Nuclear scientist 

Meitner was only a teenager when she first rebelled against societal norms and pursued physics through private tutoring, since at the time, girls’ educations were cut short at fourteen years old. Brilliant and persistent, she landed a research position at the University of Berlin, only to receive “a small basement room and no salary,” echoing Emmy Noether’s experience above. As if that wasn’t bad enough, she also “wasn’t allowed to climb the stairs to the levels where the male scientists worked.”

Unfortunately, the sexism didn’t stop there. Lise Meitner is the unsung hero of nuclear fission, having played an essential role in its discovery—a fact we would all be better aware of if she hadn’t failed to win the Nobel Prize that was rightfully hers.

Women of the Nanadukan Agta community,
Hunters and gatherers 

I couldn’t just limit this blog post to just five women. What can I say? As recently as forty years ago, the Nanadukan Agta women in the Filipino island of Luzon were the complete antithesis of what comes to mind when we talk about hunter-gatherer communities. Not only were most of the women enthusiastic hunters by choice, they often carried their babies and children with them on hunting trips and split tasks like childcare, cooking, and building with men.

The women of the Nanadukan Agta community are undeniable proof that women can do it all, and that, as Saini concludes, “There’s no biological commandment that says women are natural homemakers and unnatural hunters or that hands-on fathers are breaking some eternal code of the sexes.”

 

InferiorRecommended reading

In Inferior, Angela Saini investigates what science has gotten so shamefully wrong about women, and the fight, by both female and male scientists, to rewrite what we thought we knew.

 

 

 

About the Author

Larissa Pienkowski is Beacon Press’ Spring 2018 publicity intern. She works full-time as an editor and is a graduate student in Emerson’s Publishing and Writing program. 

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