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Women have been written out of science history – time to put them back

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History of Salt in Religion

The twice Nobel Prize-winning Curie and mathematician Ada Lovelace are two of the few women within Western science to receive lasting popular recognition. Even today, the numbers of women entering science remain below those of men, especially in certain disciplines.

Historical revisionism

Another reason is that women do not fit the common image of a scientist. The idea of the lone male genius researcher is remarkably persistent. But looking to history can both challenge this portrayal and offer some explanation as to why science still has such a masculine bias.

The 19th-century astronomer, Caroline Herschel , languishes in the shadow of her brother William. Physicist Lise Meitner missed out on the Nobel Prize for the discovery of nuclear fission, which went to her junior collaborator, Otto Hahn, instead.

This left them prey to the traditional hierarchical assumption of woman as supporter and helper to man. The tone of this obituary set the stage for her legacy to be forgotten. They also lead us to ignore women working as collaborators in areas historically more welcoming , such as science writing, translation and illustration.

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As well as forgetting female scientists, we forget too that science has only been a profession since the late 19th century. Then it moved to new institutional settings, leaving women behind in the home where their science became invisible to history.

For example, few remember pioneers such as Henderina Scott , who in was one of the first to use time-lapse photography to record the movement of plants. Women were typically refused admission to elite scientific institutions, so we do not find their names on fellowship lists.

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When the Royal Geographical Society debated the possibility of female fellows in and , an angry dispute between council members was conducted via the letters page of The Times and it only finally admitted women in Yet, scientific women worked though the cracks. Between and , some 60 women contributed papers to Royal Society publications.

And some women continued to work as scientists without pay or titles.


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Why this pervasive ambivalence to female scientists? Another reason why scientific societies did not want their prestige tarnished by female fellows.