Looking Beyond the Female Firsts of Science History

tags: history of science, womens history

Anna Reser is an American historian of science and technology. She holds a PhD in the history of science, technology and medicine from the University of Oklahoma. She is the co-founder and co-editor in chief of Lady Science magazine, and her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Real Life, StarTrek.com, Technology’s Stories and more.

Leila McNeill is an American writer, editor, and historian of science. She is an Affiliate Fellow in the History of Science at the University of Oklahoma and the co-founder and co-editor in chief of Lady Science magazine. She has been a columnist for Smithsonian magazine and BBC Future, and she has been published by The Atlantic, The Baffler, JSTOR Daily, among others.

Stamped in relief on the back of the heavy gold medal given to Nobel Prize recipients in the sciences is the image of two women. One, bare-breasted and holding a cornucopia, represents Nature. Pulling back her veil and bearing a torch of knowledge is Science, who reveals Nature and illuminates her secrets. It is an allegory as old as science itself, drawn from even older representation traditions, and it adorns the most prestigious prize in science as a reminder of the high ideals of discovery and truth. But it is an image that obscures more than it illuminates.

The figure of Science is not herself a scientist, merely a vision of the beauty of truth and discovery. It tells us a lot about the culture of science and very little about the role that women played in pushing back against that culture or bending it to their own ambitions. The real women of science—women who worked with their hands, calculated the path of planets, theorized about the nature of the universe, cared for their communities and evaded wars and fascists to pursue their work—are often as underrepresented in our histories of science as they are among Nobel winners, of which there are only 22. Often, it is only when women win Nobels that the world pays attention then at all.

Those few famous mostly white women who have drawn our attention, singular and powerful though they are, represent a tiny fraction of the experiences of women in science, and the light they cast can outshine a more complex, and often painful, history. This is why you won’t find Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin or even Sally Ride in our new book Forces of Nature, The Women Who Changed Science. What you will find are less well-known women, whose stories are gathered like shadows at the edges of the conventional telling, pushing to get in.

We found such women everywhere we looked. In the history of nursing, Florence Nightingale, a 19th-century nurse, educator and statistician, is considered the founder of modern nursing. But the founding of the modern profession of nursing is much more complicated than the actions of one famous woman. In fact, many contemporary nursing schools and organizations often rejected her teachings outright or heavily adapted them. For Nightingale, good nursing skills exemplified ideal womanhood, and she considered nursing knowledge, which emphasized sanitation, hygiene, diet and environment, as separate from medical and scientific approaches to human health. Her gendered approach to nursing did not speak to all nurses, so schools developed nursing education more committed to scientific principles.

In the United States, nursing transformed from a skill all women were expected to possess and practice for their families and communities into a profession with specialized education and credentialing. This shift was beset by the racial and class politics of the age and bound up with the movement for women’s education.

Nightingale’s legacy in popular telling elides the complexity in which modern nursing was forged, as well as the stories of women like Mary Mahoney, whose career was intricately tied to the cultural and political tides of the new profession. Mahoney was the first Black woman to graduate from an American nursing school, an event that marked a turning point in nursing history when, in the 1870s, nursing schools began to racially integrate. Mahoney’s journey through the rigors of a changing nursing education system opened the way for more Black women to follow her into paid careers as nurses.

Read entire article at Smithsonian

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