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A Rough, Long Struggle In Science History

Before Margaret Rossiter wrote her book Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940 (Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1982), science historians had not paid much attention to women scientists. There was the occasional bibliography, but no survey of what Rossiter found were large numbers of underrecognized and underemployed women who had managed to work in the lab. Rossiter transformed dusty records archived letters, manuscripts and obituaries of women's past scientif

By | October 15, 1990

Before Margaret Rossiter wrote her book Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940 (Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1982), science historians had not paid much attention to women scientists. There was the occasional bibliography, but no survey of what Rossiter found were large numbers of underrecognized and underemployed women who had managed to work in the lab.

Rossiter transformed dusty records archived letters, manuscripts and obituaries of women's past scientific achievements into a comprehensive analysis of the position of women in the social organization of science. And she found it was a very poor fit. The influx of thousands of women into science, she notes, had occurred at the price of accepting a pattern of segregated employment and underrecognition, which, try as they might, most women could not escape.

Now researching her second book on the more recent history of women scientists in the 1940s through the 1960s, Rossiter continues to find evidence of discrimination against women scientists. During the 1950s, as today, for example, policymakers wanted more women to enter science to make up for projected workforce shortfalls. But then, as now, the message was mixed, Rossiter says. You're needed, but the punch line is that there probably won't be a job for you when you get done.

Women in science have been an inspiration to Rossiter, who says she became interested in the history of science as an undergraduate at Radcliffe College. But it wasn't until after she had completed her doctorate at Yale University that she focused on women in science. In 1972, in preparation for a postdoctoral study of 20th-century science, she read American Men in Science. In it she discovered her first women scientists 500 of them whose stories were buried among the men.

They were the footnotes to other things, she recalls. They were the shadows. It's very tricky to focus on these minor people. They lived in sort of segregated worlds and were never connected to the mainstream of science. Yet these women, who earned degrees at women's colleges, went to work as assistants in such fields as astronomy and botany.

It [Rossiter's book] calls attention to the question of job differentiation, and it calls attention to the fact that a lot of women have been very able but frustrated, says Daniel Kevles, Koepfli Professor of the Humanities at California Institute of Technology. It shows that a large number of women were pretty angry. They wanted their chance to compete with first-class scientists.

Although women held 13 percent of all doctorates in science fields for which the National Research Council provided postdoctoral support in the period 1920-1938, fewer than half of them received these postdoctoral fellowships, according to Rossiter's research. In his diary, an official from the Rockefeller Foundation, which sponsored the fellowships, noted that women had to provide an extra burden of proof of their qualifications. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston elected a female member in 1848, but 95 years passed before they elected another woman.

The records Rossiter uncovered also portray the nation's universities in a very unflattering light. (They were proving to be highly discriminatory employers, Rossiter writes. During the 1920s, 62.5 percent of the women at coeducational schools served as instructors, compared with 32.5 percent of the men. More than a quarter of the nation's colleges had no women on their faculties at all. In 1938, there were just three female deans or department heads throughout the country.

In many ways, Rossiter's life parallels those of the women she studies. For more than a decade Rossiter has worked in obscurity, living from grant to grant. At first, the National Science Foundation refused to support her work on women scientists, saying it was too trendy.

That is no longer the case. Recently, NSF reviewers even requested extra funds to support her, and last year she received a prestigious John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation award. One thing that still eludes her is the offer of a tenured teaching position. I guess I am like a 78 [rpm] record in a 33 world, she says.

Rossiter's research for her second book is unearthing more fear of and discrimination against women as scientists. In 1958, for example, the Wall Street Journal criticized a federal program to give one-third of new college scholarships to women because of a phenomenon that it labeled feminine fallout. The paper wrote, It's inevitable that some government money will go to train scientists who experiment only with different household detergents. Then there are the 1963 newspaper clippings commending 57-year-old Maria Goeppert-Mayer as the San Diego mother who won a Nobel Prize in physics.

Rossiter believes that women have made some progress during the early 1980s in their fight for recognition, but she worries that the momentum has been lost. She blames the Reagan administration's attitudes toward women and minorities, a growing complacency about what has been achieved, and the burdens of family. Rossiter also worries that women themselves seem resigned to the existence of an old boy's network. The same old mentality is running these places.

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