Women in Science (Part One, History)

Posted: July 25, 2009 in facts
Tags: , ,

In trying to estimate for how long exactly women have been discriminated against in science, it is imperative not to wonder whether the discrimination has been over since the eighties or since the nineties, but rather to calculate when the science has actually started.

I’d like you to take a look at this chart first.


It shows a pedigree with a genetic trait which obviously only affects male (squares) carriers. What trait is it? It sure seems that it’s Y-linked, though:

Or is it? It’s not.


It’s a pedigree made by Francis Galton with the intention of displaying the strength of a trait he called “scientific ability” in his family.

(And PZ Myers is as ever, awesome)

Of course, trying to reduce and decouple anything as complicated as scientific ability to a single trait is a ludicrous and  wholly unscientific endeavour in itself, but what I’d like you to pay attention to, is that none of the people affected with “scientific ability” is female.

What is really tragic that in Galton’s society not only were all women judged by default as lacking any sort of “scientific ability”, but also, even had they been properly educated, instead of being taught embroidery and household management, they would have still been ignored. In fact, any of the women in that pedigree could have been million times the genius than Darwin was, and even so, nobody would notice, and even had they noticed, that would mean anything but appreciation and recognition for the woman.

Emmy Noether described by Einstein as

“the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education for women began”

was denied a post by the University of Goettingen. The University  motivated its decision with the following words:

“How can it be allowed that a woman become a Privatdozent? Having become a Privatdozent, she can then become a professor and a member of the University Senate (…) What will our soldiers think when they return to the University and find that they are expected to learn at the feet of a woman?”*

(The answer to that question, I should think, is obvious. They’d be so crushed and despondent their penises would shrivel and fall off, duh)

Later, her colleague Edmund Landau described her thus:

“I can testify that she is a great mathematician, but that she is a woman, I cannot swear.”

(The important question that should have been obviously asked instead, but wasn’t, is of course: but is she sexually promiscuous, that whore? Yay for misogyny!)**

What Noether had in common with other women mathematicians was that she was a daughter of a mathematician, whis is by no means a coincidence. In times when a woman had no other way of picking up any sort of education, except at home, being related to a mathematician who was enough of a decent person to teach his daughter would have been crucial.

Other women mathematicians who were daughters of mathematicians include Hypatia, and Maria Agnesi.

(Hypatia, by the way, was brutally killed by angry Christian mob lead by equally angry Christian monks. It’s good to know that the Christian clergy’s opinions on women working outside the house have remained unchanged throughout the last 1600 years or so. At least they’re no longer allowed to maul to death people with whom they disagree.)

Less fortunate than Agnesi and Noether was Sophie Germain, another brilliant mathematician, whose father was a merchant. When her family noticed her unfeminine – and thus unseemly – interest in geometry, her clothes and candles were confiscated, so as to discourage her from learning. Mary Somerville, an English mathematician, was in her youth treated very similarly: seeing her interest in unfeminine pursuits, her father confiscated her candles, saying:

“We must put a stop to this, or we shall have Mary in a strait-jacket one of these days.”

Both of these women only succeeded, because they were to stubborn to budge. There must have been many who were not.

(Meanwhile, when Germain was young, polite young ladies were expected to be able to engage in a mathematical discourse as part of their social duties. Because it was assumed that they only held interest in romance, they were taught with the use of brilliant, brilliant little examples like that:

“Because Algarotti believed that women were only interested in romance, he attempted to explain Newton’s discoveries through the flirtatious dialogue between a Marquise and her interlocutor. For example, the interlocutor outlines the inverse square law of gravitational attraction, whereupon the Marquise gives her own interpretation on this fundamental law of physics: ‘I cannot help thinking… that this proportion in the squares of the distances of places… is observed even in love. Thus after eight day’s absence love becomes sixty-four times less than it was the first day.'”

While terribly patronising and stupid, this way of teaching could have been actually seriously surprisingly effective. Multiple experiments in cognitive science actually proved that humans learn much more efficiently when the problems they are expected to learn are presented in the form of social interaction.)

Sophie Kowalevski was not allowed to study in Russia, and to study abroad she needed a written permission of her father or husband, so she had to arrange a marriage of convenience.

Caroline Herschel, an astronomer, remained, as most of the female scientist, unmarried throughout her life, and could only work thanks to her brother.

For all the pride that Polish nationalists seem to repeatedly take in Marie Curie’s accomplishments, they tend to forget that she left Poland for good, because she was refused a post at the University of Krakow on the sole grounds of her being a woman. This is, too, not something children are usually taught in Polish schools in the course of learning about her life and achievements. I couldn’t possibly tell why.

* In the end, Noether was allowed to teach under her mentor and friend’s, David Hilbert’s, name. David Hilbert was sort of awesome and is known to have countered the University’s objections as follows

“Gentlemen, I do not see that the sex of the candidate is an argument against her admission as a Privatdozent. After all, the Senate is not a bathhouse.”

After WWI Nother was allowed to proceed with her habilitation.

** Another of her colleagues, Russian mathematician Pavel Alexandrov, would call her “der Noether” using the German masculine article, to, as he stated, show his respect. THERE ARE NO WORDS.


Singh, Simon: Fermat’s Last Theorem,

Osen, Lynn: Women in Mathematics.

All quotations, unless stated otherwise, are from Simon Singh’s book.

  1. Guest says:

    It’s bad enough that our society still sees women with natural mathematical and scientific talent as unfeminine and undesirable, especially in the USA and Canada, but in other countries like Russia, China, France, Germany, and Iceland, for example, women with those talents are considered desirable, yet feminine, especially to men. Here in North America, women who think in terms of science and math (and work in those types of careers) are treated harshly, especially by men. There’s been numerous stories of these kinds of women, from engineers to scientists, being harassed, raped, abused, and/or murdered by men, including their own partners because women who are logical, technical, and unemotional are often seen as “b***hes”, “dykes”, and so forth and that math and science is only a male thing. In other words, women in math and science face a lot of verbal and/or physical abuse in their relationships and are more likely to divorce than men with similar abilities, due to double standards and that men typically cannot tolerate “brilliant” women.

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