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No. 466:
Icons of Women in Science

Today, a different look at gender and science. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Germany is the fatherland to Germans. Russia is her people's motherland. When you go fishing your boat is a she, but the fish you catch are male: "Lookit him, ain't he a big sucker!"

So how about science? Is it male or female? Francis Bacon, who set the new agenda for experimental science in 1620, said:

The empire of man over things is founded on the ... sciences ... for nature is only to be commanded by obeying her.

He meant that we must observe nature and learn her rules before we exert technological control over her. We must submit before we master. Bacon's tenet of faith is shot through with notions of male/female roles. The active human species is man. Nature is she. Nature is mother whom the male son will eventually command. But she is, nonetheless, mother.

Female imagery lingers in science 200 years after Bacon. Over and over, scientists portrayed their work as female. The frontispiece of a late Galileo book shows two women. One is Natural Philosophy. The other is Mathematics.

Historian Lhonda Schiebinger tells about 18th-century imagery in books on science. The frontispiece of Lemery's 18th-century book on "Chymistry" shows chemistry as a beautiful lady. She's shown bare-breasted -- probably because she offers us the naked truth.

Emilie du Châtelet published a book on physics in 1740. In the frontispiece, she herself ascends to a temple where naked truth -- a woman -- awaits her. Five of the sciences watch her ascend. They're all women.

That imagery declined in the 18th century. The frontispiece of Newton's book on calculus shows only men making measurements. The philosopher Kant didn't only attack female imagery. He thought women had no business studying science. He wrote:

A woman ... who engages in debate about the intricacies of mechanics, like the Marquise du Châtelet, might just as well have a beard ...

Science turned into serious business in the 1840s. It became professional. No more female face! In fact, no more embodiment of any kind! If we wanted to portray science, we did it the way Newton had. We showed men engaged in science. As we did so the field became more impenetrable to women than ever.

Rousseau played a part in driving women out. He argued that they hurt the style of science. Rousseau saw science as male combat. And so it often is. One modern observer calls science a system in which not the best, but the best-defended, idea prevails. What science really needs is less of that. It needs the same male-female balance that Rousseau tried to take from it. The good news is that science is finally finding ways to achieve that balance today.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Schiebinger, L., The Mind Has No Sex. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989, Chapter 5.