Women And Femininity In The History Of Science

Publiceret Oktober 2014

Women have always participated in scientific endeavour, even before the term ‘scientist’ was invented. (The term ‘scientist’ is usually attributed to William Whewell, Cambridge academic, who used it in its modern sense for the first time in Britain in 1841). However, femininity and science did not sit happily together in Western culture, and the masculine colouring of science reflected not just that more men did science, but that science itself was perceived as an inherently masculine enterprise.

The idea that science and mathematics were inappropriate or ‘too hard’ for women, and even ‘at odds’ with true femininity, can be traced back to the origins of modern science and the birth of the Royal Society in the seventeenth century. Then ‘femininity’ became the antithesis of the new, virile, experimental science of Newton and his colleagues who wanted to break from the passive, contemplative investigative style of traditional ‘natural philosophy’, the earlier term for science. (Schiebinger, 1996) This split, which distanced women from the new experimental science, was made even wider by the tradition of Nature being personified in only female form. The male scientists made ‘mother nature’ their object of investigation, and also characterised her as a female muse who could seduce and trick them, but if tamed would also allow them to ‘penetrate her secrets’. This whole set-up cast femininity as the passive, subject of enquiry and the male as the virile, active investigator; a duality which only added to the dissonance between femininity and science (Jordanova, 1991).

Despite this, there were women scientists—astronomers, chemists, botanists mathematicians and more—who participated in science in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Indeed, the first woman to have contributed an article to the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society is recorded as Ann Whitfield who wrote on the effects of a thunderstorm in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, in 1760. At the end of the eighteenth century, astronomer Caroline Herschel published several papers, including one detailing the discovery of three nebulae. Women as a rule did not receive an education equivalent to their brothers, instead being schooled in accomplishments and household duties rather than intellectual subjects, and this put them at a disadvantage when it came to scientific investigation.

For much of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, there was one branch of science seen as especially suitable for women. Botany was understood as a pursuit offering opportunity for moral improvement and women had more socially sanctioned access to it than to any other science. Girls and women collected, drew and studied plants and, in this way, botany became associated with women and coded feminine (Shteir, 1997). Women also navigated their way in to other sciences, often as collaborators to male relatives (astronomer Caroline Herschel); popularisers of science to an amateur or young readership (chemist Jane Marcet); translators of scientific work (mathematician Mary Somerville) or scientific illustrators (Marianne North).

Figure 1. Hertha Ayrton (28 April 1854 - 23 August 1923) in her laboratory. Hertha Ayrton was an English engineer, mathematician, physicist, and inventor. She attended Girton College, Cambridge where she studied mathematics, and received a B.Sc. degree from the University of London in 1881. Hertha Ayrton solved the problem to flicker and hiss of the electric arcs used for public lighting. Ayrton's work in the field of electrical engineering was recognised domestically and internationally. In 1904, she became the first woman to read a paper before the Royal Society, and was awarded the Royal Society's prestigious Hughes Medal "for her experimental investigations on the electric arc, and also on sand ripples." In 2010, Ayrton was voted one of the ten most influential British women in the history of science, as selected by panel of female Fellows of the Royal Society and science historians.

In the early nineteenth century, women with scientific interests could often indulge them as science grew in popularity and status and as institutions, such as the new University of London, opened some of their science lectures to women. Women were also welcome at meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, founded in 1841, although in the early days they were expected to be in the audience only and admitted on special ‘women’s tickets’ only. From the mid-nineteenth century onwards, as science sought to professionalise itself and move away from any hint of amateurism, institutions sought to become more exclusive; typically, a first step to achieving serious scientific status was a closing of the doors to women.

Access of women to the membership or fellowship became a battleground for learned scientific associations vying with each other for status: the exclusion of women was a powerful way to signal a society’s elite status. When the Royal Geographic Society debated the possibility of female fellows in 1892-3 an angry dispute between council members was conducted via the letters page of The Times. The Royal Astronomical Society confirmed its refusal to admit women in 1892 too, when three women were put forward as candidates. This exclusivity encouraged the establishment in 1890 of the rival British Astronomical Association which welcomed women and other ‘amateurs’ into its ranks. This opportunity was important for women as astronomy was an activity that had remained more accessible to them. When other sciences moved from the home to the university, female stargazers could still work at astronomy by studying the night sky from a modest home observatory, or even away on a field trip. The Royal Astronomical Society finally admitted women in 1915.

As the twentieth century dawned, the issue of women became a headache for several learned societies when male modernisers put forward female candidates for election. The Entomological Society which, according to science journal Nature at the time, was ‘formally so exclusive that ladies who contributed papers were not even admitted to be present when they were read’ elected its first woman member in 1904. Just two years earlier, in 1902, the first woman was nominated for election to that most august of scientific institutions, the Royal Society. She was the physicist and electrical engineer Hertha Ayrton. This nomination caused great division; those supporting her nomination argued against traditionalists on the council who warned that admitting women risked trivialising the Society; this argument won the day and the Royal Society held fast to an all-male fellowship for the next forty years (Jones, 2009). It was to be 1945 when the first women were admitted as fellows (crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale and biochemist Marjory Stephenson) and the 2014 gender profile of the Royal Society reveals that today around 5% of the fellowship are female (Royal Society, 2014).

The final decades of the nineteenth century was also a time when science itself began looking at the differences between men and women to decide which activities and roles were best suited to each sex. After Darwin, the evolution of man was a hot topic and scientists explained that women’s brains had not evolved to the same level as men’s. Natural selection had not promoted the development of women’s rational capacities: whereas men developed their brains in the competition with other males for mates, women were selected more for their caring, maternal qualities and for their intuition. Darwinist scientists and medical men doubted whether women, who were designed by evolution to be emotional and partial, with a tendency to shift attention and achieve only surface understandings, could be trusted to do science. Women were competent in their ‘natural’ role as wives and mothers, but they were intellectually and temperamentally unsuited to scientific work; they were just too damn emotional and could not be trusted with evidence. (When then President of Harvard University, Larry H. Summers, made his infamous speech in 2005 asserting that innate differences between men and women may be one reason for women’s lack of visibility in science, he tapped in to a long history of such views.)

But of even more concern to the nineteenth-century scientific and medical community was a concern that if you subjected women to hard intellectual labour, their health may inevitably suffer. The new women’s colleges opening up in the 1880s and 1890s were wary of provoking criticism from opponents who argued that women jeopardised their well-being by following a programme of education similar to men’s. Women risked nervous breakdown (including anorexia scholastica, a disease recently identified), loss of fertility, loss of womanly beauty and, most conerning of all, a decrease in marriageability. Domesticity and motherhood were the best pursuits for women and any female with ‘manly’ scientific or intellectual pursuits was in danger of being viewed as not only misguided, but unnatural.

Despite this of course, women carried on doing science and found spaces for their passion in whatever place they could. Many of them have only recently been recognised i as their contributions to science had been hidden from history, often because they collaborated with a husband or male relative or friend who alone received credit for joint work. Examples include astronomers William and Margaret Huggins (Becker 1996) and Annie and Edward Maunder (Ogilvie, 2000); botanists Henderina and Dukinfield Henry Scott (Jones 2015); and mathematicians Grace Chisholm and William Henry Young (Jones, 2009). Even if women seldom achieved fellowship of elite scientific societies, they were ever present at the margins participating in other ways, a trend that began to accelerate at the end of the nineteenth century as more and more women began to study science at the new university colleges for women. In the years 1880-1914 for instance, some sixty women contributed from the periphery of the Royal Society by submitting papers, publishing articles and receiving grants (Jones 2009).

As the institutionalisation and professionalization of science carried on and strengthened in the first two decades of the twentieth century, more women gained entry to science, but many were segregated in limited roles that made use of their special ‘feminine skills’, understood as a docile attitude, patience and painstaking attention to repetitive detail. These jobs were typically low-paid, low-level technician and assistant roles which worked to reinforce the dominant gender hierarchies in science, not to challenge them. These jobs for women expanded in the UK during the World Wars when women were needed to replace men away on active service. Although a good number of women scientists took over high level research work − of vital importance to the war effort − in laboratories while men were away at the front, many more took on technician level roles (Fara, 2015).

For example, it was during WW1 that women first gained admission to the National Physical Laboratory where they were employed in the Meterology Department to undertake gauge-testing, an important aspect of the munitions industry. By the summer of 1917 there were ninety nine women out of 420 staff in the department (National Physical Laboratory, 2000). The contribution of these and other women (and less privileged men in assistant or technician roles) to the production of scientific knowledge has only latterly become a topic of scholarly enquiry in the history of science; if science is understood as a process and not as just a body of knowledge, the contribution of the technicians involved in producing that knowledge becomes an important topic of research (Hartley and Tansey, 2015).

Women have still not achieved the same levels of participation and success in science, mathematics and engineering as men. The continuing ambivalence shown by girls to taking up a career in these areas is still wrought with cultural factors: they are continuing to see scientific jobs as ‘unfeminine’, a perception that organisations such as WISE http://www.wisecampaign.org.uk are working with some success to dispel. Their mission may be helped by the increasing number of female scientists in public life and representations of scientific women in films and on our TV screens these days—although the latter mostly glamorous women, hair always in place, lipsticks at the ready and male admirers waiting in line, may be placing another near impossible demand on female scientists. But that’s another story….


Becker, B.J., ‘Dispelling the myth of the able assistant: Margaret and William Huggins at work in the Tulse Hill Observatory’ in Creative Couples in the Sciences, edited by H.M. Pycior, N.G. Slack and P.G. Abir-am (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996) pp. 98-111.

Fara, Patricia ‘Women, Science and Suffrage in World War One’, Notes and Records: The Royal Society Journal of the History of Science 61 (1) 2015.

Hartley, J.M and Tansey, E.M., ‘White Coats and No Trousers: Narrating the experiences of women technicians in medical laboratories, 1930-1990’, Notes and Records: The Royal Society Journal of the History of Science 61 (1) 2015.

Jones, Claire G., Femininity, Mathematics and Science, 1880-1914 (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2009).

Jones, Claire G., ‘Discovery on the edge? The tensions of homemade science in the work of Henderina Scott (1862-1929) and Hertha Ayrton (1854-1923)’ in Domesticating Nature: Households in the Making of Modern Science, edited by Donald L. Opitz, Staffan Bergwik and Brigitte Van Tiggelen (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2015).

National Physical Laboratory, Metromnia, 9 (2000)

Ogilvie, Marilyn Bailey, ‘Obligatory amateurs: Annie Maunder (1868-1947) and British women astronomers at the dawn of professional astronomy’ British Journal for the History of Science 33 (116) 2000, 67-84

Royal Society, https://royalsociety.org/about-us/fellowship/ <accessed 07 November 2014>.

Schiebinger, Londa, The Mind has no sex? Women in the Origins of Modern Science (Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1996)

Shteir, Ann B, ‘Gender and “Modern” Botany in Victorian England’, OSIRIS 12 (1997) 29-38.