Chemistry has a long history ultimately dating back to alchemy, although there have not been as many female chemists in history as female mathematicians. Maria Sklodowska Curie (1867-1934) and her daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie (1897-1956) won Nobel Prizes in Chemistry in 1911 and in 1935. Over the past several centuries, chemistry has been able to attract women to undergraduate study. Indeed, the Women’s Committee of the American Chemical Society in the United States was founded 85 years ago.
Crystallography is an exceptional field related to chemistry. In England, in the first half of the 20th century, the research groups of both William Henry Bragg (1862-1942) and his son William Lawrence Bragg (1890-1971), who were 1915 Nobel laureates in physics, attracted remarkable numbers of female researchers. Kathleen Yardley Lonsdale (1903-1971), Dorothy Mary Crowfoot Hodgkin (1910-1994), and Rosalind Elsie Franklin (1920-1958) were the most distinguished three women in the Braggs research tradition. Lonsdale was elected as the first female member of the Royal Society in 1945. Hodgkin was a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry in 1964. Franklin has recently become known for her crucial contribution to the identification of the double-helical structure of DNA. The Braggs’ record of employing women chemists illustrates that environment and encouragement are important in women’s participation (Julian 1990).
However, the capital-intensive nature of laboratory work in chemistry has posed special challenges for women’s participation. Without access to equipment, supplies and space, performing chemistry experiments can be problematic. So if academic institutions and chemical industry employers do not hire women—such as was the case prior to World War I and again after the immediacy of war needs no longer prevailed—then women who are trained in chemistry in college have fewer options to practice in the field. Instead, they seek work in which the science background is useful but for which laboratory resources are not required. Henry Etzkowitz’s recent idea of a “Vanish Box,” whereby highly trained women disappeared from academic bench science and subsequently reappeared in technology transfer offices at the interface between science and economy, is an example of this process (Etzkowitz 2009).
1 Mariko Ogawa, professor, history of science and science studies, Mie University, Japan.
2 Lisa M. Frehill, senior research analyst, Energetics Technology Center.
3 Sophia Huyer, executive director, Women in Gender, Science and Technology.
The nature of work in mathematics, however, differs compared to chemistry. That is, mathematics work involves few resources, often merely a paper and pencil. Indeed, in the 18th and 19th centuries, women enjoyed solving mathematical problems as a contest. The Ladies Diary was designed specifically for the amusement and entertainment of women with an appendix of curious and valuable mathematics papers for use by students (Perl 1979; Costa 2000; Costa 2002).
There were many women who were good at mathematics in their student lives. One excellent example was Philipa Fawcett (1868-1948), who was ranked above the Senior Wrangler in 1890, achieving the highest mark in mathematics at the University of Cambridge. While there were other female Wranglers, no other ranked as senior or as second. Grace Chisholm Young (1868-1944), who marked almost equivalent to a Senior Wrangler in 1892, received her Ph.D., magna cum laude, from Göttingen in 1895.
However, seven examples in the history of famous women mathematicians are traditionally noted. Their accomplishments prove that women could be highly skilled mathematicians4 (Osen 1974; Alic 1986). These exemplars include
• Hypatia (about A.D. 360-A.D. 415)
• Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718-1799)
• Émilie du Châtelet (1706-1749), who translated into French, with commentary, Isaac Newton’s work Principia Mathematica
• Sophie Germain (1776-1831), French mathematician
• Mary Somerville (1780-1872), Scottish popular science writer; her talent was highly appreciated though she lacked scientific originality
• Sofia Vasilyevna Kovaleskaia (1850-1891), Russian mathematician, professor at University of Stockholm
• Emmy Noether (1882-1891)
The presence of such notable women contradicts the common myth that women are not good at mathematics. The “math myth” however, has proved rather intractable even today. Witness, for example, the world’s most popular doll, Barbie, and her Japanese sister, Licca.5 Both dolls have issues with mathematics. Licca is poor at mathematics, but good at art and music. And when Barbie finally spoke in 1992, one of the first phrases programmed in for her 800 million young owners to hear was “math class is tough” (Schiebinger 1999). So that, despite the low resource requirements necessary to perform mathematical work, persistent gendered stereotypes have thwarted women’s participation in the field in some cultures.
Computer science is a much newer discipline. However, some of the foundations for the discipline were established by two notable women. The name of Grace (Brewster Murray) Hopper (1906-1992) should be designated foremost among early computer scientists. She worked for the U.S. Navy and was engaged in the development of the first BINAC and later UNIVAC. She was mainly involved in designing software for digital computers. The development which made her name famous was the computer language COBOL. She was the most famous female computer science specialist of the 20th century. But we also find her
4 Osen and Alic are two of the seven world famous female mathematicians; sometimes Caroline Herschel (1750-1848) was added.
5 For more information about the Japanese doll Licca, see Licca chan hausu no hakurankai (Exhibition of Licca’s House) (in Japanese, Tokyo: INAX, 1997), p. 5.
forerunner in the 19th century. Mathematician, Augusta Ada Byron, Countess Lovelace (1815-1852) was the first developer of conceptual programming for Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. The Ada programming language in the Pentagon is named after her.
In summation, then, when we look at women’s participation in the chemical sciences, mathematics, and computer science, we are able to point to some notable women in each field, yet women’s pursuit of these fields as a profession has been affected by larger social forces. In mathematics, women had access to the field as a recreation and to study mathematics at universities in England. The chemical sciences’ resource-intensive nature of work stood as a barrier to women’s participation. When employers had labor shortages, such as during the First World War, women chemists were able to locate work. But when they were no longer needed, women were pushed out of the laboratory. Finally, some elements of computer science are like mathematics with a lower need for expensive resources, so it is a field that could have been able to attract women who could have been inspired by the achievements of women like Grace Hopper and Ada Byron.
So far, our emphasis has been on notable women in chemistry, computer science, and mathematics in the developed world, specifically, Europe and North America. When we turn our attention to developing a history of these fields and women’s participation in the developing world, there are many challenges. Much literature is from Western Europe and North America therefore there is a need to engage with multilingual literature for broader global coverage. Furthermore, science is in the early stages of development in many developing countries, therefore information can be difficult to locate. In addition, the colonial past and path to independence hold many implications for women’s participation in science. There is a body of work about women’s participation in agriculture that was impacted by colonial processes and that, now, has provided a backdrop against which women become involved in science. Finally, the chemical industry, which is capital-intensive, has also been rather mobile in the 20th century. Hence, as the capital resources for the chemical sciences move to new locations, new labor forces must be developed. In such cases, there is a need to consider the interaction of gender within contexts.
Alic, M. 1986. Hypatia’s Heritage. Boston: Beacon Press.
Costa, S. 2000. The Ladies’ Diary: Society, Gender and Mathematics in England, 1704-1754. Ph.D. dissertation. Cornell University.
Costa, S. 2002. The Ladies’ Diary: gender, mathematics and civil society in early eighteenth-century England. Osiris 17 (2nd series): 49-73.
Etzkowitz, H. April 2009. Vanish box. Online. Research EU: the Magazine of the European Research Area. Available at http://ec.europa.eu/research/research-eu/women/article_women23_ en.html. Accessed March 20, 2011. For his forthcoming book with Marina Ranga, see http://www.stanford.edu/group/gender/People/HenryEtzkowitz.html.
Julian, M.M. 1990. Women in crystallography. Pp. 335-383 in Women of Science: Righting the Record, G. Kass-Simon and P. Farnes, eds. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Perl, T. 1979. The Ladies’ Diary or Woman’s Almanack, 1704-1841. Historia Mathematica 6: 36-53.
Osen, L.M. 1974. Women in Mathematics. Cambridge, MA and London: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.
Schiebinger, L. 1999. Has Feminism Changed Science? Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press. 67 pp.