Past Women in Science, Present Digital Age

Following on from my last post I’d like to discuss experiences of a very different interdisciplinary meeting which I went to after immediately after the STS one I described there (I suspect I will return to that theme another time). I should say at the outset this was a much more upbeat experience. Organised by WiSRNET (Women in Science Research Network) it was entitled Revealing Lives: Women in Science 1830-2000 and the primary research question it sought to address, according to the website, was ‘ How are we to recover, interpret and understand women’s experiences in science?’. It brought together approximately equal numbers of scientists and historians (of science) all sharing common interests. Unlike the Nottingham conference, this second meeting was conducted in an entirely convivial atmosphere, with a great buzz in the room.

My role was to give a keynote about the present state of affairs for women in science, not least as regards women and the Royal Society, the location of the meeting (for more on this topic see one of my recent posts). As I said as I started my presentation, it was unusual to see so many women in the building (and only a sprinkling of men, which was a shame), in a room whose portraiture showed only men, in the form of recent past Presidents of the RS. There were a variety of sessions, including ones on narratives of individual women. The other keynote was by Cambridge colleague Patricia Fara, who gave a talk on female scientists around the time of the first world war appropriately titled ‘A lab of one’s own?’, something few of the women she described could have aspired to let alone attain.

I’ll just focus here on the session headed ‘Doing Women’s History in a Digital Age’, which was a panel discussion involving a representative from Trowelblazers (Brenna Hassett), Rebekah Higgitt from the Guardian’s The H Word blog, Jacy Young  from Psychology’s Feminist Voices, the University of Leicester’s Sally Horrocks from the Oral History of British Science and Charissa Varma  from the Darwin and Gender Project (part of the larger Darwin Correspondence project based at Cambridge). They came from very different backgrounds – 2 historians and 3 scientists – doing very different projects in very different ways. Ranging from the well-funded Oral History project, which had all the resources to handle large volumes of audio data plus the delicate issues about copyright and permissions effectively, via the Darwin project where the gender aspects were just one part of a huge whole, to the projects largely led by early career researchers who had fallen in love with tracing women past and present in their fields (archaeology, paleontology, geosciences and the like for Trowelblazers and, rather obviously, psychology for Psychology’s Feminist Voices) and ending up with historian Rebekah Higgitt, writing for Guardian Science blogs (and not specifically about women in science).

The contrast between background, scale, finance and medium made for an interesting panel session with such a wide range of perspectives to share. But it was also clear how much enthusiasm each brought to their respective projects, almost in an inverse relationship to the money they had to hand! The debate focussed on how their use of media affected their scholarship and how they handled the public sphere. Interestingly, misogyny did not seem to have affected any of the individuals perniciously despite it often being prevalent in online discussions.

To my mind, the Trowelblazers is a particularly interesting project. It simply grew out of the fascination of 4 early career women (from 3 countries, communicating via Twitter) and has blossomed into a wonderful archive of early women ‘wielding trowels’. For instance, an amazing diagram was shown of the connections between many female researchers and Dorothy Garrod, who became the first female professor at Cambridge when she was elected to the Disley Chair of Archaeology in 1939. (This at a time when women were still not admitted to full degrees at the university, but it was an election which served to illustrate just how irrational that position was. They were finally admitted in 1948, before that being only able to hold titular degrees and rejoicing in the unfortunate appellation of ‘BA Tits’.) I can’t find this diagram on the Trowelblazers’ website but it demonstrated just how many women made up the network spiralling out from Garrod at the centre. I did wonder whether my undergraduate tutor at Girton, Joan Oates, was to be found within the network, a woman who did much work in modern Iraq and Iran where she mingled with Agatha Christie amongst others.

Two questions stood out for me from the discussions. Firstly, Trowelblazers had organised a Wikipedia Edit-a-thon to train up new editors focussing, at the session, on some of the women missing from Wikipedia or with incomplete entries. I have myself been involved with two similar events (see e.g. here), which are great fun, although I have not been able to stick around long enough actually to get trained up myself. I would like to know how effective these sessions are in the long term in meeting their aims. The events are certainly proliferating but is there evidence to demonstrate that those trained up continue to use the skills they’ve acquired and that, beyond the time of the actual events, women’s entries are being improved systematically? One member of the audience suggested this was the case, but it would be good to know the facts.

My second, not unrelated question, is how representative the narratives being told are. We, inevitably, can only learn about those women for whom there is a substantive record (probably a written one), the more the better. It was noticeable that a few names turned up in several talks but will those women who don’t get onto Trowelblazers or Psychology’s Feminist Voices, for instance, vanish even more effectively because researchers will turn to these collections and not look elsewhere? It is the standard ‘only look under the lamp post’ problem but the more information that is readily available, the more the rest will be in danger of disappearing.

Why was there such a buzz at the meeting? I suppose because everyone present just wanted to share their knowledge and there was no undercurrent of history being better (or worse) than science. As a scientist I may not use the knowledge I gained within my daily working practice, but I learned some neat stuff. For instance Patricia Fara introduced us to Helen Gwynn-Vaughan , a botanist/ mycologist who was a leader in the WAAC‘s during the first world war, thereby becoming the first woman to obtain a military CBE, and who complained about the absence, indeed the interdiction, of pockets in the uniforms for women. (The standard absence of pockets in women’s clothes still irritates me greatly!). There was the heady and tabloid-worthy story of Hedy Lamarr, a story of sex and beauty, Hollywood, Nazis, music – and patents – which deserves a post of its own. I was reminded more than once that we should not think in terms of heroines in science, because none of them operated simply on their own or could possibly have thought of themselves in the way it is too easy for us, decades or centuries later, to consider them. Ada Lovelace, she of Ada Lovelace Day, was particularly singled out as someone we should avoid thinking of as heroic or indeed as a computer programmer.

But I think the buzz was also because it was in general uplifting to learn about these pioneering women, many of whom had to contend with huge obstacles and negative messages and yet still managed to get serious work done. It is good to reclaim these historic figures and realise there are really quite a lot of them out there, particularly by the early 20th century. I’m not sure they necessarily serve as useful role models for today, but they do serve as intriguing examples of where a bit of bloody-mindedness and determination in the face of opposition can get you.


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1 Response to Past Women in Science, Present Digital Age

  1. Pingback: Royal Society Panel: Revealing Lives, Women in Science 1830-2000 | TrowelBlazers

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