Pandora’s Breeches: Women,Science and Power in the Enlightenment By Patricia Fara
This book examines the roles women played in science in the period of about 1600 till 1830 by a clever use of woman-man pairs. The pairs acting as bookends at the beginning and end of the book are authors (non- scientists, as it happens) with fictional characters: Francis Bacon with ‘Lady Philosophy’ and Mary Shelley with Frankenstein. The eight pairs giving rise to a chapter each in between are women corresponding with influential scholars, women who translate science either into other languages or for broader audiences and women who assist their men (husbands, brothers) in doing their research at home. Women are also discussed in their role as patrons of scholars but not to the extent that they get their own chapter. It is telling that Queen Christina of Sweden, who invited René Descartes to Stockholm (where he died), has to make way for his correspondent Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia to make up a pair.
I really liked the idea of re-examining historical evidence such as pictures and surviving letters and learning about women I hadn’t heard much about before (especially apt on Ada Lovelace Day). The book is great at debunking heroic versions of scientific history, which annoy me as I see science as such a collaborative effort at its core.
Society was markedly different in the 200 odd years described and more unapologetically patriarchal from what it is today. But I was wondering whether there is still something to learn from these women that is recognizable today? Maybe it is the difference in the women’s own attitude. Both Elisabetha Hevelius and Marie Paulze Lavoisier appear to have determined their own destinies, by choosing established scientists as spouses and carving out their own niches alongside them. In contrast Caroline Herschel “seemed determined to be miserable” and “colluded in her downtrodden state”. After all, our own actions and attitudes are all we have control over.
Patricia Fara will speak at the Cambridge AWiSE Festival of Ideas event asking “Is it a feminist position to encourage women to work and study in male dominated fields?” on 28 October 2013, 19.30, Lucy Cavendish College. Other speakers include Jenny Koenig, founding chair of Cambridge AWiSE and CUSU’s Lauren Steele who organised the campaign “I need feminism because” which went viral and proves that new generations still have an apatite for feminism! Come and join us to debate, inform and be informed. I am definitely looking forward to it!
Ada Lovelace wasn’t just the first female computer programmer, she was the world’s first ever computer programmer full stop. Ada Lovelace day celebrates women in STEM, which is also what Cambridge AWiSE is all about! There is lots of activity on twitter on the fact it is Ada Lovelace day, I even noticed it ‘trending’. Here are some of the links that caught my attention….
Plenty of posts with background on who Ada Lovelace was, but this one is my favourite. To get to know her in her own words, New Scientist have managed to secure a rare interview with her…. (well, they mined her correspondence very cleverly)
Even the BBC is promoting the occasion! The BBC has devoted front page coverage on its website to these profiles of female scientists.
The Guardian also has a lower profile, but very thoughtful piece focusing on ‘ women who have excelled in their field but have often been denied both opportunity and recognition’.
The Wellcome Trust publishes a blog by Professor Dame Kay Davies and Sir Mark Walport on the need for flexibility in research careers, which is right up my street.
Ed Yong, a (male, as it happens) science blogger I very much admire compiled an all-female list of top science writers. My favourite, Jenny Rohn appears to be missing. Yours?
Trawling through twitter in search of Ada made me find out about the Double X science blog for women, which although very American, I shall be frequenting from now on.
Book review: Dorothy Hodgkin- A life by Georgina Ferry
Last year Georgina Ferry gave a talk to Cambridge AWiSE. She has written biographies on Dorothy Hodgkin and Max Perutz. I bought a copy of ‘Dorothy Hodgkin- A life’ and really enjoyed it. I lent it to a crystallographer friend rather than writing the review straight away (which is a positive sign in itself). So here is a view of the book that has been mmm, left to mature… As I’ve said before, I quite like to structure blog posts around 9 points:
1. As a book it works really well, avoiding many of the pitfalls of a biography. There is a good balance between Dorothy’s life story and her science. Not too much foreshadowing of the greatness to come, the linear-with-time-format works well, especially as Georgina manages to still bring a twist in the tail.
2. Dorothy’s life is totally fascinating and she comes across as totally likeable but without any saccharine.
3. I did not know she suffered from arthritis. This made me admire her even more as she would have had no recourse to the drugs that us modern -day sufferers have!
So, what can modern day women in science learn?
Dr Tennie Videler, Co-chair of Cambridge Association for Women in Science and Engineering
Women are under-represented in employment in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM), both inside and outside academia. Even in the biosciences, where women make up over half of the undergraduates, women still account for only 15% of professors. In all STEMM subjects, qualified women are not retained in similar proportions to men with the result that women are severely under-represented in senior positions. For example, among science, engineering and technology (SET) academic faculty in the US in 2003, women comprised 18 to 45 % of assistant professors (26% lecturers and 18% senior researchers/lecturers in the UK in 07/08) and 6 to 29 % of associate and full professors (9% in the UK in 07/08). Not just in academia, but in general SET occupations, fewer women with undergraduate SET qualifications enter SET professional or associate professional occupations. Possible reasons for this are multi-faceted, not easy to solve, but worth exploring: