It’s not uncommon for the banter in a particular group chat I’m in with friends on WhatsApp to venture into the topical. In among the memes, meet up arrangements and band recommendations appear occasional news articles and even calls to protest.
One buddy recently messaged about a lecture she’d attended given by Caroline Criado-Perez speaking about her book “Invisible Women: Exposing the Data Bias in a World Designed by Men”. My friend mentioned the talk centred on the gaps of research data between men and women, from car safety gear to medical research and the lack of information collected on the impact on women. Technological advancements it seems are enhancing our unconscious biases.
Stimulating a reaction from another friend in the chat who noted the barely mentioned women who worked at NASA landing the Apollo on the moon, as well as physicist Lise Meitner. Her work around radioactivity was the foundation for the discovery of nuclear fission, for which Otto Hahn was solely awarded the Nobel Prize despite argument for it to be shared with Meitner. My own thoughts turned to Rosalind Franklin, whose work was instrumental to the discovery of the DNA helix; the credit for which went entirely to James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins.
Pondering further I realised the only example of a woman in science I could think of was Marie Curie, which was usually followed immediately by the mention of her husband. The lack of female names in school textbooks gave me, as with probably most of us, a lasting impression that women had no meaningful involvement in invention or discovery at all, which simply isn’t true.
I decided to look up forgotten women of science and tech and the deeper I dug, the more examples surfaced of women being side lined or ignored. No wonder we now have to make concerted efforts to make the tertiary study of STEM subjects more appealing to schoolgirls. This isn’t a complete surprise but I found the volume of suppressed information shocking; so much of history is being swept under the rug. It’s so common in fact, there is even a name for women’s achievements in science being attributed to the nearest male colleague: The Matilda Effect.
Coined by historian Margaret W. Rossiter in the early nineties; it was named after Matilda Joslyn Gage, a 19th century suffragist who in 1870 wrote an essay titled “Woman as Inventor” where she detailed examples of women’s contributions to science being usurped by their male colleagues. Gage herself had been blocked from pursuing an intended medical career because of her gender and became an activist instead. She wrote: “No assertion in reference to woman is more common than that she possesses no inventive or mechanical genius”. This bias persists over a century later with science being just one area where it has taken root.
I was shocked to discover in the last few years that in the early days of computer programming the role was almost solely developed by women and has only recently become dominated by men; starting with Ada Lovelace. A mathematician, she worked with scientist Charles Babbage on his proposed Analytical Engine in the mid nineteenth century. This machine (had it been built) would have been a general purpose computer, effectively making Lovelace the first computer programmer. ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), the first actual working computer used by the US Army for use during the Second World War, had six primary programmers – all of whom were women: Fran Bilas, Betty Jennings, Ruth Lichterman, Kay McNulty, Betty Snyder and Marlyn Wescoff.
It’s worth noting the majority of the unsung heroes my research uncovered were white; contemporaries of another colour would be further steps behind in social rankings and would find getting recognition even harder. I felt inspired to fall further down this rabbit hole and read on about women who may not have strictly been subjected to the Matilda Effect, but whom the records have ignored due to their gender and/or colour and think about how we get them some of the credit they deserve.
I discovered the chemist Alice Ball, the first female and African American to earn a master’s degree in chemistry from what is now the University of Hawaii. Her research lead to the development of an injectable treatment for leprosy in the early twentieth century which proved so successful it was used for decades. Sadly Ball died at only 24 in 1916 after a lab accident before the treatment was fully realised. The president of her college, Dr Arthur Dean, continued her research and claimed her work for his own with the treatment being given his name as The Dean Method. Six years after her death Ball was given credit for her work in a paper published by Dr Harry T. Hollman and the treatment was finally given her name: The Ball Method. This year her name has been added to the frieze of Keppel Street building of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. (Read more about that here)
A recent film called Hidden Figures was made about three African American mathematicians at NASA during the space race. Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, it told the story of Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan. Johnson grabbed my attention and I was amazed to find out she graduated high school at 14, going on to complete degrees in mathematics and French by the time she was 18. Her responsibility at NASA was calculating the trajectories for many of the manned space flights. In 1962 astronaut John Glenn apparently asked that Johnson re-did any machine calculations before embarking on his earth orbits. He was believed to have said: “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go”. In that same decade, the team that developed the on board flight software for NASA’s Apollo space programme was also headed by a woman, Margaret Hamilton.
The more I search the more I realise the breadth and depth of my ignorance. This is literally just the tip of the iceberg. The list of forgotten women keeps growing longer but we’re all too busy to be here forever. There are lists all over the internet of women’s discoveries, achievements and inventions just waiting to be noticed and I encourage everyone to take a moment and have a look.
These achievements need to be credited to the appropriate people not just because that’s fair but because visibility is vital. Women are still pressured to toe the line of traditional patriarchal roles and we are more than that. Women’s involvement in progress did not start and end with Marie Curie and having more accomplished role models to exemplify achievement will inspire the next generation and encourage them to do better. Let’s educate ourselves, each other and honour these pioneers.