Discovering the History of Women in Science: A Course Outline

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Discovering the History of Women in Science: A Course Outline

by Margaret Alic

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 11, No. 6, November/December 1979, p. 27–28

Recently the scientific establishment and the federal government have professed an interest in encouraging women to enter the scientific professions. Their efforts have usually taken the form of “Career Facilitation Projects” and “Science Career Workshops” for undergraduate women, funded by the National Science Foundation. In addition, various scientific societies have held conferences or established committees on women. These projects have successfully avoided the underlying problem within the educational system: From elementary school on through university we are taught that science is, and always has been, the province of men. We learn about Pythagoras and Archimedes, but not about Hypatia or Hildegard: about Copernicus, Galileo and Newton, but not about Emilie du Chatelet, Maria Agnesi or Mary Somerville.1 We hear about Watson and Crick, but not about Rosalind Franklin who unwittingly provided the data that allowed them to determine the structure of DNA.2

To counter this neglect of women scientists in conventional curricula, courses have appeared at colleges and universities across the country.3 Some of these classes focus on the problems and roles of women scientists today. Others, like our course at Portland State University, are concerned with the history of women in science and math. When we first conceived of this course in 1976 our knowledge consisted of what we had learned in school and as science workers. Therefore, when we brainstormed women scientists, we came up with Marie Curie, Rachel Carson, a couple of professors we’d had in college, and Rosalind Franklin (having recently read Anne Sayre’s biography, an answer to the sexist and self-serving portrayal of Franklin in The Double Helix4). After three years of research and teaching we now know of literally hundreds of women who have either made important scientific contributions, or whose lives and work illustrate the obstacles that have confronted women scientists throughout written history. 

The premise of our course is that women have always done scientific work. However, the nature and extent of their contributions, and any recognition they may have received, is determined, at least in part, by the Culver Pictures/Math Equals Mary Fairfax Somerville, famous 19th century Scottish mathematician. position of women and the structure of scientific endeavor in the society and historical period in question. The majority of our students have been women with little background in science. Often they exhibit symptoms of “math and science anxiety” as a result of previous educational experiences. With these factors in mind, we have had four main goals for our class: 1) to study the lives and work of individual women scientists within their historic context: 2) to identify individual factors (eg. wealth or social status) and historical patterns (eg. increased educational opportunities or the appearance of a “star” such as Marie Curie) which promote the participation of women in specific fields of 28 science; 3) to teach such elementary scientific principles as are needed to understand the work of the women under discussion; 4) to encourage discussion of current issues in science and technology that affect us all. 

Our course begins with a discussion of The Double Helix and Rosalind Franklin & DNA, illustrating “how science works” in capitalist society and the position of women within the scientific establishment. This leads naturally into the history of genetics and molecular biology as traced through the work of women scientists, with discussion of recombinant DNA research and the “biological revolution.” 

We then consider the work of women scientists from ancient times through the Renaissance, and the women mathematicians and astronomers of the 18th and 19th centuries. The significant role of women as writers and popularizers of science is also discussed. We trace the growth of an American “community” of women scientists within the women’s colleges and the Harvard College Observatory in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Marie Curie’s role as the ultimate “token woman” is critically examined, along with a general history of nuclear physics through the work of women. 

Finally we study the growth of those sciences, such as natural history, botany and nutrition, which historically have been considered “female sciences”. Included also are laboratory exercises, and panel discussions with women scientists and with “non-professional” women doing scientific work. We conclude with a look at sociobiology and how science has historically been used as a weapon against women. 

Interest in the history of women in science is growing rapidly and new books and articles are appearing regularly. Perhaps we are moving closer to the day when women will be considered an integral part of both the history and the current work of science.

Margaret Alic ts a member of the Portland Chapter of Science for the People and is working on a book on the history of women in science. 

For more information and resources on women in science write to or call: 

Science for the People
897 Main St.
Cambridge, MA 02139

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  1. Math Equals: Biographies of Women Mathematicians and Related Activities by Teri Perl (Addison-Wesley, Menlo Park, 1978) is an excellent elementary text containing information on these women, and mathematical exercises suitable for varied backgrounds.
  2. Sayre, Anne, Rosalind Franklin & DNA, New York: Norton, 1975.
  3. A summary of women-in-science courses is available from Phyllis Chinn, Department of Mathematics, Humboldt State University, Arcata, CA 95521. Also, a 1975 “Women & Science” class at the University of Washington developed a pamphlet, Hypatia’s Sisters: Biographies of Women Scientists Past and Present. It is distributed by Feminists Northwest, 5038 Nicklas Pl. N.E., Seattle, W A 98105.
  4. Watson, James D., The Double Helix, New York: Atheneum, 1968.