Emilie and the Scientific Community

By Rylee Sommers-Flanagan*

I am finished writing and thinking about socially conservative Texans (for now). But I still have history texts on the mind.

Here’s the dilemma: in a conversation with a like-minded male progressive, I was surprised to realize that, while sympathetic to the fact that girls have few female role models to read about in school, he didn’t see an obvious solution. He thought maybe a few more women could be highlighted, but he offered the following to explain why men would continue to outnumber women in the texts for years to come:

Centuries of discrimination and subjugation kept women from participating as recognized leaders in societies around the world and, as a result, women are historically less influential than men. Therefore, it makes sense that more men are mentioned in history books, in greater detail and at greater length.

I find this rundown perturbing.

And misinformed.

Analogy first: Like water rushing downhill, women have had avalanches of stones block their initial routes, and certainly some have pooled into lakes behind these blockages, but not all; many have coursed ahead, making their journey outside of the predictably defined banks of the river. The channel they carve becomes familiar over time, and it is easy to forget the first splashes of water that carved into the unknown.

Now example: Emilie du Chatelet was Voltaire’s mistress and also the first person to discover and theorize about the spectrum of light we study today, predicting the existence of infrared rays. She also translated and provided insightful commentary on Newton’s Principia Mathematica. This work, published over 200 years ago, is still the standard French version. Her position as a woman, despite her clear genius, undermined her ability to interact in common intellectual spheres, but she created her own network. Voltaire called her “a great man whose only fault was being a woman.” I understand that it’s complicated to explain to seventh graders that her sex life gave her the ‘in’ she needed to access Europe’s intellectual elite. Her path was unorthodox but emphatically impactful (and there’s significantly more to her story; check out the plethora of biographies written about her yet excluded from sciences curricula). She belongs in the books with Newton, Curie, Einstein, Darwin and Galileo.

And some other thoughts on the subject: Du Chatelet, while remarkable, is not anomalous (see Sophie Germain, Ada Byron Lovelace, and Sofia Kovalevskaya for similarly prodigious contributions to mathematics). Part of her story is what she accomplished in the face of adversity, but mostly it’s just about what she accomplished. It might simply be said that old habits die hard, but I can’t help wondering if continuing to shut out du Chatelet and her sisters from the scientific community has more to do with their nontraditional impact and distinctive networking styles than it does with their qualifications.

What’s most disturbing, though, is this assumption, even by the liberally inclined, that the absence of women actually means there were no women. But the absence of female historic figures, particularly in the sciences, is actually defined by a failure to fit into the masculine power structure. These women couldn’t achieve the standing like Newton in his heyday, but they made similarly exceptional contributions. Recognition is long overdue.

The sciences have long been underestimating women and keeping them out of the elite club of great discoverers. As recently as this year, the American Association of University Women issued a report called Why So Few?, spotlighting problematic attitudes in the scientific and academic communities. The media coverage of the report sounds almost stunned, with article after article repeating that the ratio of boys to girls scoring over 700 on the math section of the SAT has decreased from 13:1 to 3:1. The report also found that when test takers are told that “girls and boys are equally capable in math…the difference in [testing] performance essentially disappears.”

I hear it from other liberals, usually men; feminism is passé, they tell me. We can show them why it’s not, though, but we have to speak up. Disproving the “why women didn’t make history” explanation requires engaging in the conversation. Tell them about the forgotten women who continue to be ignored, the women who dressed as men to follow their dreams, and the way our own lives reflect barriers often unnoticed by our male peers.

Our patience is worth it; with a little luck, perceptions will change.

*Rylee Sommers-Flanagan is a Communications Intern and a student at Emory University in Atlanta, GA, where she is pursuing a degree in International Studies.

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