From Women in STEM-“Women Scientists Were Written Out of History. It’s Margaret Rossiter’s Lifelong Mission to Fix That”


October 2019
Susan Dominus

The historian has devoted her career to bringing to light the ingenious accomplishments of those who have been forgotten.

Margaret Rossiter’s research spotlights the women in science whose intellectual contributions have not been given their due. (Illustration by Katherine Lam)

In 1969, Margaret Rossiter, then 24 years old, was one of the few women enrolled in a graduate program at Yale devoted to the history of science. Every Friday, Rossiter made a point of attending a regular informal gathering of her department’s professors and fellow students. Usually, at those late afternoon meetings, there was beer-drinking, which Rossiter did not mind, but also pipe-smoking, which she did, and joke-making, which she might have enjoyed except that the brand of humor generally escaped her. Even so, she kept showing up, fighting to feel accepted in a mostly male enclave, fearful of being written off in absentia.

During a lull in the conversation at one of those sessions, Rossiter threw out a question to the gathered professors. “Were there ever women scientists?” she asked. The answer she received was absolute: No. Never. None. “It was delivered quite authoritatively,” said Rossiter, now a professor emerita at Cornell University. Someone did mention at least one well-known female scientist, Marie Curie, two-time winner of the Nobel Prize. But the professors dismissed even Curie as merely the helper to her husband, casting him as the real genius behind their breakthroughs. Instead of arguing, though, Rossiter said nothing: “I realized this was not an acceptable subject.”

Of her discoveries, Rossiter says, “I felt like a modern Alice who had fallen down a rabbit hole into a wonderland of the history of science.” (Evyn Morgan)

Acceptable or not, the history of women in science would become Rossiter’s lifework, a topic she almost single-handedly made relevant. Her study, Women Scientists in America, which reflected more than a decade of toil in the archives and thousands of miles of dogged travel, broke new ground and brought hundreds of buried and forgotten contributions to light. The subtitle—Struggles and Strategies to 1940—announced its deeper project: an investigation into the systematic way that the field of science deterred women, and a chronicling of the ingenious methods that enterprising women nonetheless found to pursue the knowledge of nature. She would go on to document the stunted, slow, but intrepid progress of women in science in two subsequent volumes, following the field into the 21st century.

“It is important to note early that women’s historically subordinate ‘place,’ in science (and thus their invisibility to even experienced historians of science) was not a coincidence and was not due to any lack of merit on their part,” Rossiter wrote at the outset in the first volume. “It was due to the camouflage intentionally placed over their presence in science.”

Rossiter’s research has been “revolutionary,” said Anne Fausto-Sterling, a Brown University professor emerita and an expert on developmental genetics, who was astonished by the first volume when it came out. “It meant that I should never believe anything anybody tells me about what women did or didn’t do in the past, nor should I take that as any measure of what they could do in the future.”

Academic historians typically don’t have an immediate impact on everyday life. Rossiter is the exception. In excavating the lives of forgotten women astronomers, physicists, chemists, entomologists and botanists, Rossiter helped clear the way for women scientists in the future. “Her work showed that there were women in science, and that we could increase those numbers, because women are quite capable of it,” said Londa Schiebinger, a historian of science at Stanford University. In addition, Rossiter’s work illustrated that administrators needed to reform academic institutions to make them more hospitable to women. “She showed that very talented women faced barriers—and so that sparks something.”

Rossiter’s findings were impressive to key figures at the National Science Foundation, which funded her research over many years—and which, starting in the 1980s, also began funding efforts to increase “the representation and advancement of women in engineering and academic science degrees.” Schiebinger said, “All of Margaret Rossiter’s well-documented work gives an intellectual foundation for these things.”

Today, Rossiter, 75, has scaled back her research efforts and carries a light teaching load at Cornell. But her work remains deeply important, in large part because she knew how to make a point stick. Back in 1993, Rossiter coined a phrase that captures an increasingly well-recognized phenomenon: the Matilda Effect, named after a suffragist, Matilda Gage, whose own work was overlooked by historians, and who also wrote about the way women scientists, in particular, had been erased by history. Rossiter’s 1993 paper decried the troubling recent history of male scientists receiving credit for work done by female scientists. The phrase—the Matilda Effect—took off, and has been cited in hundreds of subsequent studies. A 2013 paper, “The Matilda Effect in Science Communication,” [Gender Action Portal] reported that both men and women judged research papers by men to be stronger than those by women, and both men and women showed preference for the male authors as possible future collaborators. In the past year alone, dozens of papers on gender discrimination in science have cited the Matilda Effect. In naming the phenomenon, Rossiter identified the issue of misplaced credit as a problem that institutions would have to fight to rectify, and that equality-minded scholars are monitoring with even more rigor.

Both Margaret Rossiter and Matilda Gage made substantial original contributions to American scholarship that were, for too long, not recognized as significant; and, interestingly, both tried to bring to light the work of other women who suffered the same fate. Their births separated by more than a century, the two nonetheless have almost a symbiotic relationship, with the work of one giving new life to that of the other in a collaboration across time to advance the role of women in the sciences, a fight ongoing in laboratories and the halls of academia.

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