The ordinary women in science history © Getty Images

Leila McNeill and Anna Reser on lesser-known women from science history

Read the transcript of our Science Focus Podcast with Leila McNeill and Anna Reser – scroll down to listen to the episode.

Sara Rigby: Hello and welcome to the Science Focus Podcast. I’m Sara Rigby, online assistant at BBC Science Focus Magazine.

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Today is International Women’s Day, and in this episode I’m talking to science historians Anna Reser and Leila McNeill, authors of Forces of Nature: The Women who Changed Science.

They tell me about the women who engaged in science throughout history but don’t always get remembered – the midwives, the astronomers, and the wives and sisters.

When I’ve read about women in science history before, I often got the impression that it was exclusively men doing science for centuries until there were a few superstars, people like Marie Curie or Rosalind Franklin, who sort of started getting women into science. But having read your book, it sounds like that’s not the case at all, is it?

Leila McNeill: It certainly isn’t, and we can find women participating in science going all the way back to antiquity all around the world. And one of the problems with looking at figures like Marie Curie and Rosalind Franklin is that they were anomalous in the sense that when they were making their discoveries and doing what they were doing, it was still very rare for women to be in higher institutions of learning and scientific institutions in particular.

And so when you’re just trying to look for women in those spaces, those are the figures that pop up and they’re easy to find records of because institutions keep records and things like that.

So one of the things that we were interested in doing with this book was kind of looking beyond those institutions where formal records are kept to see the different ways that women could have been participating in science on their own terms and in their own way outside of these spaces. And so we find women doing this in all kinds of ways, going all the way back to antiquity. And one of the most common ways that we see is women participating in medicine as healers and midwives in various forms.

We find that in antiquity all the way through the Middle Ages, all the way up until the 19th Century when medicine was professionalised and it was kind of taken out of the hands of women and out of the domestic sphere where women were practising these things in their homes and their communities, and taking it into that institutionalised setting where, again, that’s where you’ll start getting those unsung women in science, the ones that broke into that institutional barrier. But, yeah, we were much more interested in looking outside of that.

SR: Right. Thank you, Leila. So was there ever a time or place when women didn’t engage in science in some form, that you know of?

Anna Reser: I don’t think so.

I think one of the things that we had to do for this book and that I think we need to do more broadly looking at the history of women in science, is rethinking what counts as science. And we use the term ‘pursuing knowledge of nature’ because, you know, institutionalised, formalised science doesn’t exist until the early modern period in a way that people recognise. And it becomes like a standardised practise. And there are methods that are shared across borders.

And so before that, you’re not really looking for science per se in those terms. But there are people pursuing knowledge about nature and women are doing that basically in every period that men were as well, it’s just that women typically, especially in Western cultures, are… Women have different expectations about what their social life should look like and about what kind of access they should have to the public sphere.

And so if we only think about science as something that happens in this broadly public collaborative way across, you know, the community of letters or whatever, then you’re not really going to find women doing that in a lot of spaces. But if you kind of zoom in a little and look inside the home and inside communities, women are pursuing this knowledge in these spaces instead because this is sort of where they’re at.

So instead of looking for women where men are, we look for them where they are. And in those spaces, you do find, you know, particularly like Leila said, medicine, women practising medicine to care for their own families and their communities, but also sometimes to make a profession out of it. Selling, making and selling medicines, travelling around as a healer, things like that, particularly like midwifery and the care of like pregnant women and babies, is obviously going to be something that women are doing more often than men in a lot of spaces, at least in the ancient world, for sure.

So, yeah, what we found in researching this book is that basically everywhere we looked, we found women who were pursuing and creating knowledge about nature in various ways.

SR: OK, thank you, Anna. So as you both just mentioned, women were often midwives in antiquity. So why? Maybe this is a very obvious question, but why specifically midwives as opposed to doctors? Why was there the gender divide between what sort of medicine people practised?

AR: Well, it’s a little bit complex just because a doctor in the sense that we think of it now, like a physician, was not really a profession until the modern period, at least in the sense of it being like, you know, you have a special formalised education and you have all these sort of institutional bodies to which you can belong as a physician.

But the divide, I guess, between midwifery and being a doctor in the ancient world is much fuzzier than that. Part of the issue is that when we kind of look back. Really far back, maybe like to ancient Egypt or to ancient Greece, we are always confronting the challenge of, like, putting our own categories from now back into the past, doctor, midwife, nurse, whatever, and that those things are sort of useful for us to just kind of name something in a way that we kind of understand, but it can kind of recategorise things.

LM: Yeah, I think one way to think of it is that women cared for women, and that’s more of the divide rather than midwife versus physician in the way we understand physician or doctor, and that women caring for women was something that was understood to happen and be expected to happen all the way through the turn of the 20th Century, but before medicine became professionalised and institutionalised. So I think maybe that’s more of an appropriate way to think of the distinction rather than midwife versus doctor.

SR: Right, I see, so it’s been said the witches were often just midwives or medicine women or women with some level of competence and knowledge. Would you say that was accurate?

LM: So that was something very surprising for me in this research, that there actually isn’t a whole lot of historical evidence to show that midwives were singled out as witches. There’s very little to no historical evidence to support that.

But what was interesting to find is that in antiquity, you didn’t have the same associations with witches and witchcraft and women who had certain kinds of knowledge that you did coming into the Middle Ages in antiquity, it could be seen as like, maybe, something not that great to promote yourself as or to practise.

But it didn’t have that association yet with Satan or the devil. You don’t really get that until the Middle Ages, when that connection between magic and witchcraft became associated with Satan. But what that has to do with midwives specifically, you can’t really find a whole lot of historical evidence to support that connection.

SR: So were midwives respected in the same way that maybe physicians were?

AR: Yeah, I think particularly in ancient Rome, we have a lot of material from ancient Rome about the profession of midwifery, and one of the things that we have a ton of are relief carvings of midwives at work, which are really cool. They use specialised tools. They had a particular kind of  birthing chair that was in their possession, that they would take from job to job, helping women to give birth.

Even in the Hippocratic Corpus, there are writings by men about midwives that place them in this context of like a professional medical practice.

For instance, Soranus writes about the characteristics of a good or ideal midwife, so there’s some sort of idea of like a standard for the profession, obviously, like his ideals were like she should be literate and versed in medical theory, but also like she keep her fingernails short so she doesn’t scratch the mother or baby. So, you know, all particularly with the Hippocratic Corpus, there’s a lot of digging through what men are writing about women, about their bodies, but also about things like this, about their profession.

But, yes, midwives, particularly in ancient Rome, were respected and were thought of as professionals who did a specific job and had specific skills related to that. And we have lots of evidence of these midwives from that period.

SR: What other scientific fields were there in antiquity where you often found women?

LM: One of the problems with looking at participation of anybody in antiquity is a lack of records in general for both women and men. And to the extent that records were kept, that they were largely written by men. So we have a bunch of layers to get through in order to kind of uncover what women and even men were exactly doing in the big umbrella term of what we would call science, but we do have evidence of like, say, mentioned in the book and that a lot of people knew about Hypatia, who was involved in mathematics and natural philosophy, which is the closest thing to what we understand as science in the ancient period.

And we also have evidence that there were women who were at least skilled in identifying astronomical phenomena as far as keeping track of eclipses and things like that.

But as far as what they were actually practising, that could mirror something that we call astronomy today – it’s really hard to find that evidence. But we do have evidence that women were doing these things in some capacity.

SR: There were people like Hildegard of Bingen who, well, we wouldn’t think of it as science now. She. Well, she was a religious figure, but, well, you still mention her as someone who studied science in some sense. So could you could you talk a bit about Hildegard of Bingen and what she studied and what she did?

LM: Hildegard is an incredibly interesting figure. She claimed that her understanding of the cosmos, she laid out a her own cosmological system in Scivias that was written in three parts and it was also illuminated. So it had the really lovely images that we associate with mediaeval manuscripts.

And she claimed that she received her image of the cosmos through union with God; that these came to her through visions that she started having when she was a child. She didn’t start recording or directing her visions until she was much older. But this was something that not only gave her the ability to write this wonderful manuscript, but it was also something that gave her cultural capital in the Church.

It allowed her to rise through the ranks of the church and to make demands of the pope and have those demands met because her she was seen as such a divine figure. And her cosmological system, in a sense, differs from other cosmological systems of this time, because she did conceive of it in a very specific, feminine way. The image of it looks like an egg on fire, of our Universe, of an egg on fire. And it is a very… It looks very much like a vulva.

And so there’s been a lot of kind of historic feminist historical analysis of this that says this is a specifically feminine envisioning of the cosmos, and that makes this different than other cosmological systems at the time. And in addition to that, which we don’t go a whole lot into in the book, because that chapter was focussed on the cosmos and astronomy. But she also wrote a medical text as well. She was very much a polymath.

She also created music of her own and composed. So she was very much into understanding nature, understanding the cosmos through her cosmological system, but also music and then understanding nature through her medical texts. So she was an incredibly interesting figure for sure.

SR: I thought it was really interesting in your book that you referred to her as a cosmologist, because as I’ve studied cosmology before, I would think of it as the whole field as having been invented very, very recently. But I suppose anyone who had a conception of what the Universe as a whole is and what it was like, you could call it a cosmologist.

LM: Yeah, I think our understanding of the cosmos has just gotten so much bigger that we just understand how much of a larger place the cosmos is now makes it seem like there’s so much more to explore and think about. But even back then, even if their physical understanding of the cosmos was a lot smaller, they were still thinking about, like, where did it come from? How did it come to be, what does it look like? What is our place in it? What else is out there? Where do the angels sit out there?

Those are all cosmological questions, even if they’re not the same cosmological questions that we’ve evolved with today.

SR: But astronomy in general seems to be an area where a lot of a lot of women in the history of science have done a lot of work, and that often seems to be women who were the wives or the sisters of prominent astronomers. And that’s how they sort of got into the field and ended up doing their own work. Why is that?

AR: Well, for I would say most of recorded history, that’s the only way that women had into those fields. So if we’re talking about someone like Caroline Herschel, whose brother William was an astronomer, he needed a housekeeper and he also wanted to get Caroline out of a kind of bad situation in Germany, so he brought her to England to work in his house and he just sort of enlisted her to be his assistant, kind of without her permission, really. But part of the reason that this is Caroline’s entry into astronomy is because in this period, it’s not like you go to work at one big observatory with all your colleagues.

William had his own observatory at their house in Bath. And all of that is very expensive: to buy telescopes and to maintain them. Obviously, the Herschels are an upper middle class family, upper class family. They have plenty of family wealth and all that stuff. But that’s not something that the women in the family have independent access to. So in order for her to have an observatory to work in, she worked in William’s Observatory.

Um, and then also what we talked about sort of at the beginning about these institutional spaces where women are not allowed. So your Royal Society, your Royal Astronomical Society, these bodies don’t permit women.

Later, Caroline was actually inducted as an honorary member right into the Royal Astronomical Society, um, but it wasn’t like she was allowed to go there and participate in the same way that men were. You know, she wasn’t really allowed to go give a lecture or anything like that. So in order for women to participate or at least get close to these formalised, institutionalised spaces for science, usually you do it through a man who is connected to that.

 So oftentimes that’s your husband or in Caroline’s case, it’s your brother. Another very famous historical well, I don’t know if they’re very famous. They have aliases where a husband and wife team of astronomers and kind of the similar situation they had, they’re really well outfitted home observatory. But that’s the reason for that, is just that women are not permitted in the formal spaces of science. And so in order to get anywhere near them, you have to go through a man, basically.

LM: And I think it’s important to point out with Hevelius, that, too, you have to be kind of well-off, class-wise to enter into a marriage with a man who could afford to build an observatory on top of his house. So this is very much a gendered field. It’s also a very classed one as well, because you’re not going to find a poorer working class woman marrying into this type of marriage that has the money to outfit their home like that.

SR: So how common do you think it was that prominent men in science, particularly astronomers, had a sort of female counterpart to help them out and did their own contributions to the work?

LM: I think it’s a lot more than we have record of. The reason that we know about Caroline and Elisabeth Hevelius, you know, her husband gave her credit a little bit in the work. So we actually have a written record of that same thing with Marie-Anne Lavoisier, that they left their footprint in history a little bit, but, you know, they weren’t really publishing on their own.

So we’re able to know about them because of what men said about them for the most part. So that, I think, brings into question how many women were doing this work where their husbands didn’t credit them, because that also wasn’t very usual for men to do that. It was expected that women would be doing the help and the men would be the ones publishing.

Whatever work women were doing behind the scenes often has been subsumed by their husband’s work. And they have become kind of. Invisible in the historical record, so we do have plenty of evidence that wives and sisters and we’re doing this work, but I do think that it was a lot more than we actually have a record of just because it was expected.

SR: We’ve talked for the most part about European history. Is there any notable period of time, period or place outside of Europe where women had a particularly respected role in some sort of scientific field?

AR: So, you know, just with the caveat that neither of us are specialists in ancient China or China in general, but yeah, there are a lot records of women participating in medical practise in ancient China.

Like we’ve said with some of these other examples, a lot of what we know about this comes from things that men wrote about women. And so, again, you do have to kind of filter through these sources and kind of read between the lines. But yeah, we have good records of medical practice in China.

Like Leila said, women cared for women, and so in Chinese medicine, there is a particular branch of medicine that is dedicated to women. And so, there are women practitioners who take care of these complaints of women in particular, you know, complaints with childbirth and sex and things like that, because it’s not appropriate for male doctors to take care of that. So, you know.

One of the fascinating things that I found in reading about this is that there are these kind of mythologised figures of “grannies” that are these women medical practitioners like herb sellers. And there are a few different types.

But they’ve been kind of like in these writings by men about them. They’re like cautionary writings about the kinds of like wily women, medical practitioners that you should avoid because they’re like tricksters and they will do scams on you and sell you things that don’t work.

But in reading more about this history, one of the things that historians are trying to do is read through these kind of caricatures and stereotypes and read these as: there’s still evidence of woman medical practitioners, if men were worried enough about them to write them down, they existed. People knew about them. They were, you know, figures in public life that you would encounter.

And so reading through the record that way is a really important way to kind of recapture this stuff. And so, you know, you take the you take the stories about these medical grannies, you know, with a grain of salt. And you can kind of start to unfold this picture of like an economy of women, medical practitioners who are going around making medicines. You know, there were stories about grannies who were called to the imperial court to take care of, like the concubines.

The further back you go in time, the more of this kind of work you have to do to kind of unpick this history from these myths and these stories and these kind of cultural practices.

LM: And this idea of women taking care of women is something that even if it does seem kind of, you know, sexist in the sense that women can only take care of women and that it’s it’s less than for men to stoop to the level of taking care of women, it was kind of that tradition that allowed women an entry into the modern, institutionalised practise of becoming physicians.

One of the things that Anna had mentioned was that women’s medical college in Pennsylvania, they accepted students from Japan, from India, from Native American communities. And they all – not all, but a lot of them – went and studied women’s medicine, gynaecology and obstetrics, because there was a need for that in the communities that they were coming from in their own countries because men weren’t doing a great job taking care of women. And so you have these, quote unquote, lady physicians or lady doctors, as they called themselves during that time, stepping up to say: you’re not going to take care of women. We will continue to take care of women and we’re going to become professionals in that sense.

And we have this long tradition of women taking care of women, and that became like an actual argument to become licenced physicians. So I think it’s important to just underline that while that kind of seems like a way to subjugate women, it became a way for women to get their professional licence in the 19th and 20th Centuries to become actual professional physicians as well.

SR: OK, thank you Leila. And so I just like to wrap up now by talking about your favourite, lesser-known women in science history that you either wrote about in this book or that you discovered in your research of this book.

Mine, I think, is Nicole-Reine Lepaute. She was an astronomer and she was of drafted in to help to calculate when Halley’s comet would return, which is a very difficult thing to do because it depended on a lot of very new mathematics. And you had to work out how the gravitational pull of both Jupiter and Saturn would affect it. And that’s not an easy thing to do. That would still be a difficult thing to do today. And so while Edmund Halley’s own calculations were out by about a year, Lepaute managed to get it to within about two days. She was only about two days out, which is absolutely amazing. So I’m now a big fan of her.

So, Leila, who is your favourite woman in science history?

LM: She was definitely one of my favourites of that time period to write about, I think.

I think one of my favourites is Zelia Nuttall. She was an archaeologist and anthropologist, she was Mexican-American and she ended up she was born in San Francisco and she travelled through Europe and she took one trip to Mexico and was like, nope, this is what I this is what I want to do and this is what I want to learn about.

Having roots in Mexico, she felt it was very important to produce archaeology and anthropology, not just about Mexicans, but for Mexicans, which was a very different way that Americans and Europeans were studying ancient Mexico, where you had a bunch of salacious narratives about savages and human sacrifice and things like that, and while Nuttall recognised that those things did happen in certain parts of ancient Mexico, she does blame the colonisers of Europe of kind of conflating those stories to justify the colonisation of ancient Mexican peoples.

So she what she tries to do is kind of rehabilitate ancient Mexican traditions and rituals that modern-day Mexicans can continue to celebrate. And she actually succeeds in a lot of ways. And I found that her story was a really important one because she didn’t, like, discover a pyramid or excavate mummy sites or whatever. What she did was more of a cultural shift in the way that we look at the history of archaeology, in the way that we look at Mexico and the history of Mexico in particular.

SR: OK, thank you. So, Anna, who is your favourite, lesser-known woman in science history?

AR: OK, well, I’m going to give you the annoying answer, which is that it’s not one woman. But I think the thing that’s been really formative for me in thinking about this book is how we categorise different types of scientific labour and what kind of labour counts as scientific labour.

So I will say that my favourite women in science are all of the secretaries and clerical workers of the space programme in the 1960s, which is what I study on my own time. But most of the clerical work of the space programme was done by women. And we don’t know very much about these women, in terms of names and stuff, even though this happened in the mid 20th Century, but we do have like a lot of representations of the clerical workers at NASA that are very similar to what you would see at any kind of mid-century sort of Mad Men-eqsue feel to you the way that women in clerical positions are represented as sometimes sex symbols and like a nice thing to have in the office to look at.

There’s a lot of that stuff with NASA and sort of getting into looking at those images and thinking about the role of these women in the space programme. You know, I found a really great source from a local newspaper close to Kennedy Space Centre, which is in Florida, that interviewed a bunch of women who worked at NASA who had full-time jobs at NASA and asked them how they thought women could contribute to the space programme. “I work here!”

Yeah. So one of the things that I think is really important to me in looking at this history and what we sort of talked about at the very beginning, about not looking where men are, but looking where women are, is to not only look for labour that we see as like inherently technical or inherently scientific. So we know much more about the women at NASA who were engineers or who had scientific backgrounds.

But in what way are the women who are doing clerical work for the space programme, not participating in the technical labour of the space programme? And so that’s one of those things that I want us to think about more is how we can kind of switch our thinking around about that because it really changed the way that I saw that history.

SR: Thank you for listening to this episode of the Science Focus Podcast. That was Anna Reser and Leila McNeill talking about the ordinary women in science history. Their book, Forces of Nature, is out on 20 April.

If you liked this episode, head over to the HistoryExtra podcast to hear a panel of experts discussing the biggest questions in women’s history. Find it in the HistoryExtra podcast feed, wherever you get your podcasts.

The February issue of BBC Science Focus Magazine is out now. In this issue, we explore how your brain creates reality, we look into the baffling science of dark boson stars, and, as always, our panel of experts answer your questions. Of course, there’s much more inside, and on sciencefocus.com.


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