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The Hidden History of Women in Science

by Julie Des Jardins

Pub Date: March 1st, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-55861-613-4
Publisher: Feminist Press

How women have shaped science and vice versa.

Since the early 1900s, Marie Curie (1867–1934), a two-time winner of the Nobel Prize, has been an inspiration for women who aspire to become scientists. Des Jardins (History/Baruch Coll.; Women and the Historical Enterprise in America: Gender, Race, and the Politics of Memory, 1880–1945, 2002) deconstructs the myth of a woman who was apparently “achieving it all: marriage, family, and career,” and setting the standard: “To succeed in men’s fields, women couldn’t be themselves; they had to perform better than men.” The author examines the lives of Maria Goeppert Mayer (1906–1972), winner of the Nobel for discovering the shell structure of the nucleus, and Rosalind Franklin (1920–1958), whose seminal work on the structure of DNA anticipated Crick and Watson’s “discovery” of the double helix but was largely overlooked. While opportunities for women holding doctorates in science increased during World War II, in its aftermath “the ratios of women to men [employed] in math and physical sciences plummeted to one in twenty-five.” Married women who successfully forged careers were expected to make a superhuman effort, while accepting their subordinate role to men, both in the home and in the lab. Rosalyn Sussman Yalow—the winner of the 1977 Nobel in Physiology or Medicine who was dubbed “a Madam Curie from the Bronx” for her groundbreaking work on radioactive tracers—appeared to subordinate herself to physician Sol Berson, her partner until his death in 1972. She deliberately scripted her behavior to accord to the accepted portrait of Marie Curie as the “doer” and her husband Pierre as the “thinker.” In her Nobel speech, Yalow spoke about how sexism in science was an obstacle for women to rise above, but she failed to challenge the basic presumptions of sexist science. Des Jardins juxtaposes Yalow’s failure with the crucial role played by such luminaries as environmentalist Rachel Carson, primatologist Jane Goodall and biologist Barbara McClintock.

A solid combination of a feminist critique and a fascinating discussion of the progression of 20th- and 21st-century science.