Science of the Marginalized: Women in the Age of Scientific Authority

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries have witnessed a transformation in the status of scientific authority. With authority comes power, and with power comes the ability to dictate what is inside the realm of value and acceptability and what lies outside of that constructed space. When scientific disciplines and the respected members of those disciplines began to gain cohesion and recognizable authority, they began to make distinctions between what and who was and was not a part of their research programs and acceptable practices. Members of the scientific community especially susceptible to exclusion were (and are) those who had historically been viewed as outsiders — the most studied groups being women and people of color.[1] In this essay, I will examine how this systematic marginalization at various points in science’s ascension to greater and greater political, cultural, and intellectual authority has changed the way that women have practiced science, paying special attention to how the subjects of study and questions asked by female scientists are centered around different issues than their male colleagues. A similar study on African American science would be equally valuable but would extend the breadth of this essay beyond what I can reasonably discuss.

Maria Mitchell’s successful career as an astronomer spanned the middle third of the nineteenth century and provides an excellent point of departure. Born in 1818, her training and early work took place in the context of a scientific community still quite fragmented; the big names that would contribute to science’s nineteenth century prestige — Charles Darwin, James Clark Maxwell, Michael Faraday, Louis Pasteur — were a development of mid-century. As her biographer Renée Bergland argues, Mitchell established herself as a scientist at a time when “studying science was ‘womanly,’ safely outside the potentially dangerous ideological realms of law or history or theology.”[2]

Lack of ideological authority placed science in a space that, at the time, was acceptable for females to interact within, and Mitchell’s science reflected her acceptance into the community. Like her male colleagues, she scanned the night sky for comets and made her entrance into the astronomical discourse with her discovery of one in 1847.[3] She was given credit for it and felt that she could become “a woman scientist… who could chart out her own course of research,” unlike her heroine Caroline Herschel who constantly diverted credit to her brother.[4] She acquired a job as the computer of Venus and published her astronomical work in various journals.[5] Mitchell was thus a scientist in her own rite, asking her own questions that reflected her relatively secure position within the discipline of astronomy. She needed neither to justify her participation in knowledge-production nor rely on a man’s help to solidify her position in the community.

Major changes were soon to alter the situation for women in science, however. Around the 1860s, America was professionalizing on many fronts, and science too felt this pull. With their newfound authority, professional scientists began to relocate the practice of science to the university — an institution from which women were usually excluded.[6] They also began to construct a view of the scientist that was uniquely male in order to further assert their professional authority. Women practitioners, they thought, would weaken their professional image.[7] Authority, institutionalization, and increased disciplinary cohesion (brought on by advances in theory and methodology) thus gave a particular class of scientist — advantaged by their social and economic position — the power to create spaces of exclusion that left whole sections of the community outside of scientific discourse. This would have profound implications for female scientists and their work in the twentieth century.

One such scientist was Helen Thompson Woolley. Born in 1874, she would face a far different scientific environment than Maria Mitchell. She graduated with a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago before beginning her research on sex differences; her thesis “compared the performance of 25 men and 25 women on motor, sensory and intellectual tests,” and her subsequent research and reviews centered on the same issues surrounding gender differentials in mental capacities.[8] Her frustration with contemporary scholarship on sex differences is evident in Psychological Literature: A Review of the Recent Literature on the Psychology of Sex, where she reviews recent work and, in a powerful and convincing conclusion, repudiates scientifically many of the arguments made by male scientists for why females do not belong in their profession. “There is perhaps no field aspiring to be scientific where flagrant personal bias, logic martyred in the cause of supporting prejudice, unfounded assertions, and even sentimental rot and drivel, have run riot to such an extent as here,” she states in a particularly ardent passage.

Woolley was fighting against the current that was sweeping many of her female colleagues out of science and into domesticity, and her research reflects her tenuous position. She chose to pursue issues related to her gender’s capacity to reason, and by extent to participate in knowledge-creation. Instead of engaging with other lines of inquiry in her field at the time, Woolley chose to hone in on one in which she had a vested interest; the scientific community’s consensus on whether females were intellectually on par with men would have a direct effect on Woolley’s ability to assert her own authority within her discipline. Therefore, because of the authoritative exclusion of her gender from science, Woolley’s research took on a very particular identity — one connected to her identification as a marginalized professional scientist and one based on legitimizing her participation in scientific discourse.

We have now seen how two female scientists’ work differed before and after the marked rise of scientific authority. Maria Mitchell pursued her own interests, relatively unaffected by her role as a female scientist. Helen Thompson Woolley, on the other hand, pursued a research program that attempted to authorize her participation in science; her identity as a woman in science played a central role in her research interests. As the twentieth century wore on, the situation for women in science improved only marginally. Two more scientists’ work will now elucidate how scientific authority has continued to marginalize women and thus inform their research agendas.

Margaret W. Conkey and Janet D. Spector founded a new field in archaeology — the archeology of gender — in 1984 with a groundbreaking article. In it, they highlighted the propensity for archeologists to make gendered assumptions about past populations. Conkey and Spector found that archeologists maintained gender biases when interpreting symbolism and explaining divisions of labor and social hierarchies, and their solution was to begin “a systematic program of feminist research on questions about women and gender.”[9] While it took seven years for anyone to act on their criticism, conferences began to proliferate in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Alison Wylie links the increasing interest in feminist archeology to “a parallel, and, in most areas, antecedent interest in questions about the roles, status, and contributions of women in archeology.”[10]
In this late twentieth century scenario, female archeologists drew attention to the gender biases rampant in their field. This kind of research was different from Helen Woolley’s in that it did not attempt to legitimize the female in general as a potential authority within a discipline; while female archeologists still suffer from unequal treatment in academia, they had at least affirmed their right to be there (more or less) by the 1980s. Conkey and Spector did, however, wage war against the gender biases still inherent in archeological analytical techniques, pointing out that contemporary methodologies were problematic. Perhaps they pursued these research interests because, as women within a scientific framework that was still masculinized in method, they remained outsiders. The authority of male archeologists, so ingrained in the profession, was still implicit in the way that archeology is practiced. While the role of women in science has improved overall, the barriers to equitably assigned intellectual value have remained strong, though often implicit.

Thus, while scientific authority has come with many benefits, it has also provided the impetus for marginalizing some with effects on the kinds of research they conduct. While I by no means am attempting to make the deterministic argument that all women in science have conducted gender-influenced research — that would be over-simplistic — I am, however, asserting that scientists’ work is profoundly impacted by the socio-scientific environment in which they practice, and the marginalization that has resulted from centralized scientific authority has had implications for some women’s work. I think this idea could be further researched and expanded to include other groups on the fringes; perhaps a comparison of the work produced by scientists occupying different positions in the institutional hierarchy would prove fruitful. In any case, as we have seen, different levels of authority from various time periods have produced distinct research agendas. For women scientists, mounting scientific authority has not always resulted in their work being taken more seriously, and it has left a distinctive mark on their research.

[1] By studied, I mean in the discipline of the history of science. These are two obvious examples, but the list goes on and on: those with disabilities, with alternative religious orientations (even as science’s power was eclipsing that of religion), homosexuals (i.e., Alan Turing), foreigners (some more threatening than others), etc.

[2] Renée Bergland, Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008), xvi.

[3] Ibid, 53.

[4] Ibid, 114.

[5] Ibid, 155.

[6]Ibid, 156-157.

[7] Renée Bergland, Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science, 174.

[8] Katharine S. Milar, “An Historical View of Some Early Women Psychologists and the Psychology of Women,” Classics in the History of Psychology Special Collections, accessed November 18, 2016,

[9] Alison Wylie, “Doing Social Science as a Feminist: The Engendering of Archaeology,” in Feminism in Twentieth-Century Science, Technology and Medicine, eds. Angela Creager, Elizabeth Lunbeck, and Londa Schiebinger (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 24.

[10] Ibid, 25.

Routes of Power

Routes of Power: Energy and Modern America, Christopher F. Jones

            In his study of shifting power regimes in industrializing America, Christopher Jones emphasizes the importance of transportation networks in the formation of an “energy-intensive world.” Jones covers the time period from 1820, when citizens garnered their energy in an organic way (using primarily plants, falling water, and wind, all derivatives of solar energy), through to 1930, when the transition to a mineral-based energy was completed (coal, oil, and electricity covering most of Americans’ energy needs). The effects of such a transition are highlighted and include the proliferation of larger cities with concentrated industrial output, energy’s correlation with cost instead of labor, and communities’ differing degrees of inauguration into the new energy regime with various consequences. In each chapter, the author emphasizes transportation networks — canals, railroads, pipelines, and wires — and their role in creating “landscapes of intensification” that created the demand that would sustain the transformation from an organic to a mineral energy regime.

Both Christopher Jones and David Nye in America as Second Creation discussed the role of the booster in garnering support for the usage of new technologies; these men obviously played a major role in encouraging the usage and the overall proliferation of novel technological feats. I find their presence often in works dealing with medical speculation as well, such as James Harvey Young’s Toadstool Millionaires, which discusses the rise of patent medicines in nineteenth century America. I wonder if there have been any studies of these men; what motivated them, and were they a uniquely nineteenth century phenomenon? They probably maintained a relatively precarious existence, because new technologies harbored grave risks for investors (and those touting their benefits) if a society did not see their value. What about the nineteenth century made these men so visible, and how did they influence the course of American industrialization? Was their participation needed, even inevitable?

I also found it fascinating how influential seemingly unrelated historico-political factors were in the inauguration of certain technologies into common usage. Susan B. Pritchard’s Confluence analyzes how the techno-manipulation of the Rhône was discussed in a nationalistic, conquering language, and how its goals reflected France’s attempts to legitimize itself after a humiliating defeat at the hands of its rivals. Similarly, the way that canals were built in America was influenced by the way that Americans saw themselves at the time; large-scale federal governmental involvement was discouraged at a time when republicanism dominated. Investors, then, and state charters decided the course and language of construction. Technology, both authors’ books discuss, is affected by social and political factors, just as it has effects on both.

Something I found particularly interesting was the way that mass commodification and physical distance between sites of energy production and sites of energy consumption has affected people’s relationship with energy. No longer something that must be earned through hard labor, energy can be purchased; this has changed the way that people use energy. This distance between production and consumption, I think, was a product of industrialization and mass production and can be seen in many other aspects of society. Medical knowledge, for example, has been standardized and delegated to a certain class of people, and most patients do not care to look into the technicalities of their diseases. They leave their lives completely in a doctor’s hands. The distance between the producer of medical knowledge, the doctor, and the consumer, the patient, has increased as the language of disease has become more technical and the technologies of diagnostics more specialized. Before medicine had been commodified and, more importantly, standardized, people played a much more active role in their health decisions. The commodification and standardization of energy consumption has had similar effects; people delegate their energy needs to others to the extent that they know almost nothing about its production. Commodification and standardization, then, create distance between producers and consumers. I wonder what sorts of ramifications this has, and especially what sorts of exploitation has resulted from it.


Visible Empire: Botanical Expeditions & Visual Culture in the Hispanic Enlightenment, Daniela Bleichmar

            Author Daniela Bleichmar bases her study of Hispanic botanical expeditions around the images created during them in order to analyze the place of illustration in the Enlightenment natural philosophical era. Through these images, Bleichmar elucidates the motivations behind their production (to exploit natural colonial resources and make colonial flora “mobile”), their place in and exemplification of the international botanical network, and what they said (and did not say) about the places from whence they came. Bleichmar also takes the opportunity the images provide to discuss and analyze Hispanic colonial changes in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries and the economic motivations for botanizing expeditions. Underlying her entire analysis is an insistence and explanation of the importance of visual epistemologies in Enlightenment science, especially in the Spanish Empire. 

The Image of Objectivity, Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison

            In a survey of atlases of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries, authors Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison trace changing ideas in the scientific community about visual representations of natural phenomena. The predominate methods of representation in the nineteenth-century concerned themselves with being “true to nature.” Experts who put together the atlases were supposed to, with their professional knowledge of a subject, use their judgment to create images that would be representative of natural things. A different view, a mechanical objectivity, began developing mid-century and stressed instead the importance of ridding scientific representations of their human components, or subjectivity. Judgment on the part of even professional scientists was viewed as immoral; professional scientists were expected to refrain from inserting themselves into their objective representations of natural phenomena. This mentality propelled imaging machines to the forefront of representational technology, especially the camera, and encouraged publication in atlases of multiple images of the same thing, so that the burden of representation was transferred to the audience.

The role of visual epistemologies was also addressed in Daniel Margoscy’s Commercial Visions. The standards for anatomical representations — the way that different anatomists vied for various methods of representation as superior — stands in stark contrast to the homogeneity in opinion about the hierarchy of botanical representations. At least as Bleichmar presents it, most naturalists were in agreement that visual representations were better than textual or physical renditions of plants. That being said, the goal of a representative, ideally easily reproducible representation was common to both anatomists and botanists. The goal of classification, such a powerful component of Enlightenment natural philosophy, deemed the standardization of nature necessary.

The role of the artist was addressed in both Visible Empire and The Image of Objectivity, and both works depicted the relationship between artist and scientist as a contentious one in some respects. The implied subjectivity of the artist was a source of tension, as was their propensity for creative license. Scientists felt the need to very literally look over their shoulders as they attempted to conform to the scientists’ particular definition of “objective.” What Galison and Daston and Bleichmar stress, however, is that standards of objectivity were quite subjective themselves. The leaving out of parts of plants, for example, was common practice in colonial Spanish scientific representations of colonial flora. These representations were also selective in that they portrayed only the plant, even simply parts of the plant, and left out their surroundings completely. Additionally, as Daston and Galison highlight, standards for objectivity in representation have changed over time, indicating further their transitory nature. It seems that the very subjectivity scientists were attempting to eliminate from their representations was present nonetheless, inherent in the selectivity scientists imposed upon the subjective artists they employed.