This blog post is authored by Tomoko Y. Steen, Ph.D., Research Specialist in the Science Section.
Why Were There So Few Biographies on Female Scientists?
Margaret Rossiter, who coined the term, the “Matilda Effect,” had a good answer. The term refers to the systematic suppression of the contributions of female scientists to research and the frequent crediting of their work to their male colleagues. Rossiter, Cornell University’s pioneering historian of women in science, said that because there are not sufficient historians of science who are willing to write about female scientists, literature on female scientists and their contributions is lacking. Rossiter remarked that there have been few female historians of science, and even if female scientists were successful during their careers, they were often invisible to male historians of science. Additionally, women were not allowed to study in many of the leading science programs, to take up science careers, or to join science societies up to the early 1800s. The exception, of course, is Marie Curie. Historians wrote about her because she won two Nobel prizes, for physics in 1903 and for chemistry in 1911, and thus, she became internationally recognized.
The Library of Congress is a treasure trove for many original and rare materials, invaluable for writing biographies of women in science. For example, the Library has substantial collections on Maria Mitchell, who was an American astronomer, a naturalist, and a university professor. She discovered the comet “1847 VI” and it was later named “Miss Mitchell’s Comet” to honor her discovery. In 1848, Mitchell received a gold medal from King Christian VII of Denmark. She was also one of the first female scientists to work both as an astronomer and as a professor of astronomy at Vassar College. The Library houses a variety of materials on Maria Mitchell including: Maria Mitchell note, “Maria Mitchell Correspondence” in United States Naval Observatory records, 1830-1900 , various publications from the Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association, the architectural drawings of Maria Mitchell Observatory in the Prints and Photograph Division, and rare biographical materials on Maria Mitchell such as the, Life and Work of Maria Mitchell, L.L.D. in the Library’s Rare Books and Special Collections.
The Library’s collection that document women in science and related fields can be found in a variety of formats, such as manuscripts, rare books, serials, photographs, sound recordings, and motion pictures. Here are a few examples of manuscript collections of notable women:
- Clara Barton papers, 1805-1958
- Margaret Mead papers and South Pacific Ethnographic Archives, 1838-1996
- Margaret Sanger Papers, 1900-1966
If you are interested in learning more about historical science and technology collections, the Science, Technology and Business Division has a class to help researchers navigate historical science collections at the Library of Congress: “Beyond the Basics, Discovering Historical Science Collections at the Library of congress.” The classes are available on a monthly basis and can be registered on Eventbrite.
Works by Margaret W. Rossiter
- “The Matthew/Matilda Effect in Science.” Social Studies of Science, London, 23 (2): 325–341.
- Women Scientists in America: Forging a New World Since 1972 (c2012)
- Catching Up with the Vision: Essays on the Occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Founding of the History of Science Society (c1999)
- Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940 (c1982)
Women in Science webcast
Women in STEM Careers webcast
Women in Science and Engineering webcast
Do you want more stories like this? Subscribe to Inside Adams — it’s free!