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Margaret Rossiter and the Matilda Effect

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This blog post is authored by Tomoko Y. Steen, Ph.D., Research Specialist in the Science Section.

Women scientists: standing: Miss Nellie A. Brown; L to R: Miss Lucia McCollock, Miss Mary K. Bryan, Miss Florence Hedges, National Photograph Company Collection, 1910-1920. Prints and Photographs Division.

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.

Miss Maria Mitchell, professor of astronomy, ca 1875.

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:

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.

Learn More:

Works by Margaret W. Rossiter

Inside Adams blog posts on women

Woman Inventors and Discoverers Reference Guide

Women in Science webcast

Women in STEM Careers webcast

Women in Science and Engineering webcast

Women in Planetary Science  and Women in Astronomy archived blogs


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