What if the first woman scientist was simply the first woman?
BY HOPE JAHREN
There exists a social hierarchy within science that strikes people who are not mixed up in it as ridiculous. It goes like this: Mathematicians are superior to Physicists, who are, in turn, superior to Chemists, who are of course, superior to Biologists. There’s also a pecking order within each of these disciplines. Take biology, for example: Geneticists are superior to Biochemists, who are superior to Ecologists. The system breaks down when we come to sociology, psychology, and anthropology and devolves into a debate as to whether the social sciences are really Sciences after all.
Scientists arguing about whether a science qualifies as Science is more common than you might think. Zoom in, and you’ll see scientists arguing about who does (and doesn’t) qualify as a Scientist. Within the last five decades or so, it is generally accepted that more and more women have become Scientists, which implies that if we look back in time, there were fewer and fewer. This ultimately begs the question: Who was the first Woman Scientist?
By then I was myself a mother and still questioning whether I was a Scientist, or if I ever really could be.
Was it Marie Curie? She discovered the element radium, and later polonium, near the end of the 19th century. Does she count? After all, she viewed herself as more of an Artist: “The scientific history of radium is beautiful. And this is proof that scientific work must be done for itself, for the beauty of science,” she wrote in 1921.
Was it Émilie du Châtelet? She formulated the existence of infrared energy. Does she count? She apologized often for not knowing how to say what she wanted to say. “I use everyday words here in contravention with propriety but cannot avoid the too-frequent return of the same word because, technically, there are both things and not-things that we call Fire,” reads a footnote on the very first page of her dissertation, written in 1758.
Was it Hypatia of Alexandria? She developed the mathematical technique of long division, which was cutting-technology during the fifth century A.D. Does she count? Hypatia taught men of great influence and highest government, and was eventually stripped, stoned, torn to pieces, and burnt to ashes for her trouble. Suidas, the 10th-century author of the first encyclopedia, devoted most of Hypatia’s entry to the debate over whether she died a virgin.
Was it the Neanderthal female whose name has been lost to time? Who collected herbs and berries and could distinguish East from West, ripe from rotten, medicine from poison? Does she count? She didn’t publish her results but we do have her bones, and we use them to argue over her “cognitive capacities” in the pages of Nature.
Scientists arguing about whether a science qualifies as Science is more common than you might think.
I’ve been told, more times than I can count, that these women shouldn’t count. That Marie Curie was mostly following her husband’s lead. That Émilie du Châtelet was a party-girl who slept with Voltaire and had a knack for translation. That Hypatia’s father Theon (or her brother Epiphanius, or the bishop of Ptolemais, or …) was the original author of her work. That I am prone to anthropomorphizing trees and seeds and Neanderthals. That my personal agenda makes me see Science everywhere, even in the places where it’s not.
But certain questions still nag me. Now that I’ve learned and practiced both, why doesn’t cooking count as chemistry? Why doesn’t sewing count as geometry? Is gardening so different from botany? Does budgeting not involve math? Were my four grandmothers scientists, the ones who produced enough from too little, refining their techniques as they went along, working and working, in between babies, in between wars, in between being born and being dead?
Why doesn’t their laborious trial and error, across generations, involving known and unknown materials, practices, procedures count as the scientific method? Because it produced only food, clothing, shelter, babies and love, and not publications?
What if the first woman scientist was simply the first woman? Was it Eve herself? Was she an horticultural ophiologist? An experimental theologist? Does she count? No, she was just a stolen rib, a spare part. She was born to be a helpmeet, to supply what the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air could not, in sorrow and pain. She was to be ruled over. She was to be cleaved to. And in the end, she was excluded…