Ada Lovelace Day

Ada_Lovelace_colorAda Lovelace day is this year (2013) celebrated on October the 15th. It’s a day to celebrate to contributions made to STEM fields by women because, let’s face it, men have done rather well in this patriarchal, misogynistic world so far and women have largely been ignored, despite their efforts. On this day, bloggers and writers all get together to write a post on a woman who inspires them in STEM fields, or to raise the profile of a single woman, or women in general, who they think deserves greater recognition. I’ll be contributing this year, mainly because some damn fool allowed me to write stuff on the internet, and also because I’m a feminist (yes, I know I’m a man) who thinks women get a crappy deal, especially in science history.

Before you get started, WTF is STEM?

Ah, good question. STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics; a catch-all term for any field in which those subjects are used a lot. It’s also the field in which women, whilst representing a significant portion of those involved, have traditionally been overlooked in the history books in favour of the guys.

 

Why is that?

That’s a complex issue, and not one I’m going to get involved with here (blame the Minoans for getting wiped out by Thera erupting and letting the pesky Hitties setting the tone for civilisation in the West). Simply put; because our society is patriarchal in nature, even when women have contributed to their field, it’s been the man who’s received the recognition, usually because the organisations responsible for the accolades bar women from entry or some due to some other foolish rule. From Marie Curie to Rosalind Franklin, the sexist nature of academia in the past has barred women from true recognition in their fields and it’s only now, in our post-feminist world, that we’re officially (and retroactively) bringing the contributions of women to the fore.

 

So who are you going to write about?

No-one. Well, no one in particular. My concern is a little off-topic, but still comes under the broad heading of women being under-represented in STEM fields. It all began with Charles Darwin, or more precisely, no more Charles Darwin. Since 2000, the back of the £10 note has featured possibly the most famous British scientist of all time after Newton; Darwin. However, the Bank of England, to reduce the amount of forgery that goes on, replaces the images on bank notes about every ten to fifteen years and announced that it would be replacing the prison reformer and all-round Victorian stalwart, Elizabeth Fry, with brilliantly rhetorical and courageous, but ineffective in peacetime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. This would mean that, for the first time since 1994, there would be no women on British bank notes (well, apart from the Queen, who doesn’t count). There was a little bit of an outcry from a fair number of people that about 50% of the population wouldn’t be represented and, after a discussion, the Bank of England announced that Charles Darwin, when his time came, would be replaced by a woman; Jane Austen. (The amount of abuse and misogyny directed at the leaders of that outcry is another story.)

My problem here is that whilst Jane Austen undoubtedly made a significant contribution to the field of dramatical fiction, and the BBC and ITV would be stuck for ideas for Sunday evening mini-series had she not written her books, they’ve replaced someone whose ideas re-shaped the way we think about the world with someone who, let’s be honest, most people care little for and have probably never read. I agree entirely that a woman should be represented on a bank note, but why Jane Austen? To replace Darwin, a hugely respected scientist, with an author of books purely because she’s a woman, is demeaning to women in general and speaks of the patriarchal attitude still prevalent in the upper reaches of Britain. With the placing of Churchill, Austen and Smith on the bank notes, it’s almost as if the decision on who to have was made by someone re-living the days of their 1950’s schooling.

Given the serious lack of recognition towards women in STEM fields, this would have been an ideal opportunity to give some kudos to one of the many women who’ve made a real and lasting contribution to how we see the world. Instead we have a woman who, whilst gifted and talented, everyone knows about.

 

Like who? Jane Austen is pretty impressive.

Okay then…

Caroline Herschel (1750-1848): The first woman to get paid for scientific work. Between 1786 and 1797 she discovered eight comets, as well as discovering fourteen nebulae, began a catalogue for star clusters and nebulae patches, and compiled a supplemental catalogue to Flamsteeds Atlas which included 561 stars with a comprehensive index. She mastered algebra and formulae for calculation and conversion as a basis for observing the stars and managing astronomical distances.

Mary Somerville (1780-1872): Wrote the first paper by a woman to be read to the Royal Society and published in its Philosophical Transactions. Wrote several books explaining advanced scientific thinking to larger audiences, one of which was widely used in schools and universities fifty years.

Mary Anning (1799-1847): Her skill in locating and preparing fossils, as well as the richness of the Jurassic era marine fossil beds at Lyme Regis, resulted in her making a number of important finds. These included the skeleton of the first ichthyosaur to be recognised and the first two plesiosaur skeletons ever found, the first pterosaur skeleton found outside of Germany, and some important fossil fish.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917): The first Englishwoman to qualify as a doctor. She passed the Society of Apothecaries examinations and gained a certificate which enabled her to become a doctor. The society then changed its rules to prevent other women entering the profession this way. Her determination paved the way for other women, and in 1876 an act was passed permitting women to enter the medical professions. In retirement became the first female Mayor in England.

Hertha Ayrton (1854-1923): She was elected the first female member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers in 1899. In 1902 she became the first woman nominated a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, although because she was married she could not be elected to this distinction. In 1904 Ayrton became the first woman to read her own paper before the Royal Society.

Kathleen Lonsdale (1903-1971): The first woman, along with microbiologist Marjory Stephenson, admitted as a fellow to the Royal Society. She was the first female professor at University College, London, the first woman named president of the International Union of Crystallography, and the first woman to hold the post of president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958): Went to Newnham College, Cambridge in 1938 and passed her finals in 1941, but was only awarded a degree titular as women were not entitled to degrees at that time. Unpublished drafts of her papers show that she had determined the overall B-form of the DNA helix. She died four years before Crick, Watson and Wilkins were awarded their Nobel Prize, but in their acceptance speech, she received no mention. Although Franklin’s contribution to the ‘discovery’ of DNA is now widely recognised, there remains a lingering sense that her contribution was unjustly overlooked and undervalued.

Anne McLaren (1927-2007): Made fundamental advances in genetics which paved the way for the development of in vitro fertilisation. Her ground-breaking work led to the birth of the first test-tube baby. She became the first female officer of the Royal Society in 331 years, when she was appointed as their Foreign Secretary between 1991-1996.

 

But I’ve never heard of any of them, why do they deserve to be on a bank note?

My point exactly. Each of those women struggled with gender and class based discrimination on a regular basis and, despite it all, still made defining contributions that have furthered our knowledge base and, in many instances, made our lives better. How many people were inspired to read about Elizabeth Fry because she was on the back of a fiver? How many questions were raised by children about the lives and endevours of the other personages we see on our money, every day? This was a marvellous opportunity to raise the profile of women in STEM fields who have been horrendously overlooked for a long, long time and instead the institution gave that honour to a woman who, despite her successes, needs no more accolades.

It’s also put largely literary based people on the bank notes entirely, with no one from STEM fields at all (well, aside from the £50, but who ever sees them?… and Adam Smith, but it’s debatable if economics is truely academic).

 

References:

Royal Society: Most influential British women in the history of science.

 

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