“Well-behaved women seldom make history.”
When authoress Laurel Thatcher Ulrich wrote this infamous quote, she didn’t mean for it to become a feminist slogan (which it has in its own right), she wrote this line about the role of midwives who were strategically erased from history because they accepted their fate quietly and focused on their job at hand instead.
As more and more women slowly but surely make their way into the world of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM), it has become increasingly important to dig out and work on the reasons why women have had such a slow start in more male-dominated fields.
This begs a few important questions such as why have women’s contributions/stories been sidelined and marginalized throughout history? Why does history neglect to tell us of the female pioneers and great minds behind men’s accomplishments? And the most important question; what does that mean for the future of women’s role as major contributors to scientific breakthroughs and inventions?
Historians, scientists, scholars and universities have only now begun with the inclusion of women’s history within mainstream education and learning-previously being of the view that women were inherently incapable of great scientific discoveries or at least the kind that was considered great within the sphere of ‘real’ science-for e.g. the role of midwives has always been downplayed by historians and even scientists. Men dominated fields like gynecology and wet nurses or midwives’ work was thought to be lesser since it was done by women.
For a huge portion of history, women were barred from even integrating themselves within the realm of STEM for example, in America, Catherine Brewer became the first woman to get a Bachelor’s degree in 1840 and women were not allowed to enroll in higher education degrees before that period. The scales were even more poorly balanced for Women of Colour (WOC) throughout the world with their systematic oppression being deeply rooted in racism and an inherent belief that they were somehow lesser humans. Speaking of the erasure of WOC’s achievements, it has only recently become public knowledge that it was not white men but a dedicated group of African American “Black” women that were responsible for the engineering and the coding that eventually got Neil Armstrong to make that legendary leap for mankind. However, it is very unfortunate that one can only get people riled up for the stories of female scientists and pioneers if Taraji. P. Henson plays a role in their biopic.
While it is pretty harmful to the legacy and memory of the brilliant women whose accomplishments and achievements were victims of a certain kind of erasure of history, what is even more unsettling is the amount of instances over history (that we know of yet) where men have practically profited off of the hard work and discoveries of women.
This is known as “The Matilda Effect” which was coined by Professor Margaret W. Rossiter and this is not a recent or new phenomenon with many historic examples. The most popular one being that of Marie Sklodowska better known as Marie Curie. The brilliant scientist was the first female to win two Nobel Prizes and made breakthroughs in the world of radiology, however, it is a lesser known fact that Curie almost didn’t get the credit she so clearly deserved as it was unfathomable to many how people would respond to a woman making such great strides in something as elusive as science.
Women have long been perceived as too emotional or too “hysterical” to be any good at objective and factual disciplines such as in STEM and this downgrading of women’s abilities stems from early times when the Church began systematically pigeonholing men and women into their “prescribed” gender roles. No woman could be a part of the clergy, could have power in the upper echelons of society and even the Greeks-the civilization that gave us modern day democracy-did not extend the right to vote to women.
Although there are prime examples of legendary women who held their own amidst an unending sea of critical men, their stories are still largely ignored. Stories such as that of Hypatia of ancient Greece who negated the wrong beliefs regarding astronomy people held at the time or Queen Cleopatra, who brought much-needed peace and stability to Egypt as no other Pharaoh could. The truth of the matter is that these women had to bear a lot of criticism and resistance from men who either reduced their memory down to their “love-affairs” as is in the case of Cleopatra or killed them as was the fate of Hypatia.
Whenever in history, women have shown an ounce of rebellion or a desire to hold their own opinions, they have been branded with labels of heresy and witchcraft. To this day there is no exact data as to how many women were tried and burnt alive for being witches but their crimes were as little as selling herbs from as great as engaging in extra-marital relationships.
With the advent of social media and more and more online platforms, everyone, regardless of gender, race, class or orientation can come together to learn more about the stories that really matter and that is the exact purpose of this blog. If history chooses to sideline and distort our stories then maybe it is time to re-write and re-invent Herstory instead.