Invisible minds, visible bodies

September 5, 1997

Paula Gould won this year's Minerva Prize, sponsored by The THES, for an essay describing the sexism suffered by Victorian women. (This is an extract)

"Learned women attract little attention as long as they limit their studies to music and arts, but when a woman dares to attend a university - when she qualifies for and receives a doctorate - she attracts a great deal of attention and the legality of such an undertaking must be investigated." Johann Junker, 1754.

In June 1897, male undergraduates at the University of Cambridge hung an effigy of a bloomer-clad lady cyclist across from the Senate House to celebrate the rejection of degrees for women. In June 1997, hundreds of proud parents will be standing at the very same spot to congratulate their daughters on graduation day. Today female students are integral to university life. Questions may be raised about the proportion of women collecting firsts or the paucity of women professors, but their right to study for a degree is indisputable. Learned woman is now an establishment figure.

Cambridge is by no means the only site where battles between the sexes have been fought over the right to higher education. Nonetheless its hallowed reputation as an elite academic institution and its historic male-only traditions make it an ideal place in which to examine contributions made by women to intellectual life.

Let us take the history of the Cavendish Laboratory as an example. This building is most commonly remembered for its association with famous names such as James Clerk Maxwell, Lord Rayleigh, J. J. Thomson and Ernest Rutherford. Doubtless 1997 will spawn many events celebrating the centenary of the electron's "discovery" and by implication the man who "discovered" its existence. This description of scientific research as the work of a lone genius who had a great idea and single-handedly developed a new ground-breaking theory is neither accurate nor particularly instructive. As anyone who has ever attempted a scientific experiment will testify, investigative science is by no means a solitary activity. Attribution of credit to one professorial figure ignores contributions made by assistants, instrument makers, technicians and research students. This is particularly relevant when we consider that women often assumed these lower status roles.

Heroine-worship of Marie Curie-esque mortals does point the finger towards women scientists, but it does not get to grips with the assumption that scientific excellence requires a male mind. "It is useless to cite instances of women who have gained eminence", observed the author H. J. Mozans in The Women in Science. His caution should be heeded. Individuals can always be dismissed by sceptics as exceptions, curiosities but not fitting examples. An alternative, and more appropriate, strategy is to assess women's contributions to science on a day-to-day basis. By reconstructing a normal working environment, the relevance of a female presence to intellectual activity can be better understood. Professor J. J. Thomson was not working alone when he published results of experiments suggesting the electron's existence. As director of experimental physics at an expanding teaching and research establishment, his revered mind had to grapple with lecture timetables, equipment shortages and supervision of numerous experimental projects in addition to his own. For him, intellectual life included discussion with friends, family and colleagues, both male and female, as well as solitary contemplation.

Once we accept the essentially collaborative nature of science, it is less of an ideological problem to find that the first women at the Cavendish worked together with men and not on their own. In mixed-sex partnerships the boundaries between intellectual and emotional support were sometimes blurred. Rose Paget's investigations into soap films came to an abrupt halt in December 1889 on her engagement to Thomson. They were married in January 1890 and she adopted the new position of laboratory hostess. Sarah Harland also met her future husband William Shaw, laboratory demonstrator and then lecturer in experimental physics, at the workbench. For Victorian society this was an ideal arrangement, the perfect union of hearts and minds. "Women's remarkable incapacity for independent mental labour", commented Philip Hamerton in his treatise The Intellectual Life, "is accompanied by an equally remarkable capacity for labour under an accepted masculine guidance." In the context of science his words should be read as a comment on accepted practice rather than a slur on ladies who were only fit to follow their master's lead. Public credit for a piece of research depended on presentation of results at scientific societies. Traditionally male gatherings, the work of female researchers was read for them by proxy. Women were consequently dependent on men of science to promote their cause.

While attachment to a male mentor was critical to intellectual recognition, the requirement for a spokesman makes it difficult to gauge exactly who took the lead in each project. Eleanor Sidgwick was recognised as co-author with her brother-in-law Lord Rayleigh on three papers presented to the Royal Society, the subjects ranging from the specific resistance of mercury to the absolute determination of the ohm.

Helen Klaassen took the sole credit as author for her research on electric resistance curves. The results were communicated by Thomson to the Royal Society and he was acknowledged for suggesting the topic. Similarly Philippa Fawcett and Florence Martin appeared as lone names at the top of their electrochemistry papers presented to the Cambridge Philosophical Society. Again, Thomson took the lectern on their behalf, acknowledged in print for his suggestions and directions. Single authors, co-authors, assistants, acknowledged helpers ... the politics of recognition were by no means simple.

Today scientific etiquettes have changed but it is no easier to match the names at the top of a research paper with the actual labour involved in the knowledge production.

Returning to the 19th century, the intellectual life of the Cavendish Laboratory was not exclusively confined to time spent performing experiments. Indeed one of the most significant collaborations was the founding of the Cavendish Physical Society, a fortnightly seminar session chaired by Professor Thomson. During term time research students and lecturers met together to discuss either recently-published scientific papers, or to present their own results to a relatively-friendly audience.

Rose Thomson was responsible for providing refreshments at the start of each meeting, sometimes enlisting other female researchers to help her. Once serious debate began cups and saucers were put away, and the women took their places in the audience. Despite the heterogeneity of the audience for Cavendish Physical Society, a fortnightly seminar session chaired by Professor Thomson.

During term time research students and lecturers met together to discuss either recently published scientific papers, or to present their own results to a relatively-friendly audience. Rose Thomson was responsible for providing refreshments at the start of each meeting, sometimes enlisting other female researchers to help her. Once serious debate began cups and saucers were put away, and the women took their places in the audience.

Despite the heterogeneity of the audience for Cavendish Physical Society meetings, and its value as a practice speaking platform, female students were not expected to discuss their own work. Women certainly took an active interest in proceedings once the tea had been finished, but they were seldom invited to take the stage. The importance of this gathering should not be underestimated; tea-drinking and open discussion remain key components in present day laboratory life. The question of who makes the tea and who dominates the conversation are just as relevant to the 1990s as they were to the 1890s.

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