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Science Has No Gender

By Sethanne Howard

January 2000

Dr. Sethanne Howard was the January 1999 speaker for the AAS Committee in the Status of Women in Astronomy meeting in Austin, Texas. Her talk “4000 Years of Women in Science and Technology” is described further at http://www.astr.ua.edu/4000ws.html.

For over 4,000 years the historical record has, now and then, included scientists, engineers,
and natural philosophers. For over 4,000 years there have been women in that list just as
there have been men. Who would have thought it? It’s true. Science is as traditional a role for women
as it has been for men. There are names from long ago — names of real women such as En Hedu’anna
(c. 2330 BCE — ancient Sumeria) and real men such as Imhotep (architect of the first pyramid —
ancient Egypt). We, men and women together, have been scientists and engineers as long as we
have been human. The human species is a species of technicians — we affect and predict our
environment — that’s technilosity (to coin a word). The pursuit of science is greater than any
fantasy, than any game. Out of our joy in study, and our endeavors on mountain tops, oceans and laboratories come solutions to problems — the problems of the world. You want a solution to a problem? Well, at some point you have to start with someone who can think. “Reserve your right to think, for even to
think wrongly is better than not to think at all.” This was written by Hypatia — a scientist who
taught mathematics in the Great Library in Alexandria, Egypt in the 5th century. She was quite
an interesting lady. The people who think are the people who can resolve the world around them into
sensible chunks. The people who can combine the sensible chunks into useful solutions are scientists
and engineers.

Scientists do tend to share certain attributes: luck, intelligence, education, ability, courage, and
sweat. There is no gender lurking in these features. None. THE RESULTS OF SCIENCE HAVE NO
GENDER. That is worth repeating. THE RESULTS OF SCIENCE HAVE NO GENDER. We cannot
back out of some invention, some theory, some solution whether or not the originator was female
or male. Results are results are results. The path may vary (one could cogitate on variational calculus
here, but I digress — the gender parameter in variational techniques is beyond my comprehension), but
the result will happen over and over again — or we throw it away and start fresh.

Talking about the Topic

One may ask why I write these things. I accumulated, mainly through serendipitous sources,
information about some technical and scientific and creative women of the past. These women left a
remarkable legacy. They were as resourceful and passionate about their work as any scientist today,
and certainly as creative. I started small. I gave a few talks in local schools about women in meteorology
(I was working for the U.S. Navy as a ship router at that time). Then I made a discovery.
People did not know about these women! They were surprised! Their textbooks
never mentioned women in science. Who let this happen? How did these women disappear?
THE RESULTS OF SCIENCE HAVE NO GENDER. Why don’t we honor these women?

Now I had a goal. After all, I was always a scientist — at least as far back as I can remember. I knew women did science— after all, I did it, and if I could do it, then anyone could do it. The hard stuff was writing all that poetry for English class! Well, this lack of information can be fixed. Tell people about those neat women. In the early 1980s I starting giving little talks, one after the other, in schools, colleges, Service Clubs, even departmental colloquia. People gave me more names, I gave more talks, and soon it was a Shapley Lecture, and things were now rolling on their own power. I learned how to advertise the talk to engage the interest of a school. With the help of Dr. Deborah Crocker at the University of Alabama we created a web page with all the details: www.astr.ua.edu/4000ws/4000ws.html

The editors of STATUS asked me to write an article, a background kind of thing, about my public
lecture titled “4,000 Years Of Women in Science, Technology, and Other Altogether Creative Stuff”
[that was given at the January 1999 meeting of the AAS/CSWA in Austin, Texas]. The title used to be
“4,000 Years of Women in Science,” but several engineers and inventors complained (with justification),
so I changed it.

The talk is a lot of fun to present. It is not an “in-your-face” kind of talk. It celebrates the wonderful
women of the past without berating the wonderful men of the past. Being a bit prejudiced, I feel
that astronomers have an edge here. We teach astronomy’s history to our students. For most of
history, the history of science is defined by the history of astronomy and mathematics. Women were
astronomer-priestesses in Sumeria. That is just about the beginning of the historical record. Throw in the
engineers and inventors and one has a remarkable list. Of course, I am prejudiced here. Also toss out the physicians and nurses, because there were far too many of them to count. (This is called cleaning up the data in astronomy circles — this one category would swamp all the others — and is the others we want).

The audience reaction is usually quite positive. There are often those “oh neat!” type of comments. The one place where the talk fails to enchant is at a science department colloquium. You all remember those talks. If they don’t present lots of equations, then one’s time has been wasted. Frankly I always fell asleep during equations, but again I digress. My talk does not have any equations.

After I had gathered lots of names from the past I noticed what appear to be trends. The
numbers are small and the interpreter (me) not an historian, so the conclusions may be completely faulty. I noticed that there were times in history where women had opportunities seemingly better than today.
Remember, of course, that the vast, vast majority of people had no opportunity for scholarship. They
were slaves, serfs, bound to the land, and with predestined lifepaths. Both men and women were
denied. Now consider the part that is left. Anthropologists tell us that women in ancient
Sumeria were physicians, astronomers, mathematicians and such. There were times in Europe (late
Dark, early Middle Ages) that the women as well as the men were schooled in the great abbey schools.
How can you explain a person like Hildegard (11th century), and Radegunde, and, and … unless you
see that women had opportunities too. Things changed when the abbeys and convents were closed,
the libraries burned, and admission to universities was permitted only to the men. Yet even though the
access was difficult and even dangerous, women still succeeded.

Italy remained an interestingly unique place. The doors to the first modern university opened in
Italy in the 9th century; they were open to men and women alike; they have stayed open to men and
women through the centuries. Why, I wonder?

So has the 20th century changed things? I don’t know. It has certainly changed the percentages.
There are now numbers of women in science too large to ignore. We are an economic force. This
means our ability to change the system is great. What has changed during my life? I think more
families than ever before support their daughters in choosing technical careers. That is
a good thing. I think that society is slowly allowing us to succeed as women both in and out of our careers,
instead of insisting that we act as pseudo-men. That is a good thing. I think astronomy
has been a wonderful place for women — always. Yes, we have been denied tenure, telescope time, grants,
etc, but we are still here! We are succeeding; we are making changes; and we are doing great science too. I
never thought astronomy had a problem; I did know that society did. Our problems have less to do with our being astronomers than with our being women in the late 20th century United States.

Here I have to actually declare my age — see how far women have come — I shall actually do this. Sigh. I prowled around the edges of astronomy for many years, picking up a Masters Degree in nuclear physics along the way (they didn't offer one in astronomy). I actually left the field to work for the U.S. Navy. The U.S. Navy was looking for someone who knew spherical trigonometry. They were amazed when I said “uh yes, of course.” I was the only applicant who understood the mathematics of navigation on a globe so I got the job. Celestial mechanics can take you far! After a few years of that, I found that working for a living instead of doing astronomy was not much fun. So at the old age of 42 I returned to grad school to complete the Ph.D. degree. I was very fortunate in my advisors, and in my fellow students.

So please tell your daughters and sons that the results of science have no gender. That science is a
traditional human activity, and it involves thinking, and it is joyous.

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