Where are all the women? | International Women’s Day


Our thoughts on International Women’s Day invariably return to a key piece of feminist literature, Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, which is well known for stating that ‘a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’. Woolf’s essay talks us through how she came to this sensible, and now seemingly obvious, conclusion. Women need time and space to write, to think, to create, to invent, to discover, and to research, but this time and space was, and is, often absent from their, our, lives. The way our society is structured doesn’t allow for it. This, Woolf argued, has led to an absence of female voices from history ‘when every other man, it seemed, was capable of song or sonnet’.

Tellingly, we might be surprised to discover then that there is no such word as ‘foremother’ in the English language, despite the fact that ‘forefather’ is common parlance. Yet these women, our ‘foremothers’, did exist and, as female researchers, we not only have a duty to have a look for our hidden mothers but also to shine a light on their art and discoveries.

It is true that past, and even current, societies have blocked many women from earning a living or doing certain jobs and many still position women as primary carers. Being forced to raise babies or being blocked from education limits women’s opportunities in all sorts of ways. However, this absence sometimes exists because the sexism of later generations has obscured women’s achievements. The recently published Women in the History of Science, for instance, foregrounds the role of women in scientific discovery and knowledge production from 1200 CE to the present day. The voices of our ‘foremothers’ are out there, if only we know where to look for them.

For instance, when we think of the Romantic poets, we talk in terms of the ‘Big Six’ – Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, and Blake. All men. But as Stuart Curran revealed in his ground-breaking work, Poetic Form and British Romanticism, we also now know from sales records and so on that women poets such as Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Charlotte Smith, Mary Robinson, Hannah More, Anna Seward, and Helen Maria Williams were writing in the same style and outselling these poets, with the exception of Byron. Alison Stone’s recently published book Women Philosophers in Nineteenth-Century Britain shows how many women’s voices were being heard in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but were subsequently erased to foreground those of male writers. The later shaping of history has not been kind to women.

And, so, on this International Women’s Day, I would urge you to reclaim and share the voices and work of the women who have gone before you in your discipline. How about telling your social media followers about Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689–1762)? Montagu spent two years travelling in the Ottoman Empire with her husband, and is known for her Turkish Embassy Letters (1763), as well as for poetry and essays. In 1721, she had her 3-year-old daughter inoculated against smallpox by making tiny cuts on her body and rubbing in a small amount of pus from a smallpox sore, a practice common in Turkey but scorned in Britain, to protect her child from the ravages of the disease. She campaigned for others to adopt the practice and although some did, most laughed in her face. Edward Jenner’s (1749–1823) later development of the smallpox vaccine was indebted to Montagu. Jenner was taken seriously.

Most people have heard of the pioneering work of Florence Nightingale (1820–1910). But what about Mary Putnam Jacobi, MD (1842–1906), the first woman to study medicine at the University of Paris, who spent her career campaigning for increased educational opportunities for female medical students? Jacobi also successfully used science to disprove common myths about menstruation, such as the preposterous belief that women needed to rest during their period.

Marie Curie (1867–1934) is well known in the sciences, but she provides just one voice among many, if you choose to look, that is. Have you, for instance, heard about Dr Chien-Shiung Wu (1912–1997) who made significant discoveries in nuclear and particle physics? Or Caroline Herschel (1750–1858) who located several comets? Or Mary the Jewess (c. 0–200 CE), the first known alchemist? Or Alice Augusta Ball (1892–1916), who found a cure for leprosy?

No? Well maybe some women are now more familiar thanks to the efforts in various fields to reclaim their rightful place in both history and our memories. Katherine Johnson’s (1918–2020) name may now ring more of a bell following the 2016 film Hidden Figures. The film showcased Johnson’s mathematical computations, which sent Apollo 11 to the Moon in 1969. Staying with maths, Ada Lovelace (1815–1852) is now recognised as the first computer programmer rather than simply being known as Lord Byron’s only legitimate child. Many people may well have heard of Grace Hopper (1906–1992) whose key contributions to computer science have been widely praised. And the picture of Margaret Hamilton (1936–) with her handwritten books of code, stacked higher than she is tall, has gone viral in recent years.

Talking of space, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (1900–1979) contradicted current scientific knowledge when she wrote in her doctoral thesis that the stars are mainly made up of helium and hydrogen. Maybe you have engaged with the recent debate about NASA not providing spacesuits that fit women? Well, this conversation wouldn’t even have happened without intrepid women like Valentina Tereshkova (1937–), a Russian engineer as well as the youngest and first woman in space, who paved the way for later female astronauts.

Let’s return to earth for moment: Mary Anning (1799–1847), palaeontologist, found fame for her dinosaur discoveries in the beautiful English seaside town of Lyme Regis. She discovered the first identified ichthyosaur skeleton when she was but twelve years old. Or we could go even deeper than a seaside seabed and consider the work of seismologist Inge Lehmann (1888–1993) who discovered the composition of the Earth’s core.

Then there are the women who worked on the surface of the earth, women such as Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717), whose botanical illustrations of the relationship between plants and insects influenced later scientists. French botanist Jeanne Baret (1740–1807) dressed as a man to become the first woman to circumnavigate the globe while collecting new and unusual plant specimens. Talking of plants, we owe the myriad sweet temptations available for our delectation today to Janaki Ammal (1897–1984). Ammal crossbred sugarcane until she’d created the sweetest variety in the world. Although, with my sweet tooth, maybe that scientific discovery would have been better left alone!

We might not have an official word for them in English, but many women came before you. So, why not follow the novelist, journalist, and Egyptologist Amelia Edwards (1831–1892) in discovering them? Explore the history of your profession and uncover the voices that have been hidden on account of gender, race, or class, restore them to their rightful position, and share them. Then, become the woman who has gone before, and pass on your knowledge and discoveries. Proudly show your face and claim your spot. Shout about your accolades and achievements. Never apologise for asking questions or wanting to succeed. Set your own goalposts and bring other women along for the ride.