In modern days we’re constantly seeking equality between men and women, but we all know it has not always been the same. Women have had to struggle for achieving a fair and similar treatment in respect to that given to the men. We celebrate this in the International Women’s Day

Women and science

Women and science

marked on the 8th of March, and we wanted to take the chance to honour the memory of those scientific women who have made possible nowadays developments but who have been forgotten. This lack of recognition for women along history is still obvious as history books and dictionaries hardly make reference to their contribution until a few recent years. But, what triggered this mistreatment?

Since prehistoric times, humans started building up science. Of course women were included, they started developing tools and classifying the different plants into edible, poisonous and the ones they could use in medicine. In fact, they were part of one of the greatest periods of developments that can just be compared to the improvements of the 20th and 21st centuries. But then, societies began to grow and unfortunately many of them believed that women were inferior. These caused women to be relegated to unimportant positions in society and science and, even, to being let aside of learning institutions.

Anyway, these didn’t discourage women who continued researching and working. In ancient Greece the first woman to work as a doctor appeared. She was Agnódike, she was able to study medicine disguised as a man. She saved many lives because women, who otherwise would feel apprehensive and refuse visiting a doctor man, could be treated and assisted in childbirth by her. Despite her labour, when Agnódike confessed to the society she was a woman, she sentenced to death. But the women to whom she had helped defended her. As a result, women were allowed to study medicine in the following.

Hildegard of Bingen

Even though later, in medieval Europe, women were still kept out from universities; instead some went to medieval monasteries where they were taught in Latin, natural science, prayer and liturgy. This was the case of Hildegard von Bingen, the youngest daughter of a family with ten children. Her parents sent her to the Benedictine convent of Disibodenberg. She wrote texts on botany, ethics, theology and medicine, eventually becoming a very important person visited by people from distant places for advice. Despite this, at the same time, women in more practical fields were accused of witchcraft.

In the Scientific Revolution, the superstitions disappeared but women still weren’t allowed to attend college and inequalities between genders became greater as scientists supported the belief of women being their subordinates. This happened to Maria Winckelmann, who had knowledge of astronomy, and was married with an astronomer. She gained a position of assistant in the astronomical observatory in Berlin but after the death of her husband, despite being qualified and having discovered a comet, she was fired as he was no longer under her husband’s trail.

During the Enlightenment period the number of women involved in science, as Nicole Lepaute, increased. Nicole was a French astronomer who calculated the exact time of a solar eclipse in 1764 and determined how the gravity of the planets can affect the trajectory of a planet. He also calculated the table of the pendulum oscillations per unit time and according to their length, but this work was published as her husband’s work, who took the merit – something usual – making it clear that women still needed time to be accepted in society as a equal to men.

In the early 20th century women finally began to be recognized in the fields of science education through admission to learned societies. The daughter of the mathematician Annabella Milbanke and the poet Lord Byron, Augusta Ada Byron was an important personality in the world of mathematics. She was assistant to the mathematician Charles Babbage, and they collaborated to develop the “analytical machine” predecessor of the first computer, which allowed calculating any function of algebra, which led Ada Byron to be considered the first programmer in history. At the end of the century thanks to the Nobel Prize awarded to Marie Curie – the first woman awarded with one ever – for her experiments with radioactivity women gained more importance in science.

Marie Curie, first woman awarded with a Nobel prize

So, finally, in the 20th century the number of women scientists increased as there were universities for women, giving them the same importance as men in Europe and America. Thanks to this renewal of women recognition in science, Rachel Carson, an American biologist who made one of the first studies on the harmful effects of human activities on the environment, was able to alert on pollution.

Nowadays the society has advanced and women, in most of the working fields, are recognized as what they really are, people as prepared to develop any job as any men – even though they still suffer multiple discriminations at work, like earning less money than a men on the same job -. But the point is that, even in science which has always been seen as a men’s thing (when we think of a scientist, we usually think of the image of a man),  it is true that history collects the memory of several women scientists that have reached the success in different aspects of science. And thanks to their effort now some of the most relevant scientists are women.


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Authors: Ruth Moreno, Santiago Rodrigo, Ángela Sedeño and Iratxe Uranga.