Ladies First

By Anna Reser

How many women astronauts can you name off the top of your head, no cheating? I can think of 4, and I do this kind of thing for a living. I can remember the first woman to fly in space, the first American woman to fly in space, and the first American woman pilot to fly in space, and also Anna Fisher (who was the first mother to fly in space, apparently) because we share a name. I would expect similar numbers, and examples of similarly famous women, were this question asked about any other field in science, technology or medicine.

I think we can agree that the ability to remember any women from history is a net good, and it is largely the product of a tradition of recognizing “female firsts”. Being the first person to do almost anything usually guarantees a place in the historical record. You can join this nice Wikipedia list of Women’s Firsts and enjoy a recorded legacy in the history of the world. I definitely don’t dispute that lists like these are important and help to elevate women into the historical record. But as you might guess if you a regular reader of this publication, the phenomenon of the “female first” is also hugely problematic.

The most obvious problem with female firsts is that they tend to take up a lot of the available energy and focus in women’s history. This “Marie Curie Complex” is a problem in the contemporary sciences, where Curie is held out as the single, emblematic example of a successful woman scientist, and it tends to dominate the literature on women in the sciences. Perversely, it is probably because of this overemphasis on Marie Curie, which has rendered her almost mythic in scale, that even the suggestion of writing biographies of women in the sciences can draw accusations of hagiography, idealizing the historical subject.

I tend to feel that this first problem can be fairly easily overcome with a little bit of critical thinking and consciousness raising. In addition, if it means that young women can continue to know about and be inspired by Marie Curie or, in my field, Sally Ride or Eileen Collins, then I’m willing to cede that turf for now, especially in the popular sphere where women need all they help they can get staying afloat in the stream of history. The thing that has me banging my head on my desk and groaning THIS IS HARD to Leila in our monthly editorial meetings are the deeper problems that “female firsts” cause when we are in the trenches trying to write women back into history.

The “female first” carries a number of unpleasant implications, the most damaging being the perception that before the “first” there were simply no competent women available up to that point to break whatever glass ceiling it is that you’re studying. Identifying the female first in a field establishes a clean break in the timeline, a Before Women era and and After Women era. I have written before about how this kind of divide made it enormously difficult for researchers to uncover the history of women who strove to become astronauts long before the After Women era of American spaceflight. The histories of women who do not become firsts are not deemed worthy of preservation or organization, leaving a tall task for those who would come later with the aim of reconstructing their stories.

Furthermore, if durable cultural archetypes are constructed in Before Women eras (like, oh, I don’t know...astronauts, scientists, engineers…) it can be almost impossible to reconstruct a new archetype that is not coded male. There is no Wikipedia page titled “List of Men’s Firsts”.  As we have pointed out before, that would just be called “history”. Female firsts are only specially meaningful if they follow the male, the default first. Being the first woman in space is different than being the first person in space who happens to be a woman. It can only ever be second best because the category has to already be established in order for it to be available for a “female” to challenge. This type of attribution reiterates historically male categories. Astronauts are men, women astronauts are women.

What I find most challenging about the problems posed by the female first is striking a balance in the way we represent women that does not single them out by gender, yet preserves their autonomy and agency in what are inevitably the gendered circumstances of their obscurity. We cannot hold history to the ideals of gender equality that we espouse for our own time, yet we cannot stand by and let women be written out of history.  

I don’t think of these issues as idle thought experiments. They have a very real role in shaping our research practices any time we set out to work on the history of women. For research centering on women in science and technology, the challenges posed by the female first become especially acute because the women in these fields are almost exclusively to be found in, around and excluded from fundamentally male categories. The temptation to find female firsts to unseat the Great Men of the history of science is strong, but we must always be aware of the dangers posed by this approach.