Hiding in Plain Sight
I saw a woman being erased from the history of science in real time.
It was at a conference where a presenter was delivering a paper about a male scientist and taking us through a close read of this man’s published works. The presenter brought up a slide with a list of the male scientist’s books. All but one, if I remember correctly, had a co-author who shared the scientist’s last name. A sister maybe, but much more likely a wife. I made a quick note and listened to the rest of the presentation with growing dismay. The presenter never mentioned the co-author. Not once. There was no acknowledgement even of the fact that this scientist’s books were co-authored. The presenter proceeded through their analysis as though there wasn’t another name appended to the byline of the books they were speaking about. I watched as a new (to many of us) male scientist was introduced to the audience and his works given a thorough, critical analysis while the woman who co-authored most of his works was completely, utterly overlooked. This is how women are erased from the history of science, and I saw it happen right in front of my face.
I won’t name the presenter, the paper, or the conference because this person was not in a position of academic power or privilege, and I don’t think the oversight was intentional. But of course, it never is intentional, and that’s why it’s still important to talk about how women and marginalized people are wiped clean out of the historical record even when we might have good intentions.
My hand was the first in the air when the Q&A session started. “What about this woman,” I asked, “a sister or probably a wife, who is listed as co-author on all these publications? What do you know about her, what was her field, her education, what other publications might she have in her name?” It was very difficult for me to contain my disappointment (it has sharpened into a kind of despair with time) when the presenter replied, “I don’t know about her. I think she was just like, an editor for him.”
There are two forces of erasure at work in this instance, each potent on its own but completely devastating when used together. First is the simple failure to notice the woman at all. I understand how this happens: you learn about a person in a different context, you set about finding out more, you zero in your historical eye on one character whose story you plan to tell, and often you get a kind of tunnel vision that automatically sorts the things you see into “this guy” and “not this guy” piles. In my experience, this usually happens with what your “history vision” categorizes as extraneous context or detail, however, not usually a person whose name appears right next to your subject’s on the covers of their books. I may have preempted other people at the conference who had planned to comment on this glaring omission (I doubt it). But, given the look on their face when I brought it up, I think we can assume that the presenter’s mentors and peers who looked over their work before they left for the conference didn’t mention it either. This is not acceptable. This is not thorough, rigorous historical practice.
The second force at work here is the nature of the assumptions and biases the presenter relied on to formulate their answer when I asked about the woman co-author. Instead of simply admitting to the omission, maybe even gesturing, as we do at conferences, that they planned to investigate it further as they worked on the research, the presenter cobbled together a guess which relied on extremely tired, and debunked, assumptions about women’s roles in science in relation to male spouses, relations, and colleagues. Beyond the fact that we are conditioned to devalue women’s contributions in any situation where they are in proximity to men, this woman was listed on the books as a co-author, so she couldn’t have “just” been the male scientist’s editor. The slip revealed how steeped the presenter, and many historians of science, is in myths about the women in the lives of their scientist subjects.
We note often in Lady Science that if you look for women only in the places you expect to see them, you’ll miss them. Meaning that we should expand our definitions of science and look for women engaged in scientific practice in nontraditional spaces. But this episode proved to me that the problem is perhaps more serious. This woman was right beside the male scientist. Her name was literally connected to his by an ampersand on the covers of numerous books, and yet the presenter didn’t feel that they should try to source even the most basic biographical details about this woman. Because the presenter refused to see a woman in plain sight, he very likely attributed her ideas to the male author, and canonized that misattribution by presenting the paper at a conference for professional academic history.
This kind of thing isn’t a matter of simple individual error. It’s evidence of a systemic failure that reaches from the individual presenter, to their mentors and advisors, to the culture of the field of history of science itself. This field, which I love, is hopelessly mired in old, damaging assumptions that continue to obscure — and even actively erase — women and marginalized people from the history of science. And this institutional rot will not stay contained in academia. Presenting a paper at a conference is often the first step in a long process that, hopefully, prepares scholarly work for publication and eventual translation into something accessible by everyone. The pipelines that feed our public consciousness of the history of science are contaminated. In a society that has taken faith in science and technology as its primary engine of progress, it is absolutely essential that we all have access to equitable representations of science and its history, untainted by old biases that have long obscured the contributions of the marginalized.