Episode 7: The Great Man Theory of History is Garbage
Hosts: Anna Reser, Leila McNeill, and Rebecca Ortenberg
Guest: Marilyn Ogilvie
Producer: Leila McNeill
Music: Careful! by Zombie Dandies
For this episode, the hosts explain the history behind the Great Man Theory of history and discuss how it has marginalized and completely left out women, people of color, and other disenfranchised communities from our re-tellings of history. Historian of science Marilyn Ogilvie joins in to talk about her long career in recovering the voices and scientific work of women who had been lost to history.
On Heroes, Hero-worship, and the Heroic in History by Thomas Carlyle
Searching the Stars: The Story of Caroline Herschel by Marilyn B. Ogilvie
Marie Curie: A Biography by Marilyn B. Ogilvie
The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science: Pioneering Lives from Ancient Times to the Mid-Twentieth Century edited by Marilyn B. Ogilvie and Joyce Harvey
A Dame Full of Vim and Vigor: A Biography of Alice Middleton Boring, Biologist in China by Marilyn B. Ogilvie and Clifford J. Coquette
Zuckerberg, Chan donate $30 million to literacy effort by James Vaznis
Transcribed by Kimberly Daley, Edited by Anna Reser
Possible CW: Internet Harassment
REBECCA: Welcome to Episode Seven of the Lady Science Podcast. This podcast is a monthly deep dive on topics centered on women and gender in the history of popular culture of science. With you every month are the editors of Lady Science Magazine.
ANNA: I’m Anna Reser, co-founder and co-editor in chief of Lady Science. I am a writer, editor, and PhD student studying 20th century American Culture, and the history of the American space program in the 1960s.
LEILA: I’m Leila McNeill the other founder and editor in chief of Lady Science. I am a historian of science and freelance writer with words in various places on the internet, and I’m currently a regular writer on women in the history of science at smithsonianmag.com.
R: I’m Rebecca Ortenberg, Lady Science’s managing editor. When I am not working with the Lady Science team, I can be found writing about museums and public history around the internet, and managing research projects at the Science History Institute in Philadelphia.
L: So, Before we get started on what we’re going to talk about today, we want to thank everyone who left us a rating and review on itunes this past month. So your ratings and reviews increase our visibility so that new listeners can find us. But also it was just really to nice to see so many of you are enjoying the podcast, so thank you. And as promised, those who wrote a review between February and this episode have been entered into a drawing to win a free Lady Science tote bag.
So, without further ado. Drum Roll!!!!
Okay, so the winner is someone with the name CheesyGal, which I can get behind that, I dig cheese, if that’s what that means. So, Cheezy gal, she wrote, or he wrote, or they wrote, whoever…:
“I can’t get enough Lady Science. Their brilliance translates perfectly from the page to the podcast. I love the ruminations on the UFOs, and I love their guests who bring such interesting stories with them. Now all we need is a Youtube or Twitch channel and we can get our Lady Science always all the time.”
L: I can’t make any promises, I don’t want anyone to see me speaking ever on YouTube, so.
R: We appreciate the sentiment all the same.
L: Absolutely, thank you so much! So, if this is you, please get in touch with us and send us an email to email@example.com so we can get your mailing information and so you can let us know which tote bag you want, which logo you like. Either the oil lamp, or the burning bra logo. So, again, firstname.lastname@example.org. Let us know if that is you. Thanks again to everyone who took the time to leave us a review. We really appreciate it! Please continue to leave us ratings and reviews, even if we are not giving away stuff.
L: So, next month for the April podcast, episode 8, we’re going to be talking about the ridiculous, bizarre, and downright bonkers things men have believed and continue to believe about women’s bodies throughout history, so things like how male physicians used to believe that if women did too much thinking their uteruses would shrivel up. So we want to hear from you guys on this! If you’ve come across a weird thing that men have said about women’s bodies from history to the present day, send it to us with a source link. We’ll compile your submissions and feature some of them on April’s podcast, and we’ll even give you a shoutout for sending it to us. So, email your weird thing to email@example.com or tweet us at @ladyxscience.
R: SO, for our episode today, we’re going to be talking about the Great Man Theory of history. So since March is Women’s History Month, it might seem like this is maybe a weird topic to have for this episode. But we wanted to do this because we think by explaining historical roots of Great Man Theory and showing how it has permeated all corners of academic history and popular culture, we’ll get a solid understanding of why we continue to need Women’s History Month at all. After we chat for a bit, we’re going to have a pretty special guest joining us: Marilyn Ogilvie is a historian of science who was part of a group of women’s historians in the 1970s that began to recover the stories of women in the history of science.
So let’s get into it, what exactly is the Great Man Theory of history?
A: Okay, so essentially, the great man theory of history is the belief that history is made and structured by the influence of great men or heroic figures, who possess a variety of traits that made them natural leaders. So this theory of history was popularized in the 19th century by Thomas Carlyle. In his lectures on historical heroes-- which were very subtly titled On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History-- Carlyle wrote that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” So he lists off a series of great men throughout history to try to demonstrate his point, men like the Prophet Muhammed, Napoleon, Shakespeare, you get the idea.
So he also believed that the traits that made for a great man, a history making man, were more or less the same for all men. These traits, I’m sure you can guess, include things like intelligence and genius, political and military prowess. So, Carlyle says that these men should always be seeking higher truth, which he described as “a sort of savage sincerity — not cruel, far from that; but wild, wrestling naked with the truth of things”. *Laughter* So these naked wrestling men are supposed to be *Laughter* valiant and virtuous and inspire all other men to achieve and embody the characteristics of these great men. And so this is essentially your masculinity how-to guide for 19th century men.
L: So, this theory obviously has a lot of problems. And it has really influenced who we see as being worthy of being included in the historical record. So obviously one of the big problems with this theory is that there is just, there is no room for women in it at all.
A: Right, and I think we can even back up a little bit and talk, sort of at a maybe a little theoretical level about, about what is history? Is history the past? Or, is it a set of stories we tell about the past? And who decides, you know, which stories we get to tell about the past? Because you can’t tell all of them. We can’t create a complete, high resolution record of everything that has ever happened. So, there is a lot of selection going on. So, who decides how to tell stories and about whom we should tell stories, and understanding that the history of that process is its own field of study as well. So, there is all kinds of like, crunchy theoretical stuff that we don’t necessarily need to go into, but I think it is important just to, ooooh I am going to use the word, to problematize. *laughter* of history itself because that helps us to see that there is not like one objective way of telling stories about the past. People made decisions about how we should do that. And often those decisions leave out a whole bunch of people, particularly women.
L: Yeah, and I think it, that it, in this theory also is an idea of history as progress and because the people that get these kind of heroic histories, or, are considered heroes, people, who in this view, have moved the world or whatever, forward in some sort of way. So, if we are looking at someone like Napoleon or Shakespeare or something like that, that there is a perceived forward movement and the work for the influence that they had made, which we don’t agree with here. *laughter*
A: Just because now I have pegged myself as being this person in this conversation, we should also think about who decides which direction forward is, and
L: And for who
A: Yeah, that is socially and culturally constructed idea about what is progress and what counts as progress, you know. Industrial progress means a huge regression for like, workers, so anyway. Things like that. Go ahead Rebecca I didn’t mean to jump on you.
R: Oh no no no problem. Just one thing I was thinking about as you guys were talking was the other reason why this is super important, I think, that it is easy for people to say, well you know, history of various marginalized people, history of women, history of people of color, no one meant to leave them out, it was just that like, those sources are harder to find, and so we talk about great men because that was like the top of the deck, and like we are making out way, like, through the deck. Looking at something like great men theory, looking at the way 19th century folks thought about history goes to show that none of that was inevitable and that that was based on a certain idea of the way that history should work and what kind of sources were valuable and yeah, that those were all value judgements, not just a matter of people started by research the easier stuff, then research the harder stuff later.
A: It is also not inevitable that there aren’t sources about marginalized people
R: Right! Oh,
A: Cuz they didn’t have access to like, what about people who, who couldn’t read or write, or people who weren’t allowed to be in positions where it was important for them to correspond with other people, so we have letters about them, you know, things like that. None of this is inevitable, is what we are driving at.
L: Yeah, and the characteristics that this theory inscribed on people worthy of being recorded obviously are things that are traditionally associated with men. Military prowess, intelligence, those types of things, and so when we look at a historical record, to make choices about whose story we are going to tell, that if we think those are the characteristics that we think are worthy of recording, those are the people we are going to pick out. Those types of things have determined who we have decided to include. And when that comes to women, and we are trying to recover the voices of women, that we have also picked out the women that most resemble those traditionally masculine characteristics. Definitely come back around to it when you talk about feminist criticisms of this but,
R: Yeah, and the other thing that I always find fascinating about this is the reminder of how much this approach to historical thinking is very recent, like the 19th century wasn’t that long ago, and these great men theories of history come out of that, and also ideas about histories moving in a progressive way come out of that, and we are, we are in some ways still trapped by all of these crazy Victorians and their ideas about how the world works.
A: And the fact that like, the modern discipline of history as we sort of understand it now comes from the 19th century and it comes from people like Carlyle, who, they see themselves, these Victorians, as sort of like riding the quests, the crests of the wave of progress into the future, and they have some kind of like, heroic duty to preserve all of the heroic things that they’re doing. And so, they just like, there is like a lot of self serving, individualistic, I guess, impetus, behind designing this kind of historical practice. And I think if we can use words like, designing, to talk about it as being like, an intentional thing that's, its not just they scooped up this method out of the ether *laughter*
A: This is something that they are interested in doing because it impacts on their own work as well, if we can remember ourselves as being historic, then our names will live on.
L: Yeah, and I think that that’s important to emphasize is that, history, the way we tell history, that they ay we narrate it, those things are choices that people make. History, just like science, isn’t just like, fall out of the sky into our laps and we just like, repeating facts. That there are people involved, and that means people are making choices. I think that is something really important to keep in mind if we’re doing this kind of, meta thinking about you know, the field of history, which, feels like grad school again *laughter* Maybe we will have an episodes about what is science. And then
R: Oh god
L: And then it will be a second year of grad school.
A: Are we going to make me read Butterfield again? *laughter*
A: Inside history of science, baseball for you *laughter*
R: So, because of this theory’s many, many problems, we’ve been laying out, it has largely fallen out of favor with academic historians. Though god knows it feels like it hasn’t fallen out of favor as much as academic historians like to think it has, but that is a whole other thing.
L: Considering I still tussle with academic historians about this very issue on Twitter.
R: Exactly, and they would be horrified by the idea that they were still influence by Carlyle’s ideas about the world.
R: But, thankfully, there have been a lot of other models that have come to the fore. Cultural historians, Marxist historians, feminist and women’s history historians have all worked really hard to dismantle this hegemonic way of looking at history and the world.
R: And a lot of this came out of the 1960s, when a lot of people and scholars started talking about “history from below” or “people’s history.” And these are the ideas that you should approach the study of history from the perspective of non-elites of various kinds, of disenfranchised people, of people who live on the margins of society. “History from below” is a particular phrase that is widely used, that became widely used after historian EP Thompson wrote about it, in an essay titled, appropriately, “History from Below.” He was a Marxist historian and he studied the modern history of England through the lens of the working class. And their experience and influence on English society. And so the phrase “a people’s history” is still widely used to identify this kind of particular history from below approach. So we have books like A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, which probably has a wider popular reading than a lot of these kinds of history, but also A People’s History of Chicago by Kevin Coal, or A People’s History of Computing by Lady Science’s own Joy Rankin, which is coming out in October of this year.
R: Whoo hoooo
L: Yay Joy!!!
L: So, some of the feminist responses to this, there has been many of them, and I am just going to cover a couple, and kind of highlight the ones we cover or approach a lot in the magazine itself. So, one of these, and this has been popular culture or popular history writing, and this is called the “Her-Story” type of history. This tackles the assumption that women just weren’t there doing stuff that mattered at all. So, her-story approach to the history of science elevates women like the Marie Curie’s, I don't know if you have heard of Marie Curie, Anna, Rebecca, *laughter* the Ada Lovelace's,
A: Wait, is that Pierre Curie’s wife? Sorry *laughter* I couldn't help myself, sorry, *laughter* I am just going to mute my microphone while you’re talking. *laughter*
R: We are a pro-snark podcast.
L: Oh, yeah.
L: So elevating these types of women and so on is an attempt to show that women were in fact there doing important work, they were in fact there doing science, but have been typically overlooked by a narrative of history that, that favors men. So, an example that I am going to use because this comes up every time the Nobel committee hands out its prizes, when we look at the list of Nobel Prize winners in science, it is mostly men, and lots of people still, I can’t believe there are still men out there that do this every single time the list of Nobel winners comes out, they’ll say “see, women’ weren’t doing science!” Just because they didn’t win a Nobel. So, a herstory response would be to elevate those women who did, which includes Marie Curie, twice. *laughter* and this also includes what we call recovery work, so the recovery of women who have been overlooked in our traditional retellings of science and, a little later, like Rebecca said earlier, we’re going to talk to Marilyn Ogilvie whose early work included this type of stuff on a pretty massive scale.
L: So another feminist response to look at this superficial assessment of women’s work in science and critique it in the way that it was the structures that favored male scientists over the women. So continuing with my Nobel example: this critique would not only looks at the gender bias that could be baked into the Nobel committee itself, but looks beyond even that to the larger social and cultural structures in place that kept women from practicing science on the same level as men. And this is something that we, we do a lot in the magazine.
L: And then another response is challenging the misogynistic and sexist interpretations of women that have been embedded in the historical narrative because it has been largely written by and about men. So this one confronts the misogyny of scientific institutions and well-known male figures, like Charles Darwin or Richard Feynman, who referred to women as “skirt” *laughter* and it argues for a gender analysis of scientific theories and scientific practice. So, Charles Darwin is a good example of that and how he integrated a lot of his own beliefs and you know, 19th century cultural beliefs about women into his theories about sexual selection and natural selection, more broadly. So that is yet another approach that we often utilize in the magazine is applying a gender analysis to scientific practice.
L: There are certainly others, but these give you an idea of just how much work goes into tearing down this great man narrative of history. Because it is literally everywhere. Even we have to structure our work considering it.
A: Yeah, so I think, this is with regard to what we do in the magazine. The herstory approach is something that we typically, we don’t do. Especially about figures that are already well known like, we don’t talk about Marie Curie unless it is to talk about how much we don’t want to talk about Marie Curie. Like, what I am doing right now. *laughter* but it also goes back to what Leila was saying about the way that, if you, if you pursue this kind of herstory revision of history, you end up looking for only women who have the same qualities of the great men. So there are very limited number of women who were able to reach the same level as men in certain period of time, and it gives you this false impression that there were only a certain number of women doing anything at that time, because you are looking for a very strict set of qualities that usually only applies to men. So I think that one of the most important things that we talk a lot about in the magazine is broadening our sort of search criteria for women and for us that means also broadening what we mean when we talk about science, because men mostly have decided what you mean when you say science. So that is something that feminist histories of science can redress as well as the definition of science. Which then, then you’re starting to talk about housewives and women who edited their husband’s books, things like that, as being practitioners. The herstory approach is like, it’s an essential first step. You have to be able to at least find some women to talk about at all because you need, you need those historical case studies to start building theory that you can use for other things. But, that is definitely a first step, and for the magazine at least, we try to push beyond that as much as possible.
L: Yeah, and I think that we do recognize that there, there is a lot of work out there that has already gone into recovering some of those really prominent women scientists that, that we know and because people are already covering them, I feel like it is really important to not let them take up all of the real estate in our public consciousness and to look beyond seeing history as the making of single people and single individuals. So if we’re, like I said, like Anna said, there are essential first steps, like recovering individual women like that. But if we are just switching out a female scientist or a female leader for, you know, putting that in the place of like, our male leaders or great man history, we are doing great women history. We are going to bump up against a lot of the same problems. Because at that point we are still going to be covering mostly white women, mostly upper class women, women who had the privileges that other women don’t. We are still overlooking huge classes of people as groups and so I don’t think that just switching out men and women in our historical narratives is going to really redress the misogyny that is built into you know, the historical record.
R: Yeah, I especially, we are taping this, right, the day after, two days after, international women’s day. And there was once again a lot of the quote, “well behaved women rarely make history,” going on around the internet, which is like, my bugaboo, fury point. Because it’s such a good quote in its actual context, which is, for those who don’t know, “Well behaved people rarely make history,” was a commentary by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, from I think a paper she wrote in grad school or something? Funnily enough. But a commentary on what we are talking about now, which is that everyday women, women who weren't elite, don’t end up in these traditional masculine historical records, and that is a problem, and so we should redefine what we think of as history so that well behaved women get recognized as well. And that does it mean that all of the ill behaved women are not worth studying, but it is important to rethink the structural issues underneath all of this.
A: Maybe a synthetic way to say that is that it requires, generally speaking, a lot of privilege and social and cultural advantage to break boundaries. So if we are only going to be focused only on people who are able to do that, we are only going to be focused on only a certain like, select elite slice of society.
R: One thing where I see this really structurally like, like literally structurally shows up is in historic preservation. The thing about a lot of funding and recognition in public history is that you have to spend a lot of time arguing about significance. That is not necessarily bad. It is good to like, prove why the government or anyone else should give you money to study or preserve or interpret a certain historical figure, but significance of course has built into it all of these great man ideas of history that we have been talking about. Including in, I am going to talk about in particular, National Historical Landmark Status. There is various historic preservation statuses, in the federal government, and that is the highest one, and it basically means that you can’t destroy something or you can only, like, you can, there’s something, you can like get your private residence on historical, national historical landmark status, it doesn't mean that it is publicly owned in any way, but it does mean that you can’t change it or you cannot significantly change it because it represents a historical something or other.
R: And there are a number of specific criteria that it is built on first and like, it, the, the criteria can be a combination of things, but the [three] main ones are, “sites where events of national historical significance occurred or 2. Places where prominent persons lived or worked, or 3. Icons of ideals that shaped the nation.” and then there are three more that are a little more social history friendly. “Outstanding, examples of designer by outstanding construction, places characterizing the way of life, or archaeological sites able to yield information.” So, as you can guess, its prob, it’s a lot easier to get especially the landmark status based on the first couple, then it is one the other ones.
R: So what does that mean for whose stories we can tell in kind of the built environment. It limits us, and, what I find most interesting is where different national historical landmarks or national register sites that are dedicated to famous sort of, famous women that sort of, great women of history types of places have been able to say, okay we are a museum, we are able to preserve because of this important herstory, but we are going to use that to talk about marginalized people. There is a few different historic houses that do this, one that I am going to mention real quick right now, is the Harriet Beecher Stowe house in Connecticut, is really interesting because they have a, you know, it is a historic house, you can go and take tours, and learn all about Harriet Beecher Stowe’s life and writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin. You can also go to lots of programs about both contemporary and the history of various racial and social justice initiatives. They spend, their mission is specifically focused on, in kind of, in the spirit of Harriet Beecher Stowe's interests in racial justice, we are going to keep talking about racial justice and marginalized people, so I think there are interesting ways that herstory approaches can be used to also critique and discuss these larger narratives that I think is really interesting.
A: By way of wrapping up, we just wanted to talk a little bit about the ways that this, as Rebecca and Leila both said, this stuff is still everywhere, this is still, we are still arguing about great man history on Twitter, of all places, maybe we can just talk a little bit about, the problem that I have with this still being so prevalent and sort of having to do, historical like public history whack-a-mole about it, is that how much oxygen it takes up from other projects like this. That we could be talking about or, lending our support to, So, I don’t know if you guys have any good examples of things that you have seen recently that has made you want to tear your hair out.
L: I do *laughter* because I-
R: Go for it
L: I’ve been grappling with this on Twitter the last couple of days. So the stuff that I do for Smithsonian magazine is I cover one woman a month, which kind of veers into the herstory thing that I was actually just criticizing a minute ago. But I really do try to choose women who have, who don’t actually fit into the herstory thing. So, for example, I’ve got a piece coming about, out about a woman who was doing science and cancer experiments in her barn, and so how she was operating on a kind of the fringes of, of science and of institutions to do the work that she wanted to do. So I try to add in kind of those critical feminist components, even if I am writing about individual women. Because I don’t choose to write about Marie Curie again and again and again and again, I get kind of, I’ve been criticized for that lately so, I guess not criticized, but more of the “well actually-ing” of everybody on the internet. So for Women’s History Month, they collected the articles that I have written and a few others have written about women in the history of science over the past year and made a collection out of them and they promoted it at the beginning of Women’s History Month, they bumped it on International Women’s Day, but on International Women’s Day, I got just, you know, people saying well, don’t forget about Marie Curie! Or don’t forget about Caroline Herschel! Or don’t forget about Maria Mitchell! Or don’t forget about, it just went on of all of these women that always without a doubt will pop up on a listicle of the “ten unsung women of science.” Like, we know about them. We know who these famous women are now. We can’t keep calling them unsung, when they each have like, you know, 100 dedicated biographies about them, when they are the only ones that appear on unsung lists, those are not the stories that I am interested in telling, but its like, if I don’t mention them, it's like, somehow an oversight on my end rather than a conscious choice for me to not write the same story about the same women over and over and over again. That’s been really frustrating for me anyways, the last couple of days, is just, I’m not even responding to those comments anymore. Or engaging them because I think that it’s silly and there is a lot of well actually component in it coming from men, that they know one famous female scientist and they want me to know about that.
R: In case you haven’t heard of these people
R: In case you are unaware.
L: One thing that Leila and I have talked a lot about and a little bit of public writing about is the cumulative effect of historians or history buff type people, like, I don't know, riding around twitter on their steeds of justice myth busting about Darwin and Galileo, it is like taking up more energy and time away from you know, histories we could write about unknown people or marginalized people and just spending so much time shrieking at people the temerity to believe something they read once about Galileo saying something to his tribunal that he shouldn't of said. And it is just like, huge discourse and publishing industries that revolve around these great man figures you've got your Darwin industry, there is a Galileo industry it is just one part of it. There is also this like, the way that it feeds into our conversation and our collective consciousness in, in the form of this like, minutia policing that is just overwhelming, so then, not only does the academic discourse become all about men, the popular history publishing industry becomes all about men, but just our sort of day to day impression of the history of the world is just about people defending Galileo from misinterpretation, or something like that. So I think it is important to think about it in terms of being prevalent at all levels of how we think about history, even just your sort of like, casual mention of some figure while you’re talking on Twitter and then someone gallops in there to tell you you’re wrong.
A: But they never gallop in there to tell you about a woman you never knew about, you know?
R: But they will gallop in to tell you about a woman that you are calling a scientist who they dont think is actually a scientist, which is the other thing that takes so much energy out of everything, is, you know what? I have complicated feelings about Ada Lovelace and how she is represented in popular culture, but like, can we talk about something besides arguing again about whether or not she was a computer programmer? And maybe just like talk about what she did do! Or, like, what she was actually like, or like, her crazy bat shit history because again, Victorians were crazy. But, instead, its like, oh do we have to wring our hands about whether dudes on the internet agree like, have agreed that we can call her a computer programmer?
A: And when you are talking about terminology like that, the people who I have seen in there being the most vocal about that, are really bringing a knife to a gun fight, because they are arguing with historians about this kind of terminology, like, if you want to have that argument with a historian, you're gonna have to do a little bit of reading
A: You can't just say that she wasn't a computer programming because you don't want the founder of your profession to have been a woman. You have to, if you want to have that discussion, then you need to, you know, you have to have tools to do it, and bring some nuance to it. Not that, you know , think that there’s some certain elitist about history, there is, and I don’t want to defend that, but, those are like actual historiographic discussions that you can have about, use of terminology from today for people in the past and things like that.
L: Right, I see this a lot with like, Hedy Lamarr, who this lead to some real interesting harassment of me on twitter last year, but so the, I mean, for a bite sized tweet, it typically goes around, “Hedy Lamarr invented wifi,” right? So we've kind of got two problematic things going on right there. Invented, and wifi.
L: And I, I appreciate that and I do think there needs to be some nuance there, but I think we also need to think about why we have to feel the need to describe women as inventors and discoverers and those types of glorified positions for us to care about them. We feel like we have to do that because that’s how we have cared about men. Those are the men that have gotten recognized, those are the ones that we love, those are the ones we care about, those are the heroes, whatever. So this is our attempt to get women the same recognition by ascribing those characteristics to them. And I think Hedy Lamarr is a really good example of that.
A: I think in the case of Hedy Lamarr, I think it is extra pernicious and extra sexist, the way that she is talked about, because you get these sort of narratives, I just listened to a review of the documentary that is coming out about her, yesterday and the way they were describing her is like, Not only was she a great beauty, which is apparently just not enough you know, you can be literally, she was called the most beautiful woman in the world, We still talk about, not only was she a great beauty, she was an inventor, which means that she’s extra worth our notice. Like, not only was she, she had a whole career as an actress, but now she is really worth our notice now, and we should recover her story now, because we have been able to label her as an inventor and that is something that we value. We don’t, as much as we think we do, we don’t actually value women for being beautiful, that’s not, we don’t consider that a contribution. This is a, you know, this is a real contribution, she is an inventor.
Right, and it doesn’t help that the movie is called Bombshell. Wasn’t that the name of Richard Rhodes book, too? Was Bombshell?
A: I think that’s what it’s adapted from.
R: I think so, that sounds right.
L: Oh, okay. Well, I mean, the cover of Richard Rhodes' book had her like, straddling a rocket or something, didn’t it?
A: A torpedo…
L: A torpedo! So, you know. I mean. So sure.
*displeased noises* *laughter*
L: We saw that it also happened with, oh just a funny anecdote, when Science Friday put out a tweet about Hedy Lamarr and described her as beautiful, and I like, jumped on that right away, and they changed it! They, they went and they changed the copy on, on that piece about her, so. Appreciate that, good on Science Friday. If you would like my consulting on your other stories on women in science, I am happy to step up for that! *laughter* But I also remember in Cosmos, the Neil Degrasse Tyson one, women got one episode. *Laughter*
R: The Lady Episode. Yep.
L: The Lady episode! And with Cecilia Payne and they described her as a beauty. I think it was,
L: Like, its just, its, its really, its *laughter* the way we talk about women in pop culture, women scientists in pop culture is really gross. *laughter* So I guess that’s a good place to end this segment and go ahead and bring in our guest.
L: So, our guest today is Marilyn Ogilvie. She is curator emeritus of the history of science collections at the University of Oklahoma, Professor of Bibliography Emeritus, and Professor Emeritus in the History of Science department. And she is the author of 3 books: Marie Curie: a Biography and Sweeping the Stars, The Story of Caroline Herschel, and the two volume Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science. And she is the co-author of another, A Dame Full of Vim and Vigor: A Biography of Alice Middleton Boring, an American Biologist in China.
L: It’s kind of special for me and Anna because we went to the University of Oklahoma for grad school, Anna is still there, and so, and that’s where Dr. Ogilvie hails from. Welcome to the podcast!
M: Thank you very much! It is good to be here!
A: So we have been talking about great man history, which I guess is the opposite of the kind of history that you write, and so, we just wanted to talk to you a little bit about your work and I guess the best place to start is where you started and, and if you could tell us a little bit about how you got into, how you, decided to become a historian, and were you always interested in studying women in science, in particular, maybe there’s an origin story there, a revelation you had, or a mentor, something that sparked your interest?
M: Okay, well, I got into the history of science by accident. I had been in East Africa for two years teaching, and we came back to Normand in order to, I thought, pursue, me pursue a PhD in Zoology. Well, and, I had, at that time, I had just one, 6 month, 6 month old baby, I thought that would be a good thing to do that, so I took a couple of zoology classes, then wandered over into the history of science collection, for somebody told me, they had a nice, a lot of books, interesting books, and so I thought I would take a reading course in that. And so anyway, that’s what happened and I got hooked. But the history of science that I took, I was totally, I totally bought into the Great Man Theory, because by our definition of science, well its, it is the attempt of man to explain natural phenomena by using, by creating a theory that explains a phenomena. Okay, I believed that, and after I did my dissertation on, actually, Robert Chambers and The Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, I thought I would be a historian of biology probably, We moved to Portland, Oregon, and I taught a class and it was a survey course in the history of science. And I assigned a paper, as is my wont, and I told them they could write about whatever they wanted to, but they should clear it with me. Well, a couple of girls came up after class and said, we thought we would write something on women in science and I thought, well that’s a good idea! Come back tomorrow, or our next class meeting and tell me what you decided! So, the next meeting after class was over, they trotted up to the front of the room and said, well, you know, we could only find one woman of science that we would like, and that was of course Marie Curie.
M: And I thought, Hmm, that’s strange, that’s the only one I can find! And so anyway, I thought, well that can’t be right, that just can’t be right. And now this had to be, let’s see, in, the 1970s. And, so, I thought well, I’ll just see what I can find. So I began the search to see if I could find some women in science. And that's what began, what, the first part of it culminated in the first biographical dictionary that I wrote by myself, and that one was published in 1986, and I came back to Norman, and how do you go about it? Well, I found, first of all, I had to have names, who were they? So I found a book that was published in 1913, I think the first edition by H J Mozans, called Women in Science. I can't remember exactly. But it was a pseudonym, he was a catholic priest, and he had gotten all of the names of these, of the women in science. Well, a little biography of them. So I started out there, I began making a list. I made a list of those and I found other biographical dictionaries and particularly women in medicine. And Kate Campbell Hurd-Mead was one in history of medicine, women in medicine, so I wrote those names down, and then I began a huge search and no computers. So, I would find, it was kind of a footnote trail that we were, know so much about, we would find one, and then you would follow the path to a, and that gives you a little bit of clues of where you’re gonna go, and by this time, it's beginning to be a kind of an in thing to do, I didn’t know it, when I was doing it to start out with, there were a lot of people beginning to work on women in science. So I found all of the secondary literature there, followed that up, used their bibliography footnotes to , to go to the primary sources pretty much. And then, any biographical dictionary that I found actually, the bibliographies helped me British Museum and the Bibliotheque Nationale and then the Library of Congress told me their works so then I would work with that and then all of the women in the ancient sources in plenty, and found these little squibs of information and I wanted to get as much as I could from there so I ended up with, I'm not sure how many, 180 some women in science when this biographical dictionary was published in 1986. And I had really good luck with getting that published because I met June Goodfield who you all may know who did a lot of work in women in science, and she was in Norman Oklahoma and I was in some sort of a party where she was, and we got to talking, and I told her what I was doing and she was like, Oh! She says, May I see it? And I said, Well it is kind of not in any shape to be seen yet, but sure! And she said, Why don’t I come over to your house for breakfast the next morning! *Gasp* Junie Goodfield in my house for breakfast, oh boy! So she did come over and she was so helpful. She’s British. And she said, well I know Everett, Everett Mendelsohn at Harvard. So she talked to him and that's when I got, He suggested that I try MIT Press and that is when the very first bio-bibliography I guess of women in science was out. But after that got published, there was so much known, particularly by this time, Margaret Rossiter has published the first of her three volumes on women in science and she had got around to every archive that you could imagine and got information there. So of course thought, that is an excellent thing, so I latched on to what I could from her work and began to get a lot more women and I thought my 180 some women that I had started out with, that's just skimming the surface, and so Routledge Press contacted me and said, we would like to have a dictionary of about 2,000 women in science, and I said, Okkkay I'll do it. And then of course obviously I was not going to be able to do the research on all of these so it became an edited volume and my good friend Joy Harvey was interested in it as well so she and I, worked, I don’t know how many hours getting the, writing the, biographies, and then we would ask other people to contribute to it, and we had a lot of contributors to it as well, so we got very close to our goal there of the numbers, its just, its amazing how that field has changed. So. That is sort of a brief something or other of how I got to where I got.
R: Well, speaking about how the field has changed, I am curious, what was the, what was the reception to some of the work that you and your colleagues started doing about women in the history of science and do you think that the reception to work like that has changed over the last 40 years or so?
M: Oh yeah, I think it definitely has. Again, I, I was sort of naive, I was a newly minted PhD when I started all of this. I, it, here it certainly, we were not teaching any courses at the University of Oklahoma, that had to do with women in science, because actually women weren't scientists, you know, *laughter* that was kind of an oxymoron. And so, I, it was so gradual that I began to go to the history of science society meetings and they began to increase their interest in women in science and there were various sessions, but they were kind of segregation sessions actually, mostly women, mostly women, in the women in science sessions and, but again, it has changed to such a great degree I think it, I think what has been done, there is lots of biographies now, in fact I have one out, going to be published, I should be having the proofs right now, on Margaret Nice who was an american ornithologist, and there are lots, so many biographies on women scientists that are there today, and we have to, it means we broaden our definition of what science is. We talk about not just what the actual theoretical science is but all of the things that make this science possible, and so many women are involved in that. It would be impossible to do a biographical dictionary, and thank goodness for computers to get everybody there. And to even the, after our 2000 one, we missed I don't know how many women, up to our cut off point there. So.
A: So I wanted to ask a little more specifically about evidence and sources and we were talking about how part of the reason we have this great man history is that all of these great men have so many letters and their own published works and just, so many sources to draw and a lot of times like you just said we are talking about women who were not considered to be practicing science anyway, so if they had correspondence it wasn't saved because they were just secretaries so I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what kinds of sources we have to look at when we are trying to recover these women’s stories.
M: That is so true because even in the, the biographical dictionaries, general dictionaries, for instance, Poggendorff, which has all of the European scientists, there are very many, there are very few women in there, I had to search through it all, and also in the college archives, often times they didn’t save the works of the women scientists, they just weren't there, and you had to really work around that to find anything and of course some, from some antiquity, women used men’s names in order to get their works published and we don’t know how many of those were there, we know that Lavoisier’s wife probably did an awful lot of the work that he was credited for, we also know that in Plato’s academy, there were a couple of, at least supposedly, there were couple of women who dressed as men and so that they could be accepted at Plato's academy, and then we had there were, women had different strategies, some very clever in order to get their works published, and then there was the idea of women’s work. And home economics was an area where women could do chemistry. It was acceptable there and they could even get academic positions. Women could do observational kinds of work in astronomy, particularly thinking of the Harvard College Observatory who hired a bunch of women computers to do their work. Well, by digging into that, we were able to find, or I was able to find some biographical information, there is some very very, wonderful, there is a wonderful recent book on those computers. Thats out now and, and I really appreciate that because it was so difficult to get to that when I was working on them. And then Britain, the same thing, the women’s colleges where the history of men gave an awful good idea of how and why women were not being accepted but, if you dig in you would find out that they were! Tremendously complicated situation, they are there, but finding them, and its, seeing what strategies both the women used to get their works published or out there whether it was published or not and also another thing was the idea of collaborating with a male partner, usually it was a husband, maybe it was a brother, and but the women very seldom got the credit. The male partner did. But then you got in, and when you would look at their actual works, and I tried to do that, you would see wow, is that what she did?
R: Early on, both earlier in the, just the three of us were talking and when you were talking about your work, Marie Curie has come up a lot, in terms of the one, like, woman in science that people think of, and thankfully because of the work that you have done and scholars like you have done, there are many other women that are recognized both in scholarship, but even a little bit more in popular culture as important women in science, are there any figures that you, in particular, like, what, who is someone, a woman from the history of science that you wish was more popularly known or understood?
M: Well, I am going to tell you Margaret Nice. *laughter* She was a woman who, her father was a history professor and her mother was well educated. She had gone to Mount Holyoke and had gotten a degree, but her major interests were society things that women, proper women’s work that they were, and then, but then the kids, she had, Margaret had a number of siblings and they kind of ran loose and had all kinds of things, and but her mother’s goal was for her to marry and have a family. Well, she wasn't going to have any of that. So, she went to Clark College and was majoring there but, she met her future husband, they married, and she ended up having five little girls, and she never finished her PhD, and he did, he was a physiologist, but he eventually got a job in Norman Oklahoma, so that’s how margaret came to come, came to Norman, and she, its amazing at how she managed to kind of, I want to say con her male colleagues into accepting her, because she wasn’t, she was neither too obnoxious about it all, but she was very sneaky and got their, and got their help. She never finished her degree, but she became the expert on Song Sparrows and she, well, she was well known, internationally, with Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen, they all let the well known well known animal behaviorists thought that she was just, the cat’s meow, but I’m old. So she became very good friends of theirs and Anged Meyer, so all of these relationship between her needs to be out there, it shows that she was able to juggle the family and the research as well. Now, one of her daughters didn't think she did it as well as she might of, she wrote an account about mommy dearest autobiography about her mother, but it, but her children and grandsons, who are now still around, had been very very helpful in this. She is just a fascinating person because of all of the strands that she managed to juggle and that is something we find throughout history. They are not just scientists, the men pretty much can go ahead and do their thing, but women, no! *Laughter*
L: Well I have just one last, I guess, wrap up question, do you , I mean, where do you see the field kind of going next? Like, what work do you still see that needs to be done or what is really the historians need to be doing to continue the work?
M: Well I think that basically we need to keep doing what we are doing, not so much the biographical dictionary, the kind of thing that I started out doing, but working in detail of the scientist life, women or men, and seeing how the cultural, how culture is accepting, will accept women. I think it has changed so much just within my lifetime and its, which is a good long one, but I remember when I was a graduate student at KU, I didn’t know whether I wanted to go on, but I couldn’t go on for a Ph.D there because women, our major professors, didn’t think women had any business there, cuz they are going to get married and just waste all of that money and time you put into them. Besides, one of their requirements for these field scientists was to spend the summer in Mexico, and it was not a good thing cuz the women, well one woman, she couldn’t go in there with all of those men, what would you do about a bathroom? Honestly, that is what he said. So. *laughter* Anyway. So, things have changed, Things have changed and I think they will continue to change, I hope, and, but, it does, and I think it is more not just having a separate women in science field, but have women integrated into the entire history of science. Their place is there, it is not an isolated sub-section of it, but I think it is a very integral part of the history of science. So I think that is where, I hope that is where we go, and again it is part of the general cultural involved there too.
R: That seems like a fabulous note to end on
L: Yeah I think so, it was such a pleasure to have you on, thank you so much for talking with us about your work and the field that we care so deeply about.
M: Well thank you so much! It's been fun! It's been great fun! And you’re doing great things I think.
ONE ANNOYING THING
A: At the end of every podcast, hosts will unburden themselves with one thing in the news, their work, or the world in general that’s just annoying the crap out of them. So, this is one annoying thing.
L: The annoying thing that I have for us to talk about today is Mark Zuckerberg's 30 million dollar donation to Harvard and MIT for literacy programs. So, according to a reported piece from QZ that describes this “The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), which Zuckerberg co-founded with his wife Priscilla Chan, is giving a $30 million grant to the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Integrated Learning Initiative to launch Reach Every Reader. The program is a five-year initiative to build a web-based screening tool that diagnoses reading problems before kids can even read, and to develop a set of home and school interventions that personalize literacy support for kids, parents, and teachers…The group’s will create a web-based assessment that will initially be given to about 2,000 students, identifying issues like poor phonological processing (related to memory and retrieval), vocabulary problems, and listening comprehension. Struggling readers will be identified and tracked into the future to see whether the interventions they get actually help, and whether the original diagnosis was correct.”
L: GO! *laughter*
R: So, there is a very telling quote in the press release on the Harvard Graduate school of education site from the MIT president about what they are hoping this will do that I think is going to sum up pretty well everything that we have wrong, everything we think is wrong about this. The quote is, “ At MIT, we approach problems as scientists as engineers. By seeking to understand the brain science about how learning happens, and by building innovative technologies and solutions to help.”
A: Great. I think this idea that approaching a scientist is the not only is it the, the assumption that it is the best way to approach a problem, but it is the most, it is the approach with the most moral clarity. Like, we are scientists, and we will take care of this. Okay, trust us. AHhhh You can’t just build an app for everything. You can’t. There are somethings that an app is not the solution for. I mean, obviously, this is something Zuckerberg would be interested in right,? A web screening app that will solve all problems. He is clearly invested in this idea that you can just build web technology and solve people’s problems because that is how he made his fortune and all of his problems were solved that way.
A: It strikes me as a technocratic solution to a social problem, which, to me, is probably about paying teachers better? And alleviating like, poverty, for these students, those things would probably contribute much more to improving their performance in school and reading. But as usual, in this country, that is not something we would prioritize when we can, instead of spending however much it would cost to pay all of the teachers in this country appropriately and alleviate poverty for children in the wealthiest country in the world, we can just have Mark Zuckerberg dump 30 million dollars on two of the most well endowed universities on the planet, and then we don’t have to think about all of the social stuff underlying what's probably going on here.
L: Another thing about this, is this idea of testing to see who is going to have testing with literacy before kids can even read is a big problem because the things that affect a person’s and a child’s literacy has a lot to do with social environments and putting an app into someone’s life when they are living in an impoverished neighborhood or a neighborhood that has a lot of violence and stuff like that, that’s not fixing the social ill that is interrupting this child’s ability to have lieracy, is not taking into the whole picture of what makes a person and what makes a person be able to have a literacy and good education and this just you know, of course, like, you said it Anna, a technocratic solution to a social problem.
A: It is also a medicalized solution to a social problem. They are talking about diagnosing this children and pathologizing their inability to read when they are too young to read, so not only is that cruel and it relocates what our social and environmental concerns on to the body of the child themselves. They are also talking about tracking this into the future, and like, this is like it will become a stigmatized diagnosis that will stick with these kids throughout their education. They were identified as poor readers before they could even read and they had to have all of this extra intervention and it will go in their file and you know, I have personal experience with this. I like, not, in a different way, I wasn't pathologized as a kid, but I was labeled as gifted and talented, but it is still another way of creating a difference among kids, it's like rooted in something they have no control over. So you are sort of sorting very young children into groups based on these...
L: Arbitrary measurements
A: Yeah, arbitrary measurements, this quantification of these abilities that haven't even fully manifested yet. Its gross! I find this very upsetting.
L: Right, and giving it to Harvard and MIT students as like a fun little research project.
A: I should just say that Harvard’s endowment is 37 billion dollars, and I think Harvard could fund its own project themselves if they wanted to. Zuckerberg could give his money to someone who doesn't have 37 billion dollars. BILLION. DOLLARS *laughter*
R: Yeah. And okay so you diagnosis the kids. Diagnose, and I want to throw up a little putting it that way, but what do you do next.
L: So I am glad you both are talking about what comes next. Because I am going to tell you what comes next.
R: Oh god.
A: I am terrified now.
L: Once the child has been diagnosed, the personalized learning kicks in. The group will develop and deliver two interventions. One for kids and caregivers who are reading at home, and one for kids and educators. Both interventions will have an app that is personalized for children and adults. Children can choose the content they want, reading about athletes, musicians, or scientists, for example. The app will also deliver content tailored to reading problems identified in their screening.
R: I mean,this goes back to your point earlier, to like, what we were kind of circling around and discussing earlier, about the reason why kids, a lot of kids don't, don't like, like there is poor literacy in a lot of schools and is because the kids are dealing with like, violence and hunger and home insecurity and racism and all of these things that make like, learning to read not maybe as important because you gotta like, if this is some like real basic like Maslov’s hierarchy of needs shit, like you're not gonna think, put that much like, cognitive work, consciously or unconsciously into reading when you are a very young child who is like, afraid for -
L: Yeah, and that's also, this is also assuming not just on the teacher end, that they have an iPad for every student. I mean, a lot of, if there is a school that does have an ipad, sometimes it is one iPad for an entire class of 30 kids right. But also like, on the parents side of this, like, a lot of times, when I was working in schools and a lot of schools that I worked in in one part of the city, a lot of the students were bilingual, but a lot of the parents only spoke Spanish, and so like, how are parents supposed to know how to you know, work this intervention when there's somewhat of a language barrier there. Like, it is really, I mean there is just so many different factors going on here, that they are making assumptions about what these schools look like, what these homes look like where these kids are coming from.
R: And one more thing that occurs to me just going back to kind of our, our regular theme of Silicon Valley reinventing things that already exist. So, basically this is just testing reading levels, giving kids more stuff to read, that is at their reading level, that they might want to read. *Laughter* This is very very very basic idea of how to solve childhood literacy that educators have been doing in various forms successfully and unsuccessfully, again depending on the social context for forever. And, it is just honestly super duper basic and like, it goes back to you know, whole reading theories and all the stuff about like give kids lots of time reading and they will be able to read better. Which inherently is not a problematic idea, there is actually a lot out there, if I remember correctly, says that it is a good thing, that it actually does help, but just the fact that they are putting this shiny tech sheen on it, on a very basic idea of how we can improve literacy is just classic Silicon Valley.
A: Yeah, and well so next there will be a special Uber for kids to get to school instead of school buses.
A: Uber but for your school bus.
L: Well maybe that is what we will be able to talk about!
R: Yeah, dare I say it.
L: So, that’s a good place for us to put a pin in it. So, anyway.If you liked our episode today, leave us a rating and a review on Apple Podcasts so that new listeners can find us. If you have questions about any of the segments today, tweet us at @ladyxscience or #ladyscipod. For show notes, episode transcripts, to sign up for a monthly newsletter, read monthly issues, pitch us an idea, and more, visit ladyscience.com. We are an independent magazine and that means we depend on the support from our readers and listeners. You can support us through a monthly donation with Patreon through a one time donation or, nope, that's it. That's all we got.. Just visit ladyscience.com/donate. And until next time, you can find us on facebook @ladysciencemag and on twitter @ladyxscience.