WISRNet is launched!

Professor Ludmilla Jordanova launched formally the Women in Science Research Network at a Reception at the Manchester Museum on Wednesday 24 July (during the ICHSTM conference at Manchester University).

The evening was a great success with historians and archivists from all over the world joining us to network and work together to recover and research the history of women in science – and to make a difference to the number of women entering science today. The event took place in the impressive Fossil Gallery of the Manchester Museum. Read Professor Jordanova’s inspirational speech – and see photographs from the launch – below.

Speech to launch WISRNet, given at the Manchester Museum, 24 July 2013.

By Professor Ludmilla Jordanova:

LudmillaJordanova8129It is a great honour to be asked to speak at the launch of this important network, which has, in fact, already started its work. I have long been interested in the roles and perceptions of women in ‘science’ broadly defined, in the capacity of analyses of ‘gender’ to inform scholarship and contribute to social change, and in the ways in which historians can contribute to the debate.  I say the debate, but in fact there are many conversations that touch on this issue: multiple conversations took place in the past as in the present.  Part of the challenge, indeed, is in working out which conversations and which areas of social, cultural, economic and political life are capable of generating most insight into gendered phenomena such as the marked underrepresentation and under-recognition of women in science.

The network is focused on the relationships between women and learned societies over close to two centuries.  The roles of learned societies are fundamental for any understanding of ‘science’, particularly since the seventeenth century.  Of course the ways in which knowledge was shared, evaluated and disseminated by them were vital, but it is arguable that their cultural impact was even greater, through their capacity to recognize, reward and represent scientific achievements.  They did so through portraiture, for example.  It is far too simple to say that such societies reflect prevailing values, since they also symbolize and shape them.  Hence learned scientific societies have special responsibilities in an age that instinctively feels strongly about ‘equal opportunities’.  In support of this point, we might cite the widespread puzzlement and dismay in the face of the muddle the Church of England has got itself into about women Bishops.  Most people seem to think that once you have women priests, it is illogical to preclude them from becoming bishops.  Similarly, once you have equal access to science training and careers for women, they should logically be rising to the top of their professions, especially since there are no equivalent formal barriers to prevent them from doing so.  The fact that, like most professions, those connected with science have a sharply pyramidal gender structure, requires explanation.  While I think it is exceptionally challenging to provide such explanations, I feel sure that this network will make a major contribution to our understanding of this perplexing phenomenon.

In mentioning strong, widely held feelings about equal opportunities, we need, however, to acknowledge other, darker phenomena.  I have no doubt at all that many forms of sexism have become far worse in recent years even if the reasons are far from obvious.  The choices of clothes and toys for boys and girls have become far more stereotyped than they were thirty years ago.  It is true that groups are challenging this, but equally true that stereotypes remain entrenched, and we see this especially with respect to toys and entertainments connected with ‘science’.  It is also the case that women in the public eye are a target for demeaning comments in ways that men in equivalent situations are not.  Projects on women and science have to grapple with images of science, femininity, and masculinity, which are notoriously hard to get a grip on.  So at issue here are some of the most urgent questions of contemporary life.

Historical approaches in all their richness have a vital part to play helping us to think about such complex phenomena.  For example, the network will focus one of its workshops on oral histories.  Done well, this approach is capable of exploring the subtle complexities of human experience, providing a real sense of the textures of people’s lives.  This is vital if we accept the importance of analysing social practices in any account of ‘science’.   But just as significant is the network’s emphasis on the longue durée.  We really do need to think about patterns of gender distinctions over extended periods of time, not least in order to consider the ways in which large scale changes, for instance, in education, employment, legislation and culture may be operating.   Such an approach is intellectually valuable, and it is also politically important.

For me, one of the striking aspects of the network is its aspiration to inform policy-making.  In this respect it is in harmony with a growing interest among historians in their capacity to have an impact on public life.  We might think, for example, of the History and Policy website, now run out of King’s College, London, which seeks to bring historians and policy makers together, and to demonstrate some of the ways in which historical understanding can help civil servants and politicians think more rigorously about the past (and its interpretation), given that it is invoked so often and so freely to support virtually all imaginable ideological positions.

Learned societies enjoy prestige, and this is especially true of the Royal Society, a widely recognized ‘brand’, which commands huge respect in public life.  It is therefore greatly to be welcomed that they are so closely involved with the network.  Its own history reveals, not least through their fantastic archives, a great deal about the changing status of women in science, which must remain a matter of urgent concern.  But why must it?  Why do we worry about the under-representation of women in key occupations?  I ask because it is part of the historian’s craft to question what is taken for granted.

If women wish to do something, anything, it seems important to allow, encourage them – we know that the thirst for knowledge of nature has never been the sole preserve of men.  We also know that a sense of pride in women’s achievements has long been important for at least some other women, and men.  There is a very long history to books about women’s achievements that testify as much.   We know too that girls need role models, that identification is a powerful phenomenon, hence the interest, ideally not uncritical, in heroines.  These are all valid points, but I think there are further elements.  It is commonly recognized that doing science, especially at the highest levels, is special, that it requires kinds of intelligence, creativity, and commitment that are exceptional.  Furthermore, it is obvious that in terms of the ways in which human societies have been transformed historically, science has played a fundamental role.  These are human stories in which both sexes have participated to shape current regimes of knowledge and power.  Phrases connecting knowledge and power are perhaps trite now, but that does not make them any less true.  Sure we have to unravel forms of power and forms of knowledge, just as we have to unpick ‘gender’.  But in the end, however much we critique both ‘science’ and ‘gender’, we want women to play as full a role as possible in the most authoritative forms of knowing that there are.  This desire does not logically entail claims that men and women are the same – whatever that might mean – nor that nature versus nurture needs to be sorted out – which may well be impossible to do.  Rather it involves on the one hand a faith in the capacities of women and on the other the conviction that understanding their history is essential.

I fully accept that, by setting the network in this context, I am giving it, I hope not inappropriately, a utopian tinge.  Other views might well deploy notions of patriarchy and suggest its resistance to change. But since the network aspires to connect historical analysis to contemporary understanding, it seems to me that ‘hope’ is the appropriate mode.

If this network can enhance and extend our understanding of the intricate ways in which gender, science, history, institutions and public life are interwoven, it will make a very significant contribution indeed.  And let us not be afraid to applaud the thoughtful feminism that necessarily underlies such a project.  Societies will be much the poorer if women do not achieve their potential, and the history of science can, through this network, play a creative and politically engaged role through rigorous scholarship.  Please join me in wishing this important initiative every possible success.







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