Happy Ada Lovelace Day everyone! This is the day to celebrate women in science, technology, engineering and maths, and I decided to do it by reading Patricia Fara’s wonderful Pandora’s Breeches: Women, Science and Power in the Enlightenment.

At the core of the Age of Enlightenment (18th century) is the belief that only through the power of reason could man advance knowledge. Its defenders promoted the use of intelligence and logic on a wider scale and generally challenged any religious or political established beliefs.

This had a huge impact on science: alchemy and astrology were discredited and experimentation (empiricism), intellectual interchange and scientific rigor became the new norm. It was also an Age that embrassed the legend of the hero-scientist, who single-handed propelled science one step forward (e.g. Newton, Descartes, Liebniz). In her introduction to Pandora’s Breeches, Patricia Fara starts by busting this myth, both male and female:

Instead of focusing exclusively on great minds and great ideas, historians are now more interested in examining how science has entered everyday life. (…) In romanticized versions of the past, science progresses in uneven leaps as solitary geniuses make momentous discoveries in their disinterested search for truth. (…) When historians focus on famous individuals, they leave out many vital people who made science central to everyday life.

In seeing the history of science in this perspective, Fara defends that although women may have been excluded from the traditional historical record, it doesn’t mean they were excluded from scientific activity during that period. In this group of unsung people, Fara also includes the technicians and administrators who made the work of the “super-heros of the modern age” or “scholarly gladiators” possible from behind the curtain. If scientific development is seen as a communal effort, then women’s role becomes much more evident, both in the past and in the present. Fara’s book is her contribution to the rewriting of scientific history to include these forgotten contributors.

The nine women that Fara uses as examples are an extraordinary bunch. Not only for their fascinating lives, but they’re so different that together they destroy all conventional images of the woman scientist. Some of Fara’s women could be considered proto-feminists, but others defended that women should remain in the domestic realm; some made actual scientific discoveries, while others translated the works of their male relatives, wrote books that brought science to the masses or were patrons of scientists; some received awards and public recognition, others all but fell into oblivion; some were happily married mothers, others died single by choice; some where humble and masochistic, others vain and hot-headed.

Gender equality should not imply yet another series of female stereotypes, like the widely popular tom-boy-who-shuns-all-things-girly – what Jodie called “excepto-girls”. Instead, history (and all other narratives) should reflect the real variety of women out there:

In well-intentioned pastiches of the past, scientific women emerge as cardboard cutouts – the selfless helpmate, the source of inspiration, the dedicated assistant who sacrifices everything for the sake of her man and the cause of science. On the other hand, over-compensation – glorifying women as lone pioneers, as unrecognized geniuses – also has its drawbacks.

Although Pandora’s Breeches doesn’t ignore the injustice and discrimination these women faced, what really made me love this book was that it doesn’t pity them either. Fara sets out to unearth the untold stories of female participation in scientific developments but she makes sure we understand their true and real importance by placing them in context.

If only they had been man, one cans almost hear their biographers sigh, then their true brilliancy would have been recognized. Prominent examples include Aspasia of Miletus, Hypatia of Alexandria and Hildegard of Bingen. All exceptional women, without doubt, but it is misleading to celebrate them as suppressed scientists. Modern science bears little resemblance to intellectual pursuits of ancient Greece, fifth-century Egypt or Benedictine monasteries. Those women certainly deserve to be honored, but only within the framework of their contemporaries. There is no point in distorting women’s importance by exaggerating their activities.

Without Émilie du Châtelet (my favorite of the Pandora’s Breeches women*) books and translations, Newton’s theories wouldn’t have been so widely accepted. Caroline Herschel was the devoted assistant of her brother William, who discovered Uranus. Jane Marcet‘s Conversations on Chemistry inspired Michael Faraday’s pioneering career and he remembered her throughout his life as his first teacher. These are different contributions that shouldn’t forgotten, underestimated or seen as less important than other male achievements. They just happened not to be the subject of historians’ attention.

Fara’s final chapter on Mary Shelley and Frankenstein will be especially interesting to book-lovers. She points out the conflicts in Shelley’s own mind about the place of women in the world and more importantly, the role of science itself. Her doubts continue to resonate today, when we’re still debating about “Frankenfood” and the dangers of opening Science’s Pandora’s Box.

My only uneasiness about the book was the structure. In each chapter Fara pairs a woman with a famous man and then demonstrates how the first influenced the work of the second.  If it was me (I hate this expression), I’d make an introduction underlining that indeed several male scientists were greatly impacted by the women in their lives, but then talk about these women by themselves.

Whether you’re interested in the history of science, the Enlightenment period, women’s studies or just curious about the lives of the men and women Fara use as examples, Pandora’s Breeches will have something to offer you. It aims high – “Rather than creating new female heroines, it has undermined conventional views of the past by attacking the very concept of heroism in science” – but I was both immediately attracted and sold to the idea.

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*
She was Voltaire’s lover. Here’s what he wrote to a mutual friend when Émilie gave birth to her daughter:

“Mme du Châtelet informs you that this night, being at her desk working on Newton, she felt a little call. The little call was a daughter, who appeared in an instant. She was laid on a quarto book of geometry.”

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