The destination for history

Women in STEM: From unacknowledged helpers to feted pioneers


It would be completely wrong to say that women have not participated much in science historically or that Caroline Herschel was among the first. A much truer claim would be to say that women have always participated in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) but that their contributions have, for centuries, been unacknowledged, trivialised or simply labelled anything other than science.

In early modern chemistry (in heavy industries like brewing, for example) women often dominated up until the seventeenth century, when men began to take over. As a female-dominated industry, brewing tended to be regarded as a part of cooking; once men became involved, it came to be regarded as a more scientific and industrial process.

In medicine, similarly, where women dominated, practices tended to be labelled as domestic, part of the overall process of caring; male involvement in medicine, meanwhile, was regarded as professional and analytical. In later periods too, women were often involved in scientific practice, but convention dictated that only very few participants in that process received credit. Robert Boyle, for example, known to schoolchildren everywhere for Boyle’s Law (describing the relationship between pressure, volume and temperature in a gas), carried out grand experiments in his home. He wrote them up, describing his work as though he was the only one there, yet he had a team of assistants and technicians helping him. Just as servants were invisible to people of Boyle’s class, so too were the multitude of scientific helpers that made their work possible.

The help of servants, assistants, technicians, wives, sisters and daughters was very much taken for granted in science right up until the late nineteenth century. History has only recently begun to grudgingly acknowledge that these men could only have achieved what they did by virtue of the team of predominantly female relatives and servants keeping them clean and fed, helping them in the laboratory and tending to their social networks. Looking more closely at these women and the work they performed, the line between domestic help and scientific help gets increasingly blurred.

As the centuries progressed women became less self-effacing and more likely to have their work not only acknowledged but valued. The quotes below show how women’s attitudes to their work have changed and how they feel about the role of science in the world.


Your having thought [my work] worthy of press has flattered my vanity not a little.’ - Caroline Herschel


‘Imagination is the Discovering Faculty, pre-eminently ... It is that which feels & discovers what is, the REAL which we see not, which exists not for our senses... Mathematical science shows what is. It is the language of unseen relations between things... Imagination too shows what is ... Hence she is or should be especially cultivated by the truly Scientific, those who wish to enter into the worlds around us!’ - Ada Lovelace


‘We must not forget that when radium was discovered no one knew that it would prove useful in hospitals. The work was one of pure science. And this is a proof that scientific work must not be considered from the point of view of the direct usefulness of it. It must be done for itself, for the beauty of science, and then there is always the chance that a scientific discovery may become like the radium a benefit for humanity.’ - Marie Curie

‘You look at science (or at least talk of it) as some sort of demoralising invention of man, something apart from real life, and which must be cautiously guarded and kept separate from everyday existence. But science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated. Science, for me, gives a partial explanation for life. In so far as it goes, it is based on fact, experience and experiment.’ - Rosalind Franklin

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