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How the Matilda Effect Explains Why Brilliant Women Were Erased From History

Katie Jgln 11-14 minutes 3/27/2024

And why its consequences are still felt today

Katie Jgln

The Noösphere

Image licensed from Shutterstock

The Polish physicist — and my fellow countrywoman — Marie Curie, née Maria Skłodowska, is one of the most famous female scientists today, but she very nearly wouldn’t be.

The Nobel committee that eventually awarded Marie, together with her husband, Pierre Curie, the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903 for their study into spontaneous radiation initially wanted to exclude her simply because she was a woman, which meant that her contributions to the field would’ve been entirely attributed to Pierre.

However, one of the nominating committee members, Swedish mathematician Magnus Goesta Mittag-Leffler, wrote to Pierre advising him of the situation. He then complained to the committee and demanded Marie’s name to be added to his nomination. And the rest is history.

(I have a hunch, though, that if Marie weren’t a married woman, this situation would’ve played out quite differently.)

Another brilliant physicist, Lise Meitner, born in Austria to a Jewish family, who discovered nuclear fission — the splitting of atoms that led to the development of nuclear energy and atomic weapons — wasn’t as lucky. It was her collaborator, Otto Hahn, who took home a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1944 for their work. And that’s in part because he downplayed her role in it. According to Marissa Moss, the author of a recent book about Meitner, Hahn referred to her in his acceptance speech with a German term that means… ‘assistant.’

Many other scientists, inventors, and thinkers who also happened to be women in times when it was still frowned upon for them to pursue these ‘unlady-like’ professions were even less lucky. And while their work might’ve been just as brilliant as that of their male counterparts or shaped the world we live in today, we’ll likely never know their names. At best, we only know the names of men who took credit for their accomplishments.

In fact, this erasure of women is a pretty well-established pattern.

And there’s even a name for it: the Matilda Effect.

In 1883, American suffragist and abolitionist Matilda Joslyn Gage published an essay titled ‘Woman as an Inventor’ in the North American Review, criticising the often repeated belief that ‘women possess no inventive or mechanical genius.’ To make her point, Gage cited several examples of women inventors, some of whom, she argued, had their work wrongly attributed to men.

However, it wasn’t until a century later that Cornell University science historian Margaret W. Rossiter dubbed this denial of recognition to women scientists ‘the Matilda Effect.’ And the more historians and other scholars dug into this pattern, the clearer it became — and not only within science.

After all, this assertion that women simply don’t ‘possess’ genius-like qualities, repeated ad nauseam in one form or another since the Greco-Roman times, didn’t just result in the disdain for women’s work but also the near-total exclusion of women from scientific and creative fields.

For centuries, women couldn’t attend higher education — before leaving for France, Marie Curie applied to Kraków University in Poland but was rejected for being a woman — couldn’t start their own businesses or own property — anything a woman owned was legally her husband’s possession until the mid-19th century — and couldn’t file for patents — unless they were unmarried, but even then it wasn’t an easy path. Even a woman seeming ‘intellectual’ was considered ‘unlady-like’ and ‘rude.’

And while some women tried to bypass all these patriarchal hurdles, not many succeeded, and among those who did, hardly any actually made it to history books.

Some of them had their ideas stolen by men. Rosalind Franklin, a British chemist, made the monumental discovery of the double helix — the description of the structure of a DNA molecule — but it was first credited to James Watson and Francis Crick, who took the research from her lab without permission. Margaret Knight, a self-taught American engineer, invented a machine that enabled the mass manufacture of flat-bottomed bags, but her design was stolen and patented by a man called Charles Annan.

Some others didn’t have much luck and died without any recognition for their contributions. Ada Lovelace, a British mathematician, was the first to publish a computer program, but her work was largely ignored and forgotten about for nearly 100 years. Lizzie Magie, an American game designer and writer, created the world-famous board game we today know as Monopoly, but she died in relative obscurity. And the patent for her game was later filed by Charles Darrow. (If it weren’t for an economics professor, Ralph Anspach, accidentally uncovering Maggie’s identity during his research, we wouldn’t know that either.)

Some women also didn’t have much luck during their lives, but at least after their deaths their work was attributed to… men. This happened, for instance, to Italian physician Trotula and French botanist Jeanne Baret.

Even women who tried to take credit for their own work were frequently doubted and not considered ‘real’ scientists, inventors or artists. When Margaret Knight filed a patent infererence lawsuit against the man who stole her design, his defence was that ‘she could not possibly understand the mechanical complexities of the machine.’ Ultimately, Knight won the lawsuit and invented 80 other industrial machines, including a rotary engine.

But while these women were eventually recognised for their contributions, how many more brilliant women have we never heard of and, most likely, never will? And how many women we only know as ‘assistants’ or ‘helpful wives of genius men’ — like Einstein’s first wife, Mileva Einstein Marić, Serbian physicist and mathematician — were actually as brilliant, if not more, as the men we praise today?

Yes, all of this does matter.

And perhaps more than we realise.

None of this would be as disconcerting if it was commonly believed that women indeed contributed plenty to the world we live in today.

But that’s just not the case, is it?

If anything, countless people continue to insist that it’s men — particularly white men, because, of course — who built this world and invented everything in it, and so women should be grateful for all their hard work instead of trying to argue that, actually, we accomplished things, too. And the bad news is, this doesn’t just result in headaches for anyone with a proper knowledge of history.

One of the most glaring consequences of the Matilda Effect today is that there aren’t exactly many female role models. Even the brilliant women whose achievements were eventually recognised are largely missing from our history books, textbooks, statutes, busts, portraits and, generally speaking, public memory.

According to research by the National Women’s History Alliance, in the 1980s, less than 3% of educational materials in the US focused on women’s contributions to society. More recently, the Smithsonian’s calculations found that of the 737 individual historical figures taught in schools, only 178 are women. In the UK, teaching about women’s history isn’t even compulsory. And only 2.7% of statues are of historical, non-royal women.

Women are still largely invisible.

And the harmful stereotypes about women’s abilities that led to this invisibility are still alive and well today, too.

At six years old, girls already believe brilliance and intelligence are male traits, one recent US-based study finds. A wealth of research also shows that parents, teachers and other caregivers often perpetuate those stereotypes, too, even if unknowingly. For instance, another recent study found that parents and mentors of female chess players thought their potential was, on average, much lower than their male counterparts.

It’s no surprise that despite girls’ high aptitude in STEM at early ages, they increasingly lose interest in these subjects as they get older. Or that in certain fields — like computer science or engineering — global female enrollment continues to be staggeringly low.

If you’re born into this world and happen to be a girl, you quickly understand that your gender is mostly a hindrance. The role models that look like you are few and far in between. The idea that women created and discovered things that have changed the world in the same way men have continues to fall flat. And so does the belief that girls can do and accomplish anything boys can.

Even accomplished women in the spotlight today are still frequently defined mostly in relation to men. We’re wives and girlfriends and mothers first, before we’re allowed to be anyone else, it seems.

Just a few days ago, the British media outlet Sky News posted a headline about Susie Wolff, Scottish former professional racing driver and current managing director of F1 Academy, referring to her as… wife of the F1 team boss. And that’s just one example out of dozens of others.

The sad truth is that the Matilda Effect still prevails, and there’s still work to be done if we ever want to change that.

It’s almost the end of Women’s History Month.

And while I’ve read plenty of great stories and learned quite a few things, I wish there was more emphasis on the fact that this barely scratches the surface of women’s contributions to history and society.

There’s so much we likely don’t know and might never even uncover.

The other day, I was reading about a recent study by two Finnish researchers at the University of the Arts Helsinki who, through a six-year-long research, uncovered the stories of 126 overlooked Finnish female classical composers from the 19th and early 20th centuries. And although there were limits to the type of music women could compose back then, many produced operas, chamber music and symphonies.

But, sadly, a significant portion of these compositions has been lost, destroyed, or remains hidden. Most works that survived from that period are only those of men. (Perhaps they aren’t even men’s, but we’ll likely never know that either.)

Still, this study provides another argument against the widely held belief that composing music was uncommon for women.

And it’s always better to know that something was lost but that it existed rather than assume it never existed to begin with, isn’t it?

However, it’s more than just women’s contributions to scientific and creative fields that have been forgotten.

There’s also all the labour — including domestic labour — done by Black, immigrant and working-class women in the last few centuries, and yet often (deliberately) erased to uphold the Victorian idea of ‘separate spheres’ and, later on, the myth of middle and upper-class white housewifery. And all the labour women did during the First and Second World Wars. And, going further back, all the labour in agriculture and cottage industries, like textiles, apparel, tapestry, dairy, brewing, baking, food preparation and distribution that women historically specialised in.

We also can’t forget all the traditional knowledge that would’ve been lost if it hadn’t been for valuable information and skills being passed from mother to daughter and then again and again.

Men might still stand on top of the world and dominate several fields, but they wouldn’t be where they are today if it wasn’t for the inventions, discoveries, literary and art pieces and all the other work done by women.

None of us would.

It’s been 140 years since Matilda Joslyn Gage published the essay exposing the extent of gender bias in sciences.

And while many things have, luckily, changed for the better, we still need to challenge it, along with all the other androcentric narratives and myths that are so pervasive in our visual and written media.

Because if we don’t, there will be many more Matildas in the future.