Margaret W. Rossiter

“It is important to note early that women’s historically subordinate ‘place,’ in science (and thus their invisibility to even experienced historians of science) was not a coincidence and was not due to any lack of merit on their part, it was due to the camouflage intentionally placed over their presence in science.”

– Margaret Rossiter

This week for WiSE Wednesday we’re featuring Dr. Margaret W. Rossiter. Unlike most of the women we feature in WiSE Wednesday she does not work as a scientist but is a historian of the sciences and her life’s work recognizes the contributions of women in the history of science.

Margaret Rossiter originally planned to study Mathematics for her bachelor’s degree at Radcliffe College but was soon attracted to the history of the sciences. From there she had a summer internship at the Smithsonian and completed a master’s degree from University of Wisconsin, Madison before she enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Yale to study the history of the sciences. It was 1969, and she was one of only a few women in her program when she posed the question to a group of professors and students at an informal department event “Were there ever women scientists?”

Margaret W. Rossiter is an American historian of science, and Marie Underhill Noll Professor of the History of Science, at Cornell University

The answer she received was no. Even the scientific contributions of Marie Curie were dismissed as ‘helping her husband’ and that was the end of the conversation. Though she kept silent then, Margaret made it her life’s work to study the history of women in science, even when nobody else was. She spent over a decade doing research for her study, “Women Scientists in America – Struggles and Strategies to 1940”, in which she wrote about how women in science persisted even when others tried to ignore their contributions or push them to the side. In 1993, Margaret wrote a paper called “The Matthew Matilda Effect in Science”. It discussed the phenomenon of men wrongly being credited with the work of women similar to the way in which the “Matthew Effect” describes achievements wrongly credited to more powerful scientists. This essentially coined the term “Matilda Effect ” to describe that phenomenon, named after Matilda Gage, a suffragette, abolitionist, and one of the first people to write about American women in science.

Though historians are not normally thought of as people who make great changes in their times, Margaret Rossiter’s contributions to contemporary women in science have been large. Based on her work, the National Science Foundation began funding Margaret’s and others’ work on documenting the history of women in science. Additionally beginning in the 1980’s this also led the NSF to fund more programs to increase the representation and advancement of women in science. 

Throughout her career, Margaret has published many books and articles on women in science. Her book, “Women Scientists in America-Before Affirmative Action, 1940-1972” won the Pfizer award, and her most recent publication is “Women Scientists in America: Forging a New World Since 1972”, published in 2012. Now, at the age of 77, she has stepped back from teaching and is the Marie Underhill Noll Professor of History of Science Emerita and Graduate School Professor at Cornell University.

Entry Courtesy of Claire Regan

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