Prejudice, poor pay and the ‘urinary leash’: naming and claiming Australia’s forgotten women scientists

A new book explores a paradox: women have been excluded from Australian science for many social and political reasons, but were also present and active in it from its earliest days.

An array of fascinating and talented characters populates the book. One of the most controversial is Georgina King (1845-1932). Among her many other investigations, she questioned the accepted wisdom that human evolution was driven by men. In 1902, she retold the narrative with women at the centre, arguing they were first to walk upright and develop language.

Carey provides a nuanced analysis of how early Australian science was entangled with social Darwinism, eugenics and genocide.

Importantly, she also notes the contributions made by Indigenous people, including women, in providing expert botanical, zoological, geological and other knowledge.

A history of science might not usually include social activism. Carey describes how women were the backbone of science-informed social reform movements in the late 1800s and early 20th century.

A “marriage bar” for Commonwealth employees lasted until 1966 (and informally long after that). It’s worth reflecting on what marriage entailed for women before the rise of second-wave feminism. It meant, in general, that a woman was financially dependent on her husband. She was obliged to relinquish her identity as an adult human being to serve the needs of her husband and children.

Women lost not only their surname but their first name too: they became “Mrs Joe Bloggs”. They lost their bodily autonomy, being expected to provide sexual services to their husband. Rape in marriage was legal until 1976 in South Australia and later in other states. (At high school in the early 1980s, I was taught that it was a sin to deny a husband his conjugal rights).

The radioastronomer Ruby Payne-Scott noted in the 1940s:

There is probably more prejudice against employing women in mathematics and physics than in any other science except geology.

Payne-Scott’s research is foundational to the entire field of radioastronomy globally.

Women also experienced discrimination because they had two jobs, as wives and mothers, and as employees. Their lower capacity to work at all hours was a black mark against them. Hence men derived the benefit of having their career supported by their partner’s domestic and emotional labour, and an absence of female competitors at work.

Women were (and still are) competing against this unfair advantage.

IInevitably, reading a book like Taking to the Field invites us to contemplate how much has changed and how much remains to be done. As Carey says, there is power in “naming and claiming” forgotten women scientists. So many were relegated to work perceived as routine and repetitive, such as demonstrating, teaching, cataloguing stars, or programming computers.

Once again, there is a shortage of scientists, while the number of women in STEM fields has barely increased over recent decades. The reasons are complex; but they can’t be addressed without understanding the deeper context provided by Carey’s invaluable analysis of Australian science.

Source: Prejudice, poor pay and the ‘urinary leash’: naming and claiming Australia’s forgotten women scientists

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