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About Girls' "Difficulties" in Science: A Social, Not a Personal, Matter

by Donna B. Jeffe - 1995

The perception that girls historically have had a difficult time in science and math is commonly accepted by educators and laypeople alike. Yet the historical nature of these difficulties is questionable. Current debates on sex-segregated science and math classes, receiving considerable attention in the popular press and academic education circles in recent months, seem to be founded on a misunderstanding of what girls?“historical difficulties?actually were. The historical, social, and political context of women’s experience in science serves to challenge the stereotype that girls “historically? have had a difficult time in math and science. Further alluding to the nature of women’s difficulties as historical and personal, without a critical analysis of the sociopolitical parameters of women’s experience, serves to perpetuate stereotypes about women rather than militate against obstacles created by them.

The perception that girls historically have had a difficult time in science and math is commonly accepted by educators and laypeople alike. Yet the historical nature of these difficulties is questionable. Current debates on sex-segregated science and math classes, receiving considerable attention in the popular press and academic-education circles in recent months, seem to be founded on a misunderstanding of what girls’ “historical difficulties” actually were. The historical, social, and political context of women’s experience in science serves to challenge the stereotype that girls “historically” have had a difficult time in math and science. Further alluding to the nature of women’s difficulties as historical and personal, without a critical analysis of the sociopolitical parameters of women’s experience, serves to perpetuate stereotypes about women rather than militate against obstacles created by them.

The popular perception of women and science (and girls and science education) is problematic from an educational point of view in that this perception, as stereotypical, is largely based on misinformation and ignorance. One newspaper report made this statement: “No one can say for sure why girls historically have had a difficult time in math and science, but, whatever the cause, the results are clear”1—the results being women’s lack of interest in, and/or lack of self-confidence in their abilities in, math and science and the educational outcome most often cited by critics of the educational system, lower standardized test scores. I do not intend to speculate as to why women might have a lack of interest or lack of confidence in science, why they tend to score lower than men on standardized tests, or whether these claims about women have, in fact, any legitimate foundation. There are, nevertheless, at least two problems with the statement cited, the most important problem being the author’s allusion to the historical nature of girls’ difficulties.2 In an article debating the legality of single-sex classes in science and math, extolling the benefits of such classes for women, and perhaps intending to alter the public’s views about women’s and girls’ difficulties in science, this one sentence serves to perpetuate rather than debunk the stereotype of women in science. This article will show how this apparently fair-minded observation of uncertainty represents, on reflection, an oversimplified analysis that appears to explain people’s problems but only blames them for them.

The first objection I would make pertains to the reporter’s stipulation that we do not know “for sure” the reasons “why girls historically have had a difficult time in math and science” when, in fact, we know a number of reasons why. Second, she claims that girls’ difficulties in science are historical phenomena, a claim unsubstantiated given the growing body of historical research about women and science (and women in science) that refutes such a claim. The reporter refers to recent empirical research by Myra Sadker and David Sadker about women’s “difficulties” in math and science, which in no way makes the claim that such difficulties are specific to women by virtue of their sex.3 Rather, Sadker and Sadker draw from twenty years of research to describe the prevailing sexism in today’s schools and indict the systematic bias and discrimination against women and girls in America’s classrooms. Nevertheless, in talking about girls’ difficulties, the reporter implies incorrectly, albeit perhaps inadvertently, that these difficulties “belong” to women, that women’s personal characteristics are to blame (i.e., they are less interested, less able, less motivated, or less autonomous than their male peers). By extension, such attribution to women’s personal characteristics can lead to a conclusion that women make these difficulties for themselves. And asserting the historical nature of girls’ difficulties in math and science implies that women’s inadequacies in these academic areas are historical phenomena—that women have always been that way. I argue that this particular perception about women and science is patently misinformed. I will use a historical analysis of women’s experience in education and in the scientific community to support my argument.

What are women’s historical difficulties in math and science? Do these difficulties, “barriers,” have a personal basis for explanation? Or are they better explained by the environmental (institutional and social) conditions in which women are educated?


Contrary to popular opinion, women were not historically less interested than men in the sciences, nor were they as dramatically underenrolled in science courses in nineteenth-century schools as they have been in the twentieth century. Women’s historical interest in science has been illustrated in biographical accounts of many ancient and modern women.4 And the modern history of women in science is quite illuminating as comprehensively covered by Margaret Rossiter’s Women Scientists in America and Patricia Phillips’s The Scientific Lady.5 A general interest in science and a quest for scientific knowledge were more common among women of earlier times than they are reported to be among contemporary women.

As early as 1749, Benjamin Franklin urged science studies in his proposals for an academy and English School for boys in Philadelphia.6 Girls were restricted from access to most aspects of the classical curriculum offered to boys until women began to open their own seminaries and academies in the nineteenth century. As girls generally received no formal schooling until the common-school movement of the early national period,7 the few women in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries who managed to obtain an education beyond literacy for reading the Bible did so via home instruction offered primarily by their educated fathers. Women who were thus advantaged by an education at home were exposed to various aspects of the classical curriculum offered to boys in schools, including science and math.8

Women in the United States began to gain access to informal means of science education by the early nineteenth century. Public lectures and visiting museums on natural history became acceptable and popular means for expanding women’s knowledge about science. As the market value of women as consumers became widely apparent, distribution of textbooks and popular literature aimed at women readers increased as well. In time, as greater numbers of female academies opened during the 1830s and 1840s, the science-textbook market increased dramatically, a marked trend in both England and the United States during this period. Nineteenth-century women like Emma Willard and her sister, Almira Hart Lincoln, taught math and science in women’s seminaries. Lincoln also authored textbooks on botany, chemistry, and natural philosophy, as a number of eighteenth-century women had done in England and Europe.9

Inclusion of math and science in the curriculum of American female seminaries was justified on the same grounds that were used to justify women’s initial access to formal education—the ideological perspectives of what Aileen S. Kraditor has called the “cult of domesticity,”10 which demanded that women be educated for their future domestic roles as wives and mothers of virtuous citizens of a republic.11 The link between teaching science in the female academies and the moral value of science helped to ensure widespread incorporation of science classes into the “better” female institutions. Thus, in nineteenth-century America, science education became well respected as part of the “classical” education for boys and girls.

By comparison, science education in nineteenth-century England had become identified with women’s schooling. By the mid-1800s, the better girls’ schools in England had a kind of “scientific stamp” attached to them. The sciences had become very popular subjects in the girls’ schools in England because they were not considered an important element in the classical curriculum offered to middle-class boys. Girls generally were not offered the same classical studies that boys were offered; rather than being denied the opportunity to study science, girls were largely discouraged from studying Greek and Latin. Where classical studies were made available, girls’ schools were circumspect in how they advertised the “male” courses in their curriculum—like leaving “Euclid” out of their course description for geometry—so as not to arouse parental suspicions that the girls were learning something superfluous or inappropriate to their station in life. The sciences, not yet deemed an essential element of the male, classical curriculum in England, were not considered objectionable in terms of women’s education.12

Probably no social change in early-nineteenth-century America affected women so dramatically as the improvement of schooling, which opened the doors to the world beyond women’s domestic sphere.13 The “intellect and ideology”14 of the early Republic precluded the raising of women’s consciousness beyond the limits prescribed for them by men.15 Until women’s schooling was expanded and improved, women were inhibited from developing a political consciousness and asserting their rights as citizens. It is true that a number of individual women had a more advanced view of women’s roles in society.16 Yet, Abigail Adams, Judith Sargent Murray, Emma Willard, Mercy Warren, and women like them (from wealthy homes with educated fathers) were the exceptions, able to perceive a larger role for women as a result of their expanded world view made possible through education provided for them by their liberal-minded fathers. Even these women, exceptional for their time, acted within the constraints of early republican intellect and ideology.17 In time, in both America and England, the expansion of educational opportunities for women had a profound effect on the development of women’s political consciousness.

But the utilitarian function of women’s education held no promise of equal opportunity for learning or for advancement of knowledge. Many men opposed women’s education on the grounds that knowledge would lead to women’s discontent with their stations in life. Indeed, women became dissatisfied with a narrow education based on the restricted concept of women’s role in society and, in response, began to open female academies in the early decades of the nineteenth century. The increase in the number of academies for women indicated that women realized a need for an education that recognized women’s mental capacities and at the same time recognized their destined societal roles as wives and mothers, especially as mothers of future citizens of the Republic.18 The idea of “Republican Motherhood”19 remained central to the necessity of women’s education.

Higher education was especially important in developing the consciousness of women in America.20 Women who took advantage of the expanded opportunities for higher education in the latter part of the nineteenth century broadened their world view and came to see that many more possibilities existed for them in their career aspirations than those roles deemed acceptable by the pervasive and persistent “cult of domesticity.” As greater numbers of women began to value their own thinking, women’s consciousness of themselves and their status in society took on a more feminist orientation and activist stance toward women’s equality with men.21 Whether women valued their own thinking apart from or in conjunction with male affirmation of its worth is another issue.


There were several constraints on women’s education that accompanied their exposure to higher levels of schooling. Among the barriers to women’s participation in science were societal forces working against higher education for women, in general, including so-called scientific concerns that intense study would harm the “weaker sex,” the traditional social expectations for women prescribed by the ideology of domesticity, the rhetoric of vocationalism, and sex-based discrimination in the emerging science professions.


Women wanting to pursue a higher education faced numerous societal pressures aimed to curtail their educational aspirations. Educators and scientists began to debate the actual benefits of women’s education. Dr. Edward H. Clarke at the Harvard Medical School and psychologist G. Stanley Hall at Clark University were two outspoken critics of higher education for women. As women demonstrated their abilities to compete intellectually with their male peers in the coeducational schools of the late nineteenth century, critics of coeducation argued against “sustained study” for women, claiming that sustained study was damaging to young women, who allegedly lacked the same abilities as young men to engage in intensive intellectual efforts.22

There were, of course, eminent thinkers equally outspoken in support of women’s higher education and coeducation. In response to vitriolic attacks on coeducation and to the imposition of restrictions against women in coeducational universities and colleges, Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote in 1902 that coeducation could and would never have the feared negative effects on either sex that opponents like Dr. Clarke claimed.

Scientists do not warn the florists to cease cultivating double roses lest they should turn into cabbages. . . . The coeducation of the sexes, the study of math, abstruse sciences, and languages, medicine, and theology, and skill in the industries will have no more influence in changing girls into boys and women into men than have these improvements in vegetable life in changing the male and female elements in fruits and flowers.23

Later still, G. Stanley Hall’s focus on sex differences in mental abilities and arguments for single-sex schools based on these sex differences elicited rebuttal from philosopher John Dewey, who likened Hall’s assertions24 to Sophist rhetoric rather than to scientific observation. In 1911, Dewey wrote in the Ladies’ Home Journal, “Upon no subject has there been so much dogmatic assertion based on so little scientific evidence, as upon male and female types of mind.”25

In spite of the debate as to whether higher levels of schooling were beneficial or detrimental to women, the fact remains that growing numbers of middle-class women pursued high school and college educations as higher education became more accessible to women in the final decades of the nineteenth century.26 Actually, women from all socioeconomic classes were more likely than men to attend and complete high school.27

In order to understand why American women’s educational experiences differed from men’s—in spite of women’s growing presence in late nineteenth-century secondary and postsecondary institutions of learning—one must understand the ways American schooling, itself, evolved during this period. Thus, the environmental conditions of women’s schooling rather than women’s sex-defined characteristics served to differentiate the educational experiences of women and men and ultimately served to impede women’s full and equal participation in the sciences. A variety of factors, in combination, constrained women’s educational experiences and professional aspirations, including coeducation, the persistent ideological constraints of domesticity, a growing emphasis on vocationalism in schools, the professionalization of science, and discrimination against women.


As Kathryn Kish Sklar noted, the ideology of domesticity had evolved in the course of the nineteenth century from a millennial vision of social order into a legitimated model of social organization.28 Prescribed domestic roles and social conventions for women established early in American history and derived from English custom and Victorian principles of propriety defined the utilitarian purpose for women’s education and were very difficult for women to oppose even as access to education may have broadened women’s perspectives on their status in society. The ongoing transnational debates as to what courses should be offered to women was articulated to the U.S. Commissioner of Education in a report of a meeting of educationists in Paris in 1889:

Our deliberations began with a general question: Ought we to teach girls every thing that they can learn? Since they can learn the same subjects as their brothers ought they to receive the same education in a mixed school or would it be better to make a special curriculum for the girls? Our section agreed in desiring that no barrier should be raised against the entrance of women to the university. Let those whose tasks and abilities lead them to higher studies take their degrees; we can trust to their good sense the use they will make of them. Only a small number, however, will want this higher education. The majority will leave school about 16 and return home, where other duties devolve upon them.29

In the United States at that time, the education offered to girls and women varied across regions of the country and according to whether the schools were private or public, coeducational or single-sex. Conservative influences in New England and the South led the opposition to coeducation and equal access for girls to the traditionally male curriculum on the grounds that there was little need for women to be exposed to many of the subjects in the classical curriculum. By contrast, among public schools that had already adopted coeducational policies in the final decades of the nineteenth century, there was considerable diversity in curricula and considerable equality in the education offered to men and women. Ultimately, however, coeducation was salient to both the equalization and subsequent differentiation of women’s educational opportunities.

Since high schools during the latter decades of the nineteenth century were not involved in vocational education as we know it today, the curriculum of coeducational schools consisted largely of academic subjects considered essential for an “educated man,” including the classics (Latin and Greek), literature, history, science, and algebra. The traditional male curriculum did not seem to deter women from wanting or finishing a secondary education; national surveys beginning in the late 1880s indicated that men and women were generally represented in proportion to their numbers in course enrollments. The only major exceptions appear to have been in Greek (taken mainly by men going on to college) and French (taken by more women). Both of these languages had low overall enrollment figures.30

Public high school enrollments were reported as 58 percent female while private secondary school enrollments were 50 percent female in both the 1890 and 1900 reports by the U.S. Commissioner of Education. In 1910, women comprised 56 percent of the public high-school enrollment and 53 percent of enrollment in private high schools and academies.31 During this period, women’s percentage of enrollment in algebra matched closely their overall percentage of enrollment in public schools. In private high schools, women were somewhat less well represented in algebra classes, comprising between 44 and 47 percent of the algebra students between 1890 and 1910. The disproportionately low enrollment of women in the physical sciences in public high schools appears to have occurred after the turn of the century. Although the overall rates of enrollment in physics tended to decline in both public and private high schools in the early decades of the twentieth century, female enrollment in physics in the private schools held steady, comparable to their representation in the private school population, while women began to enroll in public school physics courses in disproportionately smaller numbers. In 1890, women represented 58.4 percent of the public high school students enrolled in physics, dropping to 50.5 percent by 1910.

Importantly, as Table 1 illustrates, the percentages of women and men taking these courses—in public and private schools—began to diminish dramatically after 1900.32 In the public schools, this phenomenon was especially ironic because “coeducation . . . was critical to realizing curricular equality for girls and boys in nineteenth-century high schools”;33 and women proved themselves quite capable of competing successfully with their male peers in these areas.34

The widespread growth of public secondary schooling in late-nineteenth-century America little affected those who could not afford to take advantage of wider access. High school was mainly accessible to the middle classes, so many men and women were excluded on the basis of economic status. The majority of men and women taking advantage of a high school education were from Protestant families, native-born, white, and English speaking.35 The limited number of women who took advantage of a high school education was one factor that restricted the effect that their expanded education had on the larger society. Another factor was that few women used their education to challenge the “sexual division of labor”36 by pursuing careers different from already acceptable social roles. “Consequently, the transformation of women’s secondary education did not simultaneously trigger a revolution in gender roles (although female work roles did begin to shift more rapidly in the years after 1900).”37 John Rury explicated the basis of the acceptance of educational equity for men and women as growing from the realization that middle-class women, the group of women largely represented in high schools, would be unlikely to challenge the prevailing social norms for behavior pertaining to women’s roles in the economic arena. Women seeking a high school education were not motivated, as men clearly were, by an interest in securing better employment.38


By the opening decades of the twentieth century, coeducation was no longer being celebrated as the foundation for educational equity in public schools. Rather, education became increasingly linked with the goals of vocationalism; men and women were to be educated according to their respective roles in society. The link between schooling and the labor market became the primary concern of public school educators, and women were to be educated (trained) to be effective homemakers, wives, and mothers. The curriculum would focus on the future occupational needs of men and women. Math requirements for women were relaxed because women were assumed to lack any future need for higher levels of math.39 Science requirements, too, were fitted to the peculiar needs of women. Men were to be prepared for a variety of roles in the wage-labor market and were educated accordingly. Women, however, faced a relatively narrow range of opportunities in the wage-labor market, their roles matching closely women’s domestic duties at home.40 The sexual division of labor in the twentieth century had come to define women’s place in the social order in much the same way as ideological perspectives of domesticity defined women’s place in the nineteenth century.


Changes in high school curricula after 1900 paralleled women’s entrance into the wage labor force in response to increasing demands for clerical and other nonmanual labor. By this time, schools were preparing women for work both in and outside the home. Education for men and women changed as a function of the different occupations men and women were expected to assume. The vocational education movement of the 1880s and 1890s, initially inspired by efforts to keep boys in school longer, eventually expanded to educate boys for industrial work and then to accommodate changes in women’s work. A distinctively female curriculum evolved in response to the demands of the labor force to prepare students for their future roles.41

The introduction of home economics and commercial education courses (e.g., typing and stenography) into the high schools led the twentieth-century curriculum to far greater restrictions than the curriculum of the nineteenth century. The evolution of these policy changes was an ironic twist. Just as women were exposed to a broader range of vocational opportunities, their educational opportunities became restricted and differentiated from those of men. Prior to 1900, when women’s vocational opportunities were relatively restricted to the domestic sphere and teaching, their access to subjects in the curriculum was equal to, not differentiated from, that of men. The message conveyed to students by the division of the curriculum along gender lines was twofold. First, there were courses men and women should take for their respective, possible future roles in society. Second, there were courses that women need not take because they were excluded from vocations that require studies in those courses.

The patterns of differentiated curriculum along gender lines for vocational purposes seems to have been primarily a public school phenomenon. With the advent of a powerfully strong vocational-education movement in the early decades of the twentieth century, women in coeducational public schools found themselves channeled into courses that would prepare them for socially acceptable careers—especially in teaching, secretarial, clerical, and domestic roles. In 1927, John Tigert, the U.S. Commissioner of Education, wrote:

Vocational education, as the term is used in the national vocational act [the Smith-Hughes law of 1917], is for the purpose of giving instruction to individuals to the end that they may be prepared for profitable and efficient employment. The Federal Board for Vocational Education “may withhold the allotment of moneys to any State whenever it shall be determined that such moneys are not being expended for the purpose and under the conditions” of the vocational law.42

Thus public schools were rewarded with federal funds to support the goals of vocational education and readily adopted the purposes of the Federal Board.

Federally funded teacher-training courses were also marked by the sexual division of labor. In 1926, federally funded teacher-training courses employed 853 teachers, 528 men and 325 women. Table 2 identifies the extent to which men and women were represented—as teachers and as students—in the three major categories of teacher-training courses in vocational fields. Women comprised a larger percentage of both teachers and students in the home economics courses than men, who comprised larger percentages of both teachers and students in agriculture and trades/industries teacher-training courses.43

Although it is unlikely that the rhetoric of vocationalism fell on deaf ears simply because students were enrolled in private rather than public schools, private high schools and academies tended to educate both men and women for college admission, as they had in the nineteenth century.44 Nevertheless, private schools apparently also played a role in restricting women’s access to possible vocations. In 1900, 46 percent of graduates of private schools were college-prepared compared with 30 percent of public school graduates. However, only 33 percent of the college-prepared private school graduates were women compared with 54 percent of the college-prepared public school graduates. The percentage of women graduates from private schools who were college-prepared (31 percent) was marginally higher in 1900 than the percentage of college-prepared women graduates from public schools (26 percent). The disparity in the percentages of men being prepared for college in private and public high schools was much greater—61 percent of the men graduating from private schools versus 38 percent of the men graduating from public schools in 1900 were college-prepared. By 1916, the percentage of female graduates who were college-prepared held steady at about 30 percent in both public and private schools. The percentage of college-prepared male graduates remained at 61 percent in private schools, but climbed to 46 percent in public schools.45


However, by 1910, a precipitous decline was observed in the percentage of women in private and public schools preparing for the college scientific course. In 1890, 34 percent of private school and 52 percent of public school college-prep students in the scientific course were women.46 In 1900, 35 percent in private schools and 44 percent in public schools were women.47 By 1910, only 9.4 percent of students in private schools and 24 percent in public schools in the scientific college-prep course were women.48 Thus, pursuing the scientific course in preparation for college became increasingly more likely for men than for women during this period, coincident not only with the powerfully influential vocational-education movement but with the professionalization of science as well.49


Once women were in college, and once attracted to academic fields as possible vocations, they were prevented from pursuing their professional interests in other ways.50 “By 1900 research had come to replace teaching as the university’s most characteristic activity.”51 Henceforth, service to the community and the creation of new knowledge (research) became the overriding objective of the American university, thus lowering the prestige of teaching and of institutions like normal schools that continued to hold teaching as their primary concern.52 Women who managed to persist in education beyond high school, seeking to study traditionally “male” courses in the colleges and universities with an eye toward careers in academia, medicine, or law, were disappointed to find a number of barriers to their professional attainment. Qualified women in science, for example, were consistently underemployed as well as unemployed in comparison with men in their fields. Such discrimination was justified on the basis of a woman’s failure to compare favorably with truly exceptional women scientists like Madame Curie. The double standard applied to aspiring women scientists stressed personal sacrifice and silent suffering, which meant that women were to work harder to reach an unattainable (or at least an unrealistic) standard and were expected not to complain when they failed to do so.53

On both sides of the Atlantic, custom and public sentiment regarding women’s roles in society—in addition to patterns of discrimination against women—were powerful disincentives to women wanting to pursue careers outside the domestic sphere. The natural and physical sciences became increasingly replaced by the “domestic sciences” in schooling for young women by the early years of the twentieth century. Policy pertaining to the education of women held domestic science in the highest regard—just when science as a research discipline in England and America was becoming specialized, professionalized, and “politically and strategically important.”54 By the early decades of the twentieth century, women were being excluded almost entirely from science, a field that in England, ironically, had long been associated with women’s education alone.

Although women and men began earning more doctorates and the number of positions in science increased greatly at all levels (but not in all fields) between 1920 and 1940, earning the degree became the outstanding accomplishment for many women scientists, as academia had begun in the 1890s to limit hiring women on their faculties, except in “domestic science” fields. By the 1920s and 1930s, women gained wider access to career opportunities outside the women’s colleges, yet “women’s work in science” had been sufficiently limited to positions of subordinate status, such as instructor, research assistant, research associate, or perhaps dean of women, which was more a token of respect than of prestige. In spite of notable achievements by and the popularity of a few women, such as the two-time Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie and anthropologists Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, and although women were becoming members of honorary societies and occasionally being elected president of a professional group, women were “systematically channeled . . . into secondary roles” and their status in the scientific community “was as marginal and their chance for recognition as remote in 1940 as both had been in 1920.”55

Earning a doctorate was also apparently more important for women than it was for men seeking science careers during the years between 1920 and 1940. The tendency for women to persist in earning their doctorates “was, in effect, a result of the restrictions placed upon them in the job market, which forced them to congregate in academia, where doctorates were already necessary for women in 1921.”56 Still, regardless of their credentials, women found themselves occupying subordinate, less prestigious positions in science due to pervasive restrictive and discriminatory hiring practices in academia and industry. Women holding doctorates were clearly overqualified for the positions the majority of them were constrained to accept; and the numbers of women holding doctorates in the sciences continued to dwindle in the decades that followed. The Carnegie Commission on Higher Education reported that “women were much better represented among doctoral recipients in mathematics and considerably better represented in other physical sciences, life sciences, economics and statistics, and social sciences in 1920–1924 than in 1969–1971. Even in engineering, the percentage of degrees awarded to women in 1920–1924, though very small, was larger than in any more recent period.”57

Successful women in science also tended either to minimize the obstacles they had faced in their careers or to “forget” that there ever were any obstacles to overcome. The attitude many women adopted was that they had “been treated equally and fairly”58 by their male colleagues and that promotions or raises in salary received by them were “gifts” from their more powerful colleagues.

If a woman expected to be promoted . . . merely because her work was good, she might well be disappointed, because a promotion required the initiative and intervention of someone strong enough to override the resistance and criticism that would come at all levels of the appointment process. . . .

Under such a personal patronage system, organized feminist protest would be futile. A woman was dependent on the good will and tolerance of those around her for the opportunity to work. . . . To suggest that conditions might be unequal or that women might be facing barriers that men were not could only worsen the situation. Such criticism was far more likely to draw attention to oneself as an ingrate or “troublemaker” and lead to negative consequences than it was to alleviate the problem.59

Many academic practices were introduced during the 1920s and 1930s that reinforced the status of elitist and sexist philosophies in academia— the tenure track, which came out of the Depression era; policies against nepotism; the systematic channeling of women into subordinate, less prestigious university positions; and differential salary scales. Several if not all of these practices are evident in academia today.60 By restricting women in science to places in the university where women and their efforts would be least recognized, academics effectively ensured women’s “invisibility” in science and, therefore, in the history of science.

The percentage of women winning recognition for their achievements in science was nominal in relation to the numbers of women eligible to be so honored. Whether in the form of pre- or postdoctoral fellowships, honor society memberships, prizes (e.g., the Nobel Prize), or elections to positions of leadership within a society, women were less fortunate than men in securing formal recognition of their achievements.61 In order for a woman to be recognized for her achievements in science, the achievement itself had to be truly exceptional.62


In light of recent and increasing exposure of significant contributions by women to various fields of science, historical underrecognition of women’s contributions and achievement (not their supposedly historical lack of interest in science) remains a curious phenomenon. Although overt discrimination against women choosing to pursue science careers cannot be discounted, other factors contributed to women’s invisibility in science, including feminists’ own failures to continue “the good fight” against sexual discrimination. Evidence of the waning of confrontational tactics by feminists after gaining the franchise in 1920 is also considered to have contributed to this state of affairs.63 Relationships among the following additional factors (many of which I have not discussed in this article) have figured in women’s historical invisibility and impotence in American society and in the restricted roles even highly educated women play in the professions: the enforcement of quotas on women’s enrollment after World War I64 and channeling of women into domestic-science tracks and subordinate roles in the professions;65 the overwhelming public sentiment as to women’s “proper place” and the “feminine ideal—as opposed to the feminist one,”66 which intensified again after World War II; the tendency for middle- and lower-class women to have greater difficulty in freeing themselves from the societal expectations of domesticity67 and the tendency for young women to be unable to free themselves from the illusions of romance68 that do not seem to have the same effect on young men.

The current, disproportionately lower representation of women in male-dominated science fields (e.g., basic science research in all fields, but especially in physics, engineering, and other quantitative fields like computer science) cannot be explained by women’s lack of interest, abilities, or motivation to succeed in these fields, as if these personal characteristics (or lack thereof) were historical phenomena. To imply that women “historically” have been less interested, less able, or less motivated to succeed in science than men have been is simply not substantiated given the historical evidence. We cannot attribute legitimately to women an inherent lack of interest, ability, or motivation in science, as though these characteristics are biological, genetic, or psychological “causes” to explain women’s underrepresentation in science, in general, and math-intensive science fields, in particular.69

By the turn of the century, the ideology of domesticity, the social and political conditions of science, and the burgeoning bureaucracies of public education had begun to constrain dramatically women’s opportunities in the educational and professional domains. Let us regard, then, women’s “invisibility” in science and underrecognition of their scientific achievements with a critical consciousness of women’s historical status in our society. The ease with which women and men have accepted, as given, the social and material conditions of the society into which they were born is indicative of the power that dominant groups possess in shaping the consciousness of subordinate groups. Yet the historical genesis of women’s place in Western society exemplifies the hegemonic processes of social and cultural reproduction on the one hand and resistance and the production (social construction) of the meaning of women’s lives in a male-defined society on the other.

To debate, as Kathleen Weiler suggests,70 that the nature of schooling is both a means of social reproduction and a potential constructive, counter-hegemonic force71 brings to the fore the imperative that we refuse to accept unsupported historically based arguments as adequate explanations for women’s motivations. A critical consciousness of our varied relationships and statuses in society helps women not merely to understand but also to act to bring about a social transformation in the relationships between gender and education and between gender and professional access.72 A critical appraisal of women’s historical place in science (and in society as a whole) renders a succinct portrayal of “why girls historically have had a difficult time in math and science” and why women have had difficulties in male-dominated professions. Placing the blame on women’s historical lack of interest, motivation, abilities, or self-confidence, apart from an analysis of the historical context of women’s experience in science, is simply an untenable position.

The author gratefully acknowledges financial support from Washington University’s University Fellowship for graduate studies and Dissertation Fellowship and from the Nutrition Behavioral Cardiovascular Disease Prevention Grant No. T32HL07456–11 (Edwin B. Fisher, Jr., Project Director). My gratitude to Richard deCharms, Mary Ann Dzuback, Louis M. Smith, and Tom Allen for their comments on earlier drafts of this paper. I would especially like to thank Debra Haire-Joshu, Ed Fisher, and Mary Ann Dzuback for their reviews of this manuscript, their insightful comments, suggestions, and editorial remarks.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 97 Number 2, 1995, p. 206-226
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1407, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 6:31:06 AM

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About the Author
  • Donna Jeffe
    Washington University School of Medicine
    Donna J. Jeffe is a postdoctoral fellow in medicine, Center for Health Behavior Research, Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis. She is the coauthor, with M. Freiman and E.B. Fisher, Jr., of "Women's Reasons for Using Postmenopausal Hormone-Replacement Therapy: Preventive Medicine or Therapeutic Aid," Menopause, Fall 1995.
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