Matilda Gage, together with a group of her friends, is circling the Statue of Liberty in a boat, time and time again. Loudly, they sing: “The Statue of Liberty, the greatest hypocrisy.” “It is the sarcasm of the 19th century,” Gage later says, “to represent liberty as a woman while not one single woman throughout the length and breadth of the land is as yet in possession of political liberty.” In 1885, Gage speaks at he convention of the New-York State Woman’s Suffrage Association. She tries to point out how often women are considered incapable of social life. She observes that in the world of insects, it is women who rule. And she adds: in the world of bees, males are not able to feed themselves. The New York Times later summarizes the event: the attendees of the convention allege that man is a helpless animal.
It is not just Matilda Gage who is considered dangerous. Her daughter, Helen, is also under suspicion.
For instance, because she is too lively.
Evan I. Schwartz, author of Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story, writes that colleagues from the university which the girl entered, report: “There is one that I think will make quite a stir. Her name is Gage, and she is lively.”
In another letter, one of Gage’s colleagues adds, „Powszechnie wiadomo, że nazbyt ożywiona dziewczyna wywoła zamieszanie“.
In another: „Uwaga, chłopcy, na żywą trzeba uważać“.
There is a parable:
Jesus told of a sower who goes out to sow, and as he sows, some of the seeds are eaten by birds, some of them fall on rock, some – among thorns, and those which succeed in finding purchase in the ground are burned up by the sun; none of them remain. But there are, Jesus says, those seeds that fall on good soil and which are saved, and yield a hundredfold.
Further, he explains: whoever has, to him will be added, and whoever does not have, from him will be taken away what he has.
All of which Matthew dutifully relates.
In 1870, Matilda Gage publishes the paper Woman as an Inventor. She describes how common in the scientific community is passing over women’s achievements. Their contributions are easily overlooked, their works often forgotten, and their names replaced by the names of brothers, fathers, and husbands.
Gage notes that no superstition in America is more common and fervently held than the belief that a woman has no natural talent for science, no knack for mechanics, and no spark of the genius inventor.
They often published, but under initials, which was supposed to help them hide their gender, and thus bypass the reader’s doubts whether the work is worth taking seriously.
Matilda points out that women are still discriminated against: first they were long denied admission to universities, then they were entangled in household chores, in which they were only occasionally relieved by their partners, they would less often – for family reasons – be able to travel or move. In addition, discoveries or inventions made by women were considered less serious, requiring a male seal of approval, confirmation, or even verification.
They often published, but under initials, which was supposed to help them hide their gender, and thus bypass the reader’s doubts whether the work is worth taking seriously.
The phenomenon in which a woman’s work and achievements are attributed to a man or suppressed by attaching a man’s name to them is later dubbed the Matilda effect.
At that we have to mention Sybilla Masters.
She was one of the first American women inventors we know about, since, through no fault of their own, we know nothing about those who had been forced to patent inventions using the name of a husband, father, or brother.
The year is 1692, when the name Masters first appears listed in official documents. In most American colonies, patents are not issued at all, but Sybilla feels that her idea – a device for cleaning and curing corn – should be reserved, because it can bring great income. If she wants no one to get ahead of her, she must take matters into her own hands: she goes on a long journey across the ocean and petitions the King of England to grant her a patent.
We know about Sybilla Masters because her husband and partner in the corn business preserved a record: yes, the patent may (because it must) be in my name, but I would like the patent application to make clear that the only originator is my wife (her full name here).
The year is 1715.
It is now 1968.
The sociologist Robert King Merton quotes St. Matthew as he describes a phenomenon similar to the Matilda effect: lesser-known artists or scientists do not receive due recognition, and for similar work or a similar discovery, those who have already gained fame receive even more words of recognition, often absorbing the work and contribution of the nameless.
Ultimately, as Merton concludes, it is not about the results of the work, but about the charisma associated with the name that is their brand, its recognizability or previous reputation. He states that being visible and seen is more important than how much work one actually puts in.
In his reflections, he cites the example of one of his co-workers, Harriet Zuckerman.
Journalist for Mujeresconciencia.com, Uxune Martinez Mazaga, will later write: “Throughout the 1960s, Zuckerman worked on a dissertation on the characteristics of the scientific elite. She interviewed American scientists who had been awarded the Nobel Prize. Many of them honestly admitted that they would not have achieved such success, had it not been for the many young scientists who worked with them every day. It is ridiculous, says one of her interviewees, but all the success is attributed to whoever has the most recognizable name in the team.”
Merton uses Zuckerman’s work to put forward a thesis about the St. Matthew effect: reaping rewards is always easier for those who have already gathered a harvest (a recognizable name, a high position at the university). They take the pot. Those who are younger, less well-known, must be prepared for their contribution to be omitted, diminished, or simply lost. Just like the work of Harriet Zuckerman, which appears in Merton’s publication as a mere footnote.
What else can he do for her?
The best he could do is marry her and continue to collaborate.
Margaret W. Rossiter was the first to use the phrase “Matilda effect” instead of “Matthew effect” (sometimes, one can also encounter the less established “Harriet effect”).
The year is 1993.
In 2017, the Technical Museum in Vienna mounts an exhibition dedicated to the Matilda effect.
The motto of the exhibition are the words of the mathematician Augustus De Morgan, who wrote about the English mathematician Ada Lovelace that if she were a man, she would have full potential to become an original mathematical investigator. A potential perhaps so high that it could bring her the highest prizes and the greatest recognition.
Augustus De Morgan considers that a compliment.
“Gdyby nie wymóg sterylności, w laboratorium strzelałyby korki od szampana: Rosalind Franklin odchodzi. Współpracownicy od dłuższego czasu mieli jej dosyć” – relates Brenda Maddox in the biography Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA. Her colleagues thought she had a big mouth, that she argued with them too often, that “maybe she would be pretty if she didn’t wear glasses and did something to her hair.” The only thing they agree on is that Franklin is the best crystallographer, that is, she makes excellent photographic images of crystalline structures diffracting X-rays.
From the very beginning, she walks a difficult path – as a woman, as a Jew, as a scientist.
She explains to her father: You look at science (or at least that’s how you talk about it) as a kind of demoralizing invention of men, something to be kept away from everyday life, from so-called ordinary life, something to be jealously guarded. Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated from each other. We need faith in order to maintain the conviction that we are doing everything we can, everything in our power, to get closer to the goal. And our goal is to improve the lot of humanity now and in future generations.
She gets into college, completes her Ph.D. in physical chemistry.
Professor John Desmond Bernal, an Irish-British physicist and futurist, a forerunner of transhumanism, believes that Franklin is talented, possesses an exceptional clarity of mind, and exhibits perfectionism in everything she undertakes. He decides to bring her to the University of London.
When, in 1953, Franklin decides to leave King’s College for Birkbeck, her work remains at her previous workplace. It will be made available without her knowledge to James Watson and Francis Crick, who are researching the structure of DNA.
When they publish their paper in the journal Nature, Franklin will only receive acknowledgment for “stimulating general knowledge.” [“discussion”] She will die in 1958 of ovarian cancer, four years before her co-workers James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins receive the Nobel Prize for the double helix model of DNA structure.
How great her contribution in fact was, would only be revealed by James Watson in his book The Double Helix. A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA.
Journalist and astrophysicist JoEllen McBride recounts:
The year is 1702. Maria Winkelmann Kirch discovers a comet.
Meanwhile, her husband, Gottfried, is fast asleep in bed.
He will sign his own name to his wife’s discovery. It will take eight years to correct the misattribution.
One might say that Kirch, with her education and interests, was ahead of her time, but in some sense no time really belonged to women.
Richard Holmes in an article for The Guardian titled The Royal Society’s Lost Women Scientists describes how thirty-eight-year-old Caroline Herschel receives a letter from one of the royal astronomers, Dr. Neville Maskelyne, congratulating her on becoming the first woman in the history of the world to discover two new comets.
The year is 1788.
Maskelyne notes that no woman since the time of the Greek mathematician Hypatia of Alexandria has exerted such an influence on science.
He jokes: “I hope you, dear Miss Caroline, for the benefit of terrestrial astronomy, will not think of taking such a flight [on the comet’s tail], at least till your friends are ready to accompany you.”
Whom he means, we do not know. Probably not his colleagues at the Royal Society. They are in no hurry to acknowledge a woman’s discovery.
Victorian England believes in physiology which makes the female brain completely incapable of doing maths, conducting experiments, or working in a laboratory. A female scientist would be at most concerned with botany or fossils.
While we are at fossils, we must mention Mary Anning.
Shortly after birth, she is struck by lightning, and then it only gets tougher.
Southern England is famous for its cliffs: light yellow, orange, contrasting with the dark surface of the water. Anning, at nine years of age, spends all her days playing with her siblings. They love digging through the dirt, the sand, they love their little discoveries. Mary is particularly perceptive: she quickly notices that some stones are different from others, that some fossils seem more interesting than others, that they take on clearer shapes.
She takes these particularly interesting ones home, looks at them, compares them. The prettiest ones she sells to tourists visiting Lyme Regis, as holiday souvenirs. Have they ever seen the likes of these? They have not, but they would love to see these, buy them, and take them home.
You can dig in the sand, as most children do, but as Mary is thirteen years old and still digging in the sand, she digs up a skeleton of an ichthyosaur. She has not named it yet, she yet does not know, but at the ripe old age of thirteen, one can already have a lot of experience as an explorer. In fact, the only career an explorer has a chance at is a child’s career. Later, one goes from explorer to curator, and so Mary the explorer knows that this time she came across something really special.
She submits her discovery to the Museum of Natural History.
The find itself is unique on a global scale: scientists are excited, the Church is concerned, as the skeleton looks like neither Eve nor Adam, it is not entirely clear what it is, but it is clear that it changes the way of thinking about the history of the Earth.
Scientists, almost exclusively men, rush to describe the fossil. Mary Anning is ignored – what difference does it make, who made the discovery, how they did it, what knowledge they had to have accumulated before – all this is dismissed. Where did the fossil reptile come from? It was lying on the ground, someone picked it up, and now a cool male head is needed to describe the item, name it, and draw conclusions for the so-called posterity.
Further discoveries are made – for example, the skeleton of a Plesiosaurus. Mary Anning can no longer simply be ignored, she is becoming more and more famous. When the King of Saxony visits England, he wants to meet her and shake her hand. But when it comes to the scientific sphere, Mary Anning, it is admitted, has dug something out of the sand, but in the story of the discovery she is rarely mentioned. She is still barred from scientific societies, her only publication is a letter to the editor asking him to correct an error in one of the articles.
It is only at the end of her life that she receives the support of the Geological Society of London, which lets her be recognised as an expert who can be asked for advice – even if you are a man.
Eighteen years after her death, Charles Dickens will give her due credit, writing about her in the magazine All the Year Round: “The carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself.”
The Guardian journalist, Richard Holmes, notes the following facts:
The Royal Society began accepting women into its ranks in 1945 (previously making an exception only for Queen Victoria).
The American Academy of Arts and Sciences – in 1925.
The Russian Academy of Sciences – in 1939.
The French Academy of Sciences – in 1962. In 1911, Maria Skłodowska-Curie was refused membership. In the same year, she received her second Nobel Prize.
And speaking of pursuits in which women are supposed to be uncomfortable: Pamela D. Toler in the book Women Warriors: An Unexpected History wonders why there are so few female warriors in history, instead consigned to be figures of folk imagination or legend. If a woman has a role in war, it is probably at a hospital, where her merciful, kind, sensitive heart will ache in sorrow for wounded soldiers.
Often, women were also lost to history, because in order to participate in war, they had to be considered men – dressing up in men’s clothes, assuming a male identity – for example, a father’s or a brother’s.
According to Toler, women did participate in wars, but this was rarely admitted.
She gives an example of a female participant in the Battle of Zaragoza, who was denied the status of a soldier, because, as it was explained, her life was in danger on the battlefield, and this means that she fought in self-defence, actually only defended herself – so she could not, like the men, had been fighting for the king, country, or the Cause.
On top of that, participation of women in war was considered abnormal (as if the participation of anyone were normal), because the death of a woman – assigned by biology and culture to the function of life-giver or roles of caregiver, wife, mother – is unacceptable for history and imagination.
Citing Martin van Creveld, Toler invokes the “body bag” argument: how would you feel if you knew that your daughter’s or mother’s body was returning from the war in a plastic bag ? As if a father’s return in a plastic bag made no impression. On the contrary, it is a situation so ordinary, so common, that it becomes popular; likewise, sons returning in plastic bags, in droves, as if they were returning not from a war, but from a fair. Brothers returning in plastic bags present no inconvenience; literature, and above all everyday life, can recycle such things, and worse. But a mother in a plastic bag, a sister in a plastic bag – now that is unbearable.
Toler also quotes historian Linda Grant DePauw: “The horror of women in body bags is not a horror of a dead woman. It’s that the woman was a warrior, that she is not a victim. American culture does not want to accept that women can be both warriors and mothers.”
She continues: “To accept women as warriors means a challenge to patriarchy at its most fundamental level.”
In the 2019 report Progress and Potential. A profile of Women Inventors on U.S. Patents, The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office looks at how trends in female inventors have changed over the past forty years.
They conclude that there are more and more women inventors, but they are still a minority.
The greatest increase is between 1978 and 1997.
In the years 1998–2016, the trend slows down again.
In 2016, women account for 12% of all inventors.
Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight finds that only 15 percent of all biographies on Wikipedia are women’s. She decides to act. She founds the group Women in Red, which aims to collaborate with museums and libraries to expand Wikipedia and fill the gaps in women’s history.
In an article by Melody Kramer of the Wikimedia Foundation, Stephenson-Goodknight says that she is not only interested in biographies, but also in works made by women: the paintings, the schools they founded, the conferences they organized, as well as women’s issues, such as the suffragette movement or healthcare.
Joseph Michael Reagle Jr., author of Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia, notes: “[We] compared […] the English-language Wikipedia and the online Encyclopædia Britannica with respect to coverage, gender representation, and article length. We conclude that Wikipedia provides better coverage and longer articles, and that it typically has more articles on women than Britannica in absolute terms, but we also find that Wikipedia articles on women are more likely to be missing than are articles on men relative to Britannica.”
Professor Justine Cassell writes for the New York Times: “As for the source of the gender imbalance, I think it may be revealed if we compare what Wikipedia looks like from the outside vs. what it looks like to a contributor. To those of us who don’t spend time contributing, it does indeed look like Wikipedia is a democracy of knowledge — a place where all we know is gathered together and made available to all of us equally. From the inside, on the other hand, Wikipedia may feel like a fight to get one’s voice heard.”
There are pervasive “edit wars” and contentious arguments. To push your contribution to a Wikipedia article, you need to convince others that it is your source or your information that is the only correct and necessary one.
Cassell adds: “I hope that in 2011 I don’t need to defend the fact that women know as much as men do, can express themselves as clearly, and have just as much ability to work collaboratively to construct bodies of knowledge. It is also clear that women can defend their point of view as well as men can. And certainly many women are contentious, fond of debate, and happy to put forward and defend their own points of view.”
That is why Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight works so hard to popularize Wikipedia editing by women. She organizes “edit-a-thons” – marathons of adding articles to Wikipedia, where we can learn the secrets of writing so that our article is published.
Jess Wade and Maryam Zaranghalam write in Nature that for a long time Maria Skłodowska-Curie did not have her own Wikipedia page. She shared it with her husband.
This essay appeared in the September issue of the monthly magazine “Pismo. Magazyn opinii” (09/2020) under the title Efekt Matyldy. Efekt Matyldy.