The Matilda Effect, or How Men Appropriated the Scientific Achievements of Women

You have probably heard the opinion that science is a man’s business, because almost all important discoveries belong to men. However, history puts everything in its place: it often turns out that the authorship of the invention does not belong to the person to whom it was attributed. We will tell you about the Matilda effect, which will explain why there are so few paragraphs about outstanding women in school textbooks.

How it all started

The history of this issue goes back to 1870, when the American suffragette Matilda Gage wrote an essay “Woman as an Inventor” (you can read about the activities of suffragettes here). In her work, the girl pointed out the unfair attitude towards the intellectual abilities of women. Matilda referred to the history of the invention of the cotton gin.

It is generally accepted that the American Eli Whitney created it, but Gage claimed that the inventor Katharine Littlefield Green told him how to use the most important mechanism of this device – a brush for separating seeds from cotton. However, Whitney still got a patent for the car, because then no one would have given a woman a registration for the discovery, despite the amount of effort she put into the joint business.

Matilda Gage

So, according to Matilda Gage, one of the most revolutionary inventions in the history of American agriculture was completely appropriated to a man. It is worth noting that Gage does not provide reliable facts and data that could indicate that Whitney received his patent undeservedly. Yet he did devote years of work to this discovery. Mathilde only raises to the level of a lively discussion the fact that the participation of women in such important situations is always relegated to the background.

The woman who coined the term

Almost a hundred years later, in 1969, Margaret Rossiter entered the graduate school of Yale University (she was one of the few women who succeeded). Rossiter struggled to fit into the university’s all-male scientific “crowd”. When the talk at the meetings turned to women scientists, Margaret’s colleagues began to laugh. There is no place for women in science – such a conclusion should have been learned by a young researcher, but he did not suit her.

Margaret Rossiter became a researcher in the history of science. She sought out and revived for society the names of women scientists from different fields, whose achievements were unfairly forgotten and lost in history. One of these women was Maria Sklodowska-Curie. You can find out what the colossal contribution to science cost the Polish scientist by watching the film “Dangerous Element” from our thematic selection.

Margaret in her youth

Rossiter first became aware of Matilda Gage in the early 1990s while reading an obscure book about unsung female intellectuals. Shortly thereafter, in 1993, Margaret attended a conference where researchers presented several papers on female scientists whose work was misattributed to men.

Then the woman coined the term “Matilda effect” to describe the systematic bias in which the fair sex is ignored or immediately excluded from view in favor of men, who ultimately take full responsibility for someone else’s pioneering work in the field of science.

Margaret Rossiter

Does the Matilda effect work today?

Of course, one cannot speak about the seriousness of the phenomenon until reliable studies on this topic have been carried out. In 2011, such studies started. Scientists from Ohio decided to take on the test of Matilda Gage’s theory. They selected about a thousand scientific articles that were published between 1991 and 2005 in Communication Research and the Journal of Communication. It turned out that male scientists are much more likely to cite the work of their male colleagues than women. Although all publications were on scientific topics and with their own evidence base.

Living confirmation of the Matilda effect is neuroscientist Ben Barres, who became a man only at the age of 42. Barres is transgender and was previously a woman named Barbara. So, the scientist himself once said that after changing sex, it became much easier for him to rotate in the scientific environment. Many colleagues suddenly began to emphasize that Ben’s work is much better than the work of his “sister” Barbara, without even realizing that this is the same person.

Ben Barres

Life Stories

Nothing confirms the validity of the Matilda effect more than the real examples we know about today. Here are just a few stories of women affected by gender discrimination.

Lise Meitner (1878 – 1968)

Meitner made a huge contribution to the development of nuclear physics, she was one of the most prominent scientists in this field. Despite the fact that it was Lisa who led the most significant experiments and calculated the energy release during nuclear fission, the merits of her colleague Otto Hahn are mentioned in the history books. It was he who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1944 for his discovery of nuclear decay. Hahn became a public figure and refused to mention the name Meitner in his works, although in their tandem Lisa often acted as an intellectual leader. So the scientist was deprived of her life’s work and undeservedly deprived of the Nobel Prize, and in Otto Hahn’s notes she remained one of his assistants.

Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn

Jocelyn Bell Burnell (1943)

As a PhD student working in radio astronomy at the University of Cambridge, Bell discovered a mysterious astronomical object that led to the discovery of pulsars. The article announcing the discovery had five authors, led by supervisor Anthony Hewish. Despite the fact that it was Jocelyn who discovered the pulsar and initially noticed the anomaly in the data, Hewish received the Nobel Prize for the discovery. Many scientists later condemned this decision of the Nobel Committee, but for Bell it did not change anything.

For most, she remained just a graduate student who noticed a strange signal from space. This injustice inspired Jocelyn to openly speak out against the downplaying of women in science. “The limiting factor is culture, not women’s brains. And I’m sorry it still needs to be talked about,” Bell said.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Rosalind Franklin (1920 – 1958)

For many years, Franklin was involved in biophysics and the study of DNA. Today we know only two names that are associated with the discovery of the structure of DNA, and among them there is no Rosalind Franklin, but there are James Watson and Francis Crick. In 1962, both men received the Nobel Prize for their research, and since Rosalind had died by this time (the Nobel Prize is not awarded posthumously), her merits were not mentioned. But it was she who collected the first important data that Watson later used to build the structure of DNA.

According to Franklin’s friend, Anna Sayre, she was constantly subjected to gender discrimination in her college, and, regardless of the quality of her research, she was often treated condescendingly. Today, the public already knows about the huge …

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