The history of women in science and technology has witnessed a real renewal of historiography these past few years. Recent studies have notably shown that their presence in these fields, despite growing in strength from the late nineteenth century onwards, was far from being the result of a continuous and inevitable process: their accession has been difficult and reversible, and important forms of discrimination have been maintained to this day.
This conference aims to contribute to this historiographical trend, but is perhaps less interested in women in science and technology as actresses of situated practices rather than in focusing upon a dimension that is nowadays increasingly under scrutiny: the place and role of women in the government of science and technology, and in government through science and technology.
This conference thus seeks to understand and historicize the various and cumulative mechanisms that determined—that is to say blocked, delayed or promoted—the careers of female scientists and engineers and their access to high levels of responsibility, beginning in the late nineteenth century when women began to enter the fields of science and technology thanks to the growing education of girls. Paradoxically, although these fields have been crucibles for the ideology of progress and emancipation, women in them have always been subordinates: even today, only a few hold positions of authority. Yet seeking to answer the question of women’s access to the authorities that govern science and technology requires the adoption of a wide perspective that, while avoiding the shoal of the mere collection of biographies, analyses how women although excluded nevertheless managed to influence the government of science and technology—be it through their work or by accessing peripheral roles. In turn, this requires an analysis of the policies that various actors introduced in order to promote women in these fields and overcome the forms of resistance they encountered, and notably the role that science and technology played as resources for policies that actively sought to favour women.
This conference therefore aims to study a dual process in which women are both subjects and objects of the government of science and technology.
All the fields of science and technology can be considered, from the oldest to those that became established during the twentieth century and in which the place and role of women may have changed—especially the aerospace, nuclear and computer industries. Similarly, different cultural areas and/or political regimes (liberal and authoritarian) may be studied. The example of Russia, where after the October Revolution the Bolsheviks claimed to be emancipating women while arguing that their project for social transformation was based upon scientific and technical knowledge, clearly shows the interest in shifting the focus in order to compare different cultural areas and/or political regimes; this comparison should in turn enable us to question national, cultural and/or political divides.
Various lines of enquiry are possible.
The first of these focuses upon women having reached positions of authority: their scientific or technical education and training, their career, and the factors that enabled them to access high rank in education, research or industry. The case of biochemist Marjory Stephenson in Great Britain, the first woman to join the Royal Society in 1945 despite legal barriers to accessing scientific societies and universities having been removed in 1919, shows the Royal Society’s resistance to lifting discriminatory statutes, as well as the role of reactions in the press criticizing their removal in 1943. The enquiry does not merely focus upon the absence or presence of women, but also considers the work of scientific and technical institutions, including the nomination of their members: the task is to characterize the ‘glass ceiling’ that female scientists and engineers encountered and to identify the historical and concrete forms it took. Work will also seek to understand the ways in which women sought to go around the difficulties that some put in their way in the legitimate spaces of production and tuition of science and technology by involving themselves in others, such as scientific associations and societies.
A second line of enquiry could be to ask if female scientists and engineers, having reached a position of authority, carried out specific policies. However, this question of a typically female government of science and technology is a tricky one: the matter was already brought up in the historiography with regard to the production of knowledge, and has shown its limits. That said, the example of chemist Ida Maclean—who after having been made assistant lecturer at Manchester University’s Department of Chemistry in 1906, became in 1920 the first woman to be admitted to the London Chemical Society, where she pursued her long-standing commitment to women at university—invites us to focus upon at least two phenomena. The first relates to measures taken within scientific and technical institutions to improve the situation of women. The second concerns problems privileged by women having attained positions of responsibility: the aim is to see if they dealt with matters that men had neglected or ignored, and what measures they took to resolve or at least address these problems.
A third line of enquiry aims to analyse how different protagonists resorted to science and technology to reduce gender inequality in society. The historiography has underlined the extent to which knowledge—particularly but not exclusively in the field of biology—reproduced gender-based prejudice and naturalised inequalities between men and women. Always with the goal of probing the neutrality of science, the question here, however, relates rather to the way in which knowledge sometimes contradicted gender-based stereotypes and norms, in order to understand how knowledge was used to carry out policies seeking to improve women’s statutory recognition and/or pay. The most famous example is without doubt that of the United States where, thanks to the positive discrimination introduced in 1967 for female students and teachers, universities became centres of action and thought for the feminist movements. But the State has not been the only actor to support women in society: foundations and large companies also have and continue to do so. By studying these initiatives, the goal is also to shed light upon connections between scientific knowledge, statutory recognition and economic redistribution. When these initiatives coexisted with emancipatory measures aimed at other social groups, the ways in which they may have intersected will need to be analysed.
A last line of enquiry concerns the ways in which the success of women in science and technology is narrated. The goal is to study not only how commentators describe and explain such success, but also how female scientists and engineers having attained senior positions did so themselves. For it appears that the narration by men and women of these paths to success often resorts to clearly sexual motifs, and these narratives influence gender-based prejudices and stereotypes by consolidating or on the contrary undermining them. Portraits of the mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaya, for example, have sometimes emphasized her analytical abilities or underlined how lacking she was in feminine qualities. The study of such narratives could therefore help us to understand the weight of representations that bears down upon women’s career choices.
This conference is being held in memory of Larissa Zakharova (1977-2019), a specialist of the Soviet Union who devoted much of her work to the history of technology (see more here). Her last work, to be published by the ‘Éditions de l’EHESS’, is entitled De Moscou aux confins les plus profonds. Communications, pouvoir et société en Union soviétique (‘From Moscow to the Remotest Corners: Communication, Power and Society in the Soviet Union’).
The conference will be held in early June 2020 in Moscow. Its aims include publishing a book, and participants are therefore invited to submit unpublished work. Papers must be sent at least two weeks before the seminar, and articles for submission by the 1st of November 2020.
Proposals (max. 3,000 characters) must be sent before the 1st of December 2019 to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alain Blum (CERCEC / EHESS / INED)
Patrice Bret (CAK / CNRS)
Valérie Burgos Blondelle (Comité pour l’histoire du CNRS)
Françoise Daucé (CERCEC / EHESS / IUF)
Grégory Dufaud (Sciences Po Lyon / CEFR de Moscou / LARHRA)
Liliane Hilaire-Pérez (Université Paris-Diderot / EHESS / IUF)
Isabelle Lémonon Waxin (CAK / Cermes3)
Call for papers
Deadline: December 1, 2019
Posted: September 13, 2019