Women scientists step out of the shadows

The Matilda effect was named in honor of Matilda Joslyn Gage, a 19th-century feminist activist.
Credit: Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America
Matilda Joslyn Gage
  • Matilda Joslyn Gage
  • Margaret Rossiter
  • Jeanne Barret
  • Marcelle Gauvreau
  • Anne Bruneau
Women scientists step out of the shadows

Can you name a woman scientist who’s left her mark on history? Okay, now try to name a woman besides Marie Curie… Not so easy, eh? And it’s not surprising, either. Historically, women scientists have often been overlooked in favor of their male colleagues. But this year, on Researchers’ Night at the Jardin botanique and at the Sherbrooke Museum of Nature and Science, they’ll be taking center stage.

A documented effect

In 1982, the science historian Margaret Rossiter published Women Scientists in America, a work summarizing her laborious efforts to shed light on the career paths taken by women scientists and the obstacles they encountered in the United States between the years 1850 and 1940. But it was in the early 1990s that she left an indelible mark on the imagination through her use for the first time of the term “Matilda effect” to describe the recurrent invisibility of women scientists’ contributions in research. Rossiter christened the phenomenon in honor of the 19th-century feminist activist Matilda Joslyn Gage, a New York suffragette whose work had drawn attention to the same concerns 100 years earlier. Through her research, Rossiter brought to light numerous women who do not figure in the official history but who are deserving of (greater) recognition.

A threesome of remarkable women botanists

In the 18th century, it was uncommon for women to work in a scientific profession. Some went so far as to disguise their gender to be able to pursue their passion. That was the case with Jeanne Barret (1740-1807), the first woman to circumnavigate the world. This self-taught botanist made her way covertly on board the ship of French explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville by dressing in men’s clothing: a stratagem worked out with her companion, the naturalist Philibert Commerson. And as Commerson was constantly inconvenienced by sea sickness, Jeanne replaced him for plant-harvesting expeditions on land. Thus she was able to bring back some 5,000 plant specimens, the majority being species discovered for the first time. Her true identity was revealed in the course of the expedition – but she’d proved herself, earning the recognition of her traveling companions, and even of the king at the time, Louis XVI, who dubbed her an “exceptional woman.”

Other women have instead been eclipsed by the men they worked alongside of, despite making a major contribution to those men’s work. The history of the Jardin botanique itself is intertwined with one of these women, Marcelle Gauvreau (1907-1968), an important partner of Brother Marie-Victorin’s. Beyond her ornate prose, which you’ll find delightful if you ever get the chance to read her writings, Marcelle Gauvreau was a pioneer in publishing the very first detailed illustrated work on the identification of Québec’s seaweed. In 1935 she founded l’École de l’Éveil (the School of Awakening) and laid the first stones for preschool education in Québec.

Contemporary female researchers are also well worth getting to know. Are you familiar with Anne Bruneau? The botanist-researcher at the Institut de recherche en biologie végétale (IRBV) is recognized for producing stable phylogenetic classification systems for legumes – plants that are essential for humankind. In the mid-1990s, stirred by a desire to modernize the IRBV’s research equipment and borne by the urgency of providing the valuable collection of the Marie-Victorin Herbarium with conditions favorable to its conservation, Anne became the instigator of the Université de Montréal’s Biodiversity Center. In 2011, this center opened its doors at the Jardin botanique, crystallizing the historic partnership between the Jardin botanique and the IRBV – both of which institutions were founded by Brother Marie-Victorin. And her contribution to the advancement of research in botany goes beyond these few examples: Anne is a researcher in the shadows who deserves to be in the spotlight.

A thing of the past?

So maybe you’ll say that the Matilda effect is ancient history? And yet, the under-representation of women in science and technology is still an issue. In Canada, that under-representation runs at around 20 percent.

How can women be encouraged to pursue a career in science? Visibility is the key. Just as Margaret Rossiter did, it’s important to shine a light on women scientists, to be curious about their exploits and to learn more about them. And that’s what you’ll be able to do by coming out to meet the more than 50 of them at Researchers’ Night on November 11. See you there!

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