History of Geoscience: Women in the History of Geoscience (World of Earth Science)
Women in science have been conspicuous by their apparent absence throughout history. Yet from Theano, the wife of Pythagoras, in the fifth century B.C. or Hypatia in the last days of the Roman Empire (born in A.D. 370) to Marie Curie, women have been practicing and teaching science and mathematics. Their profile has, however, been so low that most female scientists never made an impact on general society. From original research carried out along the western seaboard of Europe (United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Spain), it is clear that the population in general can only consistently cite Marie Curie as a memorable female scientist. The second most remembered female scientist is Rosalind Franklin or Dian Fosse in the English speaking countries and Hypatia (the mathematician) in France and Spain. Indeed, for nearly fifteen centuries, Hypatia was considered to be the only female scientist in history.
It is clear from the above introduction that women earth scientists were not recognized at all. Perhaps this is because it is a relatively young science; but that assumption does not stand up to scrutiny if we realize that, in what was then Germany, Agricola published his "de re Metallica," a treatise on mining techniques, in 1556. Until recently, geology was divided into a practical science and a theoretical one. In addition, the amateur of the science practiced collecting for its own sake. This also applies to all the descriptive sciences. Also, it is worth noting that the prevalent view between 350 B.C. and A.D. 1600 was that science has been predominantly a male subject area. Most female scientists, even during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were denied access to formal education and had to rely on their male relatives for tuition. With the rise of public education in America and Europe at the end of the nineteenth century, the situation did start to change. Before this, women could be considered amateur geologists in the strict sense of the word as they were rarely paid for their work. Within geology, the most popular area for female work was initially paleontology. In a paid capacity, drawing of samples or illustrating books was a favored pastime, as for example, in Sowerby's Mineral Conchology in 1813.
Arguably, the first female paleontologist of note was Etheldred Benett, an English spinster living in the south of England. Bennett was both a scientific researcher in paleontology and an accomplished artist. The most famous early female geologist was Mary Anning from the United Kingdom. Sometimes called "the dinosaur woman" or the "mother of paleontology," Anning supposedly had the tongue twister "She sells sea shells by the sea shore" made up about her. These two remarkable women were unique in that they took geological knowledge forward. However, it was not until the end of the nineteenth century that women in Europe had the chance to become professionally educated and, therefore, become professional geologists.
In America, Florence Bascom influenced female geological education significantly. She was born in 1862 in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Her mother was a suffragette, her father a professor and then president of University of Wisconsin. Her interest in geology was aroused after a visit to Mammoth Cave. She received degrees in 1884 and 1887, did graduate work at John Hopkins University in petrology, and was the first woman to receive a doctorate in geology in 1893. After time teaching at Ohio State University and as assistant geologist at the United States Geological Survey working on the Mid-Atlantic piedmont, Bascom subsequently founded the department of geology at Bryn Mawr College where she spent most of her adult life.
The United States Geological Survey employed their first woman geologist, Florence Bascom, in 1896, whereas the British Geological Survey did not appoint a woman until the 1920s when they were invited to apply for appointment. The female candidates were required to be unmarried or widows, and were also required to resign on marriage. Miss Eileen Guppy, the first successful woman to be employed by the British Survey, worked in the petrology department in 1927. During the Second World War, women were employed to look at water-supply boreholes and wells. The first woman was employed as a scientific officer in 1957, and the first woman to research at sea was employed in 1967.
In Canada, Alice Wilson, born in 1881 in Cobourg, Ontario, became the first woman to reach a prominent position within the Geological Survey of Canada. Her interest in Ordovician sediments and fossils of the Ottawa valley pushed forward geological knowledge in that country. Alice was helped in her academic pursuits by having two gifted brothers, one in geology and one in mathematics, and parents who supported education of all their children. Her father was Professor of Classics at Victoria University.
When looking at the above women it is obvious that they would not have achieved their status without determination, but also family help. That most of them were single also meant that they did not have the pressure to maintain families and children placed upon them by Victorian society or earlier prejudices, as in the case of Etheldred Benett and Mary Anning. For example, it was considered inappropriate for mothers to have careers and work outside the family sometimes even for pleasure at that time.
The early female geologists appeared to prefer paleontology. They were also single, determined, and intelligent. However, it must not be thought that the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have advanced the position of women within geology. The first fellow of the Geological Society of America was Mary Emilee Holmes in 1889. By 1930, only eleven women had been elected to fellowship of the Geological Society of America and seven of these were pale-ontologists. Women were only allowed into the Geological Society of London, the oldest geological society in the world, in 1919, but awards had been made to nine women prior to this date. Two late twentieth century reports from prestigious societies in Britain and the United States have highlighted the lack of equality between the genders. In 1977, a report on the status of women professional geoscientists, (something that could not have happened in the previous century) from the American Geological Institute commissioned by the Women Geoscientists Committee showed that women were moving away from the education sector toward industrial employment. However, salary inequalities still existed for more experienced women across all sectors. A report on the status of women in the Geological Society of London 20 years later in 1997 showed that women members of the society had increased to 12% (1,040) and a high percentage of these were less than 40 years old.
In United States higher education in 1977, 17% of geoscience students were female. Twenty years later in the United Kingdom, the figure had risen to 250%. A recent report from the Helsinki Group, a European Union research group promoting scientific research to women in general, which was reported in the journal Science, again emphasized the lack of women in research science. At the top of the list for female researchers is Portugal, with 48% in the natural sciences including geology. At the bottom of the list is the Netherlands with 8%. In Germany in 1994, higher education figures showed the percentage of first-year university students studying geosciences to be 30%, dropping to 15% awarded PhDs, to less than 1% for professors of geology. Women are still underrepresented in the geological world at the higher levels of expertise, but perhaps as we move through the twenty-first century, the role models from previous eras will act as an incentive for women to participate in sustaining our geological heritage.
See also Historical geology