Mount Holyoke's role in shaping women's contributions to science examined


Editors say women's college, founded in 1837, 'becomes an experiment that raises a basic question: Is there another way of doing science?'

In Defining Women's Scientific Enterprise: Mount Holyoke Faculty and the Rise of American Science (University Press of New England, 2005), Miriam Levin, associate professor of history at Case Western Reserve University, makes a compelling case that founder Mary Lyon – who was a chemist – and the women educators she recruited were able to stake out roles for women in the scientific enterprise during the College's first century, from 1837 to 1937.

Mount Holyoke's story "is very different from the narrative that most feminist historians of science have written about women in science – these have concentrated on outsiders trying to get in, on individuals making significant contributions in the face of discrimination," Levin said. "What I saw at Mount Holyoke was the continual calibration of the relationship between the goals of an institution and the goals of ambitious women in light of market demand for science. As a result the story is that of the way women became participants in shaping the American scientific enterprise through their work at Mount Holyoke."

Joanne V. Creighton, president of Mount Holyoke, said, "This book makes an important contribution to the history of academic science in this country, showing how modern science has roots in the close-observation practices developed by pioneering women scientists, practices that were at once supportive and transgressive. In so doing, as the book's editors note, 'Mount Holyoke itself becomes an experiment that raises a basic question: Is there another way of doing science?' Perhaps this study will serve as a corrective to the notion that women are somehow poorly suited for careers in science."

Levin is the author of numerous publications on the history of science, technology, and education. Among her books are Republican Art and Ideology in Late Nineteenth Century France (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1986), a study of French government policies aimed at integrating science and technology into the national culture to control the course of industrialization along liberal democratic lines; and When the Eiffel Tower Was New: French Visions of Progress at the Centennial of the Revolution (South Hadley: Mount Holyoke College, distributed by University of Massachusetts Press, 1989), an exploration in text and images of the ways in which the French responded to technological innovations at the time of the great universal expositions of 1889 and 1900. She recently edited a collection of essays, Cultures of Control (New York: Routledge, 2000), examining the modern use of technological systems for economic and social ends.

Levin received her bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Michigan, and her doctorate from the University of Massachusetts. She was a fellow with the Five College Women's Studies Research Center at Mount Holyoke College in the spring of 1993. More recently, she has been honored as visiting professor at universities in Sweden and France.

Mount Holyoke has played a remarkable role in educating women scientists since its founding. For most of the twentieth century, Mount Holyoke graduated more women who went on to receive doctorates in the physical sciences and engineering than any other university or college in the nation. Into the 1980s, despite its small size, Mount Holyoke was the undergraduate college of more women who went on to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry than any other institution in the country. Today, one-quarter to one-third of Mount Holyoke's students major in science or mathematics – double the proportion of women who major in math or science at comparable co-educational institutions.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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