Today, modern science learns that the mind has no
sex. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Nobel laureate Marie Curie was nominated to the
French Academy of Sciences in 1910. After heated
debate, the Academy turned her down by only two
votes. That was so close that the members voted
again -- this time to decide whether women should
ever be admitted. Women in general fared worse than
Mme Curie in particular. She'd barely lost, but the
Academy voted resoundingly -- 90 to 52 -- to bar
Marie Curie won her second Nobel prize a year
later, but the French Academy stuck to its guns. It
didn't break down and admit a woman until 1979. The
English record is not much better. Before 1945, the
only woman in the British Royal Society was a
skeleton in its anatomical display.
Still, modern science itself has put the question
of intellectual equality under a lens. The question
arose quite naturally as science took shape in the
17th century. Londa Shiebinger shows how science
has twisted and turned in its struggle with the
fact of female intelligence.
Some scientists thought a woman's skull wouldn't
accommodate as much brain as a man's. A
17th-century woman scientist said that the female
mind was too "soft" and "cold" for hard thought.
One 19th-century opinion was that thought shriveled
a woman's ovaries. And you've heard recent claims
that women don't have the same access to
right-brain creativity that men do.
2500 years ago, Plato argued from pure reason that
"all the pursuits of men are the pursuits of
women," that men and women are intellectually the
same. In 1673, a Cartesian anatomist, Francois
Poullain, echoed Plato. He made the oddly
unassailable statement that "the mind has no sex."
His remark has haunted failed attempts to prove the
mental frailty of women ever since.
Two doors opened to women in the early days of
modern science. One was Italy. University faculties
at both Padua and Bologna included distinguished
women. And, for some reason, about a sixth of the
early German astronomers were women. The tradition
of women lecturers was an old one at Bologna, by
the way. In 1296 Bettisia Gozzadini taught law
there. But we're told that she lectured from behind
a curtain so her great beauty wouldn't distract
So we peel away the curtains that history has drawn
over women who've lived the life of the mind. What
we find is a continuing presence. When women were
thwarted here, they emerged there. In the end we
learn that the mind hasn't been such an easy thing
to waste, after all.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds