Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 378:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 378.

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 women completely.

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 students.

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 work.

(Theme music)

Schiebinger, L. The Mind Has No Sex? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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