In 1927 the Belgian Catholic priest George Lemaitre proposed a model of an expanding universe that rejected Albert Einstein’s spatially finite cosmological model. This work, which is often attributed incorrectly to Edwin Hubble, became the theoretical basis for the model we currently adhere to. For his part Edwin Hubble was able to use the (by then) known luminosity-period relationship for Cepheid stars to confirm Lemaitre’s proposal. This work ultimately unseated some of Einstein’s work which led Einstein to remark that his proposal of a cosmological constant was his “biggest blunder”.
Buried in this history of great thinkers and hidden from the foreground of science history, are the contributions of Henrietta Swan Leavitt. Leavitt was an astronomer at a time when women could not officially bear such a title and it was she who discovered the relationship between the period and luminosity of Cepheid Variable Stars, which allowed Hubble to establish the law and constant which now bear his name.
Watch any debate on cosmology or religion in which the names Einstein, Lemaitre and others are thrown about with gravitas, and you will quickly notice the obvious absence of any women’s names from 20th century scientific history. Yet women have contributed to science across many if not all disciplines through the ages. It’s easy to understand from an objective point of view that in a patriarchal world history the contributions of women would be minimized; but as society we have taken steps to correct much (though by no means enough) of the world’s male dominant posture and therefore it makes complete sense that rewriting the history of science correctly, with respect to women should in fact be a no-brainer.
Let me also point out emphatically that this effort is far from just a question of philosophical fairness. In point of fact the historical image we paint of the non-dominant group’s contribution to modern progress shapes future contributions in a non-trivial manner.
Henrietta Swan Leavitt is but one example in a long line of “forgotten” women. Individuals whose contributions to society have altered not only our way of life but our very ways of thinking. Yet we as a global society sadly remain oblivious of the contributions of these pioneers and thinkers, perhaps nowhere more so than in the male orchestrated fields of science. It’s no wonder then that this unfortunate subtle narrative continues to work against our desire to see women entering science and technology. How could it not? People who don’t see themselves reflected in history are more likely to believe that they have no place in the future.
For the sake of girls and boys everywhere and in the pursuit of honesty. It’s time to change this narrative.
They say: “Behind every successful man there is a strong woman.”
Condescending much? Isn’t this just part of the larger narrative we’ve weaved that places women in the back seat of history. How about:
“Beside every successful man we have recognized, there is quite often a team player of a woman history has ignored.”
In a few days Women’s History Month in Australia,the UK and the US will be over, but I’m optimistic that for all our sakes the new more honest history of women’s contributions in science is only just beginning.
To Henrietta Swan Leavitt and all those we rarely mention, and to the future scientists who will change our world for the better: May we never forget.
Happy Women’s History……………. Era.
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