The Woman Who Has It All…And How She Is Written About

A Second Look at the “Exceptional Woman” and the Life Behind Her

After hundreds of years of feminists fighting for the equality between men and women, one would think that females would sense a level playing field in today’s society. Our culture has progressed, allowing women to enter into university, to apply for the same jobs as men, and to mostly regulate medical practices for both genders. However, when we talk about feminism, we do not spend much time emphasizing the importance of re-documenting and rewriting history that, in the past, has overlooked women’s accomplishments. Unfortunately, the narratives we do study are ones of exceptionalism or mysticism. The default story of an important female in history, especially scientific history, involves relating her accomplishments with her performance of femininity. Albert Einstein did not get criticized for his affairs and lack of time spent with his children, but Ada Lovelace was ridiculed for her relations with her children’s tutor William Carpenter. Alan Turing is validated for his homosexuality, but no one mentions Sally Ride had a female partner. The way we talk about women in scientific history can reflect upon how we present scientific women of today. The works of Julie des Jardins, Alison Winter, and Linda Gordon counter the mainstream accounts of history typical of today, such as works by George Dyson and Michael Hoskin; furthermore, all the authors choose to relay the narratives of the ideal women they present, or do not present, in contradictory ways, some unhelpful in progressing future women’s narratives but some insightful in highlighting the full story behind the seemingly “perfect” female.

In 2012, George Dyson, a technology historian, wrote a book titled Turing’s Cathedral; it focused on the progression toward the technological age that we see today, and it relates on the men who built its foundations. It starts by looking at the founding of Princeton’s mathematics program; “Olden Farm, after a brief role in the first American Revolution, would remain undisturbed into the mathematicians arrive and began working on the next.” [1] This passage, and the overarching theme of the book, relates mathematics to the war-front, aggression, and competition, usually deemed masculine traits. It never once describes a female, even the women who helped develop the first computing analytical machines. Dyson includes pictures of these “computer” women but never once mentions them in the text; they were there, but they were assigned as mere assistants and detail-oriented scripters who were considered to have passively observed their respective subjects.  He talks about the war efforts and the recruitment strategies that offered men who could not fight a way to use their brain power to make a difference and “fight” for their country. It does not mention that women could have done the same, even though they did. Women’s computing stories were not important enough to include in his narrative on war, masculinity, and mathematics, even though de Jardins thoroughly investigates women in the Manhattan Project and the female Harvard astronomers in her work. Many “feminist science” authors have to fight this tradition of men as discoverers, women as observers; without female documentation in history, women will not be included in intellectual discussions of today.

Michael Hoskin also undermines women’s achievements in his work, but instead of erasing them, he choses to write a narrative about Caroline Herschel, a woman who should be rewarded for her commitment to astronomy. A description of his 2011 book on Princeton University Press’ website states:

Discoverers of the Universe tells the gripping story of William Herschel, the brilliant, fiercely ambitious, emotionally complex musician and composer who became court astronomer to Britain’s King George III, and of William’s sister, Caroline, who assisted him in his observations of the night sky and became an accomplished astronomer in her own right.[2]

This description not only heightens William for his brilliance and ambition, reduces Caroline to a side character, and structures her work as assistance, but it also summarizes Hoskin’s message in his past article “Caroline Herschel as Observer.” From the title alone (“observer”), Hoskin depicts Caroline as passive in her brother’s astronomical research. In Hoskin’s perspective, instead of discovering comets and nebulas for herself, Caroline and her work were nominal in the grand scheme of astronomy.

The language and emphasis also imply that Caroline was just an assistant to William’s work. Not only calling her a “little sister”[3] when she was a grown woman, directly stating “her attempts came to nothing,”[4] and calling her discoveries as “modest,” Hoskin introduces her story by charting William’s decision to switch from music to astronomy. He mentions that Caroline “resented” the switch, even though he also sites diary entries where she showed interest in the stars even before William did.[5] He comments that her work “demonstrated to William that nebulae were so numerous a novice observer [Caroline] with the most primitive instrumentation could find such pickings.”[6] But Caroline was not a novice; she spent most of her nights standing underneath a telescope, learning star patterns herself, and creating algorithms to view them correctly. When Hoskin notes her accomplishments, he directs the emphasis away from them to undermine Caroline. “She was now his paid assistant (and the first salaried female in the history of astronomy).”[7] Caroline was the first woman to be recognized by the government for her work in science, but Hoskin shadows this with a reminder that she was just an assistant. Her noteworthy moments are reduced to parenthetical side notes, and Hoskin’s language reminds us that she is inferior to her brother, William.

Julie des Jardins would call Caroline’s narrative as a side effect of the Marie Curie Complex. Though Caroline Herschel was before Curie’s time, the way Hoskin writes about her currently resembles the way Curie was portrayed to the public in the 1920s. Caroline passively “sweeps” the sky for patterns, which plays into the publicity of the Harvard astronomers one hundred years later, who “’took up light housekeeping among the stars.’”[8] These women are defined by their homely, maternal efforts, which des Jardins maps to the story of Marie Curie. Des Jardins speculates that “what makes women good scientists is the extent to which they deny their true selves to think like men.”[9] She sees a parallel between women who identify with more masculine traits excelling in science, and in order to do that, they give up a part of their femininity. They also have to outperform their male counterparts. They had to have it all: the perfect motherly love, flawless research, and a genial public appearance to get funding for their work.[10] Though she does not want to tell the stories of only exceptional women, she choses to direct her book about the women whose stories were exceptional because of the maternal, feminine lens they were captured in. She narrates Curie’s story by comparing her to her American journalist friend, Marie Meloney, who helped get Curie funding. They were both working, professional mothers, but Meloney wanted to emphasize the humanitarianism that could be found in Curie’s work; she thought women would see Curie as an icon who had it all. Curie, however, thought that “to base a campaign on her maternal motivations was to make her look emotional, subjective, and hence defective to male scientists,”[11] something she had been avoiding throughout her career. But manipulating the press to get money worked, and Curie “in return, gave American women and chemical producers the license to manipulate her image to promote maternalist feminism and American innovation.”[12] Curie was not remembered for discovering radium but for using that radium to nurture a cure for cancer.

Des Jardins decides to show the true side of Curie in her work. She mentions how, in the same year the Curie’s won their first Nobel Prize, she gave birth to a premature child who died days later. Because she was entirely in charge of her children’s care, she felt that her tireless work and rigor were responsible for this child’s death.[13]  And whilst in the midst of doctoral research, she was also nursing and taking care of her two girls. Though Pierre thought that her “single-minded devotion to science should be their gift to humanity,”[14] he still left her responsible for the household. She eventually sent her daughters away to live with family and tutors, but even Eve, her youngest, “felt cheated, that she could never compete with her mother’s science.”[15] Des Jardins tries to depict Pierre as a supportive husband to Marie’s research, but she should have critiqued the idea that he gave no attention to his children. On the other hand, contrasting Curie with Meloney showed that Curie did not have much control over her public image. She wanted the money, so she told them what they wanted to hear. Though des Jardins’ argument seems to be against describing the exceptional scientists, her book walks through some of the most prominent women in scientific history. But she does not want to create an exceptional woman standard; instead, she wants to deconstruct it to tell the true narrative of a woman that inhibits a space considered masculine. She hopes for a day where woman does not have to be maternal to justify her research or where a feminine woman is respected for being a scientist.

Instead of telling the other side of Ada Lovelace, Alison Winter positions Lovelace into the theoretical framework of her time period. Winter forces us to understand how Lovelace played up the stereotype of her femininity in order to be allowed to think intellectually. Instead of permitting women to be academic publicly, men allowed “delicate creature[s], confined to the domestic sphere, whose weak bod[ies] left [them] dependent on others and simultaneously contributed to [their] enhanced spirituality”[16] to study intellectual work. In Victorian England, people believed that too much strain on the brain could compromise women’s capacity to reproduce.[17] In more words, if a woman thought too much, she lost a part of her femininity and compromised her health. Instead of rejecting the stereotype, Lovelace embraced it; “her body offered her a rich field for direct observation”[18] for research. She used her sickliness to be able to study mathematics. Winter highlights the idea that women’s bodies are pathologized if ever they choose not to perform femininity in the way society deems correct.

Winter also discusses how Lovelace is criticized and remembered for her motherhood. Her family agreed that “her most troubling instances of nervousness was a pronounced distaste for her own children’s company.”[19] In other words, Lovelace’s lack of desire to be maternal was labelled as another aliment to her list of sicknesses. Instead, Lovelace, who accepted the nickname the “Bride of Science,”[20] saw her work as her child. Winter stresses Lovelace’s language about how she described her research: “the actions of producing and analyzing cerebral phenomena were not separable.”[21] She had to [re]produce the work herself in order to understand and study it; much like Curie, Lovelace saw her children as her female obligation, not a choice. Winter spends much time discussing what theories Lovelace was working against and how her research influenced technology of today; but her last words are that Lovelace’s obituary “informed readers that she left behind a husband and three children. No mention was made of her intellectual work.”[22] Instead of documenting a milestone in computational thought, Lovelace’s obituary writer refers to her only by her family and home life. Winter points out that erasing this woman’s work and restricting women to the home has made Lovelace forgettable in the history of computer science.

Linda Gordon writes about Dorothea Lange, whose pictures have survived history but whose name is typically removed from them. Gordon describes Lange as an active member in her profession of photography, describing her as “an assertive visual intellectual, superbly disciplined and self-conscious, working systematically to develop a photography that could be maximally communicative and revealing.”[23] However, Gordon also emphasizes that Lange’s role was educational, presenting the ignorant urban-dweller with the truth of rural citizens’ lives in America. Lange was “better able to teach others”[24] by going out and documenting rural life. Also according to Gordon, Lange seems to have a carbon copy belief system as her second husband; “in all her work from then on, her photographic sensibility and strategy were indebted to his [Taylor’s] political-intellectual approach.”[25] Taylor had the ideas; Lange supported her ambitious husband. Gordon unintentionally argues that Lange is still passive and performs typically feminine roles, even in a male dominated field.           Though Lange’s work represents the movement towards intersectionality and understanding of the other, Gordon contrasts her work with stereotypically feminine ideals.

George Dyson, in his lack of representing female computers, and Michael Hoskin, who demeans Caroline Herschel, set back the feminist argument that women are worth talking about. Dyson includes images of women but never refers to them in his narrative. Hoskin belittles Herschel through language and framing choices, making her seem passive in her brother’s work. Their pieces seem outdated, but they are, in fact, the default histories we see being published today. Conversely, Linda Gordon tries to display Dorothea Lange as an active photographer in the twentieth century but plays into similar stereotypes that Hoskin and Dyson support. Lange is defined by her husband’s ideology and plays into the nurturing stereotype of women in her time. Both Julie des Jardins and Alison Winter try to capture the image of an ideal woman from a framework that has not been considered before. Des Jardins tries to fill in the woman behind the press releases and focuses on the Marie Curie not seen by the public; Winter places Ada Lovelace within the context of her time period. She plays the role that allows her access into intellectual spaces. Though both authors combat the idea of the perfect woman in different ways, the key to progressing their research would be to provide both frameworks. In order to respect women’s work today, we have to deconstruct what it means to be the “exceptional woman” and debase how the beliefs of the past still haunt our textbooks and cultural standards today.


[1] George Dyson, Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe (New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2012), 17.

[2] Princeton University Press, “Description of Discoverer’s of the Universe: William and Caroline Herschel,” written by Michael Hoskin (2011):

[3] Hoskin 391.

[4] Hoskin 383.

[5] Hoskin 374.

[6] Hoskin 376.

[7] Hoskin 385. *casual* first salaried female…

[8] Des Jardins 89.

[9] Julie des Jardins, The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science (New York: Feminist Press, 2010), 4.

[10] Des Jardins 44.

[11] Des Jardins 27.

[12] Des Jardins 43.

[13] Des Jardins 32.

[14] Des Jardins 29.

[15] Des Jardins 32-3.

[16] Alison Winter, “A Calculus of Suffering: Ada Lovelace and the bodily constraints on women’s knowledge in early Victorian England,” Science Incarnate: Historical Embodiments of Natural Knowledge (1998), 202.

[17] Winter 209.

[18] Winter 228.

[19] Winter 205.

[20] Winter 216.

[21] Winter 232.

[22] Winter 236.

[23] Gordon 702.

[24] Linda Gordon, “Dorothea Lange: The Photographer as Agricultural Sociologist,” The Journal of American History 93, no. 3 (2006): 699.

[25] Gordon 704.

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