Women in Science–the Bad Old Days

Once we were driving down the highway when my husband said, “Hey, a Federal Reserve Note just flew across the road.”

Me: I think you have been reading too many finance blogs.


Oh look, Silver Certificates:

800px-US-$5-SC-1896-Fr.270 Hey, did you know we still have two dollar bills? 800px-US-$1-SC-1896-Fr-224-(3923429)


These bills, from the so-called “Education Series,” were printed in 1896 and feature, rather prominently, women. The $1 bill has Martha (and George) Washington. The other bills feature women as allegories of science, history, electricity, commerce, manufacturing, and you know, I can’t really tell if the steam and electricity children are supposed to be male or female.

If someone wants to put women on money, I totally support bringing back these bills, because they’re gorgeous.

There’s a certain sadness in looking at these and thinking, “Gosh, maybe people in the 1800s really were smarter than us.” Today, the five dollar bill would offend too many people (it has a breast on it!) and couldn’t get printed. We’ve become Philistines.

There’s also a sense of, “Wait, are you sure this the bad old days of women’s oppression, when people thought women were dumb and couldn’t handle higher education and shit?” Why would people who think women are dumb use women to illustrate the very concept of “science”?

Here’s a painting of MIT’s Alma Mater (Latin for “Nourishing Mother,”) finished in 1923:


(Sorry it’s a crappy photo. I couldn’t find any good photos.)

“Alma Mater,” of course, is used synonymously with “university.” That is, the university itself (all universities,) is female. From the description:

“The central panel is rigidly symmetrical, with the centrally enthroned Alma Mater approached by two groups of acolytes extending laurel wreaths. The composition deliberately recalls the tradition in Christian art of the ascending Madonna attended by saints and apostles. Alma Mater is surrounded by personifications of learning through the printed page, learning through experiment, and learning through the various branches of knowledge. They hover above the Charles River Basin, with a spectral hint of the MIT buildings in the background.”

Here’s a detail:


Unfortunately, I haven’t found good photos of the side paintings, but they sound dramatic:

“The two side panels … bring the elevated scene down to earth with trees that appear to grow straight up from the floor. Unexplained spectral figures glide through this grove. … The right panel, which has been identified as Humanity Led by Knowledge and Invention depicts a mother and children of varying ages progressing from Chaos to Light, accompanied by cherubs bearing the scales of Justice. On the left, the most dark and dramatic mural squarely faces the ethical challenge that has confronted science from the outset. The Latin inscription (from Genesis) in the roundel spells out: “Ye Shall Be Us Gods Knowing Good and Evil.” The lab-coated scientist is crowned by a figure said to be Hygenia (goddess of Health). He stands between two giant jars containing beneficent and malevolent gasses, symbolizing the constructive and destructive possibilities unleashed with every new discovery. With the horrors of the First World War still fresh, soldiers and diplomats gather at the Council table of the World. Dogs of war lurk near evil gasses, while Famine threatens the background. The strangely out-of-scale, dark colossal head within the shadow of the Tree of Knowledge is said to represent Nature; her relation to the rest of the drama is (perhaps deliberately) unclear.”

If you squint, you might be able to make them out:


Before art went to shit, the world was full of lovely paintings of things like “Liberty leading the People” or “The Arts and Sciences,” using allegorical human forms that relied upon people’s understanding and knowledge of ancient Greek mythology–not so ancient when people were actually reading it. I suspect there are so few good photos of this painting because people forget, when surrounded by splendor, that splendor is no longer normal.

This habit of using women as allegorical figures to represent science and learning goes back hundreds, if not thousands of years:

These guys thought women were dumb?
12th century illustration of the Seven Liberal Arts: Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music Theory, and Astronomy

The “Liberal Arts” did not originally refer to silly university classes, but to the knowledge thought essential to the education of all free (liber) people, in order to participate properly in civic life. These essential studies were Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music Theory, and Astronomy (one may assume that the functional ability to read is considered a basic prerequisite for learning, not an endpoint in itself as it is in our modern system.) These studies all culminate in their purist expression in Philosophy, the very love of wisdom.

Notice that all of these allegorical figures are women. Did the depiction of women as the purist ideal of mathematical knowledge make male students doubt their own self-worth and drive them away from serious study?

Then why do people think the inverse?

The trend can be traced back further:

Botticelli, Primavera
Botticelli, Primavera

Boticelli depicts the Spring accompanied by the Greek Graces.

Raphael's Parnassus
Raphael’s Parnassus

The Greek Muses were goddesses of inspiration for literature, science, and the arts. Different people list them differently, (I doubt there was ever any widespread agreement on exactly what the muses represented,) but the lists generally look like, “epic poetry, history, music, poetry, tragedy, hymns, dance, comedy, and astronomy,” or “music, science, geography, mathematics, philosophy, art, drama, and inspiration.”


And who can forget Athena herself, goddess of wisdom and warfare?




(Take your artistic pick.)