March 11, 2005
Speaks on MHC Faculty and the Rise of American Science
its founding in 1837, Mount Holyoke has been a “castle
of science” where equality between the male and female
intellects has been unquestioned, science historian Miriam Levin
told an MHC audience on March 2.
Q & A
with Miriam Levin (originally posted in the CSJ on 2/25/05)
Levin, a professor of history at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland,
began her talk, “Not the Girls of Summers: Mount Holyoke Faculty and
the Rise of American Science,” with tongue-in-cheek thanks to Harvard
President Lawrence Summers, who kindled a firestorm around the issue of women
and science in January with his suggestion that “innate differences” may
account for the differing successes of men and women in science and math.
The author of the recently published Defining Women’s Scientific Enterprise:
Mount Holyoke Faculty and the Rise of American Science, Levin explained that
the College’s history actually runs counter to the “founder’s
myth” that Mary Lyon was working on her own and against the odds in establishing
a school of higher education for women.
“The story is larger and more interesting than this,” Levin said. “The
Mount Holyoke view is that women were there [in the sciences] almost from the
Lyon, she said, was part of the “second great awakening” evangelical
movement of the early nineteenth century, working in cooperation with other
members of the Protestant community on common goals. Her objectives–which
included equipping young women for useful careers as teachers and raising the
status of the teaching profession—meshed with and were supported by the
larger social movement, she said.
Important to Lyon’s viewpoint, and those of her supporters, was the Protestant
idea that “all souls were equal before God,” and that the male
and female intellects were equal. She used this thought to assert that the
teaching of science was just as important as the pursuit of theology, an important
point at a time when many colleges were led by ministers.
Still, there was a division of labor between the College’s all-female
faculty and the visiting male faculty: The men lectured on the “big ideas,” while
the women led student recitations and, importantly, experiments. What developed,
Levin said, was “a cadre of women who taught science, a very special
elite, who laid claim to their own ways of doing science.” These teachers
emphasized a hands-on approach to science, with the use of laboratory equipment
and tools, specialized instrumentation, and empirical research.
It was the College’s core of women science teachers who led the way for
Mount Holyoke, then a seminary, to secure its charter as a college in 1888,
in spite of protests by post-Civil War women’s institutions such as Wellesley
and Vassar. In fact, the College was granted the right to award the bachelor
of science degree first, in 1888, with the bachelor of arts following two years
In the early 1900s, with the rise of research universities, the College was
faced with a challenge. It responded with a restructuring, with the sciences
leading the way, Levin said. President Mary Woolley required all faculty to
have doctorates and maintained that women educators were actually intellectually
superior to their male counterparts, because of their “skills of precision,” Levin
Using Woolley’s observation to return to Summers, Levin argued that the
issue of “innate differences” is one that does not matter. “It’s
a non-question, because when you consider these [women in math and the sciences],
you’re looking at their achievements and their abilities as individuals.”
She noted that the Harvard president also suggested that women might be unwilling
to dedicate their lives to science. “The way Summers put it, it’s
women’s fault that they’re not there at the top,” she said. “There’s
nothing wrong with the fact that women are scattered throughout science, that
science itself is more than just these ‘upper echelon’ kinds of
research. Science is a very complicated enterprise, with people doing lots
of different things. If you look at it from a collegiate perspective, rather
than from how many women are at what Summers says is the apex, you see that
it operates in a much more complicated dynamic.”
Levin was introduced by Donald Cotter, professor of chemistry, who used a clip
from the 1971 horror film Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde to illustrate how male
scientists have traditionally tried to keep control of scientific work out
of women’s hands. “The notion that women lack men’s ability
to do scientific work is worthy mainly of mockery,” Cotter said.
Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard, recently
stirred up controversy when he suggested that “innate differences” might
explain why fewer women succeed in mathematics and the sciences.
What are your thoughts about that?
This question of inherited differences is a nonstarter, and one that should have
nothing to do with policy. What kinds of differences are you going to look at?
What kinds of data are you going to gather? What are the cause-and-effect relationships
regarding intelligence and work that can be established beyond a doubt? Once
you start this kind of research, people who want to make certain kinds of policy
begin to use these arguments against the very people who are underrepresented.
Didn't’t we already discredit this approach when The Bell Curve was published
11 years ago? History shows that the examination of sex-based differences in
intelligence is just as biased as the bias it’s trying to establish. Moreover,
since scientific work varies with disciplines, there is the question of what
skills, talents, and abilities we are talking about in any particular case. I
think the study of innate differences in intelligence has produced nothing but
questionable evidence that has been used to support keeping women out.
How might an understanding of the history of science, particularly
women’s involvement in science, have led to a different approach to this
A historian would probably say that what we ought to study is the cultural context
in which women and men are educated and work. Changing the culture, in some ways,
is what’s most important to allowing anyone who has the abilities and the
talents and the interest nd the drive to participate in science. The other point
that I would make here—and this comes out of looking at Mount Holyoke—is
that increasingly women have made their own decisions about how to participate
in science. I think it’s possible for colleges and universities to enable
women, and men as well, to exercise a choice as to whether they want to go for
high-level research science, or focus on teaching or industry, or take a less
intensive approach—and to respect and help them prepare for these choices.
Summers also suggested that women’s unwillingness or inability to work
80-hour weeks could also be a factor. What’s your reaction to that?
Actually, it sounds as though he’s blaming women, that it’s their
fault that they’re not at the top. He’s saying that if they’re
married or have children, they may have chosen not to devote the amount of time
it takes to climb to the top, or they can’t make it to the top because
they’ve got too many other responsibilities. This is a sensitive subject,
but I think we do need to gather information from women and men about the reasons
for their choosing one or another kind of scientific work to see where and how
personal circumstances figured in the results. The difficulty with President
Summers’s statement is that he’s proposed that we study bias, yet
his own language seems to be biased.
How does the history of science at the College bear on the current
I think the history of Mount Holyoke tells us that science is quite a varied
endeavor, and that the production of scientific information and knowledge involves
lots of different people at different levels. Mount Holyoke, I think, really
makes the point that the college level is a very important point at which scientists
begin to be formed in this country. Also, Mount Holyoke faculty have had a strategy
for dealing with questions about marriage and women with children—they’ve
been aware of these issues ever since the founding of the College. They absolutely
never entertained the idea that biological differences between men and women
made a difference in intellectual abilities. They had Protestantism on their
side, in the sense that all souls are equal before God, and all people have access
and can understand God through nature. That was something that they never relinquished,
and whenever there were opportunities to move ahead and to gain purchase and
more equality, they did it.
What got you interested in doing this research and writing the book?
I just was so fascinated with the story. Mount Holyoke’s story is very
different from the stories that most feminist historians of science have written
about women in science—that they were outsiders trying to get in, that
they were discriminated against, and that they against all odds were able to
contribute important things to science. What I saw here was the relationship
between the goals of an institution and the goals of ambitious women, and the
way women became participants in shaping the American scientific enterprise through
their work at Mount Holyoke. There is another story to tell here, one about women
who really felt enabled, and women who contributed and participated. They were
active. Beyond that, I’m fascinated with the way in which science and religion
were interwoven throughout the College’s history and enabled women to participate
in shaping the scientific enterprise.