Anna Reeser is a historian of technology, and Laila McNeil is a historian of science. Together they co-founded and are editors-in-chief of Lady Science, an independent magazine about women, gender, history, and popular culture of science.
Now the duo has a new book titled Forces of Nature: The Women Who Changed Science. They talked to us about moving beyond biographies, how women who had knowledge about the natural world are suspect, and reintegrating women’s history into the mainstream.
Alexis Pedrick: Hello, and welcome to Distillations. I’m Alexis Pedrick.
Lisa Berry Drago: And I’m Lisa Berry Drago. Today we have the pleasure of talking to Anna Reser and Leila McNeill, authors of the new book, Forces of Nature: The Women Who Changes Science.
Alexis Pedrick: We talked to them about moving beyond biographies, how women who had knowledge about the natural world were suspect…
Lisa Berry Drago: And reintegrating women’s history into mainstream history, not just treating it like its own separate thing.
Alexis Pedrick: Hi, guys. Welcome. Thanks for coming on the podcast with us. Um, why don’t we start? Can you guys introduce yourselves and tell your listeners a little bit about your backgrounds?
Anna Reser: Thank you for having us. Um. I’m Anna Reser. I am a historian of technology and a writer. Um, I study the American space program and also women in science, and I am the co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of Lady Science magazine.
Leila McNeill: I’m Leila McNeill. Uh, I’m a historian of science and I, uh, focus on women and gender in the history of science, particularly the 19th century. Um, and I am also, um, one of the… the other co-founder of Lady Science and co-editor-in-chief.
Lisa Berry Drago: So, what we’re here to talk about today… I mean, aside from, a-all the other work that you do, which is so exciting to us… we are obviously here to talk about your book, and you’re publishing a book in a pandemic year, which we-we joke about, that we would, that we were going to do this, but you actually did do it. So, how did this work? What was this process like?
Leila McNeill: Well, we actually started the book of the research and writing. We did most of that in like 2019, 2020, and we actually submitted the manuscript in December 2020. No, what year is it?
Anna Reser: December 2019. Wow. Time is weird now.
Leila McNeill: So, most of the editing and dealing with layout and images and things like that happened during the pandemic. The main thing was that the pandemic just kind of shut down our publisher, and a lot of the staff was furloughed, so it was supposed to be in October 2020 and then got pushed back to spring and keeps getting pushed back because of the pandemic and the Suez Canal. Most of the bulk of the work was done right before pandemic times.
Lisa Berry Drago: So, just tell us more about the book. So, what is the heart of this book and, and how did this idea even come to be back in 2017?
Alexis Pedrick: Yes, the halcyon days.
Anna Reser: Yeah, well, we were actually approached by the publisher and asked to develop a proposal. And initially it was going to be a kind of like collection of biographies of individuals. From the start, Leila and I were not as enthused about that idea, and so we pitched what ended up becoming the book, which is much more a sort of contextual, critical histories. Each chapter is kind of a self-contained little slice of history. There are biographical details of individual people in each of the chapters, but, um, I think as historians, and particularly as historians of women and gender, it was important to us that we put these people into their historical context, rather than just kind of excerpting out the highlights of their lives and, uh, slap a portrait on there and then, and then call it good.
And also because that’s sort of the format for books about women in history, is just like a collection of biographies, and we really wanted to kind of move past that. And the publishers were… they were amenable to that, and so we kind of re-did our proposal and came up with some ideas of like the [inaudible 00:03:47] things that we wanted to talk about, and then from there it was kind of off to the races.
Lisa Berry Drago: I’m struck by something you say that I also recognized, that’s a lot of the work on women in science or, you know, in my field, women in art history and just sort of like that it always leans on that biographical thing. The exceptional woman, the woman who rises above her circumstances, and it’s sort of like this one, isolated, like… it’s like a marble being thrown out into a field. Like here’s the woman. I felt really strongly that you, that this book does not replicate that. So could you talk a little bit about w-, you know, why that is and how you managed this, this tightrope act of not falling into that trap or, or form or, or archetype?
Leila McNeill: Well, I think one of the things… because me and Anna went through the same history of science grad program together, and one of the things that we always kind of talked about when we started collaborating on women and gender in science projects and stuff like that was that women’s history is always taught as like something separate from regular history, that you have the great stream of history moving forward, and then you have another stream of women kind of trickling out [laughs] next to it, you know? [laughs] That that makes it look like women… the marble… is like some anomaly that inserts itself into the stream of history once in a while.
And what we’ve really done in our work since we started collaborating together was, we wanted to show that women aren’t this like separate stream of history, that they have been working [laughs] in science and shaping science and being shaped by science just as much as men have, and so it was really important for us to give that historical context of what’s going on in science at the time, to show how they’re participating and shaping that culture of science, rather than them being seen as this like thing that’s separate from the great progress of history. So that’s something that me and Anna have always… we always saw eye-to-eye on and how we wanted to approach the history that we do.
Anna Reser: Yeah, and I’ll just add that you said, you know, the one woman who rises above her circumstances, I think the circumstances part of that equation just gets glossed over a lot. That’s what history is, is the circumstances [laughing] in which people live and do things, and so kind of shifting our focus to that, to a larger context, and instead of just saying, “Oh, yeah. Women had a hard time getting into science.” They did in a lot of ways, but they still did it, and how they did it and how they navigated that is the interesting story there, not just, “She was born here and she did a lot of science, and she scooped up some, uh, rocks and turned them into radium” or whatever. [laughs]
Leila McNeill: Yeah. Well, and also, like, they rose above their circumstances. I think we all have this understanding that the circumstances is patriarchy, and it… and it always is, like it’s [laughs]. But like it doesn’t work the same way for every woman in every time period in every field of science, that there are different types of barriers for different kinds of women. Black women experience different barriers that white women do. Poor, working class women experience barriers that wealthier white women did not experience. So, you know, sure, there’s patriarchy, kind of, you know, the umbrella over all of those circumstances that keep women out, but they are not the same, and they don’t affect women’s lives in the same way. And women don’t navigate them in the same way. And so that was also something that we wanted to really start to nuance and get inside of, rather than just saying circumstances. [laughs]
Alexis Pedrick: For sure. I mean, I feel like, you know, one thing that struck me when I was reading, like, as a woman of color like in this field, that most of the times, you know, as you said, say first [inaudible 00:07:43] the like beating the odds narrative. Maybe you get like one woman of color that’s mentioned on a list somewhere. It’s always the same [laughing] one, like that’s pretty much it. That’s the beginning and end, but I feel like you guys… yeah, you really took the time to dive into what those odds really were, to start to like pick apart those experiences, why they were different, why they came with additional challenges.
There’s this really incredible moment, where like you have, I think it’s the ruling from Brown versus Board of Education, right? And I was struck by that because in this… I just so rarely hear education discussed, um, and sort of how school segregation affected all of that. I mean like, my dad was done with school before Brown versus Board of Education was ever passed. He’d never gone to a non-segregated school in his life. [laughs] You know? My mom, either, actually. [laughing] So like, it was… so like, I feel like yeah, we talk about like slavery. Yeah, we talk about like those other sorts of things, but like 1954 is not that long ago, and so I’m just like curious for you guys, kind of like, why that was important to you, kind of like what made you choose to focus on like that aspect of it, as opposed to sort of, like I said, the same old like slavery in the 19th century was like X, which is true. We all know this, but like that… what made you choose that?
Anna Reser: For that chapter in particular, I relied really heavily on a conference report, um, that was… the conference was convened by women of color in science to talk about their careers and the specific barriers that they faced trying to get into science. And in that report, that’s a huge part of their experience and something that they cite as being really kind of formative, is going to segregated schools, and then being kind of funneled into certain university contexts because of that. And that, like, their education was so much more difficult. So I think, you know, when we talk about like, oh, how do we get women in STEM? Or women of color into STEM? It, oh, it’s just like a pipeline problem.
Leila McNeill: It’s super not. [laughs]
Anna Reser: It’s super not. There are very specific barriers to poor black women, in particular, to get that kind of education. The other thing is, if you want to talk about, like, oh, well, there just like aren’t a lot of role models for women in color in science. It’s like, well there are… there are, for one thing. We just don’t talk about them, but like if there are less, there are reasons for that, and it’s because the people who came up through those education systems in the ’50s, who would be our role models now, like legends in the field or whatever, they went through all of this stuff and their careers were affected by this. And so, basically, I just took from that report what these women said themselves about what they experienced, and… and that’s a huge part of it.
Leila McNeill: And I think that when you do focus on white women, especially in the US during the Civil War, Reconstruction, D-Jim Crow, Civil Rights, you would think in reading about their biography that there was no Civil War, there was no Reconstruction. There was no social problems in the US while they were doing their career, because it didn’t inflict their lives in the same way, and so, you know [laughs] when we’re talking about women in science during this, this time period, you know, that it’s almost removed from, from the culture and the politics of, of the time, because it was for them, because they’re white, you know? [laughs]
And so, when we were dealing with those time periods in the book, we didn’t just focus on the white women living during that time. This was the, the varied experience of women in science during this time, and black women experienced it in this way, and they had to navigate the profession, especially like in nursing, coming out of the Civil War, in a way that, you know, white women did not. And so, their careers are tied to these political tides in ways that white women weren’t, and we also didn’t want to, of c-… separate those out into different chapters to make it look like here’s the mainstream of history, here’s white women’s history, and then next to that we’ve got black women’s history. [laughs]
So I know in Ghostbusters they say, “Don’t cross the streams,” but we did that. We crossed the streams. [laughs]
Anna Reser: Yeah, and what you’re… about nursing in particular, I think… I didn’t go super into depth in the chapter itself, but one of the things that I thought was really interesting and something that I try to keep in mind is that like, with nursing in particular and, and with other fields that like care fields, the experience that black women have with the kind of like culture and sort of mythology of like the history of those fields, is very, very, very different than what it would be for white women, because like the figure of like a nurse or a mammy in black history is tied to slavery. It can be very traumatic. You know, black women didn’t get to choose to be nurses for their family. It wasn’t like that at all. They were being nurses to the families that owned them, so you know, that’s just… You can’t talk about like the professionalization of nursing in the United States without bringing that up, because they’re very different experiences.
And so when someone like Mary Mahoney goes to nursing school, like the context for her is going to be much different than it is for the white women who are, are training as nurses. And so, just trying to keep all of these things kind of afloat. We have a lot of moist metaphors in this [laughing] discussion.
Leila McNeill: So we’ve got at float, we’ve got streams, we’ve got little rivers, we’ve got the flow of history. Just trying to keep track. Yeah, that’s right.
Alexis Pedrick: It made for me, it made reading that book feel like a more complete experience, that like I saw part of… It felt like I was not reading a history where I had to sort of be like, “Okay, well let me have the pre-talk with myself where I say, like, I know what this is. I know what the limitations of it are.” I felt like, “Oh, I am in this book. I’m part of this history,” and I think like kudos to you guys. Like that was awesome. That was… I don’t often get to have that experience [laughing].
Leila McNeill: Well, thank you very much. I’m glad… I’m glad that you didn’t have like [laughing] set up your boundaries and limitations [laughs] in the same way.
Lisa Berry Drago: I’m struck by some of the sources that you have used, things like that… the conference that’s called together to talk about, you know, women’s education in science, black women’s education in science. And I’m thinking about where the places where that you were looking for women in science. So you were looking outside of the, you know, list of Nobel Prize awardees [laughs] and you know, list of patents awarded. Looking outside of those places, I think, opens your scope up so much, and one of our favorite women, Madame Lavoisier, that the vision between… you know, looking into the laboratory and not looking at the, the quote unquote, you know, principal investigator. Not looking at the PI, but looking at the lab assistants is another place where you find many more women than you might expect.
So, could you talk a little bit about like looking… like shifting focus a little bit and looking in another space for, for the women that you were going to feature?
Leila McNeill: Yeah, I think one of the places that me and Anna always work from is understanding that science isn’t men in a white coat in a university or a lab, and when we can assume that science happens in other ways and is done by different people, it naturally allows us to see more figures like that, that… you know, like in the chapter about anthropologists and archeologists, neither one of those women had a university degree. And so, we understand that science doesn’t have to be a certain way. It doesn’t mean you have to be degreed. And so, when we do that, we’re able to just see a whole new culture and a whole new world of science and discovery and inquiry.
And one of the… in the Wives and Assistants chapter, when speaking about Lavoisier, is that we also wanted to kind of nuance that as well, that… especially with Lavoisier, she wasn’t just some like put-upon wife just following her husband around, and that he just exploited her labor and stuff like that. And one thing I wanted to show with that was that, you know, they were also bound by their time period as well, and that she didn’t publish on her own because women didn’t publish on their own. And she placed a very significant part in that partnership. He played a very important part in that partnership, and they both worked together, that it wasn’t some sort of exploitative relationship. And they both seemed actually very okay with that. She seemed very okay with the arrangement that they had, and that she enjoyed it.
And so that we also need to nuance those stories as well, to understand that that was one way that women participated in science in the past, and it was sometimes one that they were comfortable with and found joy in. And then there’s cases where, you know, the labor of the wife was exploited, and those stories are worth telling, too, but I think, you know, there’s a whole spectrum of ways that women worked with men in science. Women worked on their own in science, and that those are all varied experiences. And we tried to cover as many of those in the book as we could.
We don’t have like a specific chapter on this, but something that just kind of naturally happens throughout the book is the changing of the professionalization of science and how women fit into that. So the professionalization of science during, like when, say, when the Lavoisiers were working and publishing was completely different than what was then happening in the 19th century with women who were able to publish science works, but still weren’t able to go to university. So like what’s considered a professional scientist changes throughout the entire book, um, depending on the time period. And women and their careers, and how they were able to get into science is very much bound to the changing professionalization of science, you know, going from being involved in science because you’re married to a wealthy man who has the means to have a laboratory in his house [laughs] to that turning into a university degree, you know. And that happens over a period of time, and women’s careers are constantly shaped by that changing culture of science.
Lisa Berry Drago: I mean, speaking of which, you book covers a huge span [laughing] of history. I mean from, you know, quote unquote prehistory to, to right up till post-World War II. So A, how did you [laughing] do it? And B, what were some of the kind of struggles and strategies in making that work?
Anna Reser: Well, I think first of all, we would have preferred that it not be that long of a span. We did have to accommodate some of the publisher’s wishes. [laughs]
Leila McNeill: Right. You know, we’re both modernists, and so get [laughs] getting back to like ancient Sumeria was just like… I was just like, this I don’t. Oh, no. I don’t know how to do any of this.
Anna Reser: One of our friends is a historian of Egyptology, and I think I specifically was like, “You need to check my, like, dates and dynasties for the… any mention of Egypt.” And she was like, “Oh, I think you did fine.” I was like, “Oh, god.” [Laughs]
Alexis Pedrick: Listen. In general, historians, we all have like one teeny tiny portion of history [laughing] that we like know a lot about, and the rest we’re kind of like vaguely… like, “Ah, yeah. I know some stuff.” Lisa and I run into this all the time. We’re like, if once we start talking about the 19th century, like I am in my element. But when we’re in like early modern Europe, I’m like… “And then some, you know, there were peop… there were people there.” So that was happening, and [laughs]
Lisa Berry Drago: As soon as we get to a date with a 19 in it, I’m like, “I don’t know. There was a computer. Goodbye.”
Alexis Pedrick: That’s to be expected. [laughs]
Anna Reser: Well, I think in order to make this as sort of like definitive and wide scope as the publishers wanted, we definitely relied on things like biographical dictionaries and, for the ancient period, like, a lot of older works that we used as sources. And it’s difficult, like the further back you go in time, the fewer records there are of anybody, much less women, and so at some point you’re dealing with things that are straight into the like apocryphal or mythological, and so we decided we would just kind of lean into that. So when we talk about medicine in ancient Egypt or something, we just don’t know that much about it. I mean, we all collectively. Me, I know nothing about it, [laughs] but the amassed knowledge in the world is also small.
Leila McNeill: Yeah, and we just… we also rely on making certain kinds of, I think, educated guesses and inferences about the different roles that women can have in certain societies, and we make it clear when we’re making inferences and assumptions, ba… like educated ones. We make that clear. We want people to understand that history is not always a, a process of absolute knowledge and, and knowing. And that we can make educated guesses, but I think we need to be upfront with readers about when we’re making those guesses, so that we don’t create these mythologized figures that aren’t real, or something like that. But that’s something that me and Anna were very, very conscious of doing in those early chapters.
Anna Reser: Yeah, we, we kept like texting each other back and forth, like, “I think this person isn’t real. I think this person was made up by Wikipedia. Like, I cannot find anything about… I don’t think this was a real person.” And they have a Wikipedia page that says they’re a real person, so we encountered a lot of that, where it’s just like, Oh, okay. We’re kind of… we’re wading into the, the past that we don’t understand very well, but we’re also wading into like… these like centuries of like mythologization kind of crystallizing one name into like a real person, and then just inventing a whole biography for them and they didn’t even… It’s not clear that they existed at all. So the tension of trying to kind of wade through all that was really difficult. [laughing]
Lisa Berry Drago: I study alchemy. You don’t need to tell me. I mean, [laughs] who is Hermes Trismegistus? Really? Really, though? The among of like ancient, ancient figures, ancient sages, et cetera, who turn out to be medieval inventions is a… that’s a non-zero number. [laughs].
Alexis Pedrick: Yeah. [laughs] Absolutely. I mean, I think I will not ask too many questions about the early period, but I have to tell you that chapter title, The Supernatural and the Sanctified, is just… it is [mwa]. Chef’s kiss. It’s perfect. I could conservatively discuss the Thessalian sorceresses for, I don’t know, a thousand years, but I do want to talk about like a, a main theme that I felt came out of that, which was about like how common, and frankly how quickly it was for women practicing science, to become witchcraft, which I feel like… we just like, is this legacy that’s like carried over. You know, you were talking about sort of the professionalization of science, and like obstetrics. We know that like once… like when men were involved, then it was becoming professionalized, but before that it was like, “Oh, I guess midwives and ladies do those things, and you know, it’s fine.”
And so I was just struck by sort of how, how often it became, “Oh, well, those are witches, but it’s because they’re, they’re ladies trying to do science or trying to do medicine,” and like, you know, that, that whole process is just… We still carry that. [laughs]
Anna Reser: We do see, you know, that there always is… whether it’s going to be, you know, witchcraft or something else, that women who do, have some sort of knowledge about the universe or the cosmos or nature or something like that, that that is just automatically suspect in some way. One of the things that I write about in that chapter is like, we’re not 100% sure who these so-called witches were, if they were real. The only one we have a name for specifically is Aglaonice, and we’re not 100% sure that she was real. She’s just the one that has been named.
But whether she was real or not, the myth of the Thessalian, which is who could draw down the moon during a lunar eclipse, was so pervasive for so long that what we can pull from that is that women’s knowledge of the cosmos and the workings of it was suspect. So, you know, it becomes less important whether witches were real or, [laughs] or what, because what we can see from that is like the culture of how women were seen as having some sort of natural knowledge. And I think that comes out to be… to me at least… the more fascinating part of that history.
Alexis Pedrick: So, we’re back to something we were talking about earlier with nursing, because that was something I hadn’t thought about. In the book, you guys talk about nursing sort of occupied this unique space because it was actually a field that, like, from the beginning was like, “Well, that’s where ladies can be,” right? It suited sort of the w-, the work we thought women were well suited to do fit with nursing, and I don’t think that means there were no struggles or no challenges or no hierarchy or patriarchy or anything like that. Like, certainly all of that existed. I’ve never thought of nursing like that, really, and I thought that was one of my favorite chapters. [laughs]
Anna Reser: Yeah, the nursing thing is really fascinating, just the way that nursing became a profession in the United States. I think it has a lot to do with the Civil War, just because there was like a huge, like shortage of people to care for wounded, and women were kind of like flocking to these field hospitals to, to try and help. There was definitely, like you say, there were struggles and there was patriarchy in the professionalization of nursing. I think at that point, you know, physicians were almost exclusively men, and they did feel challenged by the idea of a professional nurse being kind of in their space. And being somebody who, in particular, has like access to kind of like codified scientific knowledge about the body, as opposed to just, “I know about bodies because I raised a bunch of kids,” or something. And that was really challenging to a lot of physicians.
And the, one of the interesting things about medical education in general for women in the United States is that a lot of people who advocated for that were opposed to women’s colleges, opposed to having women’s medical colleges and women’s nursing colleges, because it was seen as kind of like capitulating to the patriarchy to have like a totally separate educational kind of track for women that could then very easily just be degraded by male medical colleges by saying, “Well, that’s just a ladies’ college, so whatever degree or certification that you get from there doesn’t count. It’s not real.” So there were advocates who were strongly opposed to creating women’s medical colleges because then they saw that as just kind of giving up the fight to get women into men’s medical colleges.
So there’s a ton of really interesting history there, and also that the advocates for women’s medical education in this period, and people who are opening colleges and people who are training nurses, they were very like politically savvy, very kind of plugged-in to this fight. It wasn’t just something that kind of like… I think often we think about these histories as just kind of evolving on their own somehow instead of being like very forcibly directed by women. We are going to figure out how to get women medical education, and we’re going to figure out the best way to do it, and we’re going to use all of our kind of political savvy to figure out how this is going to happen. And there are like internal conflicts about this, so it was just that like, “Oh, well. We just built some medical colleges somewhere and then the women showed up, and then that’s how that happened.”
Like, it was a very fraught kind of history. I think that that’s really interesting and worth remembering when we think about how institutions that cater to women or that are accepting women come into being, and it’s not… They don’t come out of nowhere.
Lisa Berry Drago: I’ve been working a little bit on Rachel Bodley, who was a dean of the Woman’s Medical College in P-A, and reading some of her commencement addresses, where she’s basically talking to this crew of people who are probably going to go… you know, women who were going to go out and work as… work as doctors, maybe work in hospitals, maybe work in rural postings, et cetera. And she’s like, “Please, do chemistry, do original res-” [laughs] Like, “Go do original research.” It was interesting to hear her talk to a group of professionals, but also like even within that, there’s this distinction between the women doctors who may provide care and the research chemist, who is a totally different level of medical researcher, and she’s encouraging them to pursue it and try to… and like, attain that level.
And it was interesting even in… So you have all these different spheres and levels, where it’s the women’s college, it’s the women doctors, then it’s the women medical researchers, the women chemists. And it’s like this whole… It’s like, you can visualize the sort of interlocking Venn [laughing] diagram of like authority and, and status and, uh, all this happening at the same time.
Anna Reser: Yeah, and one of the interesting things about the professionalization of women in medicine, like at the Woman’s Medical College, is that getting the college set up and getting women into medical school and conferring degrees upon them was one thing. What do you do afterwards? Where are they going to intern? Where are they going to find a job when there is white male physicians that are a dime a dozen and ready to serve? Even after the women’s college was set up, you know, institutions like what the Blackwells set up in New York were very important to give women hands-on, practical training in a hospital setting, kind of like an internship or residency, because they weren’t going to get that somewhere else. So it was the building of an entire system that could somehow support women, not just “We set up the college and hooray, we’re done.” You know? Like there was a whole process and a whole system that needed to be built up to support this new generation of women professionals.
Lisa Berry Drago: This has been really special for us, and we could probably talk about medical school and exclusion and problems and suffering and oppression and joy in science forever. Thank you. We’re going to… we’re going to leave it here.
Alexis Pedrick: Yeah, this was… I’m just going to say it… the best interview we’ve ever done. [laughs] Yeah. It was super fun. [laughs]
Leila McNeill: Okay, now we’re… this is an honor.
Alexis Pedrick: Yeah, now this is… ahem, well. [laughs]
Anna Reser: Thank you so much for having us. This was a lot of fun.
Lisa Berry Drago: Thanks for listening to this episode of Distillations. Remember, Distillations is more than a podcast. It’s also a multimedia magazine. You can find our videos, stories and every single podcast episode at Distillations.org. And you’ll also find podcast transcripts and show notes.
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Lisa Berry Drago: This episode was produced by Mariel Carr and Rigo Hernandez.
Alexis Pedrick: And it was mixed by Jonathan Pfeffer.
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Alexis Pedrick: For Distillations, I’m Alexis Pedrick.
Lisa Berry Drago: And I’m Lisa Berry Drago.
Alexis Pedrick: Thanks for listening, listening, listening.