'Defining Women's Scientific Enterprise'

The debates over women and science may have been particularly intense in the last year, but they are hardly new. When Mount Holyoke College was founded in 1837, its early leaders created a science curriculum that was simultaneously designed to be as rigorous as those offered for male students, but also to be different, given the college's mission.

January 17, 2006

The debates over women and science may have been particularly intense in the last year, but they are hardly new. When Mount Holyoke College was founded in 1837, its early leaders created a science curriculum that was simultaneously designed to be as rigorous as those offered for male students, but also to be different, given the college's mission.

In Defining Women's Scientific Enterprise: Mount Holyoke Faculty and the Rise of American Science, Miriam R. Levin explores how those scholars defined their role -- and the obstacles they faced. Levin, an associate professor of history at Case Western Reserve University, believes that the history of Mount Holyoke offers relevant lessons today for many institutions that are trying to encourage women in the sciences. With the book, first published by the University Press of New England in 2004, now about to appear in paperback, Levin responded to questions about her research.

Q: What led Mount Holyoke's founder and early leaders to place such an emphasis on science?

A: The answer to this very important question lies in the fascinating and creative way these women interpreted the relationship between science and religion. It may seem strange to say this today when scientists are confronting creationists' theological claims and assaults on textbook content, classroom teaching, and even research methods. However, in the context of an America whose horizons seemed limitless in the early 19th century, Mary Lyon founded Mount Holyoke understanding that theologically, institutionally, and professionally the evangelical Protestant community opened opportunities in higher education for women to teach science in collaboration with men. Her early emphasis on science derived from both shrewd assessments of the academic market place where women could help satisfy the great demand for scientific knowledge and from deep religious conviction that science was a means to personal and national salvation.

Q: How was the teaching of science at Mount Holyoke different from the teaching of science at other institutions in the period you cover in your book?

A: Teaching at Mount Holyoke stressed the use of reasoning abilities and systematic procedures applied to gathering and recording detailed information based on empirical evidence. It was a very hands-on approach. The programs emphasized laboratory teaching, manipulation of equipment, and the collection and classification of specimens from the wild. Early on the faculty performed the demonstrations and students collected specimens. As Mount Holyoke became more prosperous and laboratory science developed, students engaged in experiments as well.

These practices differed in emphasis from those at male colleges, where scientific theories received greater attention. The value and limitations of this pedagogy for the graduates it produced was that it placed faculty in the position of complementing, rather than competing with, men in science, giving the women some advantage in certain sectors of the market for scientific knowledge, especially those that were technically demanding and empirically focused.

Q: How were science faculty members at Mount Holyoke both connected and independent from science professors at other New England institutions?

A: Lyon and her successors identified with the colleges of New England, emulating, competing with and cooperating with them in a sort of extended family relationship that evolved with the appearance of women's colleges and, in the 20th century, coeducational universities. They set male colleges as the measure of their institution's excellence and established cooperative relationships with them and with technical institutes, benefiting from male faculty expertise and social status. After the Civil War, Mount Holyoke's primary rivals were the newly founded women's colleges in the region -- especially Smith and Wellesley Colleges. In the 20th century, Mount Holyoke along with these other institutions had to compete with coeducational and research universities located across the country for undergraduate students and for places for their graduates in doctoral programs and in jobs.

From one perspective, this relationship was mutually beneficial. There was a quid pro quo so that, for example, male scientists who came as visiting lecturers from Amherst and Williams Colleges provided Mount Holyoke faculty with access to advanced scientific knowledge and helped open opportunities for graduates to find graduate posts and jobs in the growing market for science. In return, the men influenced the formation of scientific personnel, gained support for their agendas and disseminated their ideas and textbooks through their Mount Holyoke connections. Mount Holyoke faculty also exercised a certain independence from male colleges in the region through extensive networking within the well organized missionary movement. They not only found positions for their graduates but support for founding sister and daughter institutions in the U.S. and abroad.

Q: You note that by requiring professors to be unmarried women, Mount Holyoke defined female scientists in that way. Why was that important -- and how did it lead to the end of the era you describe?

A: This regulation was one of the foundation stones of Mount Holyoke and helped define the terms of women's employment in the emerging world of professional work for women. From the founding of Mount Holyoke, the decision to limit regular faculty to unmarried women was a pragmatic solution to both economic and cultural difficulties faced by unmarried, middle class women and by a new institution for women's higher education.

It provided unmarried women willing to dedicate their lives to teaching with steady employment, high intellectual and moral standing, and a support system as part of an extended community of the chosen. From an institutional point of view, the rationale was that these women could devote all their energies to the needs of Mount Holyoke and its students in exchange for a small salary, housing and food, and membership in a great cause. The genius of Lyon's policy was that it respected prevailing gender customs and values while marking out a new space for women who taught science within the higher education workforce. For women willing and able to make the sacrifices required, the exchange brought rewards. these women developed their own subculture of unmarried women, often working and living in pairs, traveling together, to match the new professional lifestyles of married male college faculty in the early 20th century.

The policy began to run into difficulties, however, with the Great Depression, when pressures from male colleagues, the board of trustees and middle class Americans turned in favor of hiring men who supported families and of educating young women for family life, not careers in science as single women.

Q: There are debates on whether various kinds of colleges (liberal arts colleges, women's colleges, etc.) do a better job of teaching science than do other types of institutions (research universities). Does the Mount Holyoke experience shed light on this?

A: The question of what sort of institution does a better job of teaching science really needs to be parsed. In my book, I explain that teaching science at the undergraduate level is historically connected to certain goals or objectives that change periodically: These include conveying a basic body of accepted knowledge about a field such as biochemistry; familiarizing students with laboratory techniques, equipment, protocols; cultivating an understanding of how scientists think, define problems, ask questions and test hypothesis.

Teaching is also shaped by professional goals, compensation and the job market: preparation for available jobs, graduate, medical or dental school requirements, and so with course offerings, sequences, majors, concentrations, etc. Taking the major divide to be that between large research universities with undergraduate colleges and smaller liberal arts colleges, the latter have a better record in producing graduates who go on to get advanced degrees in science and math and find work in these fields. They offer a more personalized experience, often better equipped teaching labs, and have faculty hired because they are dedicated to teaching undergraduates, although also engaged in research tailored to this environment. They often have established connections to faculty at research universities and industry that help students get internships and entree to graduate schools.

But among small liberal arts colleges, there is also the issue of single-sex education -- and not simply course work. Here the history of Mount Holyoke and its record suggests that women's colleges offer a supportive, affirmative environment where women are expected to do well, encouraged and rewarded for doing so; where careful attention is given to helping them enter the job market in science and adjustments (such as hires in new fields, laboratory facilities, networking, marketing) are made to optimize the opportunity for both faculty and students to take advantage of openings, emerging fields, etc. And where women faculty take an interest in being role models, mentors, engaging students in research and helping them find internships and jobs. Now that a number of women faculty are married, students have a chance to understand and decide what rewards and challenges careers in science offer married women. They also are much more aware of the range of possible jobs they can have, depending on the kind of life and family they wish to have.

Q: The last year has seen an intense debate about why women are not better represented in the senior levels of science faculty positions. Does the Mount Holyoke experience with science offer lessons for today?

A: In the context of this debate, one might subtitle my book: "Not the Girls of Summers" [the title of several talks I presented]. Nevertheless, the history of Mount Holyoke holds some important lessons for dealing with the issues President Summers raised, while opening more fruitful ways to consider advancing women in science beyond a narrow focus on.

First, not the girls of summers. On the explanation of marriage distracting women from professional commitment and thus self-selecting to be less successful than men, the Mount Holyoke story shows that the marital status of women in science is not a simple explanation for their success or failure in the field.

On the explanation that for biological reasons women are not as smart as men, Mary Lyon and successors didn't touch that issue. In fact, their Protestantism was founded on the belief that all souls are equal before God and may understand his design through the systematic study of nature. Thus, men and women are equal in their ability to study nature. For pragmatic reasons that had to do with avoiding competition with men, Lyon and her successors emphasized different ways of doing science, focused on particular areas of teaching and research.

Discrimination. Women's colleges have been part of strategies to leverage women into science and keep them there, recognizing that discrimination against women and women's own inclination often to short-sell themselves can be mitigated and always needs to be confronted. The science faculty at Mount Holyoke were very pragmatic in wanting to be the most effective educators in an institution designed for a specific market and level of instruction. Within the women's colleges, women can reach the highest levels and gain recognition from outside. But these colleges have a reputation among many scientists in universities of hiring science faculty who are not able to compete at higher levels.

Moreover, history shows that women can discriminate too. Mount Holyoke until the early 20th century, was limited to white, Protestant women. Even later there were only few Jews, Catholics, and even fewer African Americans.

Second, the history of Mount Holyoke offers a view of higher education in science that shows it to be much more complex and extensive than the focus of the Summers controversy would suggest. Innovation, research, teaching goes on at other levels and in various types of interdependent institutions. And science does not operate from the top down, necessarily. There are a variety of important institutions through which women have been able to gain leverage and status as participants in the scientific work force.

Within this broader context, Mount Holyoke is perhaps most interesting for what its history suggests about the need for institutions of higher education in conjunction with their faculty to adapt the science they teach, methods for teaching it, and clientèle's they serve to shifting macro-economic situations. Right now, national need for scientists and engineers is growing while majors in these fields are declining -- although not at Mount Holyoke. To remain true to their unique wedding of self-interest with broader social values, they might consider Mount Holyoke's strategies a successful model.


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