Changes in Myths of Gender over Time: Early 20th Century

Marilyn Ogilvie. Women, Science, and Myth: Gender Beliefs from Antiquity to the Present. Editor: Sue V Rosser, ABC-CLIO, 2008.

By the early 20th century, political situations and educational reforms begun in the 19th century had come to fruition, making it more likely that women might become scientists. Suffrage movements and opportunities for higher education for women were important 19th-century developments. These movements appeared in different guises in diverse places throughout much of the Western world. A previously unthinkable concept, a voting woman, was contemplated in several parts of the world during the mid-19th century. In the United States, the organized women’s movement is usually considered to have originated in the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention. In 1840 at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton discussed the possibility of a convention that would address the problems of women. They, after meeting with Jane Hunt, Mary Ann McClintock, and Martha Coffin Wright (Lucretia Mott’s sister), on July 13, 1848, proceeded to call a woman’s rights convention the next week on July 19 and 20. After a two-day debate, the Declaration of Sentiments, modeled on the Declaration of Independence, was adopted and signed by 100 people. In Europe, reform movements arose at about the same time (Cullen-DuPont 2000).

Educational reforms fell in lockstep with political ones. By the early 20th century, women were active in most fields of science, although certain areas such as the biological and the human sciences were better represented than the physical sciences and mathematics.

Annie Jump Cannon (1863-1941)

Annie Cannon’s career in astronomy became possible because of the changes in educational opportunities for girls born in the last half of the 19th century. Born in Dover, Delaware, she received her early education in the Dover public schools. Annie was the oldest of three siblings in a household that included four other half-siblings. Her shipbuilder father, Wilson Cannon, was the Democratic state senator who broke with the Democratic Party at the outbreak of the Civil War and cast the deciding vote against secession. Her mother was interested in astronomy and she and Annie had a makeshift observatory in the attic where they watched the heavens. After public school, Cannon attended the Wilmington Conference Academy. After she graduated from the Academy, Cannon had the opportunity to profit from the 19th-century advances in women’s education through the Seven Sisters colleges. Wellesley College was only five years old when Cannon decided to matriculate there in 1880. At Wellesley, Cannon studied with astronomer Sarah Whiting and became interested in the new study of spectroscopy. After graduation in 1894, Cannon did not immediately try to enter the job market or graduate school but returned home where she was involved in Dover social activities. After her mother’s death, she returned to Wellesley as a graduate student working under Whiting, earning her M.A. degree in 1907. From 1895 to 1897 she was a graduate student at Radcliffe, another of the Seven Sisters, or early Eastern women’s colleges, that is, Vassar, Wellesley, Smith, Bryn Mawr, Radcliffe, Mount Holyoke, and Barnard.

Women astronomers were not totally unheard of in the early 20th century. Observational astronomy was a study that a woman amateur could pursue at home without breaching the two-spheres concept. However, paid positions for women in astronomy were very difficult to obtain. Nevertheless, low-paid jobs as computers at the Harvard College Observatory and the Royal Greenwich Observatory provided women with jobs. Harvard College Observatory director Edward Pickering found well-educated women astronomers excellent employees because astronomy was moving away from observational work and into the new field of photographic astrophysics. The adoption of cameras and spectroscopes had great implications for women since it required a different labor force. Pickering needed fewer observers (men’s work) and many more assistants (women’s work) to classify as cheaply as possible the thousands of photographic plates his equipment was generating.

Cannon became an assistant at the Observatory in 1896 along with Williamina Fleming (1857-1911) and Antonia Maury (1866-1952). Cannon worked at the Observatory until her retirement in 1940, succeeding Fleming as curator of the Observatory’s photographs. In 1938 she was made William Cranch Bond Astronomer at Harvard University—one of the first appointments of women by the Harvard corporation. Most of her career involved the observation, classification, and spectroscopic analysis of stars. The volume of her work on spectral classification is notable. In addition to her major work on classification (she classified 350,000 stars), The Henry Draper Catalogue and The Henry Draper Extension, she published nine smaller catalogues and many short papers. She was especially fascinated by variable stars.

Cannon received a number of awards including six honorary degrees, an honorary membership in the Royal Astronomical Society, the Draper Medal of the National Academy of Sciences, and the Ellen Richards Prize of the Society to Aid Scientific Research by Women.

Home Economics

By choosing fields that could be considered “women’s work,” women had the opportunity to infiltrate science. In the 19th century when the “two spheres” concept was so popular, woman’s sphere was the home and man’s the public arena. Home economics seemed especially suitable for women because of its proximity to the private sphere and best of all, its lack of interest to the public-sphered male. Home economics’ founder was Ellen Swallow Richards (1842-1911), the wife of an engineering professor at MIT; she volunteered her services and about $1,000 annually to support the Women’s Laboratory at that institution. In 1880, she began to stress the value of chemistry to the homemaker. Although home economics as “women’s work” successfully provided women with jobs, its “facts” were not valued nearly as highly as were those created by men in the “hard sciences.” The very success of women’s work on major campuses helped to harden the gender separation for future generations. Rather than being accepted for other scientific employment once the pioneers had shown that women could handle this work, women found themselves more restricted than ever to “women’s work.” Since women were finding such good opportunities in the field, many persons (including the first vocational counselors, a new specialty around 1910) urged ambitious young women interested in science to head for home economics. It was the only field in which a woman scientist could hope to be a full professor, department chair, or even dean in the 1920s and 1930s (Rossiter 1982: Ogilvie and Harvey 2000).

Alice Hamilton (1869-1970)

Alice Hamilton followed a long tradition of women in health-related fields. Born to an intellectually vibrant family in Fort Wayne, Indiana, she and her three sisters and brother learned languages, literature, history, and some mathematics informally from their parents and occasionally from tutors. After preparing for medical school she attended the co-educational medical school of the University of Michigan, where she received her degree in 1893. After interning at the Hospital for Women and Children in Minneapolis and at the New England Hospital for Women and Children near Boston, she went to Germany where she received additional training in bacteriology and pathology—fields in which she would spend her entire working life.

After returning to the United States, Hamilton studied at the Johns Hopkins Medical School until she received an appointment at the Woman’s Medical School of Northwestern University. On arriving in Chicago, she boarded at Jane Addams’ Hull House, where she came in contact with prominent Chicagoans as well as the often poverty-stricken, lower-class individuals who frequented Hull House. Hamilton not only taught but also engaged in research in pathology and bacteriology. Her interest in social service inspired her to establish Chicago’s first baby health center. After the Woman’s Medical School closed in 1902, she went to Paris to study for a year at the Pasteur Institute. Upon returning to Chicago, she went to work for the Memorial Institute for Infectious Diseases as assistant to the pathologist. At this time, Chicago was in the throes of a typhoid epidemic, and Hamilton conducted investigations for the Chicago Health Department to determine causes and treatments. Her recommendations resulted in a major reorganization of the department. Hamilton investigated other public health problems in the Chicago area. She found that many immigrant workers became sick from inhaling poisonous fumes from their jobs in foundries, factories, and steel mills and she became an active crusader in investigating and alleviating the causes of occupational diseases. She became the managing director of the Illinois Occupational Disease Commission. After Hamilton read a paper at the International Congress on Occupational Accidents and Diseases in Brussels, Belgium, her work was brought to the attention of the United States Commissioner of Labor (Department of Commerce) who asked her to undertake a national survey. This post, although unsalaried, allowed her to travel throughout the country. She was also active in the International Congress of Women at the Hague (1915), a group that attempted to avoid the impending war. However, after the United States entered the war, she served her country and the world by studying the munitions industry and observing the effects of several new poisons on workers.

After the war, Hamilton was appointed assistant professor at Harvard University’s new Department of Industrial Medicine. Because of her previous participation in the surveys, she was the only person qualified for the job. As a woman she was excluded from the Harvard Faculty Club and could not march in the graduation procession. She taught at Harvard for 16 years but never received a promotion. Her teaching responsibilities were only for six months out of the year; the other six months were spent working for the federal government. She completed numerous important projects, including a study of the new rayon industry, silicosis and other diseases common to miners, lead toxicity in bathtubs and paint, toxicity of nitrous fumes inhaled by workers in the explosives industry, and the occupational hazards of certain positions on maternal and fetal health. Her work was not confined to the United States. As the only female member of the League of Nations Health Committee she went abroad and studied various conditions. Hamilton’s accomplishments were recognized by numerous awards and honorary degrees (Sicherman 1984: Ogilvie and Harvey 2000).

Karen Clementine Danielsen Horney (1885-1952)

Perhaps because psychology and psychoanalysis were relatively new fields and did not have a long history of male domination, women were increasingly influential in these developing studies. Karen Horney, as one of these early psychoanalysts, accepted many of Freud’s views but rejected his theory that biological and sexual factors were primary in personality relations. She rebuked the developers of psychoanalysis for their male-centered views. Instead, she averred that cultural factors, not women’s feelings of inferiority, were more important in perpetuating the idea that females were subordinate to males in society.

Born in Hamburg, Germany, Karen Danielsen was the daughter of a Norwegian sea captain and a Dutch mother. Although her father did not approve of education for women, her mother was supportive. The couple separated, and after the separation Karen Danielsen moved to Freiburg, where she attended the university and excelled both academically and socially. She met the handsome and brilliant economics major, Oskar Horney, at Freiburg, and eventually both entered the University of Göttingen where they were married. Successfully combining marriage with work, she eventually received her medical degree in 1915. During the time that she was in medical school she had three daughters. She also became interested in psychoanalysis and joined the Berlin Psychoanalytic Society headed by Karl Abraham. Between 1922 and 1929, Horney wrote her most important papers on feminine psychology in which she theorized that young women did not envy males their penises but rather the superior position of men in society.

Horney and her husband separated in 1926, and between 1926 and 1932 she focused on personal conflicts. During this time she published six papers on marital problems and also considered the importance of raising adolescents. Horney immigrated to the United States in 1932 after she was offered a job as assistant director of the Institute for Psychoanalysis in Chicago. Two years later she moved to New York City to work at the New School for Social Research and at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute. Here she wrote her most significant and most controversial books, The Neurotic Personality of Our Time (1937) and New Ways of Psychoanalysis (1939). Her reinterpretation of Freudian ideas created professional pandemonium with the result that she resigned from the New York Psychoanalytic Society in 1941. However, that same year she became one of the founders of the Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis and of the American Institute of Psychoanalysis, where she served as dean until she died of abdominal cancer in 1952. Her contributions to theories in various fields are legion; she opened the door to holistic thinking and freedom from mechanistic structures (Rubens 1978).

Emily Noether (1882-1935)

Mathematician Emily Noether elected a field of study that few early 20th-century women chose. Born into a distinguished German-Jewish family of scientists, mathematicians, and musicians, Emmy Noether decided to study mathematics at the University of Erlangen where her father was a research mathematician. However, she was admitted only as an auditor, for women could not yet matriculate at the university. She stayed at Erlangen for two years but left to attend the University of Göttingen, again as a nonmatriculated student. However, after she had spent one semester at Göttingen, Erlangen changed its policy and allowed women to matriculate and take examinations with the same privileges as men. At Erlangen, she studied under the algebraist Paul Gordan and in 1807 received her doctorate, summa cum laude, for a dissertation on algebraic invariants. Even with a doctorate it was almost impossible for a woman to obtain a paid position. Consequently, from 1908 to 1915 Noether worked without pay at the Mathematical Institute at Erlangen. David Hilbert, the mathematician, invited her to Göttingen to lecture in 1915 and tried unsuccessfully to obtain a university appointment for her. Finally (1922) she was given the title of “unofficial associate professor” and a small salary. She remained at Göttingen until 1933 when she (and other Jewish faculty members) received a communication that withdrew from her the right to teach at this university. She accepted an offer to teach at Bryn Mawr College partly because of its tradition of eminent female mathematicians, including Charlotte Scott and Anna Pell Wheeler. In the United States she lectured and did research at both Bryn Mawr and the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, New Jersey. However, after two years she died after undergoing surgery for an ovarian cyst.

Emmy Noether was an original and creative mathematican. Mathematicians now speak of the “Noether school” of mathematics because her work in abstract algebra in which she concentrated on formal properties such as associativity, commutativity, and distributivity has inspired so many successors (Ogilvie and Harvey 2000).

Beatrix Potter (1866-1943)

Beatrix Potter is remembered more for her children’s stories than for her science. In many ways her accomplishments as a British natural historian hearken back to an earlier period when women could only pursue science at home. Her family was well-to-do but aloof, and she spent most of her time isolated in a third-floor nursery with her brother Bertram. After Bertram went away to school, Beatrix received a minimal education with a governess, studying French, German, and needlework. Her more formal studies were completed with a Miss Cameron with whom she studied from ages 12 to 17 and completed the Art Student’s Certification, second grade, in July 1881.

Painfully shy, Beatrix took comfort in drawing natural history objects. She kept careful notes on her collections and drew them in great detail. With Bertram she skinned dead rabbits and boiled them until only the bones remained. She then drew the skeletons. She also caught and tamed rabbits, bringing them back to London as pets. Her shyness only grew worse as she got older. At age 19, she visited the British Museum and drew many of the objects in the collections there. On family vacations to Scotland she became interested in fungi, and she drew and described numerous specimens in a coded journal. Her uncle tried unsuccessfully to have her accepted to study at the Royal Botanic Gardens. She shared her research on the germination of spores with the Linnaean Society of London. However, after the keeper of botany at the Museum of Natural History disparaged her work on fungi, she returned to the picture letters that she had sent to the children of her last governess, Annie Moore. These letters were the basis for what became The Tale of Peter Rabbit. This children’s story, based on her own rabbit, Benjamin Bouncer, was rejected by a series of publishers. Finally the Frederick Warne publishing company suggested that she publish the letters in color. She did so, and the books were a success. She became engaged to Norman Warne, her editor, but he died suddenly at the age of 37.

After her aging parents died, Potter bought a farm where she continued to write children’s stories. After buying additional land she married the solicitor in her land purchases when she was 47 years old. For the last 30 years of her life, Potter was a farmer.

Potter’s research on fungi did not get the attention that it deserved. She described the symbiotic relationship between algae and fungi in lichens. Although a Swiss botanist had previously described lichens as consisting of two organisms, British botanists did not accept his theory. Potter’s manuscript using the term symbiosis was burned after her death. However, when her encoded notebooks were deciphered, her theory became available. Even though her uncle had introduced her to the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, Sir William Turner Thiselton-Dyer, he was uninterested in her ideas on symbiosis and claimed that her drawings were “too artistic” to meet scientific criteria (Ogilvie and Harvey 2000).

Margaret Higgins Sanger (1879?-1966)

Margaret Sanger is important in the social history of science. Known for her advocacy of birth control, she became an activist in support of her ideas. As the sixth of 11 children she saw the relationship between poverty and overpopulation very clearly. After the death of her tubercular mother whom she had cared for, Sanger trained as a nurse. She married architect William Sanger in 1902 and the couple produced two sons and a daughter. The daughter died of pneumonia when she was five years old. The life of a housewife never appealed to Sanger. She became involved with radical politics and took a position as a home nurse on the Lower East Side of New York City. As an activist in the International Workers of the World (IWW), one of her first causes was organizing textile workers in the Northeast. She soon recognized the connection between the issues of economic and social justice and feminist demands for the right of women to control their own bodies. Without sexual reform for women, the ability to command higher wages simply would not happen.

Her radical political activities weakened her marriage. Sanger and her husband began to grow apart during the second decade of the 20th century. She began publishing articles in the socialist weekly, The Call, disseminating information on venereal diseases, the dangers of abortion, and contraception. However, these efforts were thwarted because of the provisions of the Comstock Act of 1873 banning materials from the United States mail considered obscene, including information on contraception and abortion. Attempting to eliminate the stigma of obscenity from contraception, she went to Europe (1914) with its more accepting environment to study methods of female-controlled contraception. When she returned to the United States full of information, she began to fight for the legalization of birth control through the publication of her journal The Woman Rebel. The dissemination of this publication caused her to be indicted for violating the Comstock Act. Her response was to leave again for Europe. While she was gone, her pamphlet Family Limitation was distributed by her followers. During this second visit she learned about the spring-controlled diaphragm. While she was in Europe her husband William was arrested by a Suppression of Vice agent for handing out Family Limitations and their daughter died of pneumonia. Back in the United States, Sanger embarked on a nationwide tour disseminating the knowledge she had gained in Europe. She and her younger sister opened the Brownsville clinic in New York and counseled almost 500 Brooklyn women before the clinic was closed and Sanger was arrested and put in jail. This highly publicized event led to the clarification of the New York law that forbade the distribution of birth control information, resulting in what Sanger considered a mandate for physician-staffed birth control clinics.

While Sanger was in Europe, she had met Havelock Ellis, who suggested that she separate herself from militant feminism and concentrate on social and eugenic arguments for birth control. She gained financial support from prominent people, allowing her to organize the American Birth Control League which later became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

William Sanger had problems with Margaret’s sexually liberated views and actions. She railed against the double standard for sexual behavior and found it offensive. However, they stayed together until 1920 when Sanger divorced him. She married millionaire J. Noah Slee in 1922 after he agreed to respect her autonomy and fund her cause. Her later accomplishments included opening the first doctor-staffed birth control clinic in the United States: Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau, New York City (1923); forming the Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control; and helping to found the International Planned Parenthood organization (1952). One of her most important lobbying efforts came after a long legal battle to reverse the Comstock Act’s classification of birth control as an obscenity. Her eventual success led to the American Medical Association’s recognition of contraception as a legitimate medical service and one that should be taught in medical schools. After this 1937 success, Sanger moved to Tucson, Arizona, for her and her husband’s retirement. Never fully retiring, Sanger brought the work of biologist Gregory Pincus to the attention of Katherine Dexter McCormick, who partially subsidized the birth control pill. In 1960, Sanger died of congestive heart failure at a Tucson nursing home (Ogilvie and Harvey 2000).

Nettie Maria Stevens (1861-1912)

Nettie Maria Stevens, who, along with Edmund Beecher Wilson, is credited with discovering the chromosomal determination of sex, was born in Cavendish, Vermont, to Julia (Adams) and Ephraim Stevens, a carpenter. She had only one sister, Emma Julia, who survived to maturity. Stevens’s early education was in the public schools of Westford, Massachusetts, and later the Westford Academy. After her graduation from Westford in 1880, she attended the Westfield (Massachusetts) Normal School. To save money for her future education, following graduation from Westfield (in 1883), she taught Latin, English, mathematics, physiology, and zoology at a high school in Lebanon, New Hampshire; worked as a librarian at the Chelmsford (Massachusetts) Free Public Library; and taught at the Howe School, Billerica, Massachusetts.

In 1896 Stevens had saved enough money to enter Stanford University where she matriculated as a special student. In January 1897, she was awarded regular freshman standing and in March of that year was admitted to advanced standing. Although during her first year at Stanford, Stevens proposed to major in physiology under Oliver Peebles Jenkins, in 1897-1898 she became a student of Frank Mace MacFarland and began to concentrate in histology. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1899 she remained at Stanford as a graduate student, obtaining a master’s degree in 1900. Her M.A. thesis, Studies on Ciliate Infusoria, was published in 1901. While she was a student at Stanford, Stevens spent four summer vacations at the Hopkins Seaside Laboratory at Pacific Grove, California, pursuing histological and cytological research.

In 1900, Stevens returned to the East to study at Bryn Mawr College. This institution was a fine choice for a potential cytologist or histologist because two well-known biologists, Edmund B. Wilson and Thomas Hunt Morgan, were on its faculty. Although Wilson had left before Stevens arrived, his reputation remained at the school. Wilson corresponded with Morgan who became one of Stevens’s teachers. When she first came to Bryn Mawr she worked with Joseph Weatherland Warren on the physiology of frog contractions, but shortly thereafter she began to work with the geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan whose interests at that time were in cytology and regeneration. Morgan did not accept a chromosomal theory of heredity until much later. After six months at Bryn Mawr, Stevens was awarded a fellowship to study abroad. Her work at the Naples (Italy) Zoological Station and at the Zoological Institute of the University of Würzburg, Germany, resulted in several papers. After her year abroad (1901-1902) Stevens returned to Bryn Mawr and was awarded the Ph.D. degree in 1903. Her dissertation, Further Studies on the Ciliate Infusoria, Licnophora and Boveria, was published in the same year.

Stevens retained an affiliation with Bryn Mawr College for the rest of her life. She became a research fellow in 1902 and remained in that position until 1904. Her research in 1903-1904 was funded by a Carnegie Institution Grant. From 1904 to 1905, Stevens was a reader in experimental morphology and from 1905 to 1912, an associate in experimental morphology. It seemed as if she would finally be rewarded for her excellent research work when the trustees of Bryn Mawr created a research professorship for her; unfortunately, she died of breast cancer before she could occupy it.

During her lifetime, Stevens published at least 38 papers, most of which were cytological in nature, although some were in experimental physiology. All of these papers were exquisitely conceived and executed, but one particular set of research results assured her place in the history of cytogenetics. During the years of her Carnegie Foundation research work, she demonstrated that sex is determined by a specific chromosome.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the behavior of the chromosomes during cell division had been described, but their connection with Mendelian heredity had not been confirmed. No trait had been traced from the chromosomes of the parent to those of the offspring, nor had a specific chromosome been linked with a specific characteristic. Hints existed, however, that the inheritance of sex might provide the sought-after link, for if sex were shown to be inherited in a Mendelian fashion, a chromosomal basis for heredity would be supported.

Stevens was one among several investigators interested in the problem of chromosomes and sex determination. By 1903, when she applied to the Carnegie Institution for a grant, she described one of her research interests as “the histological side of the problems of heredity connected with Mendel’s Law” (Stevens, Letter to the Secretary of the Carnegie Institution, July 19, 1903). While Stevens was doing her research, Columbia University professor Edmund Beecher Wilson was working on the same problem. Both Wilson and Stevens concluded that sex was determined by a specific chromosome, raising the question of which of the scientists made the discovery first. Until recently, Wilson was credited with this discovery, but recent research has indicated that the two arrived at their conclusions independently. While studying spermatogenesis in five insect species from four different groups, Stevens observed that two species had an extra or “accessory” chromosome in the male. The common mealworm, Tenebrio molitor, was especially interesting because the size of one chromosme differed in males and females. In 1905, Stevens established that male mealworms have 19 large chromosomes and females 20 large ones. She tentatively concluded that this situation represented a case of sex determination by the particular pair of differently sized chromosomes, for she assumed that the spermatozoa containing the small chromosome determine the male sex and those containing 10 large chromosomes the female. Neither Stevens nor Wilson stated their conclusions unequivocally, for the situation in different insect groups was extremely varied. Clearly, however, Stevens recognized the significance of the chromosomal differences between males and females, and she continued investigation in a number of different species in an attempt to establish a pattern (Ris 1973: Ogilvie and Choquette 1981: Maienschein 1990: Ogilvie and Harvey 2000).


The achievements of these women and many others were possible because of the political and educational changes made in the previous century. Although women were still at a decided disadvantage, as the century progressed they had the opportunity to earn college degrees, to participate in professional organizations, and (more rarely) to use their education to earn a living. Ellen Swallow Richards and home economics became a model for an acceptable career for women. But it was not only “women’s work” that women scientists were engaged in. They were active in astronomy (Annie Jump Cannon), medicine and bacteriology (Alice Hamilton), psychology and psychoanalysis (Karen Horney and Melanie Klein), mathematics (Emily Noether), scientific illustration (Beatrix Potter), social science (Margaret Sanger), and cytogenetics (Nettie Maria Stevens). These women represent a new generation of creative women scientists. Bryn Mawr-educated Nettie Stevens, for example, produced a major theoretical breakthrough in her hypothesis on sex determination by chromosomes. Annie Jump Cannon was able to take advantage of her education at Wellesley and Radcliffe to become an assistant at the Harvard College Observatory. Horney and Klein made creative contributions to the new study of psychoanalysis. Although she had a difficult time finding a paid position after she obtained her Ph.D. from the University of Göttingen, Emmy Noether demonstrated that women could be creative in mathematics. Although Beatrix Potter was never able to transcend her environment to be accepted in British natural history circles, her skills at drawing and writing reflected her knowledge. Margaret Sanger was not a theoretical scientist but she was totally committed to publicizing the dangers of overpopulation and was effective in educating the public. Thus, during the early 20th century, women were involved in most aspects of science, both theoretical and practical.