Joanna Behrman’s article “Physics … is for girls?” (Physics Today, August 2022, page 30) provides a refreshing antidote to today’s stereotypes. For most of its history, Western science has been essentially a men’s club, evolving in “a world without women,” to borrow the title of David Noble’s 1992 book that traces the male dominance of science to Christian clerical heritage.1
Behrman reports that in the 19th-century US, girls and young women were encouraged to study natural philosophy. But the situation at the time was quite different in Britain. Girls and women were thought incapable of “ascent up the hill of science,” which Cambridge University geologist Adam Sedgwick said was “rugged and thorny, and ill-fitted for the drapery of a petticoat.”2 (Though, ironically, it is said that the cloth wrapping of the ring with which Michael Faraday discovered electromagnetic induction in 1831 was made from strips of his wife’s petticoat.)
The Scottish physicist David Brewster, who worked on polarized light and invented the kaleidoscope, was explicit in his views toward women in science: “The mould in which Providence has cast the female mind, does not present to us those rough phases of masculine strength which can sound depths, and grasp syllogisms, and cross-examine nature.”3 J. J. Thomson, the Cambridge physicist who discovered the electron, expressed a similar worldview. In an 1886 letter to a family friend, he complained that a female student in one of his advanced classes did “not understand a word.” He went on to state, “my theory is that she is attending my lectures on the supposition that they are on Divinity and she has not yet found out her mistake.”4
The law of conservation of energy, established at midcentury with major contributions coming from the Englishman James Joule and the Scot William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin), was held by many to explain why women should not do science or indeed even be educated: A woman’s body contained only a finite amount of energy, and trouble would befall those who channeled it away from childbirth and nurturing.5
In the 1800s, only a few women were accepted into Britain’s scientific sphere. One of the most notable was the self-taught Mary Somerville, who wrote several treatises and translated and expanded Pierre Simon Laplace’s Mécanique céleste (Celestial mechanics; see the article by James Secord, Physics Today, January 2018, page 46). Fortunately, the station of women in the still predominately patriarchal social arena of science steadily improves.