- Creating Complicated Lives: Women and Science at English-Canadian Universities, 1880–1980 by Marianne Gosztonyi Ainley
Writing about women in science can be a complicated thing. The New York Times staff writer Douglas Martin certainly found this out following the publication of his 31 March 2013 obituary of eighty-eight-year-old Yvonne Brill. A Canadian-born scientist, Brill’s pioneering work in satellite design in the United States led to many honours and awards, including the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, which she received from President Obama in 2011. Martin’s opening paragraph, which celebrated Brill’s “mean beef stroganoff” and her devotion to family rather than her professional achievements, provoked an immediate outcry, with upset readers protesting against the obituary’s sexist content. The newspaper quickly removed the reference to Brill’s culinary skills, adding instead in the first paragraph a line on her success as a “brilliant rocket scientist.” Meanwhile, the incident triggered a lively debate on the extent to which gender mattered when writing about the lives of women doing science. Should we consider them as “women scientists” or strictly focus on them as “scientists,” with little or no emphasis on their sex and gender roles?
This debate would have certainly been of great interest to Marianne G. Ainley, a pioneering advocate of the history of women scientists in Canada, who was completing a long-awaited manuscript on this topic at the time of her death in 2008. Fortunately, her colleagues Geoff and Marelene Rayner-Canham have edited her work to give us access to the results of more than two decades of ground-breaking research. As its title suggests, the book unravels the complicated lives of a large group of women who did science in English-Canadian universities between 1880 and 1980 (francophone women scientists were not [End Page 593] included because of their small numbers during this period). As Ainley recalls, researching these lives also proved to be a complicated task. A major stumbling block was the scarcity of records; not only had historians and archivists privileged successful men of science but second-wave feminism was also slow, she points out, in making female scientists realize the importance of preserving their papers. However, her tenacity and detective skills paid off; hundreds of women were identified over the years, often through acquaintances, during chance meetings, or by pure luck, and detailed biographical information on each one was collected from a variety of sources, including university archives and a substantial number of oral histories.
The book’s opening chapters, which are largely autobiographical, reveal the close connection between Ainley’s own chequered path and her goal to produce a “more complex and realistic history of Canadian science” (8). Ainley started her career as a chemist, working as a lab technician in her native Hungary and then later in Montreal, where she settled in 1957. After two decades spent juggling her job with motherhood and undergraduate studies in science, she shifted to graduate work in the history of science at the Université de Montréal and McGill University. She learned about male scientists, but practically nothing about their female counterparts, whom she discovered largely through Margaret Rossiter’s pioneering study of their struggles and achievements in the United States. However, the main underpinning for Ainley’s scholarly dedication to these forgotten women was her “Journey to Feminist Enlightenment” (9), a process that finally enabled her to make sense of sexism and gender discrimination and to transform what she felt had been her personal problem as an “invisible chemist” into a political one.
Informed by feminism’s academic arm – women’s studies – Ainley’s work places women in central focus and is guided by concepts and approaches developed over the years by feminist scholarship. She first recovered women scientists from invisibility, starting with the “exceptional” ones whose very existence, she argues, points to the “distortions of mainstream history” (18). Comparing men’s and women’s careers then...