Skip to main content
Move the World.
Female Scientists Were Written out of History Books. Margaret Rossiter Changed That.

Margaret Rossiter has made it her lifework to spotlight female scientists who were written out of history books. Beginning in the early 70s, she spent more than a decade digging through college archives, reading obituaries, deciphering old photos, and trying to make sense out of a past that was systematically censored.

“I, of course, had never met a woman scientist, but I thought, 'Well, might as well be doing this.'”

Margaret Rossiter

Her seminal work, titled Women Scientists in America and published in 1982 in three volumes, is credited for single-handedly bringing women into the conversation. Freethink spoke to the groundbreaking historian and Cornell University professor to understand what drives her to document important female scientists in history.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Freethink: What motivated you to focus your research on female scientists?

Rossiter: My dissertation was on the history of agricultural chemistry. It was interesting, but somehow, I didn't have much more to say. I kept coming across women scientists. I saw it as an opportunity.

I, of course, had never met a woman scientist, but I thought, "Well, might as well be doing this."

There was nobody else (writing about female scientists). I remember a day I thought, "I've never heard of a woman geologist, but I will go down to the earth sciences library and hope there's a good librarian there and look up obituaries. By tonight, I'll know a whole lot more."

Freethink: Do you think that your work documenting women scientists in history has helped pave the way for women scientists today?

Rossiter: I think so. I'm not sure they ever studied women's history, because they probably have other things to do, but it's an awareness.

My first volume came out about '82. After I visited one women's college, I got a nice note from the president that said they were glad to be noticed. They've been marginalized in many ways. Here was a historian, that wasn't connected with them, pointing out they had historic importance. It was consciousness raising.

Freethink: Did you meet with resistance?

Rossiter: When I sent a proposal to the National Science Foundation to get funding, they couldn't find anybody to read it. So they sent it to some current women scientists, who said, "We don't want somebody mucking around finding problems."

I got declined, which I protested.

“(I) got criticized by a congressman on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. He said my grant was 'obviously wasteful spending.'”

Margaret Rossiter

In the mid-'70s, when they did give me a grant, it got criticized by a congressman on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. He said my grant was "obviously wasteful spending." He had staff people who found articles on Margaret Mead. So therefore, he decided, there was nothing further needed on women scientists.

A lot of people were quite scornful that, "Margaret (Rossiter) is wasting her time doing this. She's writing a book on women scientists, but it will obviously be a very short book."

Freethink: Do you have a favorite woman scientist that you learned about during your research?

Rossiter: Just one. Christine Ladd-Franklin. She was sort of feisty. She wrote very interesting letters. She was a strategic thinker. She did things.

“One suggestion from a friend was to go early and sit under the table because it will have a big cloth draped over and she can be hidden.”

Margaret Rossiter

I think it was the late 1860s. I read in her letters that she found out that a group of psychologists were going to discuss her specialty — color theory — in New York City. She wasn't invited because it was an all-men group.

The fascinating letters discussed what she should do. One suggestion from a friend was to go early and sit under the table because it will have a big cloth draped over and she can be hidden. Therefore, she could hear the conversation about her theories without being actually present. Then another one said, "You should ask one of the important men who will be there to take you as his guest."

She had done work, she was qualified in many ways, but they were going to exclude her.

Freethink: What do you think some of the early women scientists would say if they were alive today?

Rossiter: They'd be astonished. There are so many opportunities. They'd probably still be writing feisty letters to the editor when something went amuck, but I think they'd be proud of what's happened in the last 40 or 50 years. It's unthinkable.

“I think (early women scientists would) be proud of what's happened in the last 40 or 50 years. It's unthinkable.”

Margaret Rossiter

Colleges were not subject to federal laws. They got away with what they wanted. It was sub-professional. If you were married to a scientist, you were totally marginalized. They weren't going to put you on the faculty. They weren't going to treat you like a professional.

Even the women's colleges made a point of hiring men. They thought it would increase their prestige. And they gave (the men) subsidized housing and light teaching loads and more semesters off. The women sat there — running the place, working their tails off, and not getting much recognition.

Freethink: You covered a large span of history. If you could live in any time period, which one would it be?

Rossiter: The most recent ones, since the '70s. Before that, you got to a certain level, and then the advice was stoicism: you can't change anything. Buck up, this is it.

“Good heavens. I persisted.”

Margaret Rossiter

Freethink: What do you think the future looks like for women in science — based on what you know about the past?

Rossiter: Probably there will be some move to put them in the lower-paying fields. I don't know what the salaries are in physics compared to biology, but I would think there'd be some kind of retrenchment. Because, if their numbers get too high, then there's resistance.

Freethink: How do you want to be remembered in the history books?

Rossiter: Good heavens. I persisted.

What I did was so different, it didn't fit any job description. So I persisted because my mother encouraged me and friends encouraged me, and what else was I going to do?

I have a story. I'm probably turning 40, and a friend called me up and said, "Margaret, I saw you recently and your hair's turning gray. You've got to give up this idea that you're going to write more on women in science. Go into San Francisco, buy a gray suit and go to Wells Fargo Bank and apply to be some kind of manager." And I said, "No. I can't do that. That's not me at all. I want to write my chapters."

The system was not welcoming. I persisted despite it all. I'm a trailblazer.

I'm not sure I'd recommend it to anybody else, though.

Explore More Stories

Dope Science
Take a Trip to Johns Hopkins' New Psychedelic Research Center
Take a Trip to Johns Hopkins' New Psychedelic Research Center
Dope Science
Take a Trip to Johns Hopkins' New Psychedelic Research Center
Johns Hopkins is throwing its considerable clout behind the fast-growing field of psychedelic research, pouring $17 million into a research center to study the hallucinogenic drugs.

Johns Hopkins is throwing its considerable clout behind the fast-growing field of psychedelic research, pouring $17 million into a research center to study the hallucinogenic drugs.

Superhuman
The Most Advanced Bionic Leg on the Planet & the Team Bringing it to Life
The Emerging Cyborg
Watch Now
Superhuman
The Most Advanced Bionic Leg on the Planet & the Team Bringing it to Life
Alec McMorris is testing one of the world’s most advanced prosthetics - an AI powered bionic leg.
Watch Now

Alec McMorris is testing one of the world’s most advanced prosthetics - an AI powered bionic leg. See how Dr. Tommaso Lenzi and the Bioengineering Lab at the University of Utah are revolutionizing life for people who require artificial limbs.

Dispatches
Supercharging Photosynthesis Can Grow 40% More Food
Supercharging Photosynthesis Can Grow 40% More Food
Dispatches
Supercharging Photosynthesis Can Grow 40% More Food
We need a lot more calories to feed a growing world, and these scientists may have figured out how to get them.
By Amanda Cavanagh

We need a lot more calories to feed a growing world, and these scientists may have figured out how to get them.

Sponsored
Why Cancer Patients Should Get Genetic Sequencing
Why Cancer Patients Should Get Genetic Sequencing
Watch Now
Sponsored
Why Cancer Patients Should Get Genetic Sequencing
Genomic sequencing saved his live. Now he wants everyone to have access.
Watch Now

After he was diagnosed with life-threatening prostate cancer, Intel’s Bryce Olson sequenced his genome which offered clues to new treatments for his disease. While the current standard of care for cancer patients includes surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, genetic sequencing opens the door for new possibilities beyond these traditional approaches. Bryce explains his personal mission to encourage others to get their...

Dispatches
A Hidden Benefit of Banned Antimicrobial Soap: Treating Cystic Fibrosis Infections
A Hidden Benefit of Banned Antimicrobial Soap: Treating Cystic Fibrosis Infections
Dispatches
A Hidden Benefit of Banned Antimicrobial Soap: Treating Cystic Fibrosis Infections
The FDA banned triclosan from hand soap, but new research shows that it can supercharge old antibiotics.
By Chris Waters

The FDA banned triclosan from hand soap, but new research shows that it can supercharge old antibiotics.

Dispatches
We Found the Oldest Human Virus: It's Familiar (but Weird)
Ancient Human Viruses Weird and Familiar
Dispatches
We Found the Oldest Human Virus: It's Familiar (but Weird)
The discovery cracks open a 7,000-year history of human-virus warfare. And it's raising weird questions.

The discovery cracks open a 7,000-year history of human-virus warfare. And it's raising weird questions.

DIY
Can Coding Prevent Overdoses?
Can Coding Prevent Overdoses?
Watch Now
DIY
Can Coding Prevent Overdoses?
A group of teenagers in Baltimore have created an app that can notify the public about heroin overdoses and save countless lives
Watch Now

In Baltimore, sometimes referred to as the heroin capital of the U.S., a group of teenagers have developed an app that can track bad batches of drugs and alert nearby users. The so-called Bad Batch Boys believe that giving the information to the people that need it most has the potential to save countless lives.

Technology
Send Messages and Use Apps Without the Internet
Send Messages and Use Apps Without the Internet
Watch Now
Technology
Send Messages and Use Apps Without the Internet
Sending texts and using apps without the internet isn’t magic. It’s very real. And it could be a game-changer for those that need it most. Here’s why…
Watch Now

Millions of mobile users are coming online across the developing world. And yet, in many places, internet service remains slow and data can be expensive. The FireChat app is working to solve this problem. Users can create small, peer-to-peer networks within 200 feet of each other, and the more individuals on the network, the better it becomes. While traditional cell networks are slowed down and interrupted by overuse,...