Margaret W. Rossiter

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Margaret W. Rossiter (born July 1944) is an American historian of science, and Marie Underhill Noll Professor of the History of Science, at Cornell University.[1] Rossiter coined the term Matilda effect for the systematic repression and denial of the contribution of women scientists in research, whose work is often attributed to their male colleagues.

Early life and education

Margaret Rossiter and her twin brother Charles were born into a military family at the end of the Second World War.[2] The family eventually settled in Massachusetts near Boston, first in Malden and then Melrose. Rossiter first discovered the history of science as a high school student, when she says she was more interested in the stories of the scientists than the actual experiments because "in lab sections we could rarely get the actual experiments to come out 'right.'"[2] Eventually Rossiter became a National Merit Scholar and in 1962 went to Radcliffe to study Mathematics. Instead, she switched majors to chemistry and then history of science, ultimately graduating in 1966. While studying at Radcliffe she developed an interest in the history of American science, a field that was just beginning to be explored.

After graduating from Radcliffe, Rossiter spent the summer working for the Smithsonian before going on to do a master's degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.[2] After earning her M.A. she moved on to the history of science department at Yale where she continued her interest in American scientific history and earned a second M.Phil.[1] She completed her PhD at Yale in 1971, working on the topics of agricultural science and American scientists in Germany.[1] Upon graduation she received a fellowship at the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard.[2]

Career and academic contributions

During her fellowship at the Charles Warren Center, Rossiter began to focus on the history of women in American science. She uncovered hundreds of such women when, in preparation for a postdoctoral study of 20th Century American science, she delved into the reference work American Men of Science (now called American Men and Women of Science). Hidden inside were the biographies of 500 women scientists.[3] This discovery spurred her Charles Warren Center fellowship talk, Women scientists in America before 1920 which she published [4] in the magazine American Scientist after it was rejected by Science and Scientific American. The paper's success led her to continue her research in the area, despite a lukewarm reception from both the scientific and historical communities. She took a visiting professor position at UC Berkeley where she prepared her dissertation for publication, and then she turned her attention to a new book on women scientists. Despite being told by some female scientists that "there was nothing to study," Rossiter found a wealth of information.[2] This abundance of sources allowed her plans for a single book to grow into a three volume project. At the time Rossiter had still been unable to procure a tenure-track position, and was working mostly off grants. In 1981 she received the Guggenheim Fellowship which allowed her to continue her work.[5] She published her first volume, Women Scientists in America, Struggles and Strategies to 1940, with Johns Hopkins University Press in 1982. The book was well received, including positive reviews in The New York Times, Nature, and Science.[6]

After the publication of the first volume, Rossiter was asked to run the NSF's program on the History and Philosophy of Science while its director took a year of leave during 1982–1983. In 1983–1984 she was a visiting professor at Harvard, where she continued work on her second volume. Still unable to find a tenure-track position, she applied for the NSF's Visiting Professorships for Women program, and received a one-year appointment to Cornell, which she stretched to two years (1986–1988). Cornell agreed to keep her on for another three years, but her funding was split between three departments including women's studies, agriculture, and history.[2] In many ways, at this stage of her career she felt like some of the women she wrote about, saying "I guess I am like a 78 [rpm] record in a 33 world".[3]

While still at Cornell, in 1989, she became a MacArthur Fellow. However, despite significant public and faculty pressure, the university refused to hire her, stating that she could not be given an appointment because she was not in any department. It was not until she received an offer of a tenured position with a substantial research budget from the University of Georgia that Cornell's administration decided to keep her, creating an endowed chair for her and putting together funding to start the History of Science department.[2]

Secure at Cornell, Rossiter was able to complete the research for her second volume, Women Scientists in America: Before Affirmative Action, 1940-1972. It was published through Johns Hopkins in 1995. This second volume examines barriers to women's full participation as working scientists from World War II to 1972. One such barrier was anti-nepotism rules at many colleges and universities. These forbade married men and women to both hold tenured positions. Rossiter cites many examples, but a particularly striking case was that of mathematician Josephine Mitchell. When Mitchell was a tenured associate professor at the University of Illinois in the 1950s, she married an untenured member of the math department. As a result she was asked to leave her position, although her new husband retained his.[7] The second volume was also well received, winning the History of Women in Science Prize and the Pfizer Prize.[8][9] The History of Women in Science Prize was subsequently named after Rossiter.[8]

In 1994 she took on editorship of Isis, the official journal of the History of Science Society, which she continued until 2003. She has also continued teaching courses on agriculture, women in science and the history of science at Cornell.[1] Rossiter completed her trilogy on Women Scientists in America with the publication, in 2012 of Women Scientists in American Volume 3: Forging a New World Since 1972. This last volume describes dozens of women who became advocates for the advancement of women in science after the passage of the 1972 Equal Employment Opportunity Act, carrying to the present the story of Women in American Science.[10] Rossiter's work has been especially significant as a framework for other scholars to build on.[2] Not only in the English speakig world. Thus,Carmen Magallón acknowledges that it was the work of Margaret Rossiter what inspired her to research the experience of the Spanish Women pioneers in the sciences.[11]

In the early 1980's Margaret Rossiter offered two concepts for understanding the mass of statistics on women in science and the disadvantages women continued to suffer. The first she called hierarchical segregation, the well-known phenomenon that as one moves up the ladder of power and prestige fewer females faces are to be seen. This notion is perhaps more useful than that of the glass ceiling, the supposedly invisible barrier that keeps women from rising to the top because the notion of hierarchical disparities draws attention to the multiple stages at which women drop off as they attempt to climb academic or industrial ladders. The second concept she offered was "territorial segregation", how women cluster in scientific disciplines. The most striking example of occupational territoriality used to be that women stayed at home and men went out to work.[12]



  • "Philanthropy, Structure and Personality", Science at Harvard University: historical perspectives, Editors Clark A. Elliott, Margaret W. Rossiter, Lehigh University Press, 1992, ISBN 978-0-934223-12-6
  • "Writing Women into Science", Writing and revising the disciplines, Editor Jonathan Monroe, Cornell University Press, 2002, ISBN 978-0-8014-8751-4
  • Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940, JHU Press, 1982, ISBN 978-0-8018-2443-5
  • Women Scientists in America: Before Affirmative Action, 1940-1972, JHU Press, 1998, ISBN 978-0-8018-5711-9
  • Women Scientists in America: Forging a New World Since 1972, JHU Press, 2012, ISBN 978-1-4214-0363-2
  • The emergence of agricultural science: Justus Liebig and the Americans, 1840-1880, Yale University Press, 1975, ISBN 978-0-300-01721-2
  • The Matthew Matilda Effect in Science. in: Social Studies of Science. Sage Publ., London 23.1993, S. 325-341. ISSN 0306-3127

See also


  1. ^ a b c d "Margaret W.Rossiter". Cornell University. Retrieved 17 August 2013.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h "Writing Women into Science", Writing and revising the disciplines, Editor Jonathan Monroe, Cornell University Press, 2002, ISBN 978-0-8014-8751-4
  3. ^ a b Pennisi, Elizabeth (October 15, 1990). "A Rough, Long Struggle in Science History". The Scientist.
  4. ^ "Worldcat entry for ''Women scientists in America before 1920''". Retrieved 2013-10-17.
  5. ^ "Margaret W. Rossiter". John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Retrieved 2013-10-17.
  6. ^ "Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940". Retrieved 2013-10-17.
  7. ^ Murray, Margaret (March/April). "Women Scientists in America: Before Affirmative Action, 1940-1972". Association of Women in Mathematics Newsletter. Check date values in: |date=, |year= / |date= mismatch (help)
  8. ^ a b c "The Society: Margaret W. Rossiter History of Women in Science Prize". History of Science Society. Retrieved 2013-10-17.
  9. ^ "The Society: Pfizer Award". History of Science Society. Retrieved 2013-10-17.
  10. ^ Montgomery, Georgina M. (16 November 2012). "Women in Science: A Classic Continued Up to the Present". Science. 338 (6109): 884–885.
  11. ^ Pioneras españolas en las ciencias, Madrid, CSIC, 2004:
  12. ^ Schiebinger, Londa (1999). Has Feminism Changed Science. Harvard University Press. pp. 33–34. ISBN 0-674-38113-0.