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Denying Women’s Ability to Know

How a long history of sidelining women has made us less likely to believe their experiences

Tom Williams/Pool/Getty

Last week Donna Strickland, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo, won the Nobel Prize in Physics. She is the third woman to be awarded the prize in its history—Marie Curie received it in 1903 and Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1963—but as recently as last May, Wikipedia rejected a draft page about Strickland on the grounds that she did not meet “notability guidelines.” The work for which she received the Nobel—generating the “shortest and most intense laser pulses ever created by mankind,” according to the prize committee—is over 30 years old. She published the groundbreaking paper, with co-authors and now co–Nobel winners Gerard Mourou and Arthur Ashkin, in 1985. Between then and now she has won many prizes, but it took a Nobel for her to become Wikipedia-worthy.

On the same day that Strickland became a Nobel laureate and Wikipedia’s editors quickly threw together a page about her, President Donald Trump used a rally in Mississippi to ridicule Christine Blasey Ford, the psychologist who testified of her assault at the hands of Brett Kavanaugh, who has since been sworn in as a Supreme Court justice. Trump’s words were cruel. He elicited laughter at Ford’s expense, making her trauma—and that of all sexual assault survivors—into the stuff of jokes. The president’s ridicule turned on the idea of Ford’s ignorance: “How did you get home? I don’t remember. How’d you get there? I don’t remember. Where is the place? I don’t remember. How many years ago was it? I don’t know,” said Trump. “I don’t know, I don’t know. What neighborhood was it in? I don’t know. Where’s the house? I don’t know.”

These two events—a woman dragged from obscurity in the morning, belatedly recognized for her achievements; and a woman scorned in the evening, her memory deemed fallible, faulty—are connected. Their stories are part of the same, long history of undermining women’s epistemological authority, of doubting and denying their very ability to know. Wikipedia, which is largely overseen by male editors, rejected Strickland because she was not noteworthy enough to be accepted into the ranks of scientists who have unique insight into how the universe works—until, of course, she became excessively noteworthy for just that. Republicans rejected Ford not because they thought she was lying per se, but because they decided she must be misremembering the assault—that Kavanaugh’s memory is accurate but Ford’s is faulty, that between the two it is the woman’s mind that failed, that she with her explication of the neuroscience of trauma and not he with his adolescent calendars fell short of their criteria for knowing. (And all of this despite the fact that he was the drinker.)  

Only around 17 percent of profiles on Wikipedia are of women, a problem with roots in the history of the encyclopedia itself. The great Encyclopédie of the French Enlightenment included the contributions of around 150 men—and not a single woman. The first version of Encyclopedia Britannica in the 18th century featured 39 pages on curing diseases in horses and three words on woman: “female of man.” On the surface, Wikipedia’s bias appears to stem from the fact that only around 10 percent of editors are female. But the problem goes much deeper—to the aggressiveness with which male editors and administrators delete pages on women and harass female editors who try to change this. They get called “cunts” and “feminazis”; they have had fake, pornographic images of them posted online. To avoid harassment, some women have resorted to using gender-neutral pseudonyms so male editors can’t identify them as female. Others simply quit.

“Wikipedia is probably the best example of the appropriation of human value in masculinist terms,” says Gina Walker, an intellectual historian and professor of women’s studies at The New School.

The problem—the marginalization of women as a force in history—extends to textbooks and educational curricula across the world. In 1971, research on women in U.S. high school history books found that more space was dedicated to the length of women’s skirts than to the suffrage movement. That spurred a campaign by textbook publishers and educational associations to correct the bias. Universities created “women’s studies” programs and offered courses on “women writers.” But this has often meant that women are put in a “women’s canon,” secondary and lesser to The Canon, which is meant to be human but is really male. When women are recognized alongside men, they are exceptions and anomalies. 

In the 1990s and early 2000s, educational reforms stalled the campaign of the previous two decades. In many states, it has regressed. Last month, for example, the Texas Board of Education voted to remove Helen Keller and Hillary Clinton from the social studies curriculum.  

At The New School, Walker is leading a project called “The New Historia,” which aims to counteract this trend by creating a database to document and promote history’s forgotten women. There’s Diotima, who appears in Plato’s Symposium as Socrates’s teacher. That she was a historical person—a priestess of Mantinea—did not come into question until the 15th century, when the Renaissance scholar Marsilio Ficino, certain that a woman could not have been an acclaimed philosopher, asserted that she must have been a figment of Plato’s imagination, a rhetorical device created for the purposes of the dialogue. That would make her, oddly, Plato’s only fictitious character. Yet scholars since have continued to work under the assumption that Diotima never really existed.

There’s Émilie du Châtelet, the 18th-century philosopher and mathematician, whose translation of and commentary on Newton’s Principia advanced the scientific revolution in France. New scholarship suggests that the great Encyclopédie included entries taken directly from Institutions de Physique, her philosophical magnum opus—that she had, in fact, helped frame the very questions the Encyclopédie sought to answer. That means there was a female encyclopédiste among the male contributors after all, though she never received attribution.

“Women are profoundly ignorant of their female legacy,” says Walker. “If we don’t know it, how are men and boys going to know it?”

The impulse to “recover” lost women is not a new one. In 1803, Mary Hays, a disciple of Mary Wollstonecraft, published Female Biography: or Memoirs of Illustrious and Celebrated Women of All Ages and Countries, a six-volume compendium. Feminist scholars have been recovering the achievements of women—Laura Bassi, Ada Lovelace, Hedy Lamarr—ever since. But because they are rarely integrated into textbooks and syllabi, they become recurrent subjects of recovery.

“Women’s biographies cannot simply be recovered because once they are produced they no longer fit into the existing understandings of histories and course curricula that have been designed in their absence,” says Walker.  

Walker envisions moving past this cycle of remembering and forgetting to, indeed, a new history. The goal is not simply to show that women have been part of the work all along, despite their exclusion from official cultures of learning and knowledge-production; it is to restore women’s epistemological authority, to keep contemporary women like Strickland from being ignored and requiring recovery centuries hence.

How would the restoration of that authority reverberate in the wider world? If Americans learned about women who deployed power, who were historical and intellectual forces, who knew, would that change their reception of women’s knowledge and women’s voices? Perhaps they would have an easier time accepting women in positions of authority. Perhaps women’s voices wouldn’t be so breezily dismissed. Perhaps Hillary would have won, says Walker. And perhaps what Christine Blasey Ford knew would have mattered.