As a young girl, I was lucky to never explicitly hear that science was not for girls. Instead I was encouraged to build soccer-playing robots, to set things on fire, and to spend hours gazing through microscopes and telescopes. And yet I was still scared away from science as a career by the constant, subtle insistence from all around me that my purpose was not to be a scientist but rather a wife and mother—as if these things were incompatible. The implication was clear: no matter how many degrees I might earn, I was destined to give up.
But I was not the kind of girl to shy away from being the only one in a group. In fact, I sought it out. Back then, all it took to convince me to do something was to tell me girls could not or should not do it. The problem with this attitude is that proving others wrong gets exhausting, in part because there are so many things girls are not supposed to do.
In middle school, I started editing Wikipedia articles and became one of the very few women regularly contributing—recent research from the Wikimedia Foundation shows that only 10 to 20 percent of the Web site's contributors are women. In high school, I excelled in speech and debate events, sticking my neck out in the mostly male-dominated competitions every weekend. Coached to pitch my natural voice down and to wear pants to be taken seriously, I curled my hair, put on a strand of pearls and wore a skirt. Monday mornings, as one of only three young women in a physics class of 25 students, I tried my best to ignore the casual sexism of my classmates and instructors.
I continued to face casual sexism in college, and I encounter it even now as a medical student. There are still things girls are “not supposed to do.” Luckily, many of us are finding ways to ignore that expectation. Like any female trying to fight the status quo, for most of my life I felt that I had to be exceptional to pursue science. And why not? For many, if not most, children, boys and girls alike, the only women scientists they encounter will be the phenomenons, the exceptions. Yet this focus on a small number of extraordinarily successful female figures, rather than those who merely made significant contributions to science, can perversely reinforce the stereotypical belief that there is no precedent for ordinary women in science.
Five years ago I participated in Ada Lovelace Day, a celebration of women in science across the Internet. Writing about women scientists for this project with dozens of enthusiastic researchers, we discovered that more articles were needed than any one person could write in a year, let alone during the celebration. That realization led me to start a new “WikiProject” dedicated to creating and curating more biographies of women scientists. Now 95 people strong (and counting!), we work to write about the ordinary and extraordinary women who have shaped science from its inception.
An example of exceptionalism is, of course, Marie Curie (1867–1934), the physicist and chemist who performed pioneering research on radioactivity, a term she coined. Curie is often the first woman in science young girls learn about, often during Women's History Month. Curie was an exceptional person, not just an exceptional woman. She remains, more than a century later, one of only two people to win two Nobel Prizes in different disciplines. And with the ever deepening specializations of scientists and physicians, she will likely remain forever unmatched. Yet Curie was not the first or only woman to become a scientist, nor was she the only woman to discover an element, to establish a new discipline of science or to thoroughly surpass her husband. Sixteen other women, including her daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, have earned a Nobel Prize in one of the scientific disciplines: three in chemistry, one in physics, and 12 in physiology or medicine.
Most of these women, despite their achievements, are relatively unknown. Collectively, they barely scratch the surface of women's contributions to science history. Their stories—like so many others—have hardly been told. When we began working on our WikiProject in the fall of 2012, I naively estimated there to be a couple of thousand women missing from our online corpus. To my delight, I could not have been more wrong. After adding 4,900 scientists, many of whom could be found only in obscure and often offline academic sources, we find that there is still no end in sight.
Leaving aside the many troubling cases of extraordinary women researchers who were unjustly denied a Nobel, women have been an ordinary—rather than solely exceptional—part of science ever since its embryonic beginnings in ancient Egypt and Babylon. Women perfumers in the Cradle of Civilization were the first known chemists, and female doctors were recorded as early as the 27th century B.C., when a woman named Merit Ptah served as “chief physician.” By writing these and other women back into online accounts of science history, we hope to combat systemic biases that lead to the underrepresentation of women scientists on Wikipedia, in public discourse and in science itself.
Sadly, not everyone is supportive of this effort. I was practically bottle-fed online, so I should not have been surprised when misogynist Internet trolls slithered out of their hiding places to bash the project and personally attack me. One of the most common things I hear from them is that despite my hundreds of hours of research and writing, I am mistaken in thinking that women have ever accomplished anything important in the sciences.
These claims, of course, are patently false, and they are all too often accompanied by vile threats of rape, murder and violence against my family and me. Although I doubt any of these threats will ever come to fruition, they are still upsetting. To take back control, I made a promise to myself—and to the trolls: every time they harass me, I sit down with a hot cup of tea and a sleepy cat, and I write, adding more threads to Wikipedia's burgeoning tapestry of women in science. These men (and yes, all of them are men, as best I can tell) hate nothing more than a woman who is successful and accomplished, and the women I write about are nothing if not successful and accomplished. Lucky for Wikipedia, there is a practically bottomless supply of abuse to draw on. And luckier for future generations, more and more people are participating in this project, each driven by their own profound sense of purpose.
Even more than taking sweet, productive revenge on anonymous Internet trolls, we get the enormous privilege of keeping amazing women alive in our collective cultural memory. None of us controls who tells our stories, but we do get to choose the stories we tell. I choose to tell the stories of almost forgotten women, those who toiled tirelessly only for credit to be given to the men with whom they worked, those who died penniless and relegated to specialist encyclopedias, even those who were recognized briefly in their time but received only a small fraction of the credit they deserved. By bringing the legacies of women scientists to light, we can inspire the next generation. They will not be forgotten.