Heart of Iron: Historical Nerdery, Part 3

Women in Science

One of the Titter requests I received was to talk about first female university students in Russia. However, during the time period of Heart of Iron, women were effectively barred from attending universities — much like their British counterparts, so many of them ended up attending universities in continental Europe, Switzerland especially. Even in the twentieth century, after women were being allowed higher education in the Russian Empire, there were quotas imposed on the number of religious and ethnic minority students, extending their tendency to travel abroad. Which, incidentally, often contributed to their political radicalization.

Overall though, Russian women lacked access to any organized higher education at home (save for private tutors). Sofia Kovalevskaya is a prime example of a brilliant mind confronted with this restrictive situation: she traveled to Germany to audit classes (even there, she could not officially enroll but had to request professors’ permission to sit in on lectures). She defended her dissertation, did much extraordinary work, and was the first women to be allowed to join the Russian Academy of Sciences (they did have to change the rules). Of course, she could not be present at the Academy’s gatherings, and was never offered a professorship, so even that honor seemed pretty hollow. (She was also a political radical. Coincidence?)

In an interesting parallel, another very talented woman, Helen B Potter, has encountered similar obstacles in England (and since in Heart of Iron, Russia is steeped in Victorian influence, it seems only fitting to mention her.) She was one of the early proponents of the radical idea (first proposed by Schweidener in 1867) that lichens were in fact symbiotic organisms, resulting from the union between green algae and (usually) sac fungi. Of course, as a woman she was not allowed to present her research before the Linnean Society of London, so she had to rely on her uncle, Sir Henry Roscoe, to do so for her. Do I need to tell you that it didn’t go well? Radical science + ladies was practically a recipe for ridicule. Some say that Potter was distracted from further pursuit of science by success of her Peter Rabbit books; however, it seems that she continued her studies in botany, writing all her observations down in code. Linnean Society apologized — one hundred years later.

There are scenes in Heart of Iron where Sasha, other female students, and their Chinese classmates were subjected to hostility and ridicule; if you look at the actual careers of women who were interested in science during 19th century, you’ll see that those scenes are in no way overstated. So much of Victorian biology was based in eugenics and social Darwinism, and so much energy has been spent justifying the inequalities in the world that human biology was pretty much all about proving inferiority of everyone other than white men. Well, and fertilization — discovery of which allowed Victorians pinpoint the moment of soul formation to conception, which was further used to justify abortion prohibition (until then, the soul was thought to enter the fetus during “quickening” — when it first began kicking, and until then it was not considered alive.)

So anyway, here’s an excerpt from the book!

“My feelings were confirmed when we turned around the corner of the lecture hall and came across a group of several young men, their clothes betraying means if not breeding—they all wore long sack jackets with upright collars and wide ascots, and formidably tall hats. The five of them crowded the pavement, and I flustered, stepping right and left, trying to find a way between them. They merely watched, dead-eyed and threatening despite their passive demeanor. Finally, I stepped onto the pavement and cringed as my shoe hit a puddle cunningly hid by a narrow strip of the curb; the water splashed all over the hem of my skirt.

Chiang Tse ignored the snickering of the hoodlums, and joined me in the puddle, without regard for the dirty water seeping into his shoes and trousers. I shook the water out of my skirts and thought woefully that this particular arrangement was likely to become a tangible metaphor for my stay at the university.

Chiang Tse was apparently of the same mind. His fingers touched my elbow gingerly as he said, “I enjoy standing in the puddle with you. It is refreshing, don’t you think?”

This entry was posted on Friday, April 29th, 2011 at 6:02 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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