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The book corner: A history of Australian women in science

  • 21 April 2023
Jane Carey, Taking to the Field: A History of Australian Women in Science, Monash University Publishing, ISBN 9781925835410 One of the minor joys of reading books about events in your lifetime is uncovering prejudices. Mostly your own. By prejudices I don’t mean primarily the judgments you have made about values but those you have made or accepted about facts that prove not to be true.

I was correspondingly delighted to note that in Taking to the Field Jane Carey confesses that her research forced her to correct some judgments that she had made about the representation and attitudes of women in science. The acknowledgement is a tribute to the depth and breadth of her research into the place of women scientists in Australia from the late nineteenth century to the 1980s. Her work honours many largely forgotten women, lists their names and their contribution to science and enters their understanding of their position as women and as scientists. She illuminates the dedication and commitment of women engaged in scientific research despite the arbitrary limitations placed on them by their gender.

In her own judgments, Jane Carey is admirably open to surprise. She appreciates the complexity of the relationships involved in being a woman engaged in science and the often subtle ways in which these relationships, expectations and opportunities have changed with wider changes in cultural and economic structures.

The judgments that Carey corrected mostly involved sweeping, homogenous generalisations about a history that was much more fractured and variegated. Her research revealed a far more complex and layered reality. It also led me to see that my own uninformed judgments which demanded revision were far more extensive than hers. Having escaped from mathematics and science as early as possible in my schooling, I had a far more fuzzy and undifferentiated idea of what science is, assumed that what we now include under the heading of science had not changed over the last 150 years, assumed that the number and acceptance of women engaged in scientific research would have gradually increased over time, assumed that the location of scientific research had always been in the universities, and assumed that the open minded quest for knowledge characteristic of good science so evident in Carey’s book would generally flow into the social attitudes and relationships of scientists. Her research made it evident that each of these assumptions was unwarranted. The reality was much more complex and thought-provoking.

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