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Women and science

· The editorial ·

For long centuries scientific knowledge was almost exclusively the prerogative of men and effectively barred to women.

Ferdinand Hodler, “Song from Afar” (1906)

It was only from the second half of the 19th century, in other words since the time when women began to be granted the possibility of access to higher education – it is enough to recall that only in 1867 did the l’École Polytechnique in Zurich, in advance in comparision with similar prestigious European institutions, admit women to its courses – that the number of women scientists in the Western countries became important. It is not by chance that the struggle of women to be admitted to universities coincided with that for female emancipation: indeed it was only in the 20th century that we see a large number of women entering the faculties of science and medicine. Thus we understand the reason why the vast majority of women who distinguished themselves in the past cultivated the humanities and were seldom scientists. In fact it is hard to progress in scientific knowledge without a strong specific training and outside university institutions.

History has passed down to us the names of a few dozen women scientists in antiquity, only about 10 in the Middle Ages, mainly nuns, almost none between 1400 and 1500, 16 in the 17th century, 24 in the 18th century and 108 in the 19th century. By contrast, women’s contribution to the progress of science from the 20th century has been considerable, if not free from obstacles, and the great women scientists whose names are linked with discoveries of fundamental importance in physics, in astrophysics, in computer science, in medicine and in biology are numerous; yet the higher the position in the scientific hierarchy, the more the percentage of women decreases. In Europe, for example, 60 per cent of researchers in biology are of the female sex but only six per cent of this majority succeed in directing prestigious laboratories. Yet those women scientists who made their mark have left it as a serious legacy, not only from the scientific but also from the human point of view, something that not all male scientists can claim to have done. (mariella balduzzi

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