Girls and science just don’t mix. At least that’s the message coming from yet another report on the underrepresentation of women in science and math, this one from the American Association of University Women.
The new study found that even though women have made some strides in these fields, stereotypes and cultural biases still stymie their success. What’s needed? In the end, the study stressed the need for female role models.
One of those role models could very well be Mary Anning, just named by Britain’s Royal Society as one of the most influential British women scientists in history. Only now are many people becoming acquainted with the remarkable achievements of this self-educated geologist whose discoveries in early 19th century England paved the way for the work of Charles Darwin.
Although Anning is thought to be the “she” in the familiar tongue-twister, “She sells sea shells by the sea shore,” she has never been famous or even widely known. But recently my biography of her incredible life, “The Fossil Hunter,” was published by Palgrave Macmillan. In addition, a novel based on her life, “Remarkable Creatures,” has just come out from Tracy Chevalier, the author behind the bestselling novel “Girl With a Pearl Earring.”
So why is Anning finally becoming recognized as being the ultimate fossil hunter? Partly because girls do indeed need women scientists to inspire them. Boys have everyone from Galileo Galilei to Albert Einstein to Stephen Hawking to arouse their ambitions. But what women scientists do girls have to look up to? Sure, Marie Curie’s a household name, but there are not many others.
Mary Anning, who grew up on England’s southern coast, is a perfect example of a girl who overcame a myriad of dire personal circumstances that would have been enough to derail the dreams of most anyone else in her situation. Except for attending a church school very briefly, she had no formal education. She came from a family of Dissenters, meaning they didn’t belong to the majority Anglican church, which would have drawn widespread discrimination against them. As a young woman, she was dirt-poor and never had any prospect of attending university.
Yet Anning was a rebel who carved out her own niche in a male-dominated world. By the time she was a teenager (she was born in 1799), she had become known around the world as the fossil finder digging up bones of creatures not previously known to exist – including many of the world’s ichthyosaurs, pterosaurs, and plesiosaurs. Even dinosaurs were still unheard of in the early 1800s.
One can only imagine how frightening it must have been to find the fragments of these exotic and ghastly and gigantic creatures and wonder if perhaps the live versions weren’t about to fly out of the sky or come up out of the sea to terrorize you. There is no doubt that the creatures she was finding — with their bat-like wings, snake-like necks, and big, bulging eyes — were vividly bringing to life an era that was more harrowing and bizarre than anyone could have imagined. It’s not surprising the likes of Darwin built theories based in part on her findings.
Anning was a lone woman and an outsider who toiled alongside a close-knit clique of British male fossil seekers whose findings sparked a global debate about the age of the Earth, evolution, and the notion of extinction. Initially, she dug up fossils to sell to tourists, generally wealthy travelers from London, in order to put food on the table after her father died when she was only a child. Her style of dress, including stovepipe hat and bulky, mannish clothes, reflected her profound individuality. And she never married. Even two centuries later, her work continues to have an impact on religion and science with its ability to neatly puncture the biblical account of scientific history.
Yet she earned little credit for her work in her lifetime or even in the years after her death from breast cancer in 1847 because only patrons or donors to museums were recognized for the finding of fossils — and these were always men. After Anning’s death, 19th-century scientists simply wrote her out of their books, refusing to pay homage to a lower-class woman in a male-heavy arena.
But just this week the Royal Society named Anning as one of the 10 women in British history who have had the most influence on science. She’s named alongside others such as Caroline Herschel, Mary Somerville, and Elsie Widdowson – perhaps other names few people have heard of.
It’s time for us to highlight women scientists who could be emulated by young girls and who could send the message that girls and boys are equals in science. Finally, it seems, the time has come for Anning’s work to be studied and celebrated. And wouldn’t she be pleased?
Shelley Emling is a former London-based foreign correspondent with Cox Newspapers and author of the biography of Mary Anning, "The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World," which has recently been published by Palgrave Macmillan. She now lives in the New York City area.
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