Special Issue – Les Études Sociales
Women, persona (non) grata in the human sciences?
A herstory of humanities
Nowadays, the human sciences stand out for their relative openness to female researchers, compared to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) (Huang et al., 2020). This seemingly bright perspective prompts us to question the nature of the human sciences and their connection to gender issues. Were the human sciences always a field with opportunities for women? By going back to the period from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century, this issue wants to highlight how the human sciences might appear as a "gateway" to scientific research and professional careers for women with degrees in these fields or seeking to enter them by other means.
Following this logic, the contributions will seek to highlight the favorable and unfavorable factors of women's access to the social sciences, by analyzing the resistance and opposition to their scientific aspirations as well as the stakes, the modalities, and the results of their attempts to professionalize.
The historiography has partly tackled these topics. Since the 1970s and 1980s, the history of science has engaged in a persevering dialogue with the history of women. Several historians have studied the presence of women in scientific fields. Sometimes seeking to highlight brilliant careers (Giroud, 1981; Davis, 1973), sometimes questioning the various obstacles that explain their invisibility and, above all, their invisibilization (Rossiter, 1993; Oreskes, 1996), these works have laid down essential milestones that are still largely relevant today. In the United States, Margaret W. Rossiter's trilogy on American women scientists during the long twentieth century (Rossiter, 1982, 1998, 2012), which advocates a collective approach, deviating from a biographical tradition that has really spread in gender history with convincing results (Varikas, 1988), highlights the numerous obstacles and other obstructions that mark out the professional trajectories of women scientists. At the same time, other female historians took up these questions, thus delimiting a field at the conjunction of these two fields, the history of science and the gender history (few examples: Kohlstedt, 1995; Abir-Am & Outram, 1987; Watts, 2007; Schiebinger, 1987). These different studies addressed the "silences of history" (Perrot, 1998) that fall upon women, and how those represent less the absence of female contribution to science than the impossibility for women to engage in the traditional scientific paths that allow them to be recognized as proper scientists. The current efforts of the history of science to look beyond the traditional spaces or roles of knowledge production also lead to new narratives regarding the role of women in science: works on domesticity (Opitz, Berwik & Van Tiggelen, 2016), on amateurs (Ogilvie, 2000) or on "little hands" (Waquet, 2022) have, indeed, given pride of place to female protagonists.
The history of education has also taken up the questions raised by the history of gender, focusing on the peculiar experiences of female students (Tikhonov, 2009; Molinier, 2002; Nash, 2018). However, as in the history of science in general, this incursion of gender has focused more on the so-called hard sciences, or on medical specialties (Gubin, 1995), and more rarely have works, before the 2010s, been devoted to describing the specificity of the humanities and the social sciences (Laslett, 1992; Scarborough & Furumoto, 1987; Silverberg, 1998). Recently, several researchers have tackled this issue by specifically questioning the relationship between these disciplines and their female representatives (Fauvel, Coffin & Trochu, 2019; Carroy, Ohayon, Edelman & Richard, 2005; Charron, 2013). This special issue intends to continue along the path traced by these works and to address this field of knowledge precisely, and the roles women have been able to play, thus highlighting both the opportunities and the obstacles that they had to overcome.
In France, for example, while many women's “agrégations” were created based on the male model in the 1880s (such as in history, literature, and mathematics), others, such as philosophy, remained exclusively masculine, and intended to remain so (Efthymiou, 2003; Mayeur, 1977; Rennes, 2007). However, a few women demonstrated their audacity by taking part in these male competitions even though their success often triggered reactions of rejection from the male community, which had until then held a monopoly. It was not until 1975 that all the agrégations finally became mixed in France.
Even when women succeeded in securing their degrees, it did not mean easy access to professional opportunities. In Belgium, the example of Marie Popelin is striking in this sense: even if she obtained her Ph.D. in law in 1888, she could never practice as an attorney, and was rejected from the Brussels Bar solely on the ground of her gender. It was not until 1922 that Belgian parliament voted a legislation, known as the "woman lawyer", finally authorizing Belgian women to practice law (De Bueger-Van Lierde, 1972). Their French colleagues, led by Jeanne Chauvin, had forced the door of the Bar two decades earlier, in 1901, after arduous efforts.
Was it such a struggle in all humanities and social sciences? Do the new disciplines that became institutionalized at the end of the 19th century, such as sociology or anthropology, open more doors for women than older disciplines that have long been marked by male primacy, such as philosophy, economics, or law? The choice to study social sciences or to pursue a career in them must also be questioned: was it forced, due to a lack of other opportunities for women in research?
The case of women investigators is, in this sense, particularly relevant: although absent in the academic world of social sciences, women were indeed widely solicited to conduct social surveys. These were ambivalent opportunities because women were confined to a subordinate role and their knowledge was foremost empirical, proceeding through the field survey (Chessel, 2012). The case of the women investigators also leads us to question the combination of social science and social action, which seems to be a female inclination, in the wake of a very feminized philanthropic action, where skills considered as typically feminine were valued.
Like female investigators, this issue could look at other social science "professionals" through the study of female labor inspectors, who evolved halfway between the social sciences and professionalism.
This issue would also look at the scientific research conducted by women during this period. For example, regarding doctoral thesis, are certain disciplines more easily accessible to women than others? Does the work carried out by the first female PhDs, pioneers in the world of research, adopt a particular perspective? Does the gender of these researchers impact their investigation? If so, how and is it contrive or voluntary?
Furthermore, this issue investigates the strategies implemented by women seeking a career in the various disciplines of the humanities and social sciences: how do they manage to professionalize themselves and gain recognition as legitimate? Such a study would make it possible to examine the tacit rules that govern the scientific game. This survey would therefore focus on the trajectories of female actors, from which we could discern, through the prism of gender, the way in which disciplines are structured in terms of training, qualification through a diploma, professionalization, and insertion into research networks. For example, it would be possible to analyze the first members of learned societies (Société d'économie sociale, Société de science sociale, Société de sociologie de Paris, etc.). In this sense, the investigation opened by this issue would contribute both to the history of women and gender and to that of the humanities and academic institutions.
Finally, it would be appropriate to adopt a transnational perspective to highlight the contrasts between different countries or the peculiarities of some spaces (Pfefferkorn, 2017). In particular, the issue would seek to study the educational opportunities open to women at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, both in France and in other countries that were assuming a pioneering role. For example, the Université Nouvelle de Bruxelles, which opened in 1894, welcomed female students in large numbers from its founding. Similarly, several women's universities in the United States offered courses in the social sciences to female students. These institutions offered new opportunities to women, who had until then been confined to amateur roles and often constrained to forms of self-education. Disparities within a same country or between similar institutions might also be studied. In France, for example, the institutions that claimed to be pioneers in the social sciences were not all equally open to women. Some, such as the École pratique des hautes études, welcomed way more women than the faculties of literature - it would be possible to study the female students and teachers of the EPHE -, others, such as the Collège libre des sciences sociales and the École des hautes études sociales, led by Dick May, stand out for their weak encouragement of female participation (Fabre, 2019), but the survey remains to be conducted.
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Ogilvie, M.B. 2000. “Obligatory amateurs: Annie Maunder (1868–1947) and British women astronomers at the dawn of professional astronomy”. British Journal for the History of Science, 33: 67-84.
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Oreskes, N. 1996. “Objectivity or Heroism? On the Invisibility of Women in Science”. Osiris, 11: 87-113.
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Pfefferkorn, R. 2017. “L’entrée des femmes dans les universités européennes : France, Suisse et Allemagne”. Raison présente, 201 : 117-127.
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Extended abstract (approx. 1000 words) are expected on September 15, 2022. Please email them, with a short biography, at firstname.lastname@example.org
Les Etudes sociales is an interdisciplinary French peer-reviewed journal focused on the history of the social and human sciences during the 19th and 20th century. Papers in French are encouraged, but papers in English are also accepted.
The accepted papers are due in February 2023 for a publication in June 2023.
Department of the History of Science
Université Picardie Jules Vernes
European University Institute
Les Études sociales
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