History class tells stories of forgotten women scientists

Women have been actively studying and advancing the sciences for centuries, but their stories have gone largely untold. Look up a female scientist on Wikipedia — beyond the Marie Curies and Jane Goodalls of the world — and chances are you might find little, if any, information.

"When you learn about the numbers of women who have often been erased, underappreciated, written out of the record, only recorded by their last name, or hidden behind the name of a male coworker, you realize how numerous they were," says history professor Catherine McNeur.

McNeur and students in her "History of Science" class last fall sought to fight against the erasure of women scientists by bringing some of their stories to light. The class worked with Wiki Education to write new Wikipedia articles or significantly edit existing articles on American women scientists — from biochemist Helen S. Mitchell to computer programmer Margaret Helen Harper. After completing extensive training on how to make effective, meaningful contributions to the online, crowdsourced encyclopedia, the students used digitized resources from PSU's library to dig into the lives of these women and write well-cited biographies.

Annie Montague Alexander, Saurian Expedition 1905
Annie Montague Alexander is one of the scientists that the class researched and wrote about.

By the end of the term, the 18 students had added 22,000 words to Wikipedia in the creation or expansion of 24 articles, adding 268 new citations. Their research has already been viewed more than 30,000 times. 

Samantha Bowen, a senior majoring in history and English, wrote about Annie Montague Alexander, one of the unseen founders of University of California, Berkeley whose philanthropy and discoveries in paleontology allowed for major breakthroughs in the field. 

"The most impactful thing for me was the fact that this research now has the opportunity to help so many others begin their research or simply to find themselves represented in the history of others," Bowen said. "I was happy that my edits helped to shift the focus of her page onto her life and achievements rather than the achievements of the men in her life."

Brandon Metcalf, a graduate student in history, chose to write about Matilda Coxe Stevenson, a complicated yet fascinating anthropologist who studied southwestern Indigenous people. He said Wikipedia offers a platform for historians to share their work with a broader audience, especially when it can reveal something about the realities of the human experience.

"History, more than some subjects, needs ways to reach out beyond academia to the general public," he said. "Wikipedia can be used to showcase figures like Matilda Coxe Stevenson, linking them to lists of women scientists from the 1800s and for the general public finding a world they did not know existed."

The class' entries joined a broader effort to counter the gender imbalance on Wikipedia. LiAnna Davis, chief programs officer for Wiki Education, says the gender gap manifests itself in both the contributors of content and the content itself. As much as  90% of contributors are men, meaning that biographies about men and topics of interest to men — military history, video gaming, or sports and recreation — get more coverage.

Davis says there's been a concerted effort over the last several years to increase the number of biographies of women, recognizing their contributions throughout history and their impacts today. 

"Through classes like Catherine's, we're able to help move that needle," she said. "Her students did a really incredible job of putting a number of biographies of notable women on Wikipedia and helping to improve this equity gap."