Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Nina Rattner Gelbart's "Minerva’s French Sisters"

Nina Rattner Gelbart is Professor of History and Anita Johnson Wand Professor of Women’s Studies at Occidental College in Los Angeles. She is the author of Feminine and Opposition Journalism in Old Regime France: Le Journal des Dames, and The King’s Midwife: A History and Mystery of Madame du Coudray. She is presently at work on yet another woman of 18th Century France, Charlotte Corday, who during the French Revolution famously murdered Jean-Paul Marat in his bathtub.

Gelbart applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Minerva's French Sisters: Women of Science in Enlightenment France, and reported the following:
This Page 99 Test sounded so intriguing to me—the invitation to contribute to this blog was the first I had ever heard of it-- and in the case of my book it works very well in some important respects. I present a sextet of Frenchwomen of science in the 1700s. Page 99 comes toward the end of my second chapter, which fills pp 62-102 and deals with the astronomer and “learned calculator” Nicole Reine Lepaute. The page concerns her death and two obituaries. Because my book treats six different 18th century individuals in six different scientific fields, no one page, and in fact no one chapter, can really give a sense of the whole. Each is a mini biography of a different intrepid female who chose to devote herself to science in a period where such ambitions were considered inappropriate and even dangerous for the “fair sex.” But what page 99 does do in a hugely significant way, is show how Lepaute was encouraged by a famous man in her field, the astronomer and member of the Academy of Sciences Jérôme Lalande, and the way she was upheld as an example for other women to emulate. Because the six protagonists in my book, from another country and living over 250 years ago, did what so many women today strive to do, they can be an inspiration for those going into the STEM fields now, and that is precisely the point that Lepaute’s eulogist, Lalande, is making on this page. He laments that she has been “taken from her family, friends, and from the sciences.” In particular he praises her calculations that made possible the accurate prediction of the return of Halley’s comet in 1759. This, and admiration also for her other mathematical and astronomical accomplishments, gets generalized by Lalande into a plea to his male colleagues that “we should include more [women] in our work.” “Mme Lepaute deserves to be cited among the small number of women of mind who give an example to their sex with their striving and taste for the abstract sciences…. She was the only woman in France who had acquired veritable knowledge of astronomy. (Forgive me, please, as the last five words of this last sentence spill over onto p. 100).

One more thing about Lalande’s laudation of Lepaute on page 99 is less pleasing, but revelatory, and so must be mentioned. After praising her own extraordinary accomplishments, he nonetheless concludes that her “principal contribution” was bringing her nephew to Paris and tutoring him in astronomy! Here he betrays the patriarchal bias of even the most genuinely admiring fans of my women. This is a glimpse of the deep prejudice that they had to face and conquer, a prejudice that hampers female scientists’ progress still today. Taken all together, page 99 is a microcosm of some of the main themes in my book.

But page 99 cannot do everything. It can’t give an idea of the other women I present or their impressive range of competence: a mathematician, a field naturalist, a botanist, an anatomist and a chemist. All six of them figured out ingenious ways to live lives in science within a system not built to accommodate female talent of this kind. They developed tactics that found play in the machine, openings and opportunities they could take advantage of to create space for their scientific endeavors. They led full, rich, and unusually long lives, stellar examples of creative ageing.

Something else I’d like to mention, to which page 99 gives no hint, are the Interludes between my chapters. These are short letters that I write to each of the women, posing questions that I was not able to answer during my research, and that I think my readers will also wonder about. The women don’t answer, of course, but at least the issues are broached. I also bring each of them up to date, explaining how their stories are now coming to light and what their legacy has been. My letter to astronomer Lepaute, for example, does not begin until page 103. It informs her that a crater on the moon, an asteroid, and even a street in Paris have now been named for her. Such recognition in the 21st century, when the accomplishments of women are finally getting well-deserved and long-overdue attention, would have been beyond her wildest dreams.
Learn more about Minerva's French Sisters at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue