Conference Report: Making Women Visible in Philosophy and History of Science

Report by: Lisa Brunner / Tanja Eigner-Grassmugg / Sarah Seinitzer
Date: 21.08.2023

Zentrum für Wissenschaftsgeschichte / Institut für Philosophie, Universität Graz, Graz (Austria)
07.03.2023 – 08.03.2023

Are women and their achievements visible in current academic discourses and how did these dynamics change across disciplinary boundaries and centuries? These questions were explored at the workshop, which shed light on female and other underrepresented scientists and groups who have been formative for philosophy, science, or the history of science in the course of history that have received little or no research attention at all. URSULA RENZ (Graz) and SIMONE DE ANGELIS (Graz) opened the conference by talking about the role and experiences of women in science and highlighted current research desiderata regarding women and their scientific achievements in the history of science. Through a cross-epochal orientation and an interdisciplinary approach, it will be possible to look beyond the disciplines’ boundaries, they argued.

In the first panel, a great thematic emphasis was placed on the representation of the invisibility of women behind men who have become famous in the historiography of philosophy and science. At issue was the narrative of history itself, the myths that prevail in it, the systematic-institutional invisibilisation of women in science, and strategies against it.

MASHA BRATISHCHEVA (Pisa) spoke about scientifically active women who, despite their achievements, stood behind their husband’s scientific reputations. She presented the biographies of three female scientists: the economist Maria Vernadskaya (1831–1860), the chemist Anna Engelhardt (1838–1903) and the economist Harriet Taylor Mill (1807–1858). All three women are united by the fact that they remained invisible in the history of science but acted as idea generators for male scientists who later became famous. Bratishcheva took this fact as an opportunity further to interrogate the structural invisibilities of individuals in the sciences and demonstrated that research on women who functioned as idea creators continues to be under-researched.

TIES VAN GEMERT (Tilburg) spoke about Suzanne Bachelard and her place in the historiography of French philosophy of science. First, he explained the movement of the philosophy of science in France in the 19th century and illustrated the possibilities and problems of women’s education at the universities during this period. In this context, he referred to women of famous French philosophers such as Mina Bergson or Paulette Destouches-Février, who pursued philosophy and poetry in the non-university sphere. Centrally, van Gemert examined the work of Suzanne Bachelard (1919–2007), who held the chair of philosophy of science at the Sorbonne University in Paris.

MAR RIVERA COLOMER (Alacant) highlighted the role played by institutions, schools, public speeches or commemorative days and practices in the visibility of women in science. She showed that in all these institutions, on the one hand, an androcentrism prevails and that if women are mentioned, it is always the same, such as Marie Curie. She suggested ways to change this “culture”, for example, through inclusive curricula, ridding narratives of heroic visions, and the classification of scientists.

HORTENSE VAN LOOK (Brussels) concluded the panel with observations on the phenomenon of historical invisibilisation, also discussed under the term “Matilda Effect”. The notion goes back to the scientist and feminist Matilda Roslyn Gage (1826–1898) and describes the systematic suppression and denial of the contribution of women in science, whose work is often attributed to their male colleagues. Van Look showed in many ways the instruments of this systematic invisibilisation. This occurs, for example, through sexism among historians and gender-specific stereotypes such as the difference in brain structure, which is also passed on to children as a narrative.

In her keynote-speak, JULIA GEBKE (Vienna) took up three major myths of the historiography of science and philosophy. These myths lie in the (ongoing) creation of heroes, the ivory tower’s representation, and the opposition of sex versus gender, for which she referred to Judith Butler. She encouraged verifying the prejudices and biases, join forces to strengthen definitions and examine the continuing story telling.

The second panel discussed the political dimension of women and invisible groups in society and science. LEONIE HIMMERICH (Hamburg) spoke about the ethics of care and the feminist approach to morality. She argued that these are genuine female occupations because of their sexist stereotype of caring women, using the concept of utilitarianism and analysing the subject with the so-called trolley problem. Himmerich introduced the idealist version of a caring world, which led her to feminist critiques of this concept, and concluded that care should not be tied to gender; it should be gender-neutral.

KAJA KRÖGER (Hildesheim) presented Alexandra Kollontai (1872–1952), a Bolshevik revolutionary, who spoke up for the emancipation of women during the Bolshevik government, and her work about sexual morality and feminist theory. Lenin criticised her communist sexual morality because she searched the interaction with young people and her utopian ideals of sexual morality. Kollontai developed a communist (socialist) feminist theory. Her sexual morality included five key issues: care work, economic non-dependence, comradeship, sex education, and the ending of bourgeois marriage and prostitution. In her view, love is political. Kröger asked why communist sexual morality is necessary and said it’s because of the socioeconomic influences of relationships.

MERIMA OMERAGIČ (Sarajevo) talked about the Muslim women problem in Bosnia Herzegovina and introduced their role in the South Slavic society. During the Austro-Hungarian regime, the government sent educated women to teach in Bosnian schools. During that time, there was also an intellectual discussion about women’s societal role. Omeragič showed the role of these women with three biographies from Adeline Arby (1875–1878), Laura Papo (1891–1942), and Hasnija Berberović (1893–?).

The third panel dealt with the scientific and philosophical endeavours in the early modern period. JORGE BONET GÓMEZ (Lugano) focused on Olivia Sabuco Nantes y Barrera (1562–1646?), a writer in holistic medical philosophy who challenged the established Galenic and Aristotelian ideas about the relationship between body and soul. With this example, Gómez simultaneously took up the aspect of the invisibility of women in science. Sabuco’s work was falsely attributed to her father because of the discovery of his will in the 20th century, thus erasing her name from scientific research for decades.

REBECCA PARTIKEL (Marburg) spoke about the interweaving of artistic ambitions and astronomical research using the example of the engraver and astronomer Maria Clara Eimmart (1676–1707). Based on ten representations of astronomical objects and phenomena preserved in the Bolognese observatory, she tried to reconstruct Eimmart’s work. These ranged from examining and depicting her observations to copying pre-existing works by her father, Georg Christoph Eimmart (1638–1705) and astronomer Johannes Hevelius (1611–1687). Vividly, Partikel thus outlined the existing astronomical knowledge in early modern Nuremberg.

LOUISA-DOROTHEA GEHRKE (Leipzig) concluded the panel with an insight into the natural history activities of Anna Renata Breyne (1713–1759), whose family owned an extensive collection of plants and birds in Gdansk. In poems, Breyne described the peculiarities of the plants and animals and also participated in the natural history research of her father, Johann Philipp Breyne (1680–1764), by making drawings of the collected objects. Gehrke thus demonstrated women’s scope of action with an interest in natural history in the early modern period, which, she argued, could provide insights into previously unexplored forms of natural history practice and research.

The workshop ended with a project presentation by JASMIN ÖZEL and ANDREA REICHENBERGER (Siegen). The focus was on the ideal of equality in Wikipedia, which does not exist in reality. The two philosophers showed an initiative to overcome the gender gap in Wikipedia. At the University of Siegen, there has been a project since 2022 in which contributions by women in the history of philosophy and science are rewritten and expanded. With the help of this project, awareness and thematisation of the gender gap in Wikipedia should be achieved. In addition, it is intended to call for a discussion of women in the history of philosophy and science and, as a final consequence, to change the gender gap by actively editing Wikipedia entries.

The workshop highlighted the diverse contributions of women in science over the centuries and once again showed that women’s achievements are still less discussed in academic discourse. The workshop participants presented, therefore, different approaches to systematically close this gap.

Conference overview:


Simone De Angelis (Centre for the History of Science, University of Graz) and Ursula Renz (Department of Philosophy, University of Graz): Welcome and Introduction

Panel I: (In)Visible women in science and philosophy

Masha Bratishcheva (Scuola Normale Superiore, Pisa): Behind the husband: Women scientists in the 19th century

Ties van Gemert (Tilburg University): Suzanne Bachelard’s place in the historiography of french philosophy of science

Mar Rivera Colomer (Universitat d’Alacant): Women and science an issue to (just) commemorate?

Hortense Van Loock (Université libre de Bruxelles): The Matilda Effect: When invisibilisation becomes visible


Julia Gebke (Austrian Academy of Sciences): “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Unmasking and overcoming myths about primary sources in history

Panel II: Political dimension of women and invisible groups in society and science

Leonie Himmerich (University of Hamburg): Is the ethics of care a feminist approach to morality?

Kaja Kröger (University of Hildesheim): Communism and intimacy: Alexandra Kollontai on love and sexuality

Merima Omeragić (University of Sarajevo): The Muslim women’s question and the role of women intellectuals and the Austro-Hungarian rule in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Panel III: Women in science and philosophy in the early modern period

Jorge Bonet Gómez (Università della Svizzera italiana): Olivia Sabuco: A Spanish philosopher who advanced the early modern medicine

Rebecca Partikel (Philipps University of Marburg): Between copy, collage and artistic adaptation: Maria Clara Eimmart’s astronomical paintings at Museo della Specola (Bologna)

Louisa-Dorothea Gehrke (Leipzig University): Pineapples and baltic birds – The naturalist activities of Anna Renata Breyne in the 18th-century Gdańsk

Project presentation

Jasmin Özel (Leipzig University), Andrea Reichenberger (University of Siegen): Bridging the gender gap on Wikipedia – perspectives from teaching practices in philosophy of mathematics