Special day: women scientists victims of the "Matilda effect"

From left to right: Lise Meitner, Marie Curie and Rosalind Franklin.

© Corbis / Bettmann / Universal History Archive via Getty Images

Text by: Simon Rozé Follow

7 mins

The biologist Rosalind Franklin, the astronomer Jocelyn Bell, the physicist Lise Meitner ... Even Marie Curie sees her name almost systematically attached to that of her husband.

Women are numerous in the history of science, but few have seen their names pass to posterity, victims of the “Matilda effect”.

RFI is dedicating a special day on Monday March 8 to International Women's Rights Day by honoring women scientists.


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In the 1960s, science historian Margaret Rossiter studied a concept theorized by feminist activist Matilda Joslyn Gage at the start of the 20th century: this mania for men to appropriate the intellectual work carried out by women.

Margaret Rossiter then extends this concept to the field of sciences and their history, and gives it a name: "The Matilda effect".

To rob women of their discoveries, to take credit for them, is a phenomenon almost as old as science.

Margaret Rossiter thus discovers a striking example, in the 11th century, that of the Italian Trotula of Salerno.

Woman doctor, renowned, she wrote many books dealing with women's health which were referred to throughout the Middle Ages.

However, these writings have for a very long time been falsely attributed to men;

it was indeed unimaginable at the time that a woman could have been a doctor and teach at the medical school of Salerno.

Closer to us, another example illustrates this mania for not recognizing to women the part they played in scientific work.

The story of Mileva Einstein is thus better known.

Born Mileva Marić, she studied with Albert Einstein.

The two students fall in love and work together.

They married in 1903, and Mileva Einstein greatly participated in the research of her husband.

However, he alone will be the signatory of the published articles, in particular the one on the photoelectric effect which will earn him, alone again, the Nobel Prize in 1921.

Rehabilitation and tribute

Marthe Gautier discovered the extra chromosome responsible for trisomy 21 in 1953. Yet it was Jérôme Lejeune, the assistant to its director who took advantage of it.

Jocelyn Bell discovered pulsars in 1967 during her thesis.

It was his thesis director who was nevertheless awarded the Nobel Prize in 1974. The affair nevertheless sparked a lively controversy, initiated by astrophysicist Fred Hoyle, scandalized by history.

Finally, there is the much better known example of Rosalind Franklin.

We are in 1951 and there is then a real effervescence in cell biology laboratories to discover the shape of DNA.

Rosalind Franklin was the first to take the photo of the double helix structure, a shot essential for the work of her colleagues Watson and Crick.

It was they who announced the discovery in 1953 in the journal


and who won the Nobel Prize in 1962.

Rosalind Franklin died 4 years earlier, voluntarily forgotten.

Today, however, it is rehabilitated.

She will also receive a nice tribute.

The next European robot that will roll on the planet Mars in 2022 to discover traces of past life will bear his name.

Special programming


Monday March 8

Throughout the day, RFI highlights the backgrounds and expertise of women, particularly from the scientific community.

La radio du monde offers a special edition of “RFI Matin”, dedicated magazines, as well as special programming on the channels in foreign languages ​​and exclusive content on digital environments.

► In “

RFI Matin

”: from 7 am to 9 am,

Nathalie Amar


Laurence Devillers

, professor specializing in artificial intelligence, and

Francine Ntoumi

, Congolese specialist in malaria and president of the Congolese Foundation for medical research, and comes back with them on women and digital technology, adult women's literacy and science education.

► In “

Priorité santé

”, at 10:10 am,

Caroline Paré

offers a program on the theme: “Women: glass ceiling in medicine?

»And gives a voice to female doctors.

It receives in particular

Awa Marie Coll Seck

, former Minister of Health and Social Action in Senegal and associate member of the National Academy of Pharmacy of France,

Karine Lacombe

, Head of the Infectious and Tropical Diseases Department of Saint Hospital -Antoine, and

Sabrina Benbouzid

, surgeon and urologist at Tenon Hospital.

“Priorité Santé” also devoted its program of December 14, 2020 to “ 

Women and health scandals

”, to (re) listen to in a podcast

► In “

7 Billion neighbors… and neighbors!

», At 11:10 am,

Emanuelle Bastide

devotes her program to the consequences of the pandemic on the education of girls around the world.

She receives

Yvan Savi

, director of the NGO Plan International,

Mbaye Thiam

, former Minister of Education of Senegal and vice-president of the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), and

Armel Azihar Sly-Vania

, Comorian activist of the NGO Imara Comoros.

► At 2:30 pm, Pascal Paradou receives in “

De Vive (s) Voix

Lauren Bastide

, for her book “La powder” (Ed. Marabout), taken from her eponymous podcast, in which she has received since 2016 more than 80 women writers , musicians, actresses, directors, activists and politicians.

► In “

Around the question


Caroline Lachowsky


Vittoria Colizza

, research director at Inserm and specialist in modeling infectious diseases, she is notably carrying out research on the modeling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

► At 9:10 pm,

Claudy Siar

offers a program of “

Tropical Colors

” with a female artist committed to the defense of women's rights.

Also to (re) listen

► “ 

The March of the World


Valérie Nivelon

devoted, Sunday March 7, a program to powerful black women with the historian

Audrey Célestine

, author of the book 

Des vies de combat

 (Ed. Iconoclasts). 

► “ 

The Media Workshop


Steven Jambot looks

 back on women entrepreneurs in the media sector.


Marion Pillas

, one of the four co-founders of "La déferlante", a French quarterly "post-metoo devoted to feminisms and gender" as well as

Emilie Friedli

, director of the Creatis residence, for the launch of "Source", a program aimed at to support women entrepreneurs far from the media and cultural ecosystem. 

► “ 

The Epic of black music


Joe Farmer invites

you to (re) discover singer

Shemekia Copeland

, feminist and committed to women's rights, on the occasion of the release of his new album “Uncivil War”. 

► “ 

Orient Hebdo


Eric Bataillon

 received this weekend,

Anna Doranghicchia,

expert on gender at the “Union for the Mediterranean”, to discuss the establishment of the first regional monitoring mechanism on gender equality .


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  • International women's rights day

  • Womens rights

  • Women

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