In 1977 Evelyn Fox Keller, a prominent scholar and one of those feminists who introduced the gender perspective in our histories of science, described her situation as a graduate student in one of the ivy league US universities as “an anomaly of a woman in physics.” The story of her graduate school experience was not only a difficult one but an indicative of the significant discriminations that women experienced at that time in ‘hard’ sciences such as physics. Recent Nature articles and reports of the American Institute of Physics assure us once again that women are still poorly represented in physics and face institutional sexism in big physics laboratories. Has, however, this relation between women and physics been always such a difficult one? Here I want to go beyond getting the historical record straight and restoring the names of women who succeeded in physics. Instead, moving away from notions of exclusions and constraints, I want to explore the mechanisms that historically allowed women—especially white, middle class European women—to craft spaces for themselves, acquire a laboratory bench for their own, and actively shape their discipline.
Historically there have been several cases that women enjoyed a fairly satisfying status in their work. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries in fields such as radioactivity, astronomy and crystallography and in specific European laboratories and research schools, women were able to develop their own research programs, ensure research positions at top laboratories of the time, escape from the role of assistant to their male colleagues, and gain even university positions and international recognition. Without claiming that prewar research practices and laboratory cultures were not gendered biased at all, I see that women have not always been out of place and oddly positioned in the masculine world of physics. However, their position was transformed during the Second World War and was consolidated in the immediate postwar period. When physics research emigrated from Europe to the United States, followed by dramatic changes in politics and also research practices, women’s role in physics was downgraded from active researchers to assistants, untenured lecturers, and “unskilled” scanners in high energy physics laboratories. My question is what can history tell us not about women’s future in physics but about the future of physics in general?