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The Matilda Effect: the brilliant women whose achievements were erased from history by men

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Chloe Gray
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Men taking credit for women's work

For years, men have been taking the credit for women’s work, whether that’s on the global stage or in the boardroom. It’s such a well documented problem that it even has a name…

Susan Sontag has been described as “the most influential critic of our generation”. She wrote novels and essays, made films and became a political activist. She’s so influential that this year’s Met Gala took her seminal essay on camp for its theme. It’s safe to say she was successful, vocal and respected. Yet it turns out her work may expand to greater areas than originally thought - because she wasn’t allowed to take credit for all of her ideas.

In yet another example of female erasure, a new biography, Sontag: Her Life by Benjamin Moser, claims that she was the true author of the book Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, a ground breaking novel that was published in her husband Philip Rieff’s name.

Sontag is not alone as a woman who has (almost) become invisible in their own work. In fact, it’s a scarily well-established pattern. So well-established, that there’s a term to describe it: The Matilda Effect.

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What is The Matilda Effect?

The name was coined in 1993 by science historian Margaret W. Rossiter, referencing suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage’s essay Woman as Inventor. Published 100 years before, Gage describes the bias against acknowledging the achievements of female scientists, instead attributing their work to male colleagues: “Although woman’s scientific education has been grossly neglected, yet some of the most important inventions of the world are due to her.”

She continues: “A very slight investigation proves that patents taken out in some man’s name are, in many instances, due to women.”

Although The Matilda Effect typically applies to erasure of women within science it’s acknowledged far beyond that, from the arts to writing, like with the Sontag debate.  

Erasing women from history

Women’s work has historically been credited to men simply because it could be – the patriarchy is designed to benefit men after all. There’s also the fact that it would be taken more seriously in the scientific, artistic or linguistic community if it was put forward with by lines belonging to men, as male gatekeepers perceive work by them to be more credible. And for women who had landed on discoveries they believed that sharing the life changing information with the world was more important than taking credit for it.

But erasure of women is dangerous. If we don’t know that women were responsible for or contributed to these scientific breakthroughs or defining pieces of art, how do we teach young women that they too can strive to do the same? Hidden figures in science mean that at school I was taught about the inventions of Alexander Fleming, Thomas Edison, Stephen Hawking, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud, but the only female scientist I can tell you about is Marie Curie (I can also tell you that that her husband helped her with the research, but I wasn’t taught anything about Edison’s wives). Let’s also take a second to think about how easily those names rolled off of my fingers as I wrote this, with the world having such high regard for their work that most of the time they’re simply referred to by their last name. Marie Curie is never just referenced as Curie. 

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It spreads into the arts, too: I read Mark Twain and J.D. Salinger and William Shakespeare and Alan Bennett and John Steinbeck, but none of the main texts I studied were by female writers. The feminist rhetoric I was lucky enough to be raised with did well to tell me that I can be whatever I want, but without seeing that women created and invented things that have changed the world in the same way men have, it falls flat.

It means that even now, women are left believing that their gender is a hindrance. There’s a reason why J.K. Rowling published books under her initials rather than using her name, Joanne. 

Ending The Matilda Effect

The QE Engineering Prize is awarded every year to those who have made ground breaking movements in the field. This year, Brad Parkinson, James Spilker Jr, Hugo Fruehauf, and Richard Schwartz won for their work on developing GPS systems – except Gladys West is the physician behind the science of satellites.

Dr. Anne-Marie Imafidon, the CEO of Stemettes, a social enterprise to inspire and support young women into Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) careers, tweeted: “The world, QEP donors & Gladys West deserve better.”

Using our voices and exposing the truth, like Dr Imafidon, is the only way we can stop losing women to history. In 2018 Stylist launched Forgotten Women, our campaign that aims to colour in the stories of those who the world tried to erase. Even Hollywood is getting in on the act, with films like Hidden Figures and Colette telling the stories of women who have changed the world.

It’s been 127 years since Matilda Gage’s essay exposed the gender bias. Let’s not let it be another 127 until it’s fixed. 

Image: Getty