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The Feminist Past History Can't Give Us

April 17 is now an unexpected milestone in my life as a historian. Just past midnight, my daughter Natalie pointed out that one of the very dead Italians I have written about for years, Laura Bassi—a physics professor and experimenter who lived and worked in eighteenth-century Bologna—was now a Google Doodle. CNN, ForbesNewsweek, ABC News, and many local news outlets picked up the story; even YouTubers followed suit, creating a few shorts about her. 

Google Doodles had whimsical origins, but they have grown into a strangely influential cultural archive. In 1998, on their way to the Burning Man Festival in Nevada, Sergey Brin and Larry Page modified a single O in the search engine’s now iconic logo to alert users that they would be out of the office, so to speak. But the shtick stuck, and the full set of some four thousand doodles now comprises a library of interesting people, events, scientific discoveries, and cultural artifacts, a sort of techno-cabinet of historical curiosities. The entries represent Google’s version of the past—the one that matters to them, at least, and thus to some degree to us.

Google’s effort at public commemoration joins others over the years—from Judy Chicago’s art installation The Dinner Party (1974–79), which features Bassi’s name among 999 women luminaries inscribed in the floor of this iconic installation, to Sharon Glassman’s 1990s monologue “Water Over Time,” which brought Bassi to life in contemporary New York City, translating the subway map into Latin for greater legibility and explaining why science mattered to a modern woman. Fame also comes in unexpected shapes and sizes. You can now buy a wall poster of Bassi on Amazon; undoubtedly T-shirts and coffee mugs are in the offing. And in May 2019, the Italian National Institute of Oceanography and Applied Geophysics gave Bassi’s name to a ship previously called the Polar Queen and the RRS Ernest Shackleton. She now clears a path through the chilly waters of the Arctic in the service of science.

These acts mean something—but who really was Laura Bassi? The recent stories have their answers but also their limitations. The pressure to commemorate singularly heroic individuals tends to obscure the social conditions in which they flourished (and in which others didn’t). What it really meant to be a woman of science three centuries ago is not so easily conscripted into contemporary narratives of feminist liberation. But the past is no less a resource for thinking about the present—and the futures we might aspire to—because of this complexity.

Bassi was born in Bologna in 1711 and died in 1778. As I have long argued, she was probably the first woman to have a paid scientific career and to be institutionally recognized for what she did. That is hardly the whole of her story, but it is certainly a reason to remember her.

Read entire article at Boston Review