9 Times Men Were Given Credit For Women's Historic Accomplishments

When Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu won gold in the Rio Olympics this summer, a commentator identified her coach and husband as “the guy responsible for turning [her] into a whole different swimmer.” It was far from the first time that man was given credit for a woman’s accomplishments, but that didn’t make it an easier pill to swallow. Many were quick to point out that the person “responsible” for Hosszu’s gold medal was, in fact, Hosszu herself, who managed to set a world record in the process.

Far too often, women’s achievements have been ignored, underreported, or simply erased from the historical record. (Just look to this year’s Hidden Figures as an important example of brilliant women of color whose contributions went unacknowledged for decades.) While this erasure is frustrating and harmful, creating a false myth that women’s history lacks great creative and intellectual achievement, it’s even more maddening to find instances in which women’s accomplishments have been stripped from them and then attributed to men.

Although men deliberately stole credit for women’s work in some of these cases (I’m looking at you Walter Keane), more often this transference of recognition from women to men happened more indirectly. The men who ultimately received acclaim for major achievements that should have at least partially been attributed to women didn’t necessarily do so purposefully or with the intention of taking credit where it wasn’t due. In many cases, men were given credit because that’s just how things were done; in fields like the sciences, there wasn’t an extensive history of eminent female scholarship, so people simply couldn’t imagine it happening — and therefore assumed that  major breakthroughs must somehow be attributable to dudes. Furthermore, I don’t mean to suggest that these men didn’t deserve the recognition they got — many of them did. But what seems to have happened in a number of cases is that men and women worked collaboratively or on similar projects, and the men’s — very real — accomplishments were lauded, while the women’s were downplayed or even erased.

In the sciences, this phenomenon actually has a name: The Matilda effect. Coined by science historian Margaret Rossiter, the “Matilda effect” refers to a pattern in which female scientists’ accomplishments have historically been under-recognized, and credit disproportionally given to male scientists. (Its name is a reference to the “Matthew effect,” the finding that already prominent people are more likely to get credit than non-prominent people  — essentially, “the rich get richer.”) Unfortunately, the Matilda effect is an ongoing problem.

Read on for the tales of nine accomplished, inspired women who didn’t get their due. Fair warning: These stories are infuriating. Seriously, expect to have steam billowing from your ears by the end of this post.

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1. Rosalind Franklin

This list would not be complete without Rosalind Franklin, one of the most frequent names to come up in discussions of women’s achievements being overlooked or ignored. Franklin, a British chemist and X-ray crystallographer, researched DNA at King’s College in London in the 1950s; molecular biologists James Watson and Francis Crick were also researching DNA around the same time at the University of Cambridge University. At some point, a colleague of Franklin’s showed an image of DNA produced by Franklin to Watson and Crick without her knowledge. The image, known as Photo 51, turned out to be critical for Watson and Crick; with Photo 51, as well as additional research from Franklin (also attained without her knowledge), they were able to accurately identify DNA’s structure as that of a double helix.

When Watson and Crick famously published their research in Nature in 1953, they acknowledged Franklin’s work in a general way, writing, “We have also been stimulated by a knowledge of the general nature of the unpublished results” of Franklin and colleagues at King’s College. Critics have argued that the acknowledgement was insufficient given the centrality of Photo 51 to Watson and Crick’s research, and failed to recognize the true extent of Franklin’s importance to the discovery of the double helix.

There is some debate about whether it’s accurate to say that Franklin’s work was “stolen”; Matthew Cobb, author of Life’s Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code, argues in the Guardian that while Crick and Watson’s behavior was certainly “cavalier,” the research they used from Franklin was not confidential. Cobb suggests that much of the myth about Franklin’s ill treatment comes from Watson’s own autobiography, The Double Helix, in which he portrays a sexist, dismissive attitude toward Franklin, at one point describing her as a “belligerent, emotional woman unable to interpret her own data.”  

Franklin died at the age of 38 from ovarian cancer in 1958, four years before Watson and Crick won the Nobel Prize. The Nobel is not awarded posthumously, and so it is impossible to say whether Franklin would have shared the honor. However, it is fair to say that Franklin’s contribution to the discovery of DNA’s structure was crucial, and that any discussion of the discovery is incomplete without her in it.

2. Elizabeth Magie

Ever since Parker Brothers started manufacturing Monopoly in the 1930s, the standard origin story of the bestselling game has been that Monopoly was created by Charles Darrow. According to the New York Times, Darrow’s story has become a bit of an American myth — an unemployed man makes a board game, becomes a millionaire, and lives the American Dream.

But Charles Darrow didn’t actually invent Monopoly — Elizabeth Magie did, a good 30 years before Parker Brothers’ version hit the scene. Magie created the game that would eventually become Monopoly — called “The Landlord’s Game” — in 1902, and filed for a patent in 1903. Her game was actually meant to forward Magie’s progressive values by showing that monopolies are bad; ironically, the point of modern Monopoly seems to be the exact opposite. In the decades following Magie’s creation of the game, “The Landlord’s Game” gained a small following, and eventually it was introduced to Charles Darrow. Darrow made a few modifications to the game and sold it to Parker Brothers. Parker Brothers also bought Magie’s patent.

The NYT reports that Magie never made more than about $500 from the deal, while Darrow received millions. Her contribution to the game was largely forgotten (or erased) until the 1970s, when her contribution to the game was uncovered during a legal case.

3. Chien-Shiung Wu

Nuclear physicist Chien-Shiung Wu came to the United States from China in 1936. During World War II, she was recruited to work on the Manhattan Project in the development of the atomic bomb. In the 1950s, Wu began working with theoretical physicists, Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang, who wanted her help in disproving the law of parity. This law, which had been accepted for decades, held that “there was a fundamental symmetry in the behavior of everything in nature, including atomic particles,” according to TIME.

Although Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang developed the theory disproving the law of parity, it was Wu who developed and conducted the experiments that actually served as proof. In 1957, Lee and Yang both received the Nobel Prize for their work — but Wu’s contribution was ignored. Nina Byers, a former physics professor at UCLA, told National Geographic of Wu’s exclusion, “People found [the Nobel decision] outrageous.”

4. Margaret Keane

American artist Margaret Keane is famous for her “Big Eye” paintings, which were incredibly popular in the 1960s. However, for many years, the public thought the brush behind the Big Eye paintings was actually that of Margaret’s husband, Walter Keane. (You may recognize this story from Tim Burton’s 2014 film, Big Eyes.)

Walter began selling his wife’s work in the 1950s, but it wasn’t until months later that Margaret discovered that he’d been selling her paintings as his own. He convinced her to continue with the lie, and in the years to follow, Margaret spent as many as 16 hours a day painting hugely popular works, while Walter took the credit. In a 2014 interview with the Guardian, Margaret claimed that Walter was emotionally abusive and that he had even threatened to have her killed if she revealed the truth.

The couple divorced in 1965, and in 1970, Margaret finally revealed that she was the artist behind the Big Eye paintings. Walter denied the claim, and the battle for credit culminated in a side-by-side “paint battle” in a Hawaii courtroom in 1986. Margaret painted an image in her typical Big Eye style in under an hour, while Walter claimed he had a sore shoulder and refused to paint at all.  

5. Margaret Knight

Margaret Knight was an American inventor (often of creations related to industrial machinery) in the 19th century. When she died in 1914, she had at least 27 patents to her name, but getting her first patent in 1870 was a battle. In the late 1860s, Knight invented a machine that could fold paper into paper bags. According to the National Women’s History Museum, she took her wooden model of the machine to Boston to have it cast in iron, and during the process, a guy named Charles Annan stole her idea. When Knight applied for her patent a few months later, she discovered that Annan had already filed for one. She got the Patent Office to investigate, and the decision came down on her side, granting her the patent.

6. Trotula of Salerno

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Trotula of Salerno was a female doctor in Italy in the 11th century, who wrote a number of texts about diseases and health conditions affecting women, making her what the Brooklyn Museum describes as “the world’s first gynecologist.” For centuries, her works remained important resources about women’s health, but over time, her authorship and gender came into question, with some people arguing that a woman couldn’t have had the expertise to write the treatises. Some editions of her works were published with the names of male authors, and some people argued that the texts must have been written by multiple authors or that Trotula had never existed at all.  

These days, most historians believe that Trotula did exist, that she did write the medical texts attributed to her, and that she was, indeed, a woman.

7. Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Roger W. Haworth/Wikimedia

Northern Irish astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered pulsars — “rapidly spinning, super-dense, collapsed stars” — while still a graduate student at the University of Cambridge. Working under thesis advisor Antony Hewish, Burnell had spent years helping to construct a large radio telescope. When the telescope was up and working, it was Burnell who noticed the anomalies in data that would turn out to be pulsars.

Burnell was the first to detect the anomalies, and was listed as the second author on the 1968 paper that resulted from the discovery. Nevertheless, it was only Hewish and a colleague, Martin Ryle, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1974. Although many scientists were critical of Burnell’s omission, Burnell herself has stated that the decision was correct, as she was only a graduate student at the time, and therefore credit should go to her supervisor. In the years since, Burnell has advocated for women in the sciences, telling the BBC only a few days ago, “The more diverse a research group or a business, the more robust it is, the more flexible it is and the better it succeeds.”

8. Lise Meitner

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Lise Meitner was an Austrian physicist whose work was integral to the discovery of nuclear fission and eventually (though unintentionally) to the development of the atom bomb. In the early 20th century, after moving to Germany, she began a decades-long partnership with chemist Otto Hahn. After Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Meitner, who was of Jewish descent, was forced to flee, eventually settling in Sweden. She and Hahn continued to collaborate from a distance. In Berlin, Hahn’s team conducted experiments that would prove to be the evidence for nuclear fission (aka splitting the atom), but it was Meitner and her nephew, Otto Frisch, who ultimately described the theory and coined the term “nuclear fission.”

When Hahn published the discovery, he left Meitner out of it, perhaps due to rising tensions caused by Nazi Germany (Hahn was working in Berlin, while Meitner, a female scientist of Jewish heritage, was in exile). For the discovery of nuclear fission, Hahn was awarded with the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1944; Meitner’s contribution was not acknowledged.  

After scientists realized that nuclear fission could be used as a weapon, Meitner was invited to work on the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb. She refused, insisting, “I will have nothing to do with a bomb!”

9. Nettie Stevens

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Prior 1905, people had no idea why some babies are born female and others male, but that year American biologist Nettie Stevens made a major discovery: Using experiments with mealworm beetles, she figured out that sex is determined by chromosomes in the male’s sperm — the theory that would form the basis for our current understanding of the XX-XY sex determination system.

However, despite Stevens’ work on sex determination, the discovery is often attributed to male scholars. Credit often goes to Stevens’ colleague, biologist E.B. Wilson. Wilson was also working on sex chromosomes and published a similar theory around the same time that Stevens did, but Stevens’ work would prove to be the more accurate. “It is generally stated that E. B. Wilson obtained the same results as Stevens, at the same time,” writes Stephen Brush, a historian of science and technology (via Vox). Brush contends, however, “Wilson probably did not arrive at his conclusion on sex determination until after he had seen Stevens' results. ... Because of Wilson's more substantial contributions in other areas, he tends to be given most of the credit for this discovery.”  

It would be nice to believe that stories like these are a thing of the past, but unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be the case. Although women have gained ground in the sciences since the days of Lise Meitner and Rosalind Franklin, research suggests that female scientists still fail to get adequate recognition for their work. A 2012 study analyzing the distribution of scientific awards found that, although female scholars are nominated for awards, they’re less likely than men to actually win them. The study authors explain,

There are no quick solutions to unconscious bias, but the authors name one that could to much to even the playing field: Placing more women on the committees that hand out awards.

Check out the “Feminism” stream in the Bustle App throughout the month of March for more inspiring ways to celebrate Women's History Month.