Dr. Estelle Ramey Lectures on Women's Scientific Education at SU's 1971 Brown Symposium

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Gissell C. Perez

Women's pursuit of an equal, in-depth, high-level education as adults has met many stumbling blocks over the centuries: inferior standards or the complete absence of education, beliefs in women's intellectual inferiority, and worries that education in non-domestic subjects wouldn't adequately prepare women for their "natural" role as wives and mothers. Both people and institutions of higher education have had their opinion on this subject throughout history and they have used varying approaches from religion to science to defend their opinion. Dr. Estelle Ramey’s guest lecture on November 5, 1971 titled Why Bother to Educate Women given at Southwestern University takes established scientific results to continue the argument that women should be educated. This lecture took a scientific approach to tackle not only a social but political issue. It is crucial to look both at the historical context and issues in the history of science to further analyze and understand the role Dr. Estelle Ramey’s lecture at Southwestern University plays in the scheme of the history of science at Southwestern.

            Dr. Estelle Ramey taught chemistry at the University of Tennessee, was Assistant Professor in the Department of Physiology at the University of Chicago Medical School where she taught endocrinology, and at the time of the lecture, was a professor of physiology and biophysics at Georgetown University Medical School. In both of the latter institutions she completed extensive research in the area of the relationship of glands and the nervous system to stress responses. In 1970 Dr. Edgar Bergman, a physician, made headlines when he suggested that women were unfit to hold positions of responsibility because of their “raging hormonal influences.” This was too much for Dr. Estelle Ramey. She debated Dr. Bergman in a national forum and used her established scientific research to defend her argument, which has had a tremendous effect on the topic. Although she is the main person leading the communication process, there were additional characters that played a role in the communication process. The lecture was sponsored Southwestern University’s organizations including the Ideas and Issues Committee of the Union, the Association of Women Students, the Office of the Dean of Students, and the Office of the Chaplain.

            As stated previously, the lecture was a result of a debate between Dr. Estelle Ramey and Dr. Edgar Bergman after a comment was made that women were unfit to hold positions of responsibility due to hormonal differences. Steven Shapin in his article said, “Indeed, it might be said (in the canonical version) that science has progressively shed its public and circumscribed the role of the public, as well as that on non-scientific intellectuals, in scientific affairs.”[1] Just as intellectuals have used, and in Dr. Ramey’s case did use scientific research as a political force, the public turned to science to continue and find support in science to make their case for women’s rights. Bruce Lewenstein added to the definition of popularization by saying that it is, “not only simplifications of technical information, but also sites for expressing new ideas about the natural world.”[2] In the 1970’s people were trying to make sense of the natural world and most importantly, women were trying to find a more equal role in society amongst men. 

            Furthermore, what Dr. Estelle Ramey is arguing in her lecture is discussed in A History of Science: A Beginners Guide where Johnston says, “As Bacon and Oldenburg had suggested, women were commonly identified as having the wrong emotional nature to pursue science. Later medical men suggested that female intellectual capacity was also suspect, theorizing that physiological demands of menstruation, childbirth and nurturing of children chronically limited their abilities to think abstractly.”[3] This is particularly interesting when taking into consideration that Dr. Estelle Ramey was the Assistant Professor in the Department of Physiology of the University of Chicago Medical School where she taught endocrinology, and at the time of the lecture, was a professor of physiology and biophysics at Georgetown University Medical School. This not only makes her a legitimate source to refute this idea, but also makes her a perfect example of how the claim is false. Furthermore, Johnston in chapter 7 says, “Social history, a branch of historical studies that had been growing since the 1950s, called attention to ‘history from below’. Its proponents argued that social norms and beliefs could arise from, and be sustained by, the masses rather than from figures of authority. Applied to the history of science, social history focused on audiences and different portions of the public – by class, education, occupation or national origin – rather than on men and women of science.”[4] This is a topic that arose in the history of science that occurred approximately 20 years prior to Dr. Ramey’s lecture and clearly this was an issue prior to, but the fact that this examination in history was occurring as she was critiquing and challenging the view of women through science reinforces the importance social aspects were playing in not only science but the history of science.

            Dr. Estelle Ramey stated, “As an endocrinologist in good standing, I was startled to learn that ovarian hormones are toxic to brain cells.”[5] This opening statement is referencing her reaction to Dr. Edgar Berman’s comments that women shouldn’t be given roles of leadership or even the right to hold any position of authority outside the confines of “natural” women roles due to their raging hormonal influences. She went on to remind the public that during the Cuban missile crisis, the nation had a president who suffered from a severe hormonal imbalance: John F. Kennedy, who had Addison’s disease, an endocrine disorder, was in a position of authority and leadership during a very stressful and detrimental time of coherency. Furthermore, Dr. Estelle Ramey contended that not only do women handle their “raging hormonal influences” quite well, but one of those hormones, estrogen, actually gives women “the protoplasmic edge” over men.[6] In addition to this, she has even gone further and stated that men seem to be at a natural hormonal disadvantage as men are more inclined toward aggression, die sooner and are more prone to heart attacks and strokes. The focus of Dr. Estelle Ramey’s research was on the connections between stress and hormones and her overall approach to why bother educating women centers around the women’s natural ability due to hormones to handle stressful situations quite well.

Ultimately this case study is about a debate that started and was being had on a national level, therefore this case study pertains to a population bigger than just the Southwestern community. However, it is remarkable that a university of our size has had the opportunity to participate in such a historical moment and openly embraced this dialogue at a time where the controversy was at its peak. The relationship between the public and the expert, though one-sided due to the format of the presentation, grappled with the common belief that women should be educated. I believe the communication of science in this case aims at more than just increasing knowledge and translating the information to a lay public in the most understandable way possible. Rather, it also aims at changing a political climate and societal roles, which at that point in time was a major event occurring in our society. It is interesting to see how science was used to argue and support an opinion and how that opinion could have become a fact with the establishment of scientific research. It is evident that we need to understand both the historical context and issues in the history of science to evaluate and appreciate the role Dr. Estelle Ramey’s lecture at Southwestern University played in the greater narrative of the history of science at Southwestern, but also nationally because the conversation of females in science is continuously developing.

[1] Steven Shapin, “Science and the Public,” in Companion to the History of Modern Science, edited by R. C. Olby, G. N. Cantor, J. R. R. Christie and M J. S. Hodge, London Routledge, 1990, 991

[2] Bruce V. Lewenstein, “Popularization,” in The Oxford Companion to the History of Modern Science, edited by John L. Heilborn, Oxford/New York: Oxford Univ.Press, 2003, 667-668.

[3] Johnston, Sean F.. History of Science: A Beginner's Guide (Beginner's Guides), Ch 6. Oneworld Publications. Kindle Edition.

[4] Johnston, Sean F.. History of Science: A Beginner's Guide (Beginner's Guides), Ch 7. Oneworld Publications. Kindle Edition.

[5] Ramey, Estelle. Why Bother to Educate Women. Lecture, Southwestern University

[6] Ramey, Estelle. Why Bother to Educate Women. Lecture, Southwestern University

Dr. Estelle Ramey Lectures on Women's Scientific Education at SU's 1971 Brown Symposium