History is filled with stories never told. And a lot of those stories are about women whose contributions to society were mocked or ignored by their contemporaries.
Did you know, for example, that there were feminists demanding that women have the right to vote during the French Revolution? Did you know that Anna Julia Cooper, a daughter of an enslaved woman from North Carolina, got her PhD from the Sorbonne in 1924?
Today, Google is celebrating another woman whose story has often been forgotten: Nettie Stevens. Stevens, an American scientist born in 1861, discovered while working at Bryn Mawr College that X and Y chromosomes determine a person’s sex. Ironically, it was her lack of a Y chromosome that led many people to ignore or forget her important contribution to scientific knowledge.
Over a century after Stevens’ death, there is much more to discover about how X and Y chromosomes influence health. As cardiologist and women’s health advocate Paula A. Johnson explained in her 2013 TED talk, “every cell has a sex.” We know this thanks to Nettie Stevens. What we might not recognize is that along with society’s lack of respect for her contribution comes another, perhaps thornier, problem: a lack of understanding about women’s health.
Even as we give tragically-overdue credit to scientists like Stevens, longstanding prejudices against women continue to have a significant impact on us today. For example, cardiovascular disease kills more women than cancer does, but research has predominantly focused on men as if the male body were representative of the whole population. This focus has led to recommendations that signs of a heart attack might include pain running down one arm or a sense of tightness in the chest—but it turns out that these symptoms are more likely to occur in men than women.
While “every cell has a sex” does not mean that all people with Y chromosomes are destined to prefer blue to pink, it does mean that there might be biological consequences related to sex that are yet to be examined because we have for too long assumed that people who have both X and Y chromosomes can stand in for everyone.
Let’s celebrate Nettie Stevens today by delving even deeper into the way that biases influence scientific research. It honors her legacy and could potentially save lives.