Dubai: Let’s conduct a small experiment: Ask the person next to you if they know who established the world’s first university. Images of medieval European campuses might come to mind, with their towering turrets and dark academia airs, headed by a group of scholarly men. Few would utter the name Fatima al-Fihri, a Muslim woman who used her large inheritance sum to found the University of al-Qarawiyyin in Morocco, about a millennium ago.
What you will have just witnessed is the Matilda Effect, a widespread phenomenon the Women’s Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai hopes to educate its visitors on. ‘She does the work, he takes the credit!’ reads a panel on the exhibit wall. It is a starlit space shrouded in deep blues of the night, where exceptional women from all walks of life and diverse fields shine. In here they are rightfully recognised for their contributions to human progress – from ancient queens to female pilots.
And perhaps, this is the best place for raising awareness. Ever since the Philadelphia Expo of 1876, the world fairs have offered women their own space in dedicated pavilions. Now Expo 2020 Dubai sees to it that the same legacy is carried forward.
Known victims of the Matilda Effect
When American historian Margaret Rossiter asked after the existence of women scientists at Yale University in 1969, she was met with clipped refusals from professors. The staggering gender bias fuelled her lifetime’s research, resulting in a revolutionary paper titled ‘The Matthew Matilda Effect in Science’, published in the Journal of Social Studies of Science in 1993.
In it, she gives voice to the unvoiced. Think of Trota of Salerno, the 12th-century Italian physician whose repository on women’s medicine was credited to men after her death. Physicist Elise Meitner’s collaborative work in discovering nuclear fission was brushed off and her Nobel credit was instead awarded to chemist Otto Hahn. Victims of the Matilda Effect are by far too many, including the eponym herself.
Who is Matilda?
Matilda Joslyn Gage, a radical women’s suffragist of the 1800s, was the first to research stories of forgotten female inventors. Her efforts at the forefront of women’s rights movement were continuously written out of history, until Rossiter coined the term ‘Matilda Effect’.
Inside the Women’s Pavilion, all Matildas are given a voice – it could be someone you know, it could be you.