Washington — ''I was watching the 1976 Olympics, where they'd spend 10 minutes setting up for a three-minute event, so it didn't take all my attention,'' says Margaret Rossiter, a science historian who is working on the follow-through volume to her ''Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940'' (Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore). ''So I was reading through the first edition of 'American Men of Science' - 1906 - and was startled to find some women there.''
Digging through the libraries at Yale and Radcliffe on this subject brought a number of ''largely invisible'' women scientists into focus for her - an experience, Dr. Rossiter writes, that made her feel ''like a modern Alice who had fallen down a rabbit hole into a wonderland of the history of science that was familiar in some respects but distorted and alien in many others.''
In an office at the National Science Foundation that is nearly eclipsed with papers and books, Dr. Rossiter, who is the director of the history and philosophy of science program, says that running into the letters and articles by these women scientists was like ''finding someone who had been a fly on the wall at all the important events of science.'' Although what they saw ''didn't add to the image of the nobility of science and scientists,'' it points up the gradual progress of women scientists in recent years.
Here, for example, is world-class physicist Robert A. Millikan in 1936 advising his friend, the president of Duke University, not to hire women to teach in graduate school:
''If . . . I had administrative responsibility at the University, I should want to watch developments very carefully to see that antagonisms were not aroused, since women instructors in physics in the long run might react unfavorably upon the prestige of the department, unless they were there solely because of their merit as physicists.''
''There was a kind of Catch-22 in hiring women scientists in the 1920s and ' 30s,'' says Dr. Rossiter, ''that said, If the woman fails, she's representative of her gender, but if she succeeds, it's because she's the exception.'' Trying to be that exception - to be twice as qualified and work twice as hard for half the salary - was the strategy adopted by most female scientists at that time, her book reveals.
''It's still going on today,'' she claims. ''Look at the books that tell you to dress for success and give you strategies for winning within the system. We're still not trying to get rid of the hurdles - just to get over them.''
The strategy was different in the late 19th century, Dr. Rossiter found, when a handful of outstanding female students, taking advantage of the American philosophy of encouraging education of its women, entered the universities.
Dr. Rossiter's favorite member of this group is Christine Ladd-Franklin. A student at Vassar College of the ''brusque but brilliant'' astronomer Maria Mitchell (who won a gold medal from the King of Denmark at the age of 28 for calculating the position of a new comet and observing it across the sky), Mrs. Franklin was ''one of the early graduate students at Johns Hopkins University. But when she presented her thesis to the mathematics department in 1882, she discovered that her degree would be withheld,'' Dr. Rossiter says.
Seeing that American graduate schools were patterning themselves after their German counterparts, Mrs. Franklin suggested to the fledgling Association of Collegiate Alumnae (an early pressure group for women college graduates) that its members set up a graduate fellowship for a woman who wished to study abroad.
Those who took the fellowship faced a hesitant and sometimes hostile reception in the German universities. Ida Hyde, the second American woman to obtain a German doctorate, ''long remembered how physiologist Willy Kuhne, who had originally laughed at her desire for a degree, had required six faculty meetings before he would agree to serve on the committee, had repeatedly postponed her examination and then prolonged it an extra hour, and finally had refused to grant her the degree summa cum laude,'' Dr. Rossiter writes.
But the magna cum laude degrees obtained by these women overseas became useful pressure points to apply to universities here, many of which had taken in ''special'' female students, allowed them to attend classes and take exams, and then refused to grant recognition of their achievements.
Eventually such determination, coupled with the pressure of emulating their German counterparts, forced even Johns Hopkins to grant doctorates to women (Mrs. Franklin received hers 40 years after she earned it). Dr. Rossiter calls this a ''revolution in education'' - a revolution whose effects are still with us.
Even with their doctorates, these women found few jobs, says Dr. Rossiter, who points out that ''the reality of all this education was that women invaded the private sector.'' Careers for female scientists were carved out in areas requiring great detail work and giving low pay, with a few exceptions like home economics.
Here, the chemist Ellen Richards (who founded the home economics curriculum at MIT) ''saw a niche that men didn't want,'' Dr. Rossiter believes, ''and capitalized on it.'' In the 1880s Mrs. Richards (whose engineer husband proposed to her in an MIT chemistry lab) started stressing chemistry's value to the homemaker, saying, ''Laboratory work, rightly carried out, makes women better housekeepers, better cooks, better wives and mothers more fitted to care for the versatile American youth.''
Dr. Rossiter points out that Mrs. Richards also did not object to sewing on buttons for her colleagues in the lab - a fact that during a period of suffragists and radicals made the home economist look eminently respectable.
If moderates moving ahead during an intense period of the women's movement sounds familiar, it's because ''these patterns repeat themselves. Historians take the long view and find more consistency than you'd think,'' she says.
And, although scientific work still tends to be sex segregated, with women concentrated at the lower end, Dr. Rossiter feels that ''things have never been this good for women scientists before - there are more jobs in more areas. And it's not that uncommon to find a female associate professor, or a female president of a professional organization,'' she points out.
Another promising sign concerns the book that got the historian going: ''American Men of Science.'' In 1920 Christine Ladd-Franklin wanted the title changed to ''Scientists'' or, like the English, ''Scientific Worthies.'' Since 1971, Dr. Rossiter points out, it has been called ''American Men and Women of Science.''