Women of Science: Righting the Record
Edited by G. Kass-Simon and Patricia Farnes
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press)
398 pp.; $39.95
Buried inside this deadly boring book is a story panting to be told. Women have had exciting careers in science, often without publicity or recognition, but the authors of this book manage to drain the lives and work of all of them of incident, color or interest.
Each of the 10 chapters is written by a different woman scientist so that there is no unifying point of view, basic style or consistent format. Some of the authors decline to discuss still-living women working in their fields, while others include them. It is a ringing indictment of our educational system -- or of the editors -- that 10 highly educated women can write a book so lacking in grace, wit and readability.
The contributors harbor serious grudges against the world for the lack of recognition women scientists have received. Patricia Farnes, one of the co-editors and the author of the chapter on women in medicine, describes "an important contribution to immunology," which she and another woman made in 1962 and published in Lancet in 1964. She says that they received none of the rewards to be expected from such a discovery -- grants, invitations to lecture, new contracts. Instead, "a government-supported group with enormous resources grabbed the ball and ran with it. There was no contest -- after all, they had 16 postdoctoral fellows sitting in a row waiting for new things to flow in. Within a year, they were giving interviews to the medical media about their discovery."
Some of the authors are so eager to demonstrate that all women scientists have been neglected that they include as "forgotten" women some who have had biographies written about them, including physicist Maria Goeppert-Mayer and astronomer Maria Mitchell, who discovered a comet. And they seem somewhat disconcerted by the fact that some women scientists -- biologist Rachel Carson or "blue baby" surgeon Helen Taussig, for example -- are better known than men in their field.
Of course, there has been terrible discrimination against women, and there is still discrimination.
Cynthia Irwin-Williams points out in the chapter on archaeology that as late as 1981, the anthropology department of Harvard defended itself against a censure by the American Anthropological Association for discriminating against women. Harvard said it was unable to fill any of its positions in archaeology with females because "women as a group are not attracted to the discipline." But, as Irwin-Williams points out, a A woman who wanted to be a scientist in the 19th century was lucky if she could attend Bryn Mawr, Vassar or Mount Holyoke --
pioneers in teaching science to women.
third of the doctorates in anthropology nationally go to women.
Indeed, for all their density and lack of clarity, these essays make it plain that women, restricted by the lack of educational opportunities available to them, had to enter the sciences by banging on the back door. A woman who wanted to be a scientist in the 19th century was lucky if she could attend Bryn Mawr, Vassar or Mount Holyoke -- pioneers in teaching science to women. Even then, the graduates usually needed a male sponsor -- father, husband or mentor -- who could help them get jobs in science. Often the jobs were of the lowliest kind, computing tables in astronomy, for example. Women were on the periphery of science, not its center, for a long time.
In geology, for example, women got their start through their drawing skills. Even the most frivolous 19th century finishing school or "ladies' seminary" allowed instruction in drawing. But once they were able to get some kind of training, they found geology one of the most open fields, perhaps because it was so new. And the U.S. Geological Survey with its WAE, or "when actually employed," policy hired geologists for specific tasks and locales, encouraging women to work part-time. This enabled them to marry and have children.
The authors of this book have sought to include as many names as possible, but there are some odd omissions in, at least, archaeology, where the names of Gertrude Bell and Iris Love are missing. In fact, the book is not sharply focused. One writer skips back to antiquity to include Maria the Jewess as a chemist; another hops laterally to include Maria Montessori, a physician who made a major contribution to early childhood education, not medicine, in the chapter on women in medicine. This wide scope has made it impossible to draw on many primary research materials or to tell anyone's story with any sense of drama or narrative.
Now it's time for a really good book on women in science. A lively writer should take this volume, with its copious bibliographies, as a starting point and get busy.
Ann Waldron is a writer in Princeton, N.J.