Lady Science: Volume I
Edited By Leila A. McNeill & Anna Reser
Lady Science Volume I: 2014-2015
Edited By Leila A. McNeill and Anna Reser
Published by Lady Science at Shakespir
Editorial material © 2016 Leila A. McNeill and Anna Reser
All content remains the copyright of its respective author and is published with permission.
Cover by Anna Reser
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
When I was in grad school, we had a woman on our faculty.
Note the singular. A woman, out of roughly 15 or more full-time professors. The thing is, within statistical uncertainty this was about the average for astronomy departments at the time; until very recently, the typical university astronomy department faculty ratio was about nine men for every one woman.
The reasons for this are legion; historically, fewer women stay in astronomy, for example. But that just leads to the next question: Why do women leave the field? The reasons for that are legion as well. One study showed a lack of role models led to retaining fewer women over time. Other factors include bias in hiring women, bias in salaries, and the traditional gender roles played out in family life (women who are parents tend to leave science careers at a far higher rate than men).
When you read the essays in Lady Science, the historical roots of these problems become clear. Environmental sexism, stemming from entrenched male scientific authority, was pretty terrible a century ago, and still a huge problem today. I’ll let the men and women who have done the research and written those essays speak for themselves. There are ample examples.
But a point I see brought up in some of the essays is worth noting, and that’s the idea of celebrating “firsts”. It seems like a good thing, a way of acknowledging women who broke through barriers. Marie Curie, first woman Nobel prize winner; Valentina Tereshkova, first woman astronaut; Sally Ride, first American woman astronaut, and so on.
While it’s important to acknowledge these women and their accomplishments, there’s a series of subtle problems with doing that as well: It spends a lot of energy and effort on only a select few women, it pushes aside the accomplishments of other women in that field who may not have received the spotlight, it implies that there were few or no women before the one woman who “made it”, and it still categorizes women into a subset of history that could be labeled “other”.
I’m guilty of highlighting “firsts” myself, and reading the essays in Lady Science really made me think about the pitfalls of doing that; it seems obvious in retrospect but completely invisible to me at the time.
That’s an especially pernicious aspect of sexism: You sometimes need an outside viewpoint to discover it, and even then it’s not a lock. You have to absorb the ideas, internalize them. That’s why I write about women’s issues in science. When I was younger, I really was totally insulated and blind to the problems women face in life, let alone in pursuing scientific fields. Over the years, many of the wonderful women and men I’ve known have helped me better understand these issues. I’m still walking down that road, but I’m glad I know I’m on that road.
But even after all this time I sometimes stumble, or at least walk right into a pothole I didn’t know was there. The “Women’s Firsts” is only the most recent one. I think it’s still good to point out woman who break barriers, but we have to be careful not to do so at the risk of minimizing anyone else.
Many of the women in the Lady Science articles are people I had never heard of, and this is a good opportunity to get to know them. If we focus only on the firsts, we lose many of their stories. As time goes on, we then lose the details on the inner workings of how women as a group, as members of a team, participated in and critically supported the greatest scientific achievements of our species.
Incidentally, I just checked: as I write this, my old astronomy department now has 30 faculty, and four women. That’s better than before, and a trend in the right direction. It’s a long ways from parity, but as you’ll read in these articles, and as history has taught us, change rarely happens overnight. We have a long way to go, but increasing awareness may be the most powerful tool we have to help clear the path.
A number of people who have been essential to Lady Science in its first year. Most importantly, we would like to thank our contributors, who have shared their expertise and their talents with us and with our readers: Emily Margolis, Nathan Kapoor, James Burnes and Joy Rankin have all made Lady Science richer.
We are very grateful to Dr. Phil Plait for his support of this project and the generous gift of his time in writing a foreword for this volume.
We would also like to thank our mentors Dr. Katherine Pandora and Dr. Pamela Gossin for their support, advice, and endless encouragement.
We dedicate this volume to all the “astronettes,” “computers,” “helpers,” “typing girls,” “lady doctors,” and “housewives.”
Lady Science is a multifaceted collaborative writing project focused on women in science, technology, and medicine. Our purpose is to highlight women’s lives and contributions to scientific fields, to critique representations of women in history and popular culture, and to provide an accessible, inclusive, and collaborative platform for writing about women on the web. Unlike other specialized and academic publications, we do not recognize any disciplinary, generic, or stylistic constraints that sometimes curtail the ways in which women’s stories can be written.
The essays in this book were originally published in 2014 and 2015 through a monthly email subscription. In the first year of the project, we published 24 essays on a wide range of topics related to the experiences of women in science, technology and medicine, using a variety of methodologies and approaches. Some of the essays lean toward history of science, while others engage with popular culture or critical theory. This first anthology contains the contributions of four guest authors in addition to essays by the editors.
Lady Science has an agenda. We are neither impartial to nor disinterested in the subjects about which we write. We have stakes in gender equity that we want to make visible through our study of history, and we know that others do as well. Lady Science takes for granted certain ideas and frameworks about women and gender that are still being argued in the pages of scholarly journals. This gives our writing its activist flavor, and most importantly, it allows us to make concrete arguments about the way that science and the popular culture of science, as the essential underpinning of modern society, has accomplished this marginalization. We see the recovery of women’s stories in science as an essential part of the feminist project.
In addition to the conceptual freedoms of this platform, Lady Science puts us in conversation, hopefully, not only with experts, but with anyone who is interested in women in science. Here too, we have a specific agenda. We want to imagine these women in their historical and cultural context, in all their complexities and contradictions. The women in the history of science were sometimes victims of their culture, but more often than not, they were its active creators.
In the early days of the history of science as a legitimate field of inquiry, historians started investigating in the places most familiar to a contemporary mind, the established scientific institutions and the great men of science. Institutions like the Royal Society have a history that can be traced through its record keeping, publications, and correspondence. Great men of science published prolifically throughout their lifetimes and kept notebooks of their work. Studying these institutions and men was and continues to be important work that contributes to our understanding of how science, medicine, and technology have shaped the world in which we live. However, by concentrating solely on these traditional topics, we have for far too long neglected the people and the culture outside those institutions that engaged in scientific inquiry. The image of institutional science, like the great men, is disproportionately white, straight, and male, and the history of them has been as well. Though recent work in the history of science has looked outside the institutions and beyond the great men in order to better understand the larger cultural scope of science, we believe that there is much work to be done.
Professional science has historically determined the physical, social, and rhetorical spaces in which science can occur. In protecting its authority, men of science often used scientific rhetoric to to make claims about the inferior nature of marginalized groups such as women and people of color. By inscribing such biased claims with scientific legitimacy, men of science were successful in keeping women and people of color from their ranks, while also establishing an oppressive social hierarchy that was supposedly grounded in the natural world. By tracing these oppressive social structures back to the history of science, we hope to uncover the root causes of contemporary oppression, challenge its supremacy, and create something new.
Of particular interest to Lady Science are instances when women and marginalized people have invented entirely new structures of scientific inquiry outside the white male mainstream. Women wrote popular treatises on science for general audiences, integrated scientific management and new technology into their homes, made end runs around the government to try to fly in space, and pioneered in computing while their male colleagues could only see them as secretaries. Science fiction and popular television have created new worlds for women and help us to see the ways that our world actively excludes them from the preserves of science. Women’s bodies have been exploited and experimented on by a male medical establishment while midwifery and other traditional forms of medicine were labeled folk remedies and pseudoscience. The essays in Lady Science extend our gaze beyond the popularly accepted borders of science, technology, and medicine, and it is often at the margins that we find women creating new spaces and practices for themselves.
This collection is organized around three broad themes: science, technology, and medicine. Within each section, the reader may find social and cultural history, pop culture criticism, and even a bit of theory. Essays that are directly related are usually grouped together, but all of the pieces in this book hopefully stand alone. One of the goals of this project was to produce a set of readings that could be used for teaching, and thus we feel that any of these essays, or a curated suite, would make suitable readings for undergraduate and, perhaps, even high school students. To this end, the digital version of this book will always be free for download and use. This, too, is a part of the Lady Science agenda. Unfortunately, there are many excellent pieces of scholarship which we have relied upon heavily that you will find in the bibliography, but these are unavailable to the general public due to the profit model of academic publishing. Like the other institutional structures we critique in this book, the flawed model of academic publishing is another way in which the stories of women of science have been silenced. Lady Science publications will always be free and open in the hope that we can make a meaningful and accessible contribution to the recovery of these stories.
The most important theme shared by the essays in this section concerns the social and cultural construction of modern science as a white, western, and male space that has historically excluded women and marginalized people from participation. The central tenets of science are themselves exclusionary: objectivity, rationality, and scientific method are all historically coded male, while emotion, sentiment, and nature itself are coded female. In mainstream science, women are often objects of scientific inquiry but very rarely are practitioners themselves. The women in these essays have forged new spaces and practices for themselves, and their work is only just now being described by historians as “legitimate” scientific inquiry. These essays challenged the accepted definitions of science and find women contributing in all disciplines in a remarkable variety of ways.
“Manhattan’s Missing Women,” and James Burnes’ “There’s Something About Mary: The Origins of Paleontology,” point out the systemic marginalization of women scientists from the past, showing that the history of science has traditionally obscured their contributions by replicating sexist ideas about the value of women’s work. “Surviving the Trenches: Sexual Assault in the Earth Sciences,” paints a grim picture of the ways that women scientists have to contort their lives and careers to avoid the physical and sexual violence that male scientists perpetrate on their women colleagues while working in the field.
The last four essays of this section look to both positive and negative popular culture representations of women in STEM. “Wonder Women of STEM” looks beyond traditional biographies of women scientists and physicians to the pages of the feminist Wonder Woman comics and the little-known feature “Wonder Women of History.” In “‘X’-ing Site ‘Y’: Manhattan’s Portrayal of Women at Los Alamos” Nathan Kapoor criticizes the popular show Manhattan for its patronizing reiteration of tropes about women in science. Science fiction gives voice to marginalized groups that they may critique present circumstances, but more importantly, it provides a medium for marginalized groups that they may dismantle oppressive social structures, reimagine their identities, and re-shape the self. ”Sex Role Reversals and Gender Benders” shows how early science fiction writer Leslie F. Stone and Afrofuturist Octavia Butler push readers to challenge sex and gender binaries on which gender social hierarchies are built. In “Difference Futurism in the Year 2312,” the protagonist of the novel 2312 models a social-utopian activism based on privilege and difference in a wonderfully plural spacefaring future.
Manhattan’s Missing Women
Leila A. McNeill
With hundreds of books and academic articles attached to its name, The Manhattan Project has generated a publishing industry as wide-reaching in scope as the Project itself, which many consider to be the largest organized scientific endeavor in history. As a historical inquiry, The Manhattan Project is rife with research possibilities, for it is a site of intersection between science, military, industry, government, and, of course, ethics and values. This also intersects with women’s history, but of all the scholarship written about The Manhattan Project, I can count on one hand the works that highlight the women who were involved.
Much of what has been written focuses on the wives of the scientists, and most of it is first-hand accounts of the women themselves. Laura Fermi, Enrico Fermi’s (1) wife, wrote Atoms in the Family (2), a short book about her whirlwind life with Erico, from his childhood self-education in physics to their immigration to America to flee the Italian fascist regime. In Standing By and Making Do: Women of Wartime Los Alamos (3), nine women recount their experiences living in Los Alamos-- the abysmal living conditions, the secrecy, and the Pueblo natives (4). Most recently in the popular history sphere, first-time fiction writer TaraShea Nesbit has written The Wives of Los Alamos (5), an historical fiction about life in the desert town based on true accounts, though Nesbit’s mistake choice to use the first person plural as the narrator makes it nearly impossible to determine who is who and what is what. Similarly, The WGN series Manhattan represents women predominantly as wives, which ends up telling us more about their brilliant scientist husbands than the wives themselves.
I find this singular representation of the women involved in the Manhattan Project to be problematic; after all many wives, were also workers, scientists, and engineers. To be clear, in no way am I implying that the experience of the wives who lived and breathed The Project is negligible. But, I do question why there was virtually no scholarship on the women who worked in The Project itself until 1999 when two female physicists Ruth Howes and Caroline Herzenberg wrote Their Day in the Sun: Women of the Manhattan Project (6). It would be another decade before the next serious investigation of women and gender in the Project was published, Science on the Homefront: American Scientists in World War II by Jordynn Jack (7), an English professor. Additionally, there wasn’t anything in the popular history sector until 2013 with journalist Denise Kiernan’s The Girls of the Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women who Helped Win World War II (8). Untold stories, indeed, none of which were eventually told by historians.
From 1942-1946, the Project operated in three major locations: Hanford, WA, Oak Ridge, TN, and Los Alamos, NM, and a fourth minor location, under the football stadium at the University of Chicago (minor in size, not in importance). The Hanford location contained the first production-scale plutonium reactor, which transmuted irradiated uranium into plutonium- the fissile plutonium that was ultimately used in Fat Man and devastated Nagasaki. In Oak Ridge, three uranium enrichment plants separated the fissile isotope uranium-235 from uranium metal. The famous Los Alamos site overseen by J. Robert Oppenheimer (9) was where the bombs Little Boy and Fat Man (10) were actually constructed. At the University of Chicago, Enrico Fermi and a small team of scientists witnessed the first controlled and self-sustained nuclear chain reaction in 1942. At all four locations, women were active every step of the way.
Unlike the Apollo Space Program (11), women worked on all levels of The Project. At the peak of Hanford’s population in 1944, 9% of the 51,000 employees were women, and 30% of the employees in the Tech Area, hospitals, and schools at Los Alamos were women. At Oak Ridge, the population peaked at 70,000, and though I could not find definitive demographics, others have speculated that more women worked at the Oak Ridge site than any of the others. Compared to the Apollo program when at its peak in 1965, NASA employed 5.4% of the nation’s scientists and engineers, and of that 5.4% only 3% were women (12). This sharp drop off in female employment in science and tech between the Manhattan Project and the Apollo program is, I believe, evidence of two things: the expanding labor opportunities for women in war time and the subsequent decline in opportunities in peacetime (13) and the increasing masculinization of tech jobs (14). While the Margaret Hamiltons (15) were more rare in the Apollo Program, that was not so in The Project. Women were quite literally everywhere.
Despite women toiling in all the corners of The Project sites, the two women typically associated with it are Ida Noddack (16) and Lise Meitner (17), who were only tangentially related to The Project through their individual contributions to nuclear science. The former was initially disregarded for her challenge to Fermi’s work, and the latter declined an invitation to work on the Project. Both Noddack and Meitner are easy to integrate into the historiography of the Project because their work was that of discovery and invention, which most closely resembles the work of their male colleagues, the Oppenheimers and Szilards (18).
Perhaps the secrecy and intense compartmentalization of tasks across the Project has made it difficult to piece together a coherent history of the women involved. Perhaps our current perception of science and technology as a masculinized field imposes an anachronistic understanding of women’s past involvement in big science, indirectly making us overlook their contributions. Or perhaps, even when women are overwhelmingly present, we refuse to see and hear them. I am impatient with the acceptance and normalcy of women’s absence from history. In historical narratives where women’s voices are silent, we must question that silence and search for meaning in their omission, for women are present in every narrative, especially in the silenced spaces.
1. Enrico Fermi (1901-1954) was an Italian physicist who is best known for building Chicago Pile-1, the first successful nuclear reactor. In 1938, he won the Nobel Prize in Physics.
2. Laura Fermi, Atoms in the Family: My Life with Enrico Fermi (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954).
3. Jane S. Wilson and Charlotte Serber, eds., Standing By and Making Do: Women of Wartime Los Alamos (United States: Los Alamos Historical Society, 1988).
4. Native American populations at both Hanford and Los Alamos were displaced from their homes to build the Project sites. The Wanapum tribe was displaced at Hanford, and the Pueblo tribe was displaced at Los Alamos.
5. TaraShea Nesbit, The Wives of Los Alamos (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014).
6. Ruth H. Howes and Caroline L. Herzenberg, Their Day in the Sun: Women of the Manhattan Project (Labor and Social Change) (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999).
7. Jordynn Jack, Science on the Homefront: American Women Scientists in World War II (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009).
8. Denise Kiernan, The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II (New York: Touchstone, 2013).
9. Robert J. Oppenheimer (1904-1967), known as the Father of the Atomic Bomb, was an American theoretical physicist who served as the Lab Director at Los Alamos and oversaw the research and production of the atomic bomb.
10. Little Boy was a uranium-type bomb dropped on the city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and was the first nuclear weapon used in war. Fat Man was a plutonium-type implosion nuclear bomb, which was dropped on the Japanese city of Nagasaki three days after Little Boy on August 9, 1945.
11. The Apollo Missions officially began in 1963 with the intention of landing humans on the Moon and subsequently bringing them back to earth safely. It ended in 1972 with the lunar landing and return of the Apollo 17 crew.
12. These numbers were found in Howes and Herzenberg Their Day in the Sun, 13-14. I believe this number of women working on Apollo could be higher. Women were often classified as sub-professionals and were not granted titles that denoted scientific or technological expertise; therefore, there might have been more women doing this type of work without receiving the official status to go along with it. Even with this assumption, more women would have been working on The Manhattan Project.
13. As men left in the hundreds for war, they left behind positions in industry and wartime projects that needed to be filled. Women entered the workforce in droves, but when the war ended and soldiers returned home, many men took back their positions in the workforce driving women back into the home and women-dominated fields.
14. See Nathan Ensmenger, “Making Programming Masculine,” in Gender Codes: Why Women Are Leaving Computing, ed. Thomas J. Misa (New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2010), 115–42.
15. Margaret Hamilton (1936- ) is a computer scientist who was the lead software engineer for the Apollo Program and Skylab. She and her team are credited with developing the on-board guidance software for the Apollo missions, but she is more commonly recognized for preventing the Apollo 11 moon landing from aborting just minutes before lunar surface contact.
16. Ida Noddack (1986-1978) was a German geochemist and physicist who, along with her husband Walter Noddack, discovered the element rhenium. She was also the first to propose that an atom’s nucleus when bombarded by neutrons would split, but her paper containing this hypothesis was initially disregarded and mocked. Later, this phenomena would later be named nuclear fission. She was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
17. Lise Meitner (1878-1968) was an Austrian physicist whose contributions to radioactivity helped prove the theory of nuclear fission in 1939, the process Noddack had predicted in 1934. In 1944, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to her partner Otto Hahn for this discovery instead of her. However, she has many other honors to her name, including the element meitnerium, which was named in her honor.
18. Leo Szilard (1898-1964) was a Hungarian physicist who helped Enrico Fermi develop the first nuclear reactor and was one of the physicists present to witness the reactor’s first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. Szilard and Fermi held the patent to the nuclear reactor.
There’s Something About Mary: The origins of Paleontology
Who was Mary Anning? Was she the first paleontologist or the first woman paleontologist? Was she a mere collector or a skilled field worker in the earth sciences? Was she an amateur or a professional? These are the kinds of knotty questions about professionalization in the sciences that have occupied the attentions of many scholars. In Anning’s case, they are also questions that have exerted a measurable influence over the way we remember her life and work, the way she is represented in both scholarly and popular writing, and the way we think about the complexities of gender and science in the 19th century.
Mary Anning was born in 1799 to a working class family in the south of England. Her father Richard was a carpenter by trade, but like many men of the time, he was also an amateur fossil collector. Fossil collecting in the Lyme Regis (1) area was for the Annings a family affair, and as Mary and her brother Joseph grew older, they both became quite accomplished in their abilities to spot and collect the fossils that eroded from the cliffs. The Annings, like many other families, were commercial collectors and were able to eke out a living from the fossil business. Anning’s first discovery was the second half of a specimen, the ichthyosaur (2) , of which the first half had been uncovered by Joseph a year prior when she was still an adolescent. Anning remained a dedicated field woman until she died in 1847 at the age of 47.
Mary Anning’s celebrity really began in 1823 when she discovered a fossil that looked like none that had ever been discovered before. The plesiosaur (3) was so unique that George Cuvier (4), upon seeing Anning’s sketch, dismissed it as a fake. A find like this, which had no living correlation, substantiated the belief that fossils were not simply the remains of living creatures but of creatures that had lived in the distant past and were now extinct. Extinction had been proposed before, but it was not the widely held belief of the scientific establishment as most recent finds—mammoths, shells, etc. had living counterparts. Further study and more finds revealed that it was genuine, and Cuvier was forced to acknowledge the importance of Anning’s find. It was Cuvier’s endorsement, more than the merits of the find itself, that conferred scientific legitimacy on Anning’s work.
After Anning’s mid-century death, the remaining half of the 19th century saw the slow professionalization of the sciences (5). Most modern accounts refer to Anning as a “fossilist” and not a scientist, as the term was not yet in use during her early life. She is often claimed as a founding practitioner of paleontology, sometimes as the first paleontologist or as the first woman paleontologist. But during her own time, Anning was never able to ascend to the professional status of her male contemporaries for reasons that were almost exclusively related to her gender and low social class (6).
In 700 pages on the history of geology in Bursting the Limits of Time: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution (7) , Martin Rudwick (8) devotes a mere half of a sentence to Anning’s work. He claims that no matter how important the finds were Anning was unable to interpret them scientifically. This belief that women were somehow incapable of rigorous, rational thought was common in the 19th century; thus, while women could be competent collectors or illustrators, it was understood that they lacked the essential mental faculties to be professional scientific practitioners. One only needs to look at Anning’s notes on anatomy and her anatomical illustrations, not to mention Anning’s work on the Bezoar stones, to see that Rudwick underrepresents her capacity for scientific interpretation.
In Rudwick’s follow-up Earth’s Deep History: How It Was Discovered and Why It Matters (9), he chalks up her celebrity to “modern heroic myth-making.” Though Rudwick’s dismissal of Anning’s scientific abilities and contributions are woefully misrepresentative of her abilities and smacks of condescension, he may have a point with the “modern heroic myth-making.” In the case of Anning, her status as a professional and as a paleontologist to boot is something that we, in the present, have imposed on her, considering the fact that she never broke into institutionalized science and the classification of ‘paleontologist’ had not yet come to be. In addition to her scientific self, Anning’s personal life does have a literary quality to it. She was a poor child who lost her father as a girl and went on to discover some of the most world-renowned fossils in the 19th century despite the disadvantages that her class, gender, and marital status conferred upon her. Unfortunately, this near-mythical status as a woman pioneer in paleontology that we have given her has elevated her above all others while diminishing the lives and contributions of the many other women active in the field concurrent with Anning’s life and work.
In recent years, Anning’s celebrity has been showcased with “living history” presentations at the Natural History museum in London, and digitally with a Google Doodle celebrating her 214th birthday. There are scores of books written about Anning, many of which are intended for children. Though she left very little written record of her life and work, both have been thoroughly studied and published for both scholarly and popular audiences. According to a study conducted by Cynthia Burek (10) meant to gauge public knowledge of women in the history of science, Anning, along with Marie Curie, is one of the only women scientists that people can readily name (11). Anning’s discoveries and work were influential in the early days of geology, and there is no reason not to celebrate her life, struggle, and science. The pitfall is celebrating Mary Anning as the only woman of paleontology when many women were active in the field throughout the 19th century.
In “Forgotten Women in an Extinct Saurian (man’s) World,” (12) Dr. Susan Turner (13) and others explore the lives of women who “were not professional palaeontologists but instead wives, daughters and pure (and usually unpaid) amateurs” and should serve as a starting point for investigations of women in the paleontological field. The authors highlight 38 different women involved in the world of dinosaurs in some way, many of them following the same paths as Anning . The brief bios range from “Pioneers” like Anning through to “Illustrators,” “Benefactors, ” and “Unsung Heroines” who were often the wives or daughters of male scientists. When placed in this context, Anning’s peculiar position both in Victorian society and in the emerging professional structures of science, become more clear. Though Anning was not overshadowed by a famous father or husband and though the importance of her discoveries often far outstripped those of her women contemporaries, she was still not afforded the same professional status as the male practitioners in her field. Even her most important find had to be vetted by the famous Cuvier before it was accepted by the male establishment.
Anning worked during a time when the relationship between amateur, commercial, and professional collectors was in flux, and her ambiguous place in this shifting context is partly responsible for her enduring celebrity. Too important to be counted among the ‘mere’ wives and daughters of men of science and too low-class and female to join the ranks of the male establishment, Anning was forced into a liminal historical space that makes her easy to pick out and easy to lionize. As a result, Anning has assumed a plural role in historical memory as an avatar of women scientists, especially in the earth sciences. Anning can be made into a representative figure for any number of fields and disciplines precisely because she was unable to belong to any such neatly-defined categories in her own life. Not only do we often find women on the margins of the male scientific establishment but also on the margins of traditionally female scientific work, for never do women fit into male categories and rarely do they fit into spaces deemed appropriate (by men) for women to conduct science. Anning’s fame is perhaps the result of a strange confluence of historical circumstances, but she is also an important example of the ways in which women in the sciences do not often conform to commonly understood, gendered structures.
1. Lyme Regis is a town in Lyme Bay on the coast of the English Channel. Lyme Regis is known for its rock formations and abundance of fossils in the cliffs, which range from the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous era. During the nineteenth century, the area was a popular site for fossil hunting, and it is home to some of the most significant fossil discoveries, including Anning’s Ichthyosaur and Plesiosaur.
2. The Ichthyosaur is a marine vertebrate from the Mesozoic era, spanning the late Triassic and late Cretaceous periods.
3. The Plesiosaur is a marine reptile from the Mesozoic era, spanning the late Triassic to the Cretaceous period.
4. Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) was a French naturalist, often regarded as the founder of vertebrate paleontology and comparative anatomy. His work disputed the widely held belief that the earth was formed by gradual, uniform changes over time. Rather, he was a proponent of the theory of catastrophism, the idea that the earth and its species had been affected by violent events of the past, which were responsible for the extinction of past species.
5. Professionalization included distinguishing scientific disciplines from each other, standardizing methods for scientific experiments, and receiving monetary compensation for scientific work.
6. Lower class people were typically excluded from institutionalized science (Royal Society, etc.) for many reasons including their lack of leisure time to pursue unpaid scientific work, inability to secure equipment and space needed for experiments, and lack of education. The process of professionalizing science in the nineteenth century only made it more difficult to the lower class to break into institutionalized science.
7. Martin Rudwick J., Bursting the Limit: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).
8. Dr. Martin Rudwick is a professor emeritus of history at the University of California in San Diego, and he has received the Sue Tyler Frieman Medal for his work in the history of the earth sciences and the George Sarton Medal for his work on the history of pre-Darwinian science.
9. Martin Rudwick J., Earth’s Deep History: How It Was Discovered and Why It Matters (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).
10. Cynthia Burek is, among many other things, the Deputy Director of the Centre for Science Communication and has served on the University Health, Safety, and Environment Committee at the University of Chester.
11. C.V. Burek and B. Higgs, eds., The Role of Women in the History of Geology (Bath, UK: The Geological Society Publishing House, 2007), 6.
12. Susan Turner and Cynthia V. Burek, “Forgotten Women in an Extinct Saurian (man’s) World,” Geological Society, London, Special Collections 343 (2010): 111–53.
13. Dr. Susan Turner is a Geoscience Consultant and an Honorary Research Associate of the WAOIGC/Applied Chemistry Department of Curtin University in Perth.
Surviving the Trenches: Sexual Assault in the Earth Sciences
Leila A. McNeill
Working in the field is a necessity in all areas of the applied earth sciences, like geology, paleontology, and archaeology. Aside from necessity, travel and fieldwork can be one of the most exciting and attractive parts of pursuing a career in the earth sciences. However, the field can also be a dangerous place, not just from injury or illness, but because people can’t keep their hands off of each other. In July of 2014, PLOS ONE published a study about sexual assault and harassment among scientists out in the field (1). Unsurprisingly, sexual violence is prevalent, but this study provided much needed data on the issue. The authors found that, of 666 scientists, 64% reported personally experiencing sexual harassment, and a staggering 22% reported actual sexual assault, with women disproportionately targeted. Female respondents were 3.5 times more likely to report sexual harassment than male respondents. Women were also more likely to have been victims of sexual assault--26% of women and 6% of men,--and women were more likely to be targeted by a superior rather than a peer.
In addition to reporting various forms of sexual violence, respondents also answered questions about harassment policy. While universities themselves have a code of conduct, people seem to think that those don’t apply outside of university walls. The study found that less than 50% of all respondents reported ever having encountered a code of conduct or sexual harassment policy at field sites; only 18% of victims had knowledge of recourse for reporting the assault. The authors suggest that improved policies that clearly outline the procedures for reporting sexual violence would help improve the hostile environment and perhaps even keep women from leaving their chosen field. This suggestion, however, places the onus of changing the mentality and behavior that sustains sexual violence entirely on victims instead of on the perpetrators and the culture of academic science that normalizes gender discrimination and gender-based violence.
The culture of gender discrimination toward women in the field has a long and persistent history. Like labs, which have their own set of gender-based problems, the field has been predominantly a white male space. According to the male establishment, the sciences required a certain amount of mental rigor that women supposedly couldn’t possess. Moreover, education and science was something that women shouldn’t pursue because intelligence, as a male trait, would masculinize women by shifting reproductive energy away from the uterus to the brain. [And what is a woman really without her reproductive powers?]
Unlike the other sciences, applied field work also required a physical prowess of which women were incapable anatomically. Making an argument from medical ‘science,’ male physicians and many men of science held that women should only expend enough energy to conceive and bear children; anything beyond that would lead to masculinization [(gross!).] Therefore, physically demanding occupations and other physical activities, such as sports and exercise, were off limits to middle and upper class women-- working class women were not part of this because they had been working labor intensive jobs outside the home for sometime to provide for their families.
This repeated and sustained assault against women’s minds and bodies curtailed women’s mobility, relegated them to the home,and kept them away from the field. In the 19th century, some European universities opened their doors to women; though oftentimes they still weren’t allowed to receive degrees. In many British universities, laboratories were open to women before the field was, but women in geoscience programs found their behavior restricted. In many instances, women weren’t allowed to leave university grounds without a chaperone, which had to be a married woman or a man affiliated with the university, and they were often required to abide by a dress code. With these restrictions in place, women in the field usually served as partners, wives, or assistants to ‘proper’ scientists. Even though there were several exceptions, a woman on her own in the field was not a particularly common spectacle. Through explicit exclusion from the earth sciences and strict regulations on women’s behaviors and bodies, men of science made it clear that the field was a male space.
Over the decades, university policies have obviously changed dramatically. Universities accept women, confer degrees in all the sciences to women, and earth science departments allow women to enter the field without the company of a man while she also wears pants. However, none of these policy changes are without continued gender, racial, and ability based bias—policy change rarely ever equals change in culture.
According to a 2011 Geoscience Workforce Report (2) conducted by the American Geologic Institute, the geosciences had the lowest number of women compared to other scientific disciplines, and within the geosciences itself, fieldwork heavy occupations, like mining and geological engineering, had the least women at only 2% (3). This seems in part due to the fact that women don't go on to pursue academic careers or high level positions in geosciences even though 40% of earth science degrees are earned by women (4). Without women pursuing careers that are fieldwork intensive, which is in large part due to gender discrimination and lack of female role models in senior positions, the earth sciences remains a boys club and the field continues to be seen as male space. Women still primarily occupy junior level positions at field sites as students, while men maintain a hold on the majority of senior level positions as supervisors and professors. It is then not surprising that most female victims in the 2014 study reported being harassed or assaulted by a superior.
The gendering of these work spaces not only dissuades women from pursuing careers in the earth sciences but also might force them to change their research priorities. Geobiologist A. Hope Jahren did just that after she was sexually assaulted during fieldwork in Turkey. She wasn’t assaulted by someone on her team but a local; however, without another woman authority on her team and no known university support, Jahren had no recourse available to her. She now works in a lab where she feels that she has more control over her space. Jahren’s case doesn’t seem to be an anomaly as she says she knows many women who choose to conduct fieldwork in countries that are ‘safer’ for women, even if it is just an illusion of safety. Women are more likely to choose fieldwork closer to home if given the choice, and with fear of sexual assault from inside and outside the institution and with very few means to protect themselves or pursue justice if victimized, one can hardly blame them.
Outlining and enforcing codes of conduct at sites is absolutely necessary to decrease sexual harassment and assault in the field. Making procedures for reporting visible and available to all victims will surely help some victims find justice and maybe even keep women from leaving the earth sciences. But none of these will enact lasting change for women or guarantee their safety when they enter male spaces. The rules of the past that governed women’s behavior and bodies in the field may no longer exist in the books, but continued violence against their bodies that the culture of academic science perpetuates still keeps them out of the field and close to the home.
1. Kathryn B. H. Clancy et al., “Survey of Academic Field Experience (SAFE): Trainees Report Harassment and Assault,” PLOS ONE 9, no. 7 (July 2014).
2. Leila Gonzales and Christopher Keane, “Status of the Geoscience Workforce” (Alexandria, VA: American Geological Institute, 2011).
3. Ibid. 109.
4. Ibid. 109.
Ladies First: History and the Phenom
How many women astronauts can you name off the top of your head, no cheating? I can think of 4, and I do this kind of thing for a living. I can remember the first woman to fly in space, the first American woman to fly in space, and the first American woman pilot to fly in space, and also Anna Fisher (who was the first mother to fly in space, apparently) because we share a name. (1) I would expect similar numbers, and examples of similarly famous women, were this question asked about any other field in science, technology or medicine.
The ability to remember any women from history is a net good, and it is largely the product of a tradition of recognizing “female firsts”. Being the first person to do almost anything usually guarantees a place in the historical record. You can join a nice Wikipedia list of Women’s Firsts and enjoy a recorded legacy in the history of the world. I definitely don’t dispute that lists like these are important and help to elevate women into the historical record. But the phenomenon of the “female first” is also hugely problematic.
The most obvious problem with female firsts is that they tend to take up a lot of the available energy and focus in women’s history. This “Marie Curie Complex” is a problem in the contemporary sciences, where Curie is held out as the single, emblematic example of a successful woman scientist, and it tends to dominate the literature on women in the sciences. (2) Perversely, it is probably because of this overemphasis on Marie Curie, which has rendered her almost mythic in scale, that even the suggestion of writing biographies of women in the sciences can draw accusations of hagiography, idealizing the historical subject.
This first problem can be fairly easily overcome with a little bit of critical thinking and consciousness raising. In addition, if it means that young women can continue to know about and be inspired by Marie Curie or, in my field, Sally Ride or Eileen Collins, then I’m willing to cede that turf for now, especially in the popular sphere where women need all they help they can get staying afloat in the stream of history. Yet there are deeper problems that “female firsts” cause when we are in the trenches trying to write women back into history.
The “female first” carries a number of unpleasant implications, the most damaging being the perception that before the “first” there were simply no competent women available up to that point to break whatever glass ceiling it is that you’re studying. Identifying the female first in a field establishes a clean break in the timeline, a Before Women era and and After Women era. This kind of divide made it enormously difficult for researchers to uncover the history of women who strove to become astronauts long before the After Women era of American spaceflight. (3) The histories of women who do not become firsts are not deemed worthy of preservation or organization, leaving a tall task for those who would come later with the aim of reconstructing their stories.
Furthermore, if durable cultural archetypes, like “scientist” or “astronaut”, are constructed in Before Women eras it can be almost impossible to reconstruct a new archetype that is not coded male. There is no Wikipedia page titled “List of Men’s Firsts”-that would just be called “history”. Female firsts are only specially meaningful if they follow the male, the default first. Being the first woman in space is different than being the first person in space who happens to be a woman. It can only ever be second best because the category has to already be established in order for it to be available for a “female” to challenge. This type of attribution reiterates historically male categories. Astronauts are men, women astronauts are women.
What I find most challenging about the problems posed by the female first is striking a balance in the way we represent women that does not single them out by gender, yet preserves their autonomy and agency in what are inevitably the gendered circumstances of their obscurity. We cannot hold history to the ideals of gender equality that we espouse for our own time, yet we cannot stand by and let women be written out of history.
These issues have a very real role in shaping our research practices any time we set out to work on the history of women. For research centering on women in science and technology, the challenges posed by the female first become especially acute because the women in these fields are almost exclusively to be found in, around and excluded from fundamentally male categories. The temptation to find female firsts to unseat the Great Men of the history of science is strong, but we must always be aware of the dangers posed by this approach.
1. Valentina Tereshkova, a Soviet cosmonaut, flew to space in 1963. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, flew aboard the space shuttle in 1983. Eileen Collins was the first woman pilot astronaut, flying her first shuttle mission in 1995.
2. A pithy explanation of this can be found in the celebrated web comic XKCD by Randall Munroe. XKCD no. 896 “Marie Curie,” http://xkcd.com/896/ , last accessed December 13, 2015.
3. See Margaret Weitekamp, Right Stuff, Wrong Sex: America’s First Women in Space Program (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).
Leila A. McNeill
Writing women’s history can be difficult. After all, how does one go about writing a history for someone whose life wasn’t deemed worthy of recording in the first place? A lot of the women’s stories included in this anthology-- the astronauts’ wives, the members of the Women in Space Program, the women of the Apollo Program, and the women of the Manhattan Project-- we know mostly from oral histories, women’s own eager retelling of their invisible lives. When it comes to women who are no longer alive, the trail of historical records can go cold pretty quickly, even for women living well into the 19th century. Sometimes it is impossible to find even basic biographical information for these women, like birth and death dates.
Traces of women in the history of science are often scant because the fact is that few participated in mainstream science, and those that did were the exception, not the rule. In the 18th century, Western-centric science systematically devalued the feminine and distanced itself from it. Men of science, as the presumed gatekeepers of scientific knowledge, cultivated a discourse of science that denigrated women by integrating culturally constructed values of heteronormativity and female inferiority into the very core of their scientific language and method, from Linnaean botanical taxonomy (1) to Georges Cuvier’s natural history (2). Modern science, then, required women to remove the feminine and do science ‘like a man’ in order to be recognized in the circles of institutionalized science.
The women who have gained the most attention in the history of science, indeed in any history, have typically been the ‘female firsts’: “The first woman in [insert boys club here].” They were the ones who were able to break successfully into male dominated fields or scientific institutions despite cultural assumptions and expectations about female intelligence and ability. Not only were better records kept of their lives, but as creators of scientific knowledge, discoverers, and inventors, their work most closely resembled that of the great men of science and history. However, if history only focuses on the ‘female firsts,’ the trail will again run cold as we try to ‘fit’ women into a model of history that was never meant for them, an out-dated model created for and by men.
Again, historical facts tell us that women did not largely participate in institutionalized science, but just because the men at the Royal Society and the like hung a “Keep Out-Boys Only!” sign outside their door didn’t mean that women politely and quietly went back to their knitting. Many outside the establishment took up the pen for science and science education, and others took up the pen to subvert it.
Women who consumed science in the 18th century onward found themselves in conflict with their passion and interest in science and their own identities as women. A large majority of scientific works by men continually maligned women, relegated them to the domestic sphere, and placed them biologically closer to animals and nature—all with an air of empirical objectivity and scientific authority. Women, and women of color even more so, experienced science and nature differently than men, as men were the ones making scientific claims about women’s inferior nature that legitimized their position in society. Woman’s place in society was justified not only through her natural, biological functions but also by her construction as nature itself. By the end of the 19th century, nature had become so feminized and science so masculinized that it seemed men of science had claimed sole authority to speak for and about nature. Yet, this claim to authority did not go unchallenged.
Many women pushed back against this, but participation in public debates about a masculinized science was seen as a transgression against their feminine nature, which led to their censure. Open sentimentality invited judgment but even appeals to reason evoked strong criticism, so alternatively, some women followed different routes to participate in scientific discourse. One of those was literature; women discussed natural history in plays, romance literature, moral tales, and letters. Literature served as a medium that not only allowed women to enter into public discourse but also offered them a means to create a distinctive language about science and gender relations. Denied legitimization in a public discourse on science and nature, many women embraced a literary tradition that, in the very least, gave them the license to contemplate nature.
One of the most striking examples of women’s fraught relationship with science can be found amongst the pages of women’s nature poetry in the 18th and 19th centuries. Censored and oppressed, women occupied a unique place in a society that had already positioned them closer to nature than men and, thus, indirectly authorized them to speak on behalf of nature. In their scientific and cultural construction as nature, many women placed the conservation, protection, and rights of nature and animals alongside women’s rights, as they saw both women and nature as victims of a progressive science and patriarchal control. In this poetry, many female poets argued strongly against domesticating animals, using animals for scientific experiments, and destroying nature for industrial progress. They too distinguished nature as female while conversely referring to the forces and individuals that sought to destroy the natural world as male. They appropriated their own identities as women and nature to reclaim the authority of who gets to speak for nature. In harnessing the poetic form to voice a self-identifying alignment between themselves and nature, these women cultivated poetry not only as a form of sentimental expression but also as a site for advocacy and social intervention.
During this time, poetry was still an instrument for important political and social discourse, and through writing poetry, these women poets were able to claim some ground in scientific debates. Since male scientists published more on the female body and woman’s nature than women during this time, their works have had a long lasting influence over public perceptions of women’s abilities and intelligence. However, if we look at other sources, like poetry, not just those published in journals or conducted in institutions from which women were excluded, then we can see that alternative perspectives from the dissenting voices of women also shaped the scientific discourse that was consumed by a vast readership. Looking to women outside of the establishment and considering literary sources that might seem tangential to serious scientific discourse, which was so often denied to women, brings out from the margins of history a unique perspective of science that will ensure women’s voices can be heard alongside those of the men of science.
1. Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) divided his biological taxonomy into three kingdoms with three subsequent classes which were further divided into orders, genus, and lastly, species. He ordered his botanical system on the male and female reproductive organs of plants. The male organ, the stamen, determined the class to which a plant belonged, and the female organ, the pistil, determined its order. In ordering his system this way, Linnaeus gave priority to the male sex organ over the female. Such a prioritization had no grounding in nature; this was an artificial system of classification that mirrored gender norms of the 17th century. For more on the gender politics of Linnaeus’s classification, see Londa Schiebinger, Nature’s Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2013).
2. Georges Cuvier (1769-1832).
Wonder Women of STEM
Leila A. McNeill
During the Golden Age (1) of the Wonder Woman comics, the writers introduced a now little-known backup feature titled “Wonder Women of History” in 1941. In each issue with this feature, the fictional mainstay character Wonder Woman stepped aside to give voice to the real life stories of exceptional and often silenced women of history. Being an American based comic, this feature included mostly American women, but the ethnic diversity among them, though disproportionately white, is actually quite surprising for the time period, especially considering that only in the last five years or so have mainstream comic writers made a conscious effort to integrate people of color into their narratives. There was also a lot of diversity in occupation among the historical women, including politicians, writers, human rights activists, suffragists, nurses, doctors, and scientists. Even with this wide range of occupations, women in the history of science, technology, and medicine make up the largest group in the entire feature. I find the representation of these women in the context of the Wonder Woman comics to be an important and extremely radical way to tell the stories of historical women in science.
On a superficial level, the Wonder Woman series just seems feminist. After all, Wonder Woman was the first female superhero to have a comic all her own, and to this day, Wonder Woman has had the longest publishing run of any comic with a woman at its hero helm. According to her origin story, Wonder Woman was an Amazonian warrior princess named Diana of Themyscira. She possessed one of the most interesting and unique weapons in the superhero arsenal, the Lasso of Truth, originally called the “Magic Lasso” or “Golden Lasso,” which compelled complete obedience, not just truth, from whomever it ensnared (2). If Wonder Woman seems feminist, that’s because the origin story of the comic and franchise comes directly from feminist ideology and finds its roots in the suffrage movement.
In the past three years or so, we have witnessed another rise of Wonder Woman in modern popular culture as geek girl culture and cultural critics reclaim her feminist origins. Talk of a DC Comics Justice League film franchise and a Batman and Superman combo film had everyone asking “will they or won’t they” bring Wonder Woman back to film as well. Tim Hanley’s Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World’s Most Famous Heroine (3) published in April 2014 explores the evolution of Wonder Woman over time and her relationship with concurrent gender politics. The New Yorker’s Jill Lepore published in October The Secret History of Wonder Woman (4) in which she details the feminist origins of the comic series and its creator, psychologist William Moulton Marston, known also for his contributions to developing the polygraph (5).
Marston harbored unconventional ideas about sexuality, domination and submission, and women and also supported unorthodox feminist views that promoted the establishment of a matriarchy (6). Marston claimed that feminine qualities, like love, had been mistaken for weakness, which led girls to believe that their femininity was inherently flawed. His solution to this problem was an “obvious remedy…to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.”(7) Marston also believed that the comic book medium possessed untapped cultural clout. Combining his beliefs in the unfulfilled cultural influence of both women and the comic book medium, he created Wonder Woman. In an interview, Marston plainly stated his purpose for the character: “Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.” (8)
Marston’s unconventional views played out in various ways in the narratives of the comic. One of those narratives belonged to the feature “Wonder Women of History.” For many of the women included in the feature, this was the first time they had been represented in popular culture, indeed represented in any context at all. Considering Marston’s original intentions for the comic, the feature fit naturally into his vision, as it was intended to represent intelligent, exceptional, and independent female role models that young girls could confidently and proudly emulate. That these women were first brought to the public’s attention in the 1940s within an explicitly and unabashedly feminist context was, quite frankly, groundbreaking
“Wonder Women of History” ran for 54 issues and covered a total of fifty historical women. Sixteen of them came from STEM fields, more than any other field. The first four “Wonder Women of History” issues each featured a nurse, Florence Nightingale (9), Clara Barton (10), Edith Cavell (11), and Lillian D. Wald (12), respectively. Later, the feature also included astronomers Maria Mitchell (13), Caroline Herschel (14), Annie Jump Cannon (15), pilots Amelia Earhart (16) and Harriet Quimby (17), chemists Marie Curie (18) and Ellen Swallow Richards (19), public health reformers Dorothea Lynde Dix (20) and Marie Elizabeth Zakrzewska (21), and several more doctors.
Like the rest of the comic, this feature does not shy away from its feminist aims. In almost every feature, the female scientist encounters overt sexism and hostility from male colleagues. However, unlike their fictional counterpart who used her Magic Lasso and super strength to take down men, these women used their intelligence, determination, and strength of will to achieve their goals. By the end of the story, those who had denied them legitimacy, demeaned them, or told them that they couldn’t succeed because of their gender, were forced in one way or another to listen to them and recognize their accomplishments.
Another interesting aspect to these stories is the writer’s portrayal of the women as young girls with a budding passion for science. Florence Nightingale as a teen finds inspiration to change the world in a statue of an Amazon. A young but ambitious Annie Jump Cannon analyzes star charts, and a precocious, determined Maria Mitchell tackles higher mathematics. By showing these exemplary women as children, the young girls for whom the comic was intended can easily imagine themselves in the shoes of such accomplished scientists.
As the Golden Age of comics came to a close, so did this one-of-a-kind feature. The last “Wonder Women of History” appeared in January 1953 in issue #57, and like the first installment, it featured a woman in medicine, Marie Elizabeth Zakrzewska doctor and civil rights activist who founded the New England Hospital for Women and Children. The irony will be lost on no one when I tell you that “Wonder Women of History” was replaced by a feature about marriage and wedding rituals. Our beloved hero and Marston’s “new type of woman” suffered a similar fate. During the Silver Age (22) of comics, Wonder Woman drastically moved away from its feminist roots. In the 60s, Wonder Woman the character willingly gave up her powers and returned her armor and weapons to her mother in order to stay in “Man’s World” with Captain Steve Trevor, her long-term love interest. Without her powers and only her good looks to save her, alter-ego Diana Prince opened a boutique.
To find outspoken women’s activists like Sojourner Truth (23) or Susan B. Anthony (24) in the explicitly feminist context of Wonder Woman is not surprising. However, the STEM women represented are different because while a couple of these female scientists openly identified as women’s rights activists, most of them did not. By simply including these female scientists in the feminist pages of Wonder Woman, the writers implied to the little girls reading these stories that even daring to dream of a career in science was a feminist pursuit.
1. The Golden Age of comics refers to the first era of comic books in widespread popular culture and ranges from about the late 1930s to the early 1950s. Many comic series popular today began during the Golden Age, including Superman, Captain Marvel, Batman, and Wonder Woman.
2. Matthew J. Brown, “The Hanged Man,” Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth, October 2014, http://thehangedman.com/comics/lasso-of-truth/.
3. Tim Hanley, Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World’s Most Famous Heroine (Chicago: Chicago Review Press Incorporated, 2014).
4. Jill Lepore, The Secret History of Wonder Woman (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014).
5. William Moulton Marston (1893-1947) was an American psychologist who studied human emotions. His study of emotions in connection to blood pressure helped him develop the systolic blood pressure test, which contributed to the invention of the polygraph. Marston was admitted into the Comic Book Hall of Fame in 2006.
6. For more on the extent to which Marston’s psychological research on emotions influenced Wonder Woman see Matthew J. Brown, “Love Slaves and Wonder Women: Radical Feminism and Social Reform in the Psychology of William Moulton Marston,” 2015.
7. William Moulton Marston, “Why 100,000,000 Americans Read Comics,” The American Scholar 13 (1943): 35–44.
9. Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), also called the Lady with the Lamp, was a nurse stationed in Turkey during the Crimean War (1853-1856) serving the British and their allies. After the war, she established the The Nightingale School of Nursing in London in 1860, which was the first nursing school grounded in medical science.
10. Clara Barton (1821-1912) was an American battlefield nurse who tended to Union soldiers and Confederate prisoners during the American Civil War. After the war in 1865, Abraham Lincoln appointed her General Correspondent for the Friends of Paroled Prisoners. In 1880, Barton founded the American branch of the Red Cross.
11. Edith Cavell (1865-1915) was a British nurse during World War I and helped establish modern nursing in Belgium. She was executed by the Germans on October 12, 1915 for helping British and allied soldiers escape from Belgium. Evidence suggests that she may also have been a British spy, passing information on the German military to Britain.
12. Lillian Wald (1867-1940) was an American nurse who advocated for social reform for immigrants and the poor. She was founder of the Henry Street Settlement, the first president of the National Organization for Public Health Nursing, influential in founding the School of Nursing at Columbia University.
13. Maria Mitchell (1818-1889) was an American astronomer who detected comet C/1847 T1 or “Miss Mitchell’s Comet.” She was the first woman fellow elected to the American Academy of Arts and Science (1848) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1850). She was also a professor of astronomy at Vassar College and the Director of the Vassar College Observatory.
14. Caroline Herschel (1750-1848) was a German-born British astronomer who detected 8 comets and 3 nebulae. She was the first woman to earn income from her scientific work, and she was also the first woman to be given the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (1828).
15. Annie Jump Cannon (1863-1941) was an American astronomer whose work was fundamental to constructing the modern system of stellar classification, the Harvard Classification Scheme. From 1896 to her retirement in from the Harvard Observatory in 1940, Cannon classified over 225,000 stars and discovered 300 variable stars and 5 novae.
16. Amelia Earhart (1897- disappeared 1937) was an American aviator who was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean alone in 1932 and the first person, male or female, to fly from Hawaii to the mainland United States. Earhart disappeared over the Pacific Ocean during her flight to circumnavigate the globe in 1937.
17. Harriet Quimby (1875-1912) was an American aviator who became the first woman licensed pilot in 1911. In 1912, Quimby became the first women to fly across the English Channel.
18. Marie Curie (1867-1943) was a Polish physicist and chemist who, along with her husband Pierre, conducted groundbreaking work on radioactivity. She discovered two radioactive elements, radium and polonium. She received her first Nobel Prize in Physics with her husband in 1903 and her second Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911.
19. Ellen Swallow Richards (1842-1911) was an American chemist whose work pioneered sanitary engineering and domestic science, which laid the foundation for home economics. She was the first woman to attend MIT in 18741 and MIT’s first female instructor. Additionally, Richards was the first American woman to earn a degree in chemistry.
20. Dorothea Lynde Dix (1802-1887) was an American medical reformer who advocated for improved and humane health care for the mentally ill, especially the poor. Through her government lobbying, Dix was instrumental in developing mental asylums in the United States.
21. Marie Elizabeth Zakrzewska (1829-1902) was a Prussian-born American physician who founded the New England Hospital for Women and Children in 1862, which was operated exclusively by women doctors and surgeons.
22. The Silver Age of comics refers to the period following the Golden Age, beginning roughly around 1956 and ending around 1970.
23. Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) was born into slavery but escaped in 1826 and became an influential abolitionist and women’s right’s activist. She advocated for blacks to be included in the Union Army and crusaded to secure federal grants to slave resettlement. She is well-known for her women’s right’s speech “Ain’t I a Woman,” which she delivered at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention.
24. Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) was a women’s rights activist and a key leader in the suffrage movement. Along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Anthony founded the New York Women’s State Temperance Society in 1852 and the American Equal Rights Association in 1866. Despite advocating for equal rights for both women and African Americans, Stanton would not support the black vote unless women gained the vote too, and this stance led Sojourner Truth to split from Stanton’s movement.
“X”-ing Site “Y”: Manhattan’s Portrayal of Women at Los Alamos
Manhattan is drama’s latest foray into the history of the atomic bomb, a topic, which given its rich historical literature, should have yielded a fascinating TV series. The history of the atomic bomb contains everything a good screenwriter needs to craft an engaging drama-- harsh secrecy, families struggling in the strange new environment of Los Alamos, the thrill of atomic destruction, and all the uncertainty and paranoia of the top secret war effort.(1) These are the things at which Manhattan excels, and they are also the things with which the historiography of the Manhattan Project itself seems most preoccupied. Where the show really encounters problems is in its representation of women. And in some sense, who can blame them; the history of The Manhattan Project is notoriously bad with women and gender. Its reproduction of “Great Man History,” the anachronistic importation of some especially pernicious forms of 20th century sexism, and its mishandling of the few women who are shown to participate in the Project are all symptoms of larger inadequacies in the retelling of the story of the bomb.
Every celebrated stereotype about American women in the 1940s is fulfilled in the invented character of Abby Isaacs. Abby, a young housewife with at least a French class from Princeton, came to Los Alamos with her husband and two-year old son. In the early episodes, Abby, along with other wives, briefly demonstrates how physically and mentally difficult such a move would have been. However, the story Abby could have been used to tell was tossed aside for a dramatic affair. Instead of seeing these women as part of the scientific and technological effort, you can see them gossiping, tanning, forcing soldiers to wash their cars shirtless, and, in Abby’s case, having an identity crisis that results in an affair with her female French neighbor Elodie. Abby could have been representative of so many women that were as much a part of the Manhattan Project as their “scientific” spouses. There were women scientists and technicians in the laboratory, but women outside of the laboratory were as necessary as anyone labeled a “scientist.” The purpose of the Project was dictated by the military and scientific authorities, but as Denise Kiernan so eloquently stated in Girls of the Atomic City, “women infused the job site with life, their presence effortlessly defying all attempts to control and plan and shape everyday existence.”(2) Abby’s character was not granted that kind of power. Her purpose was to have a love affair, complicate the life of her ‘important’ husband, and for the writers to pretend to be familiar with Proust.
In contrast with the previous two characters, the writers saw fit to include one lady in the lab…but not really. Dr. Helen Prins was labelled as the most brilliant mathematician in the implosion group, the bomb design developed to begin a fission reaction with plutonium, but the show never really allows her to demonstrate any brilliance or usefulness. Rather, Helen is cast to play a number of roles, each of which embodies a negative stereotype about women who step outside of traditionally feminine gender norms. There are several moments in the show where she exclaims, “I make my own decisions.” The writers were invoking a tired feminist trope rather than an actual feminist. However, her role in the lab is explicitly sexualized; she is shown sleeping with members of her team, guiding them to prostitutes, and tempting the stalwart Dr. Isaacs to commit adultery while touring the uranium facilities at Oak Ridge. This seems to only fulfill past and current perceptions and expectations of women who do not conform to strict gender roles. Dr. Prins then becomes nothing more than a sexual distraction in the laboratory that corrupts the science. The writers use her to fulfill their strong female character quota–the one that exists in the domain of men, at the very least, to acknowledge inequality as if to pardon the absence of inclusion elsewhere in the show.
One of the most curious female characters in the show is Dr. Liza Winter, the wife of Dr. Frank Winter, the leader of the implosion bomb design team. She is oddly similar to the outspoken Katherine “Kitty” Oppenheimer, Robert Oppenheimer’s wife. Coincidentally, Kitty and Liza both held degrees in botany and had a troubled past. On the surface, Liza serves as a moral check to Frank Winter’s work on the bomb. If, however, we look further her character becomes representative of many of the prejudices against women that were and still are commonplace in science. She is written as moody and emotional and is often portrayed as resentful of the authorities, like the military officers. Thus, she cannot do real science and does not belong. Further, her scientific inclinations also sequester her from the rest of the housewives as she defies prescribed gender roles with which they identify. While her doctorate in botany might appear at first a license to participate in the community, it really only serves as another indication that women were not a part of the real science. Botany, like home economics, sociology, psychology, etc., was not a noble or masculine science in Western tradition, rather it was a feminine science. How can you compare unlocking the secrets of the atom to picking flowers?
The show packs quite a few gendered scientific stereotypes into the character of Dr. Liza Winter. Apart from the time she is portrayed as a housewife, she takes up studying mutated flowers and beekeeping in her spare time. This is connected with botany to be sure, but it is also indicative of a historical association between women and Nature that has been so often reinforced by men of science. After her other projects ceased, Liza took up working in the hospital to care for irradiated soldiers, as of yet unaware of the nature of their burns. Liza’s role here as nurse reinforces the assumption that women are well-suited to nurturing. After the death of her plants and bees and her discovery of radiation as the cause, the writers anachronistically forced Dr. Winter to embody an eco-feminist trope(3), which did not really emerge as an identity until the 1970s. The writers force a false equivalency between Liza and people like Rachel Carson(4), who inspired the beginnings of the environmental movement.
So why even write about such a show? Despite the problems I have with the writing and direction the show has taken, I support demystifying the Manhattan Project and portraying the involved parties as human rather than legend. Though few of the many women in the show are written to be more than a backdrop, Manhattan is not alone in re-tellings of the Manhattan Project that exclude women, displaced local populations, non-white, and even non-American participation. Half a century’s worth of historiography is guilty of the same type of exclusion by celebrating the few major scientific actors. Would it not be worth tapping into the lives of the women involved in the Manhattan Project? And in doing so celebrate the roles they played rather than only identifying them as dial operators There were women like Joanne S. Gailar(5) , Jane Wilson(6), Lill Hornig(7), and Phyllis Fisher(8) that were just as crucial to the completion of the atomic bomb as male theoretical physicists. There were people other than J. Robert Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves that have their part to own and their own story to tell in the creation of an atomic weapon. With some work and the support of a more inclusive body of history, Manhattan could be a great medium for challenging the historiography of the Manhattan Project, and the show could facilitate discussion over what constitutes science and who gets to participate.
1. Mariner, Rosemary B. and Piehler, G. Kurt, eds. The Atomic Bomb and American Society: New Perspectives. (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2009).
2. Kiernan, Denise, The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II. (New York: Touchstone Press, 2013) 98.
3. Mies, Maria and Shiva, Vandana. Ecofeminism: Critique. Influence. Change, 2nd edition. (London: Zed Books, 2014).
4. Lytle, Mark Hamilton. The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).
5. “Obituary of Joanne S. Gailar,” The Oak Ridger, January 22, 2015
6. FermiLab History and Archives Project. “Jane Wilson,”
7. Manhattan Project Voices. “Lill Hornig,”
8. Palo Alto Online, “Memorial of Phyllis Kahn Fisher,”
Sex-Role Reversals and Gender Benders
Leila A. McNeill
I came to love science fiction by reading the likes of Jules Verne (1) , Isaac Asimov (2), and Philip K. Dick (3) for entertainment, but it wasn’t until I came across the works of Ursula Le Guin (4), Octavia Butler (5), and Margaret Atwood (6) that I really started to learn from sci-fi. In a 2013 Fanbros podcast, Dominican American author Junot Díaz (7) eloquently explained the subversive underpinnings of so much of our popular science fiction that continuously draws me to it: “There is no person of color or person of a marginalized community that doesn’t read the genres-- comic books, science fiction-- and not see how much more honest these texts are about the way we’re living, about the way we’re oppressed, the way power is used, the way race exists.” Not only does science fiction provide a way to clearly see and critique present circumstances, but it also gives voice to marginalized groups that they may disrupt and dismantle oppressive social hierarchies, reimagine their identities, and reshape the self.
For women, science fiction has long been a powerful tool used to challenge patriarchal systems, violence against women’s bodies, and masculine colonialism and destruction of the natural world. One of the first recollections I have of tackling these themes was in a Fantasy and Science Fiction course taught by a professor who always wore tight leather pants and had a mustache that even Nietzsche would envy. Aside from this memorable professor, what I remember most is the short story “The Conquest of Gola” (8) by Leslie F. Stone (9), which first appeared in Wonder Stories in 1931. In the story, Gola, a matriarchal planet ruled by female aliens, is under siege by human men from Earth who seek to colonize it.
The sex roles of males and females on Gola are completely reversed to that of Earth in an early twentieth-century Western society in which Stone was writing. On Gola, males are mere “consorts” and “shut-ins,” unintelligent beings who are “unable to grasp the profundities of [the females’] science and thought.” The females, on the other hand, occupy all the seats of power and control all social structures on Gola. They also tout scientific and technological progress with their “marvelous telescopes” and defensive weapons that harness thought to render invading ships powerless. This sex-role reversal becomes even more prominent when human men arrive from Detaxal, which Stone says is the “third planet of the sun” implying that Detaxal is actually Earth. The human men insist on talking to a male alien, assuming that a male would understand terms of trade and business whereas a female would not: “I believed that a man holds the same place here as he does on Detaxal…but I suppose it is just as possible for woman to be the ruling factor of a world as man is elsewhere.”
Not only does Stone reimagine a society in which women pull all the strings, but when the human men arrive, she also slips in some strong criticism of imperialism and colonialism, which Stones shows as both exclusively masculine and destructive. The narrator describes the human’s arrival in not so subtle sexual language. The men arrive in their “great smooth cylinders” by “pushing cautiously through” the thick shroud of beautiful clouds and mist that surrounded Gola, “seeking that which lay beneath.” In this case, Freud’s cigar is definitely a penis. By sexualizing this encounter, Stone draws a connection between rape and colonization as an act of male violence and violation. The Golan narrator then describes the destruction and disenfranchisement of the colonized that inevitably follows from such an act: “…the ignoble male creatures, breed for physical prowess, leaving the development of their sciences, their philosophies, and the contemplation of the abstract to a chosen few. The greater part of the race faces forth to conquer, lay waste, to struggle and fight as the animals do over a morsel of worthless territory.”
As radical as Stone’s reimagined matriarchal society was for 1931, her characters even in a speculative future operate within a strict sex (male/female) and gender (masculine/feminine) binary. Octavia Butler, however, tears down sex and gender relationships as we know them and forces her readers to reimagine sex and gender as something more fluid and complex. In her 1987 novel Dawn (10), the first book in the Lilith’s Brood Series, Butler creates a post-apocalyptic future in which humans have destroyed themselves with nuclear war, but the alien Oankali saved many humans from extinction by intermingling and trading Oankali and human genes.
The Oankali not only look very different than humans, but their culture and social structures are completely foreign too. Social hierarchies built on gender power relations are virtually non-existent largely because the Oankali don’t conform to a sex binary. The Oankali have three sexes: male, female, and ooloi-- neither male nor female. Also for some Oankali-human children, their male or female sex doesn’t emerge until metamorphosis, which occurs years after birth. Without a definitive sex to assign a subsequent feminine or masculine gender to at birth, inequalities in gender-based relationships cannot persist like they do in a human society.
With the introduction of a third sex, Butler disrupts heteronormative sexual practices by taking away any sexual power dynamics between male and female. For the Oankali, nothing about sex is moral; the goal is only reproduction. Sexual reproduction requires three parties: a male and female, either Oankali or human, and a ooloi. The ooloi gathers gametes from both the male and female, induces fertilization within itself, and then plants the zygote in the female womb. Both male and female are rendered passive during this exchange, whereas in heterosexual sex, men have historically been seen as the active agents of intercourse and reproduction.
The ooloi, in turn, present us with an interesting dilemma. The humans sometimes try to gender the ooloi because it’s so difficult to think outside their sexual and gender binary. In one view, the ooloi can be seen as male since it uses sensory arms, calling to mind a male penis, to penetrate the skin to gather reproductive material. In another view, the ooloi receive the male sperm for reproduction, which is the human female role. But Butler doesn’t allow this sexual binary to stand as she also introduces the process of extracting a female ovum for which there is no human equivalent. Despite all that, the human inclination for the binary is quite stubborn as one character demonstrates: “ ‘I never really lost the habit of thinking of ooloi as male or female.’ That, Lilith thought, was a foolish way for someone...to think-- a kind of deliberate, persistent ignorance.”
Part of what these stories do is challenge the notion of sex and gender determinism by creating alternative narratives where such determinism doesn’t exist . Stone would have us imagine a place where patriarchy was replaced with a matriarchy all the while pointing out the absurdity of the inequalities among the sexes and the injustices of colonialism. Butler pushes us even further by challenging us to think outside the gender binary to which so many don’t conform. Ultimately, what these stories do is reveal how deeply gender orders our world, establishing systems where inequalities are primed to flourish. If we can even just briefly buy into these alternative narratives in the context of aliens and spaceships, I don’t believe it should be so hard to try to live out these alternatives ourselves, and refusing to do so is, as Butler poignantly states, a “deliberate, persistent ignorance.”
1. Jules Verne (1828-1907) was a French writer and playwright. He is widely recognized as a founding figure in the literary genre of science fiction.
2. Isaac Asimov (1919/20-1992) was a Russian born American writer and biochemist. Asimov is best known for his works of hard science fiction and popularizations of science.
3. Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) was an American writer known works of science fiction, in which he continually explored politics, religion, and philosophy.
4. Ursula K. LeGuin (1929) is American writer who publishes in the genres of science fiction, fantasy, poetry, and non-fiction. She is a winner of the Hugo Award and Nebula Award, and she has been awarded the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
5. Octavia E. Butler (1947-2006) was an American science fiction writer best known for her influence on the field of Afrofuturism. She was the first science fiction writer to receive a MacArthur Fellowship. She is also the recipient of the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, and the PEN American Center Lifetime Achievement Award in writing.
6. Margaret Atwood (1939) is a Canadian writer, poet, and literary critic. She best known for her work in science fiction. She is also the recipient of the Arthur C. Clarke Award for best Science Fiction.
7. Junot Díaz (1968) is a Dominican American writer. He earned the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2008.
8. Leslie F. Stone, “The Conquest of Gola,” in The Prentice Hall Anthology of Science Fiction and Fantasy (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2003), 515–24.
9. Leslie F. Stone (1905-1991) was a science fiction writer that became popular for a short time in the late 1920s and 1930s when the genre was dominated mostly by male writers.
10. Octavia E. Butler, Dawn (New York: Warner Book, 1987).
Difference Futurism in the Year 2312
Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy was the first fiction I read as I emerged from the other side of writing my Master’s thesis, an act that kindled an old flame discovered years ago when I read his novel 2312. (1) I returned to 2312 to find it undiminished by time and distance and as spectacular and educative as ever. The book is a sweeping portrait of the future that sees humans settling the farthest reaches of the solar system, terraforming whole planets and transforming their bodies, venturing into the complexity and contradiction of quantum computing, and wielding their technology as gods to extend their lives and health and to change the ecology of the entire solar system. (2) The plot, which is part murder mystery and part revolutionary saga, is sometimes merely a mechanism for taking the reader on a tour of this fantastic future. The solar system is teeming with planets dotted with tented cities, hollowed out asteroids filled with artificial oceans or great plains of grain and vegetables, and superfast spaceships and solar mirrors. The rich environment that Robinson describes is peopled by a vastly diverse population of ‘spacers’ who have embraced and cultivated every kind of difference imaginable. 2312 contains some of the most spectacular scenes I’ve ever read, including surfers who ride gravity waves in the rings of Saturn and sunwalkers who cheat death to glimpse the searing dawn on Mercury. But it is also a powerful meditation on privilege and difference, activism and social responsibility, and a masterclass in writing complex, engaging women characters.
Different sections of the novel are narrated by different characters, but the majority of the story follows Swan Er Hong, an artist who is more than one hundred years old, thanks to longevity treatments. Swan is, first and foremost, a well-written protagonist. She is capable and smart, having designed whole ecosystems for asteroid terraria in her youth, but she is also frustratingly stubborn and impulsive. A Chinese woman living on Mercury, Swan has a fluid sexuality, and hers are the social utopian politics typical of ‘spacers’. Swan has made many modifications to her body and brain, including ingesting some of the alien life that was discovered under the ice of Enceladus, having parts of animal brains implanted in her head so that she could purr like a cat or whistle like a songbird, implanting her personal quantum computer named Pauline in her head, and modifying her reproductive organs so that she could both mother and father children. Swan is, like most spacers in the 2312 universe, engaged in an on-going utopian transhumanist body project that has important consequences for the social structures of spacer society. Swan’s companion Wahram, for instance, has also modified his body in order to bear children. He was married into a creche of multiple partners with whom he raised children, some of whom he fathered and the others he mothered. Early on, Wahram has occasion to discover Swan’s reproductive modification: “Even with his eyes averted he could not help seeing in the tangle of her pubic hair a small penis and testicles, about where her clitoris might have been, or just above. A gynandromorph; it did not surprise him.” And why should it? In the universe of 2312, what is the alteration of one person’s body compared to the terraforming of whole worlds?
Robinson uses the nearly limitless possibilities of his construction of the year 2312 to establish social and cultural structures that do not seem possible for the reader’s present. Life in space for Swan and other spacers is a privileged space of total autonomy and freedom from oppressive social structures and cultural traditions. Spacers lives are governed by a variety of utopian systems that rely on the various economies of gift, minerals and volatiles, and even light. (3) Most types of social utopian schemes have been tested and refined, and Mars has attained the first true social democracy in human history. Gendered systems of power, class systems, racial hierarchy, and most social injustices have been exorcised from life in space. Despite their utopian circumstances, a series of strange events forces the spacers to deal with the last intractable problem in the solar system-- a damaged and diseased Earth that threatens to crush them in its death throes.
On Earth, a catastrophic climate event has raised the sea level many meters and drowned the coasts and has caused massive shifts in the locations of Earth’s biomes resulting in mass extinction. Much of Earth’s art, culture, and biosphere has been relocated to settlements in the solar system and inside asteroid terraria. Much of Earth’s food and volatiles come from space. Many people on Earth do not have access to the longevity treatments, to space travel, or even to basic necessities. Large corporate power structures have Earth in a political and social gridlock. After tramping through the glittering solar system with Swan, the description of Earth seems even more familiar and all the more grim.
I am particularly attracted to 2312, and Robinson’s work more generally, because of his consistently stellar handling of women characters and his fearlessness when tackling the task of reimagining the future of gender and sexuality. (4) Even more importantly, these components of his writing are not merely to service a perceived political need for difference in storytelling, and they are not set dressing or background. Swan Er Hong is a great case study in the ways in which writing diverse characters improves storytelling and opens new opportunities for the narrative exploration of alternatives and solutions to current, pressing social and cultural problems.
At an abstract level, Swan and the other spacers are able to see more clearly the systemic injustices of Earth because they are themselves living free of such oppressive structures, and thus the reader is able to look through spacer eyes at an Earth that is much like our own. But Swan’s difference operates at a much more granular and personal level as well. She draws on her experiences both as a Mercurial woman and as a Chinese woman to understand the complex politics of Earth. Her fluid sexuality and her physical modifications heighten her awareness to the ways in which gendered, patriarchal structures of power are holding Earth in a gridlock that the spacers have escaped. Her experience and expertise as a terrarium designer and ecologist are central to her efforts to foment revolution on Earth and to repair its devastated biosphere.
Science fiction at its best is never really about the future. It is a way to gain the perspective of difference and an effort to formulate ways that perspective can be used to change our present. The novel closes with the successful instigation of revolution on Earth in the hope that everyone in the solar system can live freely and autonomously as the spacers do. Importantly, it is Swan’s recognition of her responsibility as a privileged actor that spurs her to revolutionary action, and it is the richness of her difference that gives her the tools to be effective. Ultimately, we are not meant to hope for a future in which individuals like Swan and Wahram are possible, we are meant to recognize their individual characteristics and their value in the diversity of our current society.
1. Kim Stanley Robinson, 2312 (London:Orbit, 2013).
2. Terraforming is the hypothetical process of treating the atmosphere and surface of other planets to make them suitable for human habitation.
3. A gift economy functions on the exchange of goods without any agreement for reciprocation or future return.
4. See for example Red Mars (1993) and its sequels and most recently Aurora (2015).
Women’s relationships to technology are complex and varied. Many of the essays in this section are concerned with the ways that technology shapes the labor of women and either confers or undermines its social and cultural value. Women are deeply embedded in the large-scale technological systems that govern modern life, not only as laborers, but as consumers and users of individual technologies. Most of these essays focus on the ways that women found or invented for themselves to participate in male-dominated technological systems.
The first three essays in this section focus on the American space program. The technologies and institutions of space travel have only recently become open to women. Before Sally Ride joined the astronaut corps in 1978, women in the space program were confined to the margins. Emily Margolis’ essay “To Equality and Beyond!: NASA and Gender in the Civil Rights Era” looks outside the exclusive strictures of the astronaut corps and finds women engineers working at NASA and making use of new civil rights legislation to shape their careers and lives. “The Astronaut and the Astronautrix” endorses this approach by showing how historians have uncovered the lost history of the first women to attempt to become astronauts, while “Married to NASA” criticizes easy assumptions about the wives of male astronauts and their roles in the space program. Even housewives who were not married to astronauts cultivated complex relationships with technology through the “Approximate Perfection of Domestic Engineering,” by integrating scientific management into the care of their homes and families.
The final five essays form a suite of writing and thinking about the history of computing. Joy Rankin’s “Queens of Code” is a compact history of women computers and the historiography that has obscured their contributions. “Science With a Capital ‘S’: The Separation of Science and Labor,” examines the gendered coding of certain kinds of technological labor that allowed women computers and programmers to be viewed as mere clerical workers. This marginalization of women in computers continues today and is aided by the mythmaking of online discussion, as described in “Making Role Models on Reddit.” Finally, “Pink Collars and Programmers in Halt and Catch Fire,” and “Class and Misogyny in The Bletchley Circle,” track and critique the representation of women in computing on two popular television programs.
The Astronaut and the Astronautrix
Twentieth-century space exploration appears to be a mostly male endeavor, and the argument that it’s difficult to find stories of women who were involved is certainly true, to a certain extent. Margaret Weitekamp’s book Right Stuff, Wrong Sex: America’s First Women in Space Program, is such an accomplishment in part because of the extraordinary amount of work she put in to recover the stories of those who participated in the Women in Space Program. (1) As she notes in her acknowledgements, there were those in the field who said it simply couldn’t be done. As much as I want to be measured about the difficulties involved in writing women’s history in a male-dominated field, at a certain point it has to be said that Weitekamp’s detractors were just lazy. Not writing women’s history because it’s hard is an argument for which I have no more patience.
One of the great things that Weitekamp is able to do with this book is show us that women’s history is hard for a reason, that the lack of coherent documents and the relative invisibility of the Women in Space Program is something that historians have a responsibility to explain. The book traces the history of the Women in Space Program, a research project initiated by Randy Lovelace, that explored the possibility of sending women into space as astronauts. (2) The candidates, all pilots with a requisite amount of experience, were subjected to the same medical testing as the Mercury astronauts. Women were potentially good candidates for space travel because of the savings in weight- women weigh less, on average, and consume less food and oxygen than men. Though the women often performed better than the men of the Mercury program, women were not admitted to the astronaut corps until the late 1970’s. The technical benefits of women astronauts were overwhelmed by America's inability to imagine women in what had become the thoroughly male role of astronaut.
The women in Weitekamp’s story aren’t where we expect them to be, and in a sense they aren’t the kind of women we like to write histories about. They don’t occupy roles analogous to the roles of men. Even as aviators, before they became involved with space program initiatives, these women were in a category of their own- female pilots. The book begins with a history of women aviators in the twentieth century, focusing on Jacqueline Cochran, an accomplished pilot and businesswoman, who would later play an important role in the story of the Women in Space program. It was Cochran who brought Randy Lovelace’s research in aerospace medicine into the public view, lobbying successfully for he and his collaborator to win the Collier Trophy in 1939. (3) It was the beginning of a personal and professional relationship that would endure until Lovelace’s death. Weitekamp shows how Cochran leveraged her feminine appearance to maneuver in the male-dominated world of aviation, and later in national politics. Weitekamp compares her to the now-mythic figure of Amelia Earhart, with whom Cochran was close friends. While Earhart was a postsuffrage feminist who advocated for women, since Cochran’s “method of operating depended on her being the only woman in a situation, she seldom went out of her way to encourage women’s success generally.” (4) Cochran was a hugely influential figure, but she was no feminist heroine. Her political power came not from being part of the establishment, but by manipulating its gendered social conventions to her own benefit.
Instead of looking for women within the establishment, Weitekamp found the participants on the Women in Space Program, and the program’s leadership, hovering around the fringes. Before the space program received its primary remit- to land a man on the moon- space exploration was a diffuse effort to which a number of different entities, including the Air Force, hoped to contribute. In this period, Randy Lovelace’s program to test women for astronaut fitness was just one of a number of similar efforts being undertaken by all different kinds of organizations. It was not until NASA began to absorb or prune these diverse efforts that the program faced real scrutiny. As NASA consolidated space efforts under its own remit, it also closed off alternative visions of space exploration, in this case a vision that included women astronauts. NASA’s totalizing vision of space exploration limited not only the possibilities for the twentieth century exploration of space, but also it seems, for space historians. No, there weren’t any women in prominent positions in NASA in the 1960’s, and no women flew in space until the 1980’s. But NASA wasn’t always the only game in town for space exploration.
After the issue of women astronauts had been forced onto NASA’s radar by the tireless lobbying of Jerrie Cobb, the first woman to pass the same fitness tests as the Mercury astronauts, a congressional hearing was convened to settle the matter. NASA made a lot of noise at the time about the fact that the hearings were convened before it became illegal to discriminate on the basis of sex. The appearance of two Mercury astronauts at the hearings, Scott Carpenter and John Glenn, was the death knell for Cobb’s case. Glenn’s argument, that even though it might be ‘undesirable’, it was just a fact that the social structures of the early 1960’s made no room for women astronauts, is the same argument made by those who would argue there are no women to write about from this period in space history. The fact that Cobb was trying to change those social norms seems to have escaped Glenn, and later historians.
Though NASA insisted that it did not actively discriminate against women astronaut candidates, the requirements for astronauts included experiences, like jet test piloting, from which women were barred. Although NASA is a civilian agency, its early professional culture was heavily inflected by military culture. As the last opportunity for women to fly in the military ended with the shuttering of the Women Airforce Service Pilots in 1944, there was no way for women to gain the relevant flying experience, or the cultural associations necessary to become astronauts.
What Weitekamp is really describing in Right Stuff, Wrong Sex is a tiny slice of time in which Americans toyed with the idea of women astronauts, before the window was abruptly closed by NASA’s vision of space exploration. This window was so tiny, only a few years, and even at its peak, the vision of women in space was still tempered by gendered expectations; witness Time magazine’s coinage of the term ‘astronautrix’ to describe Jerrie Cobb in a feature about her astronaut fitness testing in 1960. “The term astronaut,” Weitekamp argues, “apparently carried such masculine connotations that even a potential female candidate for space travel required coining a new label.” (5) Women would never have been allowed to be astronauts at all, because astronauts were men.
The final indignity for the participants of the Women in Space Program was a brief report published by two of the Lovelace doctors who worked on the testing program. Any benefit of women astronauts, they said, was trumped by the insurmountable obstacle of menstruation. (6) Their report discouraged research into women astronauts for quite a while afterward. In 1983, having presumably solved the menstruation problem, NASA sent Sally Ride into orbit on the space shuttle. It was not until 1995 that an American woman pilot, Eileen Collins flew in space. Four years later, Collins became the first woman commander of an American spacecraft.
Weitekamp traces the history that governed both Ride and Collins’ careers, and demonstrates why there were no women astronauts until the 1980’s. This is the essential insight for writing about women where we don’t see them. It is never enough to ask of history only the facts. The fact is there were no women astronauts in the 1960’s. The history is what Wietekamp gives us. (7)
1. Margaret Weitekamp, Right Stuff, Wrong Sex: America’s First Women in Space Program (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).
2. William Randolph “Randy” Lovelace (1907-1965), an aviation medicine specialist, founded the Lovelace clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico where the first American astronauts were tested for fitness. Lovelace headed the NASA Special Advisory Committee on Life Sciences.
3. The Collier Trophy is an annual award for achievement in aerospace medicine. The trophy itself is on permanent display in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.
4. Weitekamp, p. 19.
5. Ibid., 78.
6. See, for example the PBS documentary series Makers, “Women in Space,” October 14, 2014.
7. For an account of other visions of space exploration left behind by NASA’s project, see Matthew Tribbe, No Requiem for the Space Age: The Apollo Moon Landings and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).
To Equality and Beyond!: NASA and Gender in the Civil Rights Era
In the spring of 2014, as I was catching up on my weekly dose of entertainment news, I stumbled across an exciting announcement. NBC was preparing a pilot for a sitcom called Mission Control, which promised a comedic take on the successes and struggles of a woman aerospace engineer working on NASA’s Apollo Program, played by Krysten Ritter. As a space historian with an interest in gender studies, this was going to be my show. Did producer Will Ferrell and writer David Hornsby somehow access my subconscious, where my intellectual interests and love for hilarious high jinks coexist freely and without shame? Unfortunately I will never know the answer to this question, as Mission Control was canceled before a single episode was ever broadcast. The show’s premature cancellation is both a personal disappointment and an indicator of a disturbing trend- the marginalization of women in science in popular culture.
Historical studies of women in science are also marginalized, but over the past two decades many scholars have given serious attention to integrating women into historical narratives about science and technology. Like Margaret Weitekamp, Amy Foster, and Lily Koppel, I’m also interested exploring the roles of women in the space program (1). Rather than focusing on women and their relationship to the astronaut corps, I’m concerned with the multitude of women scientists and engineers whose mostly unrecognized efforts undergirded every NASA mission. The inspiration for this project is partially personal. Reflecting on my mother’s stories of sexism during her career as a chemical engineer in the 1980s made me wonder what things were like for the generations before her.
I recently embarked on a project to record and interpret the histories of women engineers working at NASA from the Administration’s founding in 1958 through the 1970s. I’ve chosen this periodization in order to understand if and how workplace equality legislation shaped the careers of women in the aerospace profession. The space age and civil rights era were contemporaneous, but are rarely studied together. I’m excited to contribute to the limited scholarship (2) that has been produced on what I think is an exciting historical intersection.
At the same time that the United States was using its achievements in space to portray itself as technologically and morally superior to the Soviet Union, stories of discrimination and violence against African Americans in the South appeared in newspapers across the globe. Embarrassed by this spotlight on institutionalized inequality, President John F. Kennedy, and later President Lyndon B. Johnson, began to craft legislation that would guarantee African Americans a life in line with the nation’s founding ideals. During the Congressional debate over the bill, Howard W. Smith (D-Virginia) proposed that women be protected by this legislation too, which resulted in an outburst of laughter on the House floor. In the summer of 1964, after an 83-day long filibuster, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act which, among other things, made race and sex-based discrimination unlawful, specifically in consideration of hiring, firing, and promotions.
So what was it like for women scientists and engineers at NASA in the years immediately preceding and following the passage of the Civil Rights Act? I’m not the only one starting to ask such questions, but other inquiries have been rather superficial (3). I’m not concerned with documenting sex-based discrimination at NASA during the 1960s and 70s- this is well known. My focus is if and how women’s career trajectories were influenced by this legislation. With Weitekamp’s encouragement and advice, I began reaching out to women who had worked at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland (4). I was honored to receive an invitation to the monthly Goddard Retiree and Alumni Association luncheon, where I spoke with an enthusiastic and fascinating group over a heaping plate of macaroni and cheese.
Through a chain of recommendations I found many women willing to talk to me about their space age careers. These remarkable women welcomed me into their homes and generously shared their time and memories with me. I quickly learned that, for an organization intent on breaking every vertical barrier on its way to landing a man on the moon, a thick glass ceiling remained for its women employees. While they were as capable at programming and problem solving as their male peers, they were repeatedly passed over for promotions. These ambitious women were also encouraged to participate in Goddard’s annual beauty pageant (5). The women I spoke with expressed annoyance at this frivolous distraction from their work, which left the competition to be populated by secretarial staff, rather than canceled outright.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s offices of Equal Employment and Affirmative Action opened at various NASA facilities, including Goddard. As I learned from my interviewees, the priority of the office reflected the spirit of the Civil Rights Act; racial, not sex, discrimination was its primary concern. With limited institutional support, the women were left to advocate for the improvement of their working conditions. They proposed and successfully managed an on-site childcare center available to all employees. They also organized a yearly “women’s week,” that included public awareness campaigns and events that highlighted the capabilities of women scientists and engineers at Goddard. “Did you know that the women working around you are making significant contributions to NASA’s mission?,” the posters around Goddard’s campus asked. Apparently, their peers and managers needed to be reminded of this fact. Additionally, the women participated in mentorship programs, both informally and through the Equal Employment Office. It’s this story of women’s cooperation and activism that I will continue to explore in future interviews and research.
I’m grateful for the willingness of my interviewees to share their lives with me- not a single person declined my invitation to participate in my project. But I’ve encountered a major challenge in locating primary documentary sources. This problem is common to all historians who study marginalized groups, and it demands creativity of the researcher. I’m motivated to look for new sources in new places in order to fulfill my obligation to the women engineers and scientists in my story.
I hope that this work will provide a more nuanced understanding of the struggle for workplace equality at NASA following the passage of the Civil Rights Act and related legislation. I also hope it will encourage historians to expand their scope of inquiry beyond astronauts to the other people and projects that dominated NASA’s time and budget, and especially consider the women and other marginalized individuals who were integral to America’s early space program. Perhaps more research like this will bring women scientists and engineers out of the shadows and into history books and popular culture alike.
1. Dr. Margaret Weitekamp is a curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum. She is the author of Right Stuff, Wrong Sex: America’s First Women in Space Program (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004). Dr. Amy Foster is an assistant professor at the University of Central Florida and author of Integrating Women into the Astronaut Corps: Politics and Logistics at NASA, 1972-2004 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011). Lily Koppel is a professional writer whose bestselling nonfiction book The Astronaut Wives Club (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2014) was recently adapted into a television show.
2. Kim McQuaid, “‘Racism, Sexism, and Space Ventures’: Civil Rights at NASA in the Nixon Era and Beyond,” in Societal Impact of Spaceflight, ed. Steven J. Dick and Roger Launius (Washington, DC: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2007): 421-449. Richard Paul and Steven Moss, We Could Not Fail: The First African Americans in the Space Program (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015).
3. Tanya Edwards, “Meet the Women Who Put Men on the Moon,” Refinery 29, December 13, 2014, http://www.refinery29.com/2014/12/79444/meet-the-women-who-put-men-on-the-moon#slide.
4. Steve Garber, “Goddard Space Flight Center,” NASA History Office, December 10, 2014,
5. “1963 Miss Goddard Crowned,” Goddard News (Greenbelt, MD), May 13, 1963,
Married to NASA
Leila A. McNeill
In a history of the American space program, why should we include the wives of the astronauts? After all, the wives didn’t go to the moon, nor were they even among the many female ‘computers’ (1) that supported NASA from behind the scenes. Yet, they did work for NASA in a very different way; they made Jello-molds and ham loaf, raised children, meticulously decorated their homes in Togetherville, and supported their famous astronaut husbands. They excelled at representing the embodiment of a mid-century American cultural ideal, which was exactly what NASA needed them to do.
In The Astronaut Wives Club (2), Lily Koppel relies heavily on oral history to write about the wives of the Mercury seven astronauts (3), the following Gemini astronauts (4), and lastly the Apollo crew members (5). More, though, than just writing a collective biography of the wives, Koppel captures a distinct cultural moment in American memory, spanning from 1959 to 1972, in which the wives played key roles.
Despite the chauvinism, racism, communist phobia, and abhorrent sculpted foods of mid-century America, popular culture has a hard time avoiding the inclination to romanticize this era with its music, cars, perfectly tailored Don Draper suits, and of course, the Space Race. When we look at the live media coverage of Apollo launches, it’s easy to isolate this spectacular image of human ingenuity from its cultural context. When we watch Apollo 13 (6), we are forced to see that space exploration is a dangerous business, and the men who go into this business are heroic frontiersmen. But, when we place these aspects of the space program in their cultural context, we must remind ourselves that this spectacle of human ingenuity was a by-product of the Cold War and deep-seated anxieties about nuclear weapons. These frontiersmen were chosen for this business because of their masculinity and their whiteness at the expense of those who didn’t embody either of those traits. On a spectrum of nostalgia and outright criticism is where Koppel places The Astronaut Wives Club, as the experience of the wives themselves move between both ends of this spectrum.
The astronaut as the apotheosis of masculinity was intricately linked to the notion of American exceptionalism, which marked the language that Kennedy used to describe the space program. He likened its members to pioneers who conquer dangerous, unexplored frontiers-- our pioneers would secure the cosmos for democracy. There wasn’t room for women in this rhetoric, for typically, it was men who took on the sacrifice of leaving home to explore. With the astronauts out exploring and conquering, the wives tended home and hearth. The space program cultivated these two dichotomous constructions of masculinity and femininity to perpetuate a gendered image of American exceptionalism that was strictly male.
In Apollo 13 , the characters of Marilyn Lovell and Mary Haise, wives of Apollo 13 crewmen Jim Lovell and Fred Haise, play the role of the supportive and panic-stricken wife left alone with a pack of children and another one on the way as their husbands head into the final frontier of space. Koppel shows that there was much more to the wives than their pre- and post-launch worry and relief, but this is the dominant image of the wives that persists in American memory.
With each launch, a media circus descended upon the wives to capture their reactions as their husbands blasted into space, and the wives were pretty much forced to accommodate because of an agreement with Life magazine, which allowed Life to publish NASA-authorized astronaut stories in 28 issues. The public understood the Space Race and their own cultural ideals through the media, which presented carefully selected and deliberately posed images of both the astronauts and their wives, many of which position the femininity of the wives in opposition to the masculinity of their astronaut husbands in order for the first to highlight and reinforce the latter. The doting wife pre- and post-launch was just one of these carefully constructed images.
From the way that they dressed and the make-up that they wore to the types of snacks that they served at launch parties, the wives were expected to conform to the standard of femininity of a white middle-class woman in almost every way. Even down to their cars, the wives’ domestic femininity called attention to their husbands’ masculinity. The president of General Motors cut a deal with the astronauts allowing them to lease a Corvette with racing tires and a customized ‘space age’ interior for only one dollar a year. The muscle car with all of its connotations reinforced the hyper-masculinity of the astronauts. If they were going to ride a rocket fast and dangerously into space, then they needed a car that they could drive fast and dangerously on the ground. The wives, on the other hand, were stuck with station wagons and all the connotations those carry-- safe, roomy, slow. Trudy Cooper wanted her own Corvette, like her husband Gordo, but in a Corvette, where would she put all the groceries and children?
Beneath this carefully polished veneer, the wives and their marriages were oftentimes a mess. As the sixties went on and Betty Friedan empowered women to ask “Is this all?”, many of the wives found their own desired identities in conflict with the constructed one that had been plastered on the cover of Life. Trudy Cooper had left her husband prior to his acceptance to the Mercury project but stayed with him when NASA made it clear that a divorcee was not wanted among America’s finest. Rene Carpenter, a rebel from the beginning, broke away from the domestic goddess image entirely and eventually started her own feminist TV show. Louise Shepard dealt with Alan’s numerous affairs, which were common knowledge among the wives. Of all the astronaut couples of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions, only seven remained married. The personal reality of the wives and astronauts conflicted starkly with the constructed public image displayed on television and in magazines.
The wives tell Koppel that they themselves are at odds about this part of their lives seeing it as both a whirlwind of exciting celebrity and a time of personal turmoil. Some wives (mainly the ones who are still married) embrace their outlying participation in the space program as the best time of their lives. Others, however, feel as though NASA used them and discarded them when they were no longer useful to the American cause. In either case, none of the wives seem ignorant as to the part their gender played in putting a man on the moon.
Even though the wives weren’t ‘in’ the space program, they were inadvertently part of it. By including the wives in a history of the space program, we aren’t making a feeble attempt to ‘put women in;’ rather, we are giving a well-rounded representation of how NASA and the US government used gender to gain public support for the space program and reinforce gendered perceptions of American exceptionalism. If what historian Margaret Weitekamp says is true, and I believe that it is, “gender, race, ethnicity, and class exist in every history—for both privileged and marginalized groups,” then when we look at the men of the space program and their masculinity, we must also look at the women whose femininity was deliberately used to shape that image.
1. ‘Computers’ refers to the hundreds of women that NASA employed until the 1970s to carry out mathematical computations, calculations, and equations by hand. See “Science with a Capital “S””, this volume, for more.
2. Lily Koppel, The Astronaut Wives Club: A True Story (New York: Hatchette Book Group, 2014).
3. Rene Carpenter/Scott Carpenter; Trudy Cooper/Gordon Cooper; Annie Glenn/John Glenn; Betty Grissom/Gus Grissom; Joe Shirra/Wally Shirra; Louise Shepard/Alan Shepard; Marge Slayton/Deke Slayton
4. Neil Armstrong; Susan Borman/Frank Borman; Jane Conrad/Pete Conrad; Marilyn Lovell/Jim Lovell; Patricia McDivitt/James McDivitt; Faye Stafford/Thomas Stafford; Pat White/Ed White; Barbara Young/John Young
5. Joan Aldrin/Buzz Aldrin; Barbara Cernan/Eugene Cernan; Patricia Collins/Michael Collins; Barbara Gordon/Richard Gordon; Ann Scott/David Scott
6. Ron Howard, Apollo 13, 1995.
The Approximate Perfection of Domestic Engineering
While waiting for my university’s library catalog to return my search for “The Business of Home Management: (The Principles of Domestic Engineering) By Mary Pattison” (1) a crazy thought passed through my mind; would the catalog would tell me that this book was in the engineering library? This is of course absurd. This book is shelved in home economics, which is where the honest part of my brain expected it to be. Despite the book’s explicit use of the state of the art in efficiency and scientific management for the home, and its use of the appropriate scientific terminology, the home remains outside the purview of “engineering proper”, and so the women of Pattison’s time remained outside the “profession”.
Yet, when you read through Pattison’s book, it is exactly the author’s point that engineering done by men and engineering in the home must be separate. If home engineering is to have any positive effect, it can only be done by women. The book was based on data collected in 1910 at an Experiment Station at Pattinson’s home in Colonia New Jersey in connection with the New Jersey Federation of Women’s Clubs.(2) The Station conducted experiments with new domestic technologies, studies of materials, and time motion studies to improve efficiency. The resulting book outlines a practice of domestic engineering with far-reaching social goals reflective of Pattison’s own politics. She was an active reformer and Progressive who worked for women’s suffrage and advocated for the elimination of domestic servants and child labor. Pattinson believed that women’s true calling of homemaking could benefit from the application of scientific and engineering principles to the day-to-day organization of the family home.
Pattison’s program for domestic engineering is full of what appear to my modern eyes as deep paradoxes and incredibly complex, gendered social ideas. Pattison’s prescriptions for a well-engineered home are explicitly geared toward the elevation of women’s work and the recognition that it is fundamentally different from that of men. For instance, when discussing how women should be educated in order to be better, more efficient homemakers, she says that
The course of study laid out for the average girl is a series of periods adapted to the boy mind, for the reason that instead of starting with the study of herself and life which is her instinctive care, she is made to detach herself from her center of interest, and work at separated and partial problems that only the faculty of reason can put together for proper use, and then largely for mechanical purposes; a faculty in which she does not excel, nor was it ever intended that she should.” (3)
Far from further limiting her possibilities, however, Pattison insists that a girl properly educated within a framework that emphasizes women’s closeness to life (meaning reproduction) and focused on the self and the family will be more able to fulfill her ultimate potential. Pattison views the home and the family as a microcosm of society, and its efficient and ordered working will be reflected in an efficient and ordered society which mirrors the home life. Pattison confers an impressive amount of power on women, then, whose efforts in the home will be magnified into large-scale social change. She defines Domestic Engineering as “the profession of designing, producing and guiding the home and family to approximate perfection, that they may be of most use in the world’s operation.” (4)
When I began this essay, I was looking to write about women inventors, perhaps people who had, despite being cloistered in their homes, had broken through into a competitive field of technological innovation that was dominated by men. I didn’t consider looking for a different field altogether. Domestic engineering is of course not unfamiliar to scholars of technology, nor are many of Pattison’s specific ideas, which range from architectural design that minimizes wasted effort for women or the introduction of household machinery. And we know that some of the ideas turned out to have the opposite of the intended effect. (5) But for some reason, the idea that there was a kind of engineering to which women, and only women, were suited, and which made no pretensions to being part of the engineering tradition with which we are typically familiar, escaped me. This is a mistake I hope not to make again, because there is a great richness to be found in looking at things like Principles of Domestic Engineering in this way. The book does not propose a way for women to participate in a male dominated sphere, but rather an active appropriation of what were seen as the most useful features and techniques of that sphere for a purpose that mainstream engineering did not cover.
This approach means that we can begin to look at ideas that were common in this period, like the identification of women with the corporeal, the natural, and the process of reproduction not necessarily as limiting ideas imposed on women by a male scientific establishment, but as an idea that women themselves used to structure their lives, and in Pattison’s case the management of the home. That the faculty of reason was not a strength for women was not limiting at all in Pattison’s view. In fact the wrongful education of young women in reason was the root cause of their inability to fulfil her natural potential.
By theorizing these ideas in terms of what we perceive as their limiting functions, functions for which they were presumably used by a male scientific establishment politically and socially, we are reiterating these ideas and their use against women instead of listening to the women who are telling us how they used them in their own life. Domestic engineering was for women not some perversion of a more perfect male-dominated engineering, or a lesser kind of engineering. It was an active appropriation of what were seen to be the best tools available for improving the labor that they understood as their special care. Of course we disagree with Pattison that a woman’s only place is in the home. But if we refuse to investigate the life and work of women who held with such ideas in their own time, we render passive those who used such ideas to further their political goals, to try to eliminate what they saw as the demeaning practice of domestic servitude, to care for their families in what they saw as the most perfect way, and ultimately to try to change the world.
1. Mary Pattison, The Principles of Domestic Engineering: Or the What, Why and How of a Home (New York, The Trow Press, 1915). I used a digitized copy available on Google Books, though there are several editions available.
2. The history of women’s clubs in America is a rich source of information about the social and cultural practices of women in the twentieth century. See for instance Anne Ruggles Gere, Intimate Practices: Literacy and Cultural Work in U.S. Women’s Clubs, 1880-1920. (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1997).
3. Pattison, 195.
4. Ibid., 194.
5. See especially Ruth Schwartz Cowan, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave (New York: Basic Books, 1985).
Queens of Code
The HBO television series Silicon Valley reaped critical and comic acclaim but it gets the portrayal – and history – of women in computing all wrong. In the series pilot, nearly all the women we see are beautiful women-as-accessories clustered together as a party celebrating a successful start-up. One of the software programmer stars even comments on this segregation of men and women, underscoring the idea that in Silicon Valley, men do things: create companies, write software, secure venture capital, and deliver speeches. In this Silicon Valley, women carefully tend to their appearances and gossip. One of the few women with a speaking role in the first season, Monica, appears mainly to encourage and nurture one of the man programmers. She’s a lovely helpmate. Silicon Valley (and The Social Network and many popular books on the history of Silicon Valley) would have us believe that women and computing generally do not, and have not, mixed. Let’s set the record straight.
Some of our most pervasive cultural stereotypes about computing and gender emerged during the rise of personal computing followed by the meteoric growth of the Internet. In 1992, Robert Cringely spun the story of Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can’t Get a Date. (1) Cringely gleefully documented the oddball personalities of the men – always men – of Silicon Valley: Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates, and others he deemed visionary. Cringely reached an even wider audience when he partnered with PBS to create the series Triumph of the Nerds, profiling these men. The journalist Steve Levy also celebrated his male subjects as nerdy eccentrics in his popular 1984 book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. (2) Cringely and Levy delineated a Silicon Valley, and by extension, a history of postwar American computing, in which all the brainiacs were men, precisely at the time when computing became mainstream.
Yet, during the 1980s, women’s participation in computing professions and computer science degrees reached around 40%. In other words, nearly half of the people working in computing or studying computer science during the 1980s were women, a number that had been steadily climbing since World War II. The historian Jennifer Light called attention to this longer history of women in computing in her oft-cited 1999 article “When Computers Were Women.” (3) Light documented the critical role that women had played in creating the ENIAC, America’s first electronic computer.
To understand how women worked in computing during World War II, we need to investigate the era to which Light refers in her title: when computers were, in fact, women. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as industrialization, immigration, and urbanization transformed the United States and Europe, the need for large-scale mathematical computation exploded. Governments, businesses, and burgeoning fields of scientific research all required many, many iterations of basic arithmetic computations in their work. People were organized, often according to the principles of division of labor and mass production, in order to accomplish all of this computation. And those people were most often women. Women computers vitally contributed to American society from the Progressive Era through World War II. (4)
The war effort fostered the development of the modern electronic computer – in an obscure laboratory at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. By early 1942, the Moore School engaged hundreds of women computers to produce “firing tables” for the multifarious types of artillery being used in the war. Thinking back to high school physics and thought experiments, recall that if you are firing a weapon and aiming for a distant target, you do not fire directly at the target. Rather, you aim slightly above the target so the bullet moves in a parabolic trajectory. In the case of a WWII weapon, with a range of a mile or so, using guesswork or rule of thumb to aim would have been nearly impossible. Instead, the gunner had a firing table in the form of a pocket-sized booklet. A typical firing table contained data for around 3000 trajectories – the computation for which occupied a hundred-strong calculating team of women for a month.
The Moore School professor John Mauchly proposed to speed up these calculations by building an electronic digital computer to perform them. Mauchly’s wife, Mary, instructed the women computers working on the ballistics tables, so John was keenly aware of the sea of numbers in which the organization was beginning to drown. In 1943, Mauchly and his colleague John Presper Eckert received a contract from the Army to build the ENIAC: the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer. And the Army recruited a team of six women to program the ENIAC. (5)
As the historian Janet Abbate argues in Recoding Gender: Women’s Changing Participation in Computing, the women programmers of the ENIAC performed complex and creative computing work. And, just as importantly, women continued to work in computing from the war era through the 1980s, but “these women’s experiences and contributions were forgotten all too quickly” (p1). (6)
Light’s 1999 article appeared as computing gained widespread cultural significance and the history of computing expanded as a discipline, and it stimulated additional scholarship on the women of computing. For example, the historian Kurt Beyer produced a biography of computer programmer Grace Hopper. (7) Hopper, a US Navy rear admiral, contributed to computing during a rich career that encompassed programming the Harvard Mark I computer and fostering programming languages like COBOL. Ada Lovelace, who collaborated with Charles Babbage on his work on calculating engines during the nineteenth century, has been another popular figure for such scholarship.
Yet by spotlighting a few women as “pioneers,” these histories have conveyed the notion that the presence of women in science and technology has always been unusual, which is inaccurate – of course. In response to such scholarship, Abbate invoked Charlotte Bunch and Mary Hunt’s notion that it is not enough to merely “add women and stir” to the history of computing (p5). (8) Indeed, the writers of the television show Silicon Valley can be criticized for their “add women and stir” approach to the series. After the lamentable lack of women during the first season, the pilot of the second season introduced a handful of other women in key roles, but they largely fell away after that episode.
Now, scholars have begun to consider the ways in which computing has been gendered, such as the scholars who contributed essays to the book Gender Codes. (9) For example, Thomas Haigh documents the different jobs associated with data processing from the 1950s through the 1980s, observing that women occupied the low-status positions of keypunch operator and computer operator, in the typical form of pink-collar clerical work. In his monograph The Computer Boys Take Over, Nathan Ensmenger argues that the professionalization of computer science also entailed making the profession masculine, while Marie Hicks makes a similar argument about programming in 1960s Great Britain. (10)
Women have been computing for over a century, and they have been integral to the field. Moreover, the intersection of gender and computing has been complex. Our scholarship has begun addressing this. It’s time popular culture did, too.
1. David Cringely. Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can’t Get a Date (Boston: Addison-Wesley, 1992).
2. Steve Levy. Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. (Sebastopol: O’Reilly Media Inc., 2010).
3. Jennifer Light, “When Computers Were Women,” Technology and Culture vol 40, no. 3 (1999) 455-483.
4. ENIAC was designed and used primarily for calculating ballistic firing tables. See “Human Computers,” in The Computer History Museum:
5. See Kathy Kleiman, “The ENIAC Programmers Project,”
6. Janet Abbate, Recoding Gender: Women’s Changing Participation in Computing (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2012) 1.
7. Kurt Beyer, Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2010).
8. Abbate., 5.
9. Thomas J. Misa, ed., Gender Codes: Why Women Are Leaving Computing (Wiley-IEEE Computer Society, 2010).
10. Nathan Ensmenger, The Computer Boys Take Over: Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2012). Marie Hicks, “Meritocracy and Feminization in Conflict: Computerization in the British Government,” in Thomas J. Misa, ed., Gender Codes: Why Women are Leaving Computing (Wiley-IEEE Computer Society, 2010). 95-114.
Science With A Capital “S”
Leila A. McNeill
When researching the women of the Manhattan Project, I remember a particular story from The Girls of the Atomic City (1) that has stuck out in my mind ever since. Recall Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the site of three uranium enrichment plants, Y-2, K-25, and S-50, which separated the fissile isotope uranium-235 from uranium metal. Ernest Lawrence (2), head of the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory, and Colonel Kenneth Nichols (3), administrative lead of The Project, decided to compete to see which one of the Oak Ridge plants could produce the most U-235 the quickest-- the plants run by the male PhDs or the “hillbilly girls” from the backwoods of Tennessee. Ultimately, Lawrence’s PhDs lost to the hillbillies.
Lawrence believed that the problem with the male scientists was that they got caught up science-ing and had become distracted from doing the actual labor necessary to complete the task. On the other hand, the hillbilly girls won because according to Nichols they were more like soldiers in that they would follow orders without asking questions. Science was for the men; taking orders was for the women. In a 1943 booklet put out by the U.S. War Department, the government and military supported and legitimized such views: “Women can be trained to do any job you’ve got…”(4). Yet, despite women’s ability to get a job done accurately and efficiently, this wasn’t seen necessarily as a valued skill. Rather, as the pamphlet goes on to show, it was a notion steeped in sexism: “…but remember ‘a woman is not a man;’ A woman is a substitute—like plastic instead of metal.” (5) These women were malleable, replaceable, and dispensable.
The Manhattan Project is not the only place where we find this gendered separation of science and labor. During this same time period, women who served as computers were active at Bletchley Park in Britain, another secret wartime mission concurrent with the Manhattan Project that demanded an around the clock workforce. Prior to World War II, the Harvard Observatory employed a group of over 80 women astronomers who worked under Edward Pickering (6) from 1877-1919 cataloguing and classifying thousands of stars. They were insultingly dubbed “Pickering’s Harem.” After World War II and in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, NASA for the first time actively sought to employ black women. Despite the superficial image of this racially progressive workplace, black women were separated from the white women and were referred to as the “West Computers” to designate their difference and their segregated area of Langley. Both white and black women served the same function as “mathematical ground troops in the Cold War” (7) analyzing incredible amounts of data to help send the US to the moon. Though the goals and context of these big science projects are quite different, a pattern emerges in the shared act of delineating men’s work from women’s work in the realm of science and technology.
Simply employing these women computers for big science projects wasn’t always a progressive anomaly in an era where workplace chauvinism was commonplace-- it was often another manifestation of that chauvinism. Long-standing beliefs that aligned men with the mind and science created the foundation in which sexist hiring practices and gendered separations of scientific work took root. The creation or production of scientific knowledge was viewed as a male trait, and it remained so, not because women were incapable, but because women had been systematically excluded from education and positions of power that would grant them such opportunity or acknowledgment. Moreover, this cultural belief that science and thought were inherently male traits informed a perhaps unconscious understanding that the work that men performed in these spaces was Science. Everything else, the time-consuming, labor intensive, hands-on work of calculation, cataloguing, and analysis, was something separate and less-than. As Nichols concisely illustrated with his belief about the hillbilly girls from Tennessee, women were more suited for the labor, which clearly was not actual Science because that was what the men were doing over in the other plant.
The computing tasks these women performed were often compared to housework. The attention to minute detail in doing calculations by hand resembled the precision of needle work. At Langley, women’s hands were a hot commodity. The dexterity of their thin fingers and the smaller size of their hands supposedly made women particularly well-suited for using manual adding machines. In regard to a more modern sense of computer programming, Grace Hopper (8) said that programming a machine was just like planning a dinner. And as with any other type of work thought to be ‘women’s work,’ these positions when occupied by women were always paid less than men’s, no matter one’s education or skill level. The women at the Harvard Observatory received half the payment as men. NASA’s women computers were classified as “sub-professional,” whereas men with similar qualifications were hired as Junior Engineers and thus classified as “professional,” a status which gave them almost double the starting salary as a woman. This gendered separation in sub-professional and professional status for the exact same job shows that it wasn’t the work itself that created a hierarchy of science over science-related labor but rather who was doing that work.
The way these women were represented in media and in their scientific communities during their time has further contributed to their invisibility in the history books. As Jennifer Light points out in her article “When Computers Were Women,” J. Presper Eckhert and John W. Mauchly (9) were the faces of ENIAC (10) that the majority of the media presented to the public during WWII. In published photographs of ENIAC’s workers in action, women were often intentionally cut out of the frame. When women were shown in photographs, their titles reflected sub-professional work like “setting switches,” or “standing at function tables,” but men featured doing the exact same job received the status “maintenance engineers,” which denoted skill and expertise. While white women computers were shown as sub-professional and unskilled, black women computers were almost never shown in photographs at all, even though they made up a large number of the computers at NASA. Black women were rarely represented to the public, which has contributed to the near erasure of their active participation in the history of computing.
In these work spaces, Science and labor were inherently gendered iterations of the same type of work. Science has always been privileged over the labor, so we must be aware when making a distinction between the two that relationships of gender and power were and still are pervasive in how we write and think about that distinction. To ignore that is to render these women invisible and to de-value and de-skill the scientific and mathematical work that women do and have always done.
1. Denise Kiernan, The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II (New York: Touchstone, 2013).
2. Ernest Lawrence (1901-1958) was an American nuclear physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project. He is known for his invention of the cyclotron, for which he received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1939. He was also founded the Radiation Laboratory at the University of California in 1931, now known as the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
3. Kenneth Nichols (1907-2000) was a Major General in the United States Army and the District Engineer of the Manhattan Engineer District.
4. Qtd. in Jennifer S. Light, “When Computers Were Women,” Technology and Culture vol. 40, no. 3 (1999): 455–83. 482.
5. Qtd. in ibid. 482.
6. Edward Charles Pickering (1846-1919) was an American physicist and astronomer known for detecting the first spectroscopic binary stars and developing the meridian photometer. He served as director of the Harvard Observatory from 1877 to 1919.
7. Margot Lee Shetterly, “Margot Lee Shetterly: Research. Write. Repeat,” Hidden Figures, 2015,
8. Grace Hopper (1906-1992) was an American computer programmer and a Rear Admiral in the United States Navy. In addition to her achievements in the Navy, Hopper is known for leading the team that developed in 1952 the widely used programming language COBOL.
9. J. Presper Eckert (1919-1995) was an American electrical engineer and physicist John Mauchley (1907-1980) together developed ENIAC and founded Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation in 1946.
10. ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, 1946) was the first general-purpose electronic computer in the United States and was constructed at the University of Pennsylvania.
Making Role Models on Reddit
Recently, I came across a few posts on Reddit about Margaret Hamilton (b. 1936), who worked on the Apollo project as a programmer and software engineer at MIT’s Instrumentation Laboratory. (1) In her capacity as Director of Apollo On-Board Software, Hamilton is credited with innovations in software that ultimately prevented the famous Program Alarm abort that could have prevented the first lunar landing.(2) This accomplishment is the subject of a post about Hamilton in the subreddit r/TodayILearned. (3) In the r/feminism subreddit, a picture of a young Hamilton with a stack of computer printouts is captioned “Margaret hamilton, recognized by NASA as one of the Founders of American Computer Science”. It was also posted to the large subreddit r/pics, and enjoyed a good deal of discussion in both threads. By contrast, the only comment when it was posted to r/feminism was a clarification and additional information posted by the OP. This is typical for reddit. r/TodayILearned and r/pics both have more than 7 million subscribers, while r/feminism has about 40,000.
It strikes me that what we’re seeing when this type of thing is posted to a forum and discussed (and debated) is a little snapshot of the creation of historical myth. Redditors are not exactly known for reading up on things before commenting on them, so the general tenor of discussion is a mix of reaction, emotion, and bad puns. But this is where it’s happening, where the ‘facts’ are shaved down or discarded, and opinions are made and molded. For the vast majority of people, this is where and how history is discussed and historical memory is cemented. Margaret Hamilton and her accomplishments at NASA are added to one’s historical memory of the space program and the history of computer science. And this is the cloud of memory and hearsay and Wikipedia fragments that we confront when we present historical scholarship to a popular audience.
A picture of Hamilton was posted in r/oldschoolcool, which is just what it sounds like; a warm and fuzzy subreddit for nostalgia and romanticism. In order for Hamilton to become an icon, or someone’s hero, she must be thought of as such, something that the context of r/oldschoolcool encourages. We also have to think of her career as something cool. Engineering and computer science were not easy careers for women to access in the 1960’s, at least not as program directors or lead software architects. Hamilton is definitely unusual in that her career at NASA was high-profile, and her life is well-documented. This is not the case for most of the women who worked on Apollo, especially those who weren’t involved in the individual authorship of certain accomplishments. In order to be Old School Cool, women in history had to be involved with something that was respected by the male establishment, in this case science and engineering. They also had to be the ‘first’, or the ‘only’ in order to distinguish themselves, something that male engineers at NASA don’t necessarily have to be in order for us to find them cool or interesting.
In r/pics, the top comment reads “Wish women like this were role models, not that tw*t kardashian..” This post is part of a trend that blames women for not being interested in female role models that meet some standard of interesting or cool that is usually set by men. If only women would get on board with the things that matter to men, they’d be so much better off! This becomes especially important for those of us interested in science and technology as those fields accumulate more and more cultural clout. Part of the process of recovering the stories of women in science and technology is explaining why women have been excluded from these fields, and why women today might feel alienated from these areas. The systemic exclusion of women from science and technology is a completely explainable historical phenomenon that has little or nothing to do with women just not being interested, and much more to do with them not being allowed to participate. We should also be wary of the underlying mood of scientism that pervades these discussions. Not being interested or involved with science and technology doesn’t make someone an unsuitable role model, and not being a role model at all doesn’t make someone less of an individual, or less worthy of respect or historical consideration. Think of all the men who have long, lavish historiographies that are definitely not role models or scientists. In seeking to understand the larger context of the history of science and technology, especially in highly gendered workplaces like NASA, we can better explain why someone like Hamilton was unusual, and how the social structures of the 1960s operated.
1. Reddit.com is a social networking site and news aggregator that is modeled on a bulletin board system (BBS).
2. A lay introduction to the problem of Program Alarms during the first lunar landing can be found in Peter Adler, “Apollo 11 Program Alarms,” in The Apollo Lunar Surface Journal,
3. Reddit communities, analogous to individual boards in a BBS, are called subreddits.
Pink Collars and Programmers in Halt and Catch Fire
In the 1980s nearly half of the workforce in computing was made up of women, despite the durable stereotypes about the gendering of computing that were being created. (1) The notion that computing in the 80s was completely dominated by men is not wholly undone by AMC’s series Halt and Catch Fire, even though the show seems to be trying to invest its version of history with the contributions of women. Two of the four main characters are women, both of whom are allowed to be dynamic and interesting as often as they can get around the stereotyping of the show’s initial setup.
The show takes place on the cusp of the personal computing revolution of the 1980s at a struggling firm in Texas. Lee Pace’s character Joe swoops in to pluck Scoot McNairy’s Gordon from obscurity and coerce the firm into supporting a personal computer project. Predictably, Gordon’s wife Donna is the foil to her husband’s misunderstood genius with repeated pleas about the financial welfare of their family, which includes two young daughters. Donna’s motherly practicality is no match for the ambitions of Joe and Gordon. The PC project moves forward when Donna eventually gives Gordon her blessing after he apologizes and washes a few dishes.
To program the new PC they hope to build, Joe ‘recruits’ a wayward young college student named Cameron Howe. After grilling her in a class visit, Joe follows Cameron to an arcade to question her further where an awkward sex scene comes to a screeching halt when Joe says, mid coitus, “This doesn’t mean you get the job.” Joe ultimately convinces Cameron to join the project with the same promises he made to Gordon about fulfilling one’s potential, chasing dreams, and building something great. Cameron goes to work at the firm where the show’s visuals highlight how out-of-place the young, vaguely androgynous punk-rock programmer is in the white collar world. It is clear that Cameron will be the creative energy of the project and the wild-card.
Halt and Catch Fire wouldn’t be worth writing about if not for the intriguing women who counter the predictable, boring arc of Gordon and Joe’s technological triumph. Although it takes a while to get going, the writers sometimes allow Donna and Cameron to grow past the stereotypes with which they are introduced. Donna, who works at Texas Instruments and who worked on a failed PC project with Gordon in the past, proves to be just as technically competent as Gordon and certainly far more skilled than Joe, who is just a savvy salesperson. But her work for TI is often equated with clerical, pink-collar work because it is placed in opposition to Joe and Gordon’s creative, financially risky and innovative PC project. Early on, Gordon snaps at Donna that the stakes are higher in his world because he doesn’t “just” do quality assurance for calculators.
Later in the same episode, Donna is called in to clean up a potentially disastrous data loss on the PC project where she has to confront Cameron. Donna asks if Cameron keeps a list of files, to which Cameron replies viciously that you can’t just hold up the ‘flow’ while creating to do ‘some mindless bookkeeping.’ This exchange is written in explicitly gendered terms- Cameron doesn’t want to be mothered; Donna says that Cameron is “a mess” and definitely needs a mother just then. Even after being called in by Gordon for her specific expertise, Donna has to first prove her competence to the other male engineers. As she works through the highly repetitive task of recovering the data by hand, Cameron and the male characters wander the building brooding and doing nothing to help, presumably because their brainpower must be reserved for creating, not menial work like data recovery. Donna discovered that Joe actually stole Cameron’s backup disks by recognizing that the vacuum cleaner that supposedly caused the power surge wouldn’t have been used in a room with no carpeting. She confronts Joe saying, “I don’t know about you, but I would have used a mop.” Donna uses her housewife knowledge to solve the mystery-- her technical skills were ultimately meaningless.
The show constantly uses similar incidents and visual cues to remind us that Donna is a housewife first and a gifted engineer second. No matter how often Donna proves her technical ability, she is consistently undermined by her appearance and her responsibilities to her home and family. In the data recovery scene, she is actually wearing a shirt with a pink collar. Donna always dresses in staid, feminine conservative clothing, has lots of cooking and childcare scenes, and drives a station wagon. Since Cameron has none of the same responsibilities and her appearance is intentionally androgynous, she is able to fit into the space of creativity and innovation that is normally reserved for men.
In the end, what the show provides are two competing stereotypes about women in computing. While Donna’s character probably hews closer to the real history of computing and Cameron to our preferred technological mythology, they are both representative of the kinds of stereotypes about women that became crystallized in this period. The generally-understood history of women in computing (and women in science and technology in general) is the story of the ‘singular genius’ or that of the ‘pink collar’ clerical worker. Consistently placing women in either of these two groups makes it difficult to imagine characters that might transcend these types.
Donna ultimately becomes part of the team, though she is never considered of equal status with Cameron, who is still the creative driving force of the project. Using both of these types and writing interesting interactions for the characters is a big step in the right direction, but there is much work to be done. The second season of Halt and Catch Fire seems to be making improvements in its handling of women. Only after Gordon and Joe’s project succeeds do Donna and Cameron team up to work on something new, though Donna again ends up the mother figure of the uncouth and unwashed startup Mutiny. Cameron gets to create; Donna has to call the power company and sigh about the condition of the communal fridge.
It is vitally important to be critical of pop culture representations of history in order to understand the ways in which cultural myths are formed, become durable, and might be eradicated. Halt and Catch Fire is too internally ambivalent about the women in the story for me to find a clear side on which to bring the hammer down. I see a lot of the problematic stereotypes about women in computing repeated and reinforced by the show, but I also see moments that allow the characters to subvert their ‘types’. Under the surface might just be the nuanced position on women that we have been looking for, but they are going to have to get Donna out from behind all the stovetops and vacuum cleaners for me to be sure.
1. See Joy Rankin, “Queens of Code,” this volume.
Class and Misogyny in The Bletchley Circle
I was a math major in college. I now study – and care deeply about – the history of gender and technology. So yes, I will admit that I was predisposed to like a PBS-aired mini-series about British women who were codebreakers (1) during World War II. But the brilliantly executed The Bletchley Circle (TBC) is more than just another entertaining historical drama with a science-y premise. It is also a carefully crafted and powerful commentary on classism, sexism, and violence against women in postwar England.
TBC aired in the UK, the US, and Australia as two mini-series, the first with three episodes and the second with four episodes. From its opening, TBC set itself apart. We viewers are immediately drawn into a dramatic world full of women – and women only. They are working diligently, concentrating, collaborating. The women are some of the thousands who participated in the effort to crack encrypted Nazi messages during the war. (2) These codebreaking efforts were centered at the Government Code and Cypher School in Bletchley Park (about 50 miles northwest of London), which gives the series its title (3).
As a general pattern in the history of women and technology, the work of women codebreakers has since been largely forgotten. Instead, one man has dominated the discussion of British codebreaking and Bletchley: Alan Turing (4). The popular media and historians alike have devoted significant attention to this man credited with cracking the German Enigma code (5) and revolutionizing computing theory. In Alan Turing and His Contemporaries: Building the World’s First Computers, (6) editor Simon Lavington and his collaborators scarcely mention the thousands of women computers, codebreakers, and programmers who were critical to the war effort in the UK and US. Similarly, in the centenary edition of Alan M. Turing, written by his mother Sara, the women are dismissed as “girls” and “slaves” (7). Both books have likely been overshadowed by the film The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing and Keira Knightley as codebreaker Joan Clarke (8). Although The Imitation Game showcases Clarke’s extraordinary mathematical and problem-solving abilities (Clarke was a real person who worked at Bletchley), the movie deploys her more as a romantic foil and social tutor for Turing than as an intellectual partner.
But women were critical to computing and codebreaking in the UK and the US during WWII, and people are finally beginning to take notice. The 2010 documentary Top Secret Rosies: The Female “Computers” of WWII (9) shares their story, as does the innovative iPad book app The Computer Wore Heels. In her excellent monograph Recoding Gender: Women’s Changing Participation in Computing, (10) the historian Janet Abbate (11) chronicles the women who programmed the ENIAC (12) in the US, but she also provides the history of the British women who programmed Colossus as part of the Bletchley efforts. The first COLOSSUS (13) computer at Bletchley began decoding encrypted German messages in January 1944. In his book The Secret Lives of Codebreakers: The Men and Women Who Cracked the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park (14), Sinclair McKay paints a vivid picture of quotidian life for the women (and men) of Bletchley Park during the war.
The Bletchley Circle’s compelling opening sequence introduces the four central characters and their work: Susan Gray recognizes and analyzes patterns. Millie is fluent with languages, maps, and geography. Lucy possesses a photographic memory, which she deploys with amazing recall and analytical precision. Indeed, Lucy – for me – embodies the powerful memory and processing that we now associate with electronic computers. Jean is their supervisor, coordinating their efforts and deciding what analyses or findings to escalate up the chain of command. Susan, Millie, Lucy, and Jean are the Bletchley Circle. From this opening, we see that their work is central to the war effort. Their teamwork deciphers orders for Nazi troop deployment. They know that their work is making a difference to the war, and they know that they are extraordinary.
The bulk of the action, however, occurs nine years after the opening sequence. This shift in time enables the series to comment on postwar social relations through the lens of the Bletchley women and their postwar lives. Susan is now literally and figuratively a tightly wound, buttoned-up, proper British housewife and mother, devoid of make up, with her hair pulled neatly back from her face. But she is straining against the seams of this constricted role that postwar society has demanded of her. In the course of her ordinary postwar day, we see that she has been following the disappearances and murders of several young women around London. And she wants to do something about it.
Susan’s husband, Timothy, believes that she performed “clerical work” during the war, a fiction that she perpetuates to protect her work under the Official Secrets Act, under which she could not reveal what she actually did during the war. Tim believes that Susan is good at puzzles and such, but he clearly has no idea what she has achieved. Nonetheless, Tim uses his work connections to arrange a meeting for Susan with a police commissioner to discuss the murders and Susan’s theory about them. Here, we see the first of many social conventions and strictures that limited women: Susan must ask her husband to pave her way to the police.
When Susan is left alone with the police officer to explain her theory of the pattern with the murders, she is transformed. She comes to life explaining how to glean information from a pattern of paper-clips-as-U-boats on the officer’s desk. She is luminous, and the commissioner recognizes her brilliance, deducing that she did far more than clerical work during the war. He is convinced by her analysis, deploying officers to search where Susan has predicted. But when the officers don’t find a body and eventually another woman is found dead, Susan recruits her former Bletchley allies to solve the case and find the murderer.
Through this process, we viewers observe the subtle and overt discrimination and violence against women and how our heroines live within and around those bounds. Susan’s husband, who represents proper British society and the police, is dismissive of the murder victims because they are working women. In his eyes, they don’t matter as much as men, and they matter even less because they’re not fulfilling their expected roles as wives and mothers. When the police hunt turns up a pornographic pinup photo instead of a body, the officers joke about it, sending the very clear message that one female body is the same as any other and only valuable for its sex and sex appeal.
Indeed, part of the reason that Susan succeeds in reuniting the Bletchley circle (who are at first wary to join her) is because the women identify with – and care about – the victims in a way that the all-male police force does not. Millie endures sexual harassment and threats at her job simply for requesting a shift change. Lucy’s husband verbally and physically abuses her. And Susan’s husband remains wrapped up in his world of work politics and appearances. He’s not terribly concerned about her obvious unhappiness; rather he worries that her unusual skills and interests are unseemly.
I love TBC for its nuanced portrayal of the multifarious ways in which the women empower themselves while navigating the casual misogyny of the postwar era. I love that the series celebrates collaboration and teamwork and the ingenuity of women. I love that they solve the mystery. You should, too.
1. The British government and military employed hundreds of codebreakers during World War II to decipher encoded German intelligence, which eventually served a crucial role in weakening and defeating the Germans in Europe.
2. Bletchley Park was the site of Britain’s Government Code and Cypher School. It employed about 12,000 people, more than half were women. For more, see Michael Smith, The Debs of Bletchley Park and Other Stories (London: Aurum Press Ltd., 2015).
3. Bletchley Park was a large country house outside of London where MI6 and the Government Code and Cypher School were moved in 1938 under threat of a massive airstrike in London. After the immediate threat of a London attack had passed, Bletchley continued to be used throughout the war, and it became the site where the German’s Enigma was deciphered and COLOSSUS, the world’s first computer, was developed.
4. Alan Turing (1912-1954) was a mathematician and a key participant in breaking the German’s Enigma at Bletchley Park. He also developed what we now refer to as the “Turing Machine,” a device that could be programmed to carry out complex mathematics; the “Turing Machine” is widely accepted as the precursor to the modern computer.
5. Enigma refers to the encrypted messages that the German military used to communicate strategy and locations for military and navy strikes. What made Enigma so difficult to decipher was that the encryption changed regularly. When the Polish cracked Enigma in 1932, the encryption changed every few months, but in the throes of World War II, the encryption changed daily, so by the time a codebreaker deciphered a message, the encryption had already changed again rendering the previous decipher useless.
6. Simon Lavington, ed., Alan Turing and His Contemporaries: Building the World’s First Computers (United Kingdom: The Chartered Institute for IT, 2012).
7. Sara Turing, Alan M. Turing (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012). 70.
8. Joan Clarke (1917-1996) was a mathematician who worked at Bletchley Park and, alongside Alan Turing, was a major player in breaking Enigma. Clarke was first hired to do clerical work at Bletchley, but her skill, unable to be ignored, earned her a promotion to Turing’s team.
9. LeAnn Erickson, Top Secret Rosies: The Female “Computers” of WWII, 2010.
10. Janet Abbate, Recoding Gender: Women’s Changing Participation in Computing (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012).
11. Dr. Janet Abbate is an Associate Professor and Co-Director of the Graduate Program of Science and Technology in Society at Virginia Tech University
12. ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, 1946) was the first general-purpose electronic computer in the United States and was constructed at the University of Pennsylvania.
13. COLOSSUS was the world’s first electronic and programmable computer that became operational in 1944. It was constructed at Bletchley Park with the singular purpose to decipher the encrypted messages of the German generals.
14. Sinclair McKay, The Secret Lives of Codebreakers: The Men and Women Who Cracked the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park (United States: Plume, 2012).
As the essays in this section show, the history of medicine encompasses how medical scientists and doctors saved patients but also how they victimized patients as well. Women and people have color have been disproportionately on the losing end of medical progress and, thus, experience medical science and institutions in unique ways. The essays in this section center the experiences of women who have been overlooked in medical narratives of progress both in the historical record and in popular culture.
The two essays “Searching for Racial and Sexual Justice in Reproductive Rights” and “Medicalization and the Pill” challenge the dominant narrative that hails hormonal birth control as cornerstone for women’s liberation. In the essay, “Searching for Racial and Sexual Justice in Reproductive Rights,” the author argues that women of color were often excluded from the national dialogue about reproductive rights, which ignored the racial and economic experiences unique to women of color in the United States. In “Medicalization and the Pill,” the author shows that the introduction of hormonal birth control in the United States has had the unintended consequences of medicalizing women’s bodies-- understanding the reproductive body through the strict purview of medical authority, which is often white and male. Both of these essays reflect the need to critique the success story of women’s liberation through reproductive rights in order to highlight the lives of women and especially women of color who have not only been victims of the reproductive rights movements but also its key creators.
The last four essays of this section explore the representation of women patients and practitioners in popular TV medical dramas. “Mad Medicine: Social Power and Medical Knowledge in Breathless” critiques Breathless, a medical drama that centers the story of a male gynecologist who uses his medical power and position to manipulate social situations that involve women. Both “Fodder for Progress: Cesarean Patients in The Knick” and “Medical Violence in The Knick” show how female patients in The Knick are consistently victims of medically sanctioned violence at the hands of male practitioners. The essay “‘High, Hot, and Hell of a Lot!’: Women’s Medical Traditions in Call the Midwife” argues that Call the Midwife represents women nurses and midwives as knowledgeable medical authorities and women patients as active agents of their own medical decisions and reproduction. Together, these essays show the importance of representing women physicians and patients as complex characters and much more than passive victims of male dominated medical progress.
Searching for Racial and Sexual Justice in Reproductive Rights
Leila A. McNeill
When thinking about the fledgling beginnings of the birth control pill, one probably conjures images of the Women’s Liberation Movement, middle-class housewives of the Betty Friedan variety, and no-nonsense young, single career women. One of the things that these cultural representations probably have in common is their whiteness. Black women did not experience the Pill or reproductive rights in the same way that white women did. Of course they didn’t. Black women were often silenced and shoved to the back of the rally by white women’s libbers. And though black women were certainly housewives too, many black women had out of necessity already been working outside of the home, making significant economic contributions to their families. The jobs that black women did occupy were not typically that of the glamorous and newly sexually-liberated young career woman. Racist hiring practices curtailed black women’s mobility within well-paying careers, and the jobs they took were often low-paying service oriented or labor-intensive. No, these cultural representations do not speak for black women.
In June of 1960, the Pill, Enovid, was officially approved by the FDA and released to the public for contraceptive purposes, whereas previously the Pill could only be legally prescribed for menstrual disorders. That same year the Civil Rights Movement gathered steam with the Greensboro sit-ins in February and the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (1) in April. These two momentous events of 1960, the early rumbling of Women’s Liberation and the Civil Rights Movements, collided in a significant way, and black women fought to be seen and heard in both of these revolutionary social movements. Despite a constant barrage of racism from white feminists and misogyny from the men of the Black liberation movement who tried to control the national dialogue about the Pill, black women show us a more nuanced and complicated relationship with the Pill that reflected their own needs and desires for reproductive control.
Much of the conversation about the Pill and reproductive freedom in the Women’s Liberation Movement centered the concerns of white and mostly middle to upper class women, thus pushing large numbers of American women to the margins of the movement. The reproductive rights mantra said that women should be able to voluntarily decide for themselves when or if they want to have children. But as Jennifer Nelson points out in Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement (2), there was a big difference between the ideal and the reality of this mantra-- middle class white women had the ability to choose when bearing children was most convenient for them, whereas poor black women must ultimately weigh the outcomes of bringing a child into a world where money and resources for black people were scarce. Obtaining legal access to family planning services and abortions was not enough for black women to achieve true reproductive freedom when the pull of poverty that was rooted in institutionalized racism prevented them from making reproductive choices without external pressures. What is reproductive freedom really without access to stable, well-paying jobs, postnatal health care for mother and child, and reliable housing?
In the fight for racial justice, black women again found themselves marginalized, for many of the men of the Black liberation movement called on black women to reject the Pill and abortion as black genocide. Both black men and women had just cause to be suspicious of any fertility control promoted by white people. Eugenic language utilized by white racists in the medical establishment had long equated social problems with reproduction in socially disadvantaged groups-- in this case, black communities. Moreover, eugenic-like practices were being implemented throughout the South in the 60s, 70s, and 80s by government funded doctors through involuntary (coerced and forced) sterilization on hundreds of thousands of black women. These justifiable fears in part informed black men’s insistence that women refrain from the Pill.
To push back against the alleged attempt at black genocide, male leaders in the Black liberation movement insisted that women not only refuse the Pill but encouraged them to reproduce to breed more black bodies for the movement. In other words, they wanted more black men to do the fighting and more women to continue making more men. This idea positioned black women as second class citizens within their own movement and placed them in conflict with their own identities as women and as black Americans.
However, black women wanted to take full part in the fight for racial justice as advocates and activists, not as backseat babymakers. As early as the 1940s, the women of the National Council of Negro Women (3) pushed back against the claims that contraception was black genocide and challenged the inherent misogyny of using women’s reproductive bodies as mere vessels to expand the cause for racial justice. Later in the throes of the Civil Rights Movement, Frances Beal (4) and other prominent black women leaders founded the Black Women’s Liberation Committee in 1968 to address the same issues as the NCNW. The BWLC, later renamed the Third World Women’s Alliance (5), became an influential voice for the rights of black women.
The contributions of groups like the Third World Women’s Alliance significantly shaped and permanently changed the conversation about the Pill in particular and reproductive freedom in general. The Women’s Liberation Movement often ignored issues of race and class, and Black liberation exploited women’s sex and gender. Denied full participation in both of these movements, the women of the BWLC in response created their own platform that addressed specifically the oppressions of black women: race, gender, and class. Today, we call this intersectionality (6), and though the term was not coined until 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw (7), the theory of intersectionality had long been a cornerstone of black women’s liberation and had emerged out of a national conversation about reproductive freedom.
In current conversations about family planning and abortion, right wing politicians have resurrected the argument that such services are black genocide, Ben Carson (8) being the worst offender. Claiming that clinics like Planned Parenthood that offer abortions are the number one killer of black people, as Carson has recently done, is not only a complete falsehood but it does damage on multiple fronts. It shifts blame from the systemic racism of culpable American institutions to black women by implying that they are committing genocide against their own race just by controlling their own fertility. This attempt to control the reproductive body thinly veiled as racial justice assumes that black women have no agency over their lives, that they can’t make informed decisions about their own fertility. This is perhaps the greater falsehood, for black women have always taken the lead in advocating for more inclusive reproductive rights and will continue to shape the way we think and talk about the intersection of race, gender, and reproductive justice in this country.
1. Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was founded in April 1960 and became a highly influential organization in the Civil Rights Movement.
2. Jennifer Nelson, Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement (New York: New York University Press, 2003).
3. National Council of Negro Women was founded in 1935 by Mary McLeod Bethune with the purpose of representing and addressing the concerns of black women
4. Frances M. Beal (1940-) is a social and political justice activist who co-founded the Black Women’s Liberation Committee in 1968.
5. Third World Women’s Alliance grew out of the Black Women’s Liberation Committee in 1971.
6. Intersectionality is the study of how individuals experience overlapping systems of oppression at once depending on their varied social identities. Intersectional theory believes that oppressive systems—i.e. race, gender, and class—are intricately related and cannot be studied separately from each other.
7. Kimberlé Crenshaw (1959-) is an American writer and scholar who specializes in critical race theory and gender.
8. Dr. Ben Carson (1951) is an American politician and neurosurgeon. He is also a 2016 Republican presidential candidate.
Medicalization and the Pill
The story of hormonal contraceptives in the United States is, as it is usually told, largely a story of triumph for women. (1) The ability to easily control one’s fertility opened many opportunities for American women to plan their families, have careers outside the home, and to pursue more liberated forms of sexuality within and without the context of marriage. For many women, the Pill mitigates the premenstrual discomfort or even allows them to control their menstruation. There are a number of important consequences associated with the Pill that call for careful reflection on the part of historians. The introduction of the Pill marked a long period of medicalization of women’s bodies that has since become naturalized in the US. The history of hormonal birth control pills is also the history of the changing shape of medical authority and its relationship to women’s bodies.
Medicalization is the process by which aspects of human life come to be viewed as being under the purview of medicine, especially in the modern period where there is a recognized professional medical authority. (2) With the advent of the Pill, and its rapid adoption by a huge proportion of women, an entirely new patient demographic was created. For the first time, healthy women of childbearing age might expect to take medication for a significant portion of their lives not to prevent or mitigate illness, but rather to prevent pregnancy, something that is usually not considered pathological. While pregnancy and childbirth had been almost fully medicalized by the time of the Pill’s introduction in 1960, women were now patients even when they were not pregnant.
Because of the nature of hormonal contraception, which prevents ovulation, a gynecological exam was required in order for women to receive a prescription. Whereas a woman might only have such an exam if she was experiencing gynecological illness, millions of healthy women were having exams in order to get the pill. As Andrea Tone points out in her article “Medicalizing Reproduction,” this medicalization also became an opportunity for the medical profession to graft preventative screening onto these exams and to make them routine for women, where they had only been sporadically administered before. (3) Performing a pap smear for cancer screening was a simple and quick addition to the exam. Additionally, breast exams could be performed at the same time. The evolution of the yearly exam that many women have today was driven in large part by the introduction of the Pill.
Medicalization as an analytical term evolved from sociological discourse, and it was, especially early on, associated with the negative effects of increased medical authority, especially over women’s bodies. In this kind of medicalization, women’s bodies are the field on which medical and scientific progress is played out, often with the effect of curtailing women’s autonomy and sometimes their lives. Although the medicalization that accompanied the Pill has resulted in a huge increase in cancer prevention, there have of course been consequences for women. In exchange for the freedom that the Pill provides, many women have experienced dangerous and even deadly side effects from use of hormonal contraceptives. The risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease in increased by use of the Pill, and women have reported significant discomforts like nausea and migraine headaches. Despite problems with the Pill, it retains its modern mystique, and other contraceptive methods are often viewed as old-fashioned in comparison. Tone calls this a “hormonal imperative,” which is a feature of the Pill’s amazing commercial success and the market it created for almost identical pills with only minor differences. (4)
Both the benefits and the risks of hormonal contraceptives are unevenly distributed among groups of women. Access to and the ability to pay for the necessary medical exams prevented many marginalized women from getting the Pill. Use of the Pill has been construed as a weapon wielded against marginalized groups as much as it has been as a tool for women’s liberation. Medicalization has also been a key tool of imperial practice around the world, where it is often billed as one of the ‘gifts’ that the colonizers offer to colonized people in exchange for occupying their homes.
There are definite colonial overtones to the way that the first pill, Enovid, was tested in large-scale trials in order to obtain FDA approval. Trials were conducted in Puerto Rico for very specific reasons. (4) Gregory Pincus, the scientist recruited by Margaret Sanger to develop the Pill, thought that if the poor and uneducated women of Puerto Rico could be taught to use the Pill correctly, there would be no problem convincing the FDA that women in the United States could also use the Pill correctly. The lack of strict regulation on clinical trials in this period worked in favor of Pincus and his team. They were not obligated to inform the women of the experimental nature of the Pill, or to explain the risks involved with taking the Pill. The clinical trials of the Pill are rightly remembered as a controversial and traumatic episode in Puerto Rican history, and should serve to remind us that it is often the bodies of poor and marginalized women upon whom our beloved scientific innovations and liberating inventions are tested and built. (5)
Medicalization is a powerful analytic that encourages us to look more closely at incidents in the history of medicine that are usually labeled as a net good for humanity. In the case of the Pill, women paid for the benefits of the Pill by ceding part of their life to medical authority, and more often than we would like to remember, they sometimes paid with their own health or even their lives. Medicine is never wholly or transparently benevolent, especially for women, and acutely so for women of color.
1. A good introduction to this history of hormonal birth control in America can be found in Elaine Tyler May, America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril and Liberation (New York: Basic Books, 2010).
2. The classic text on medicalization in Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic (Presses universitaires de France): 1963 (French) 1973 (English translation).
3. Andrea Tone, “Medicalizing Reproduction: The Pill and Home Pregnancy Tests,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Sex Vol. 49, no. 4 (2012). 319-327.
4. Ibid., 322.
5. See Hilary Klotz, The American Experience: The Pill, PBS.
6. See Ray Quintanilla “Puerto Ricans recall being guinea pigs for ‘magic pill’” The Orlando Sentinel, The Chicago Tribune.
Mad Medicine: Social Power and Medical Knowledge in Breathless
The LA Times recommends PBS’s six-part Masterpiece series Breathless if you wish you could watch The Knick or Masters of Sex but just can’t get past how “gory” and “graphic” they are. (1) And they’re right. If you are pining for some period drama with a medical twist, you won’t find anything less confrontational, at least at the moment, than Breathless. (2) Some reviews have even praised it for its superficiality, noting that “the project feels timely and provocative, but can just as easily be savored strictly for its Peyton Place-like attributes.” (3) It is probably unfair to pick on Breathless because it’s really more of a soapy mystery than a fictionalization of the history of medicine. The show centers around the life and work of Otto Powell (Jack Davenport), brilliant surgeon with a dark secret. The cut of Davenport’s suit and his immaculate quiff recall Don Draper so strongly that the writers go out of the way to show Powell being compassionate to women in the first moments of the first episode. Powell, we soon understand, is burdened by circumstance, not narcissism.
Breathless is not nearly as well written as Mad Men, however, and nowhere is this more clear than in its lazy characterization of the leading man, and the sidelining of women characters. Powell and his colleagues are OB-GYN’s, and thus, naturally, the patients that we see in the show are all women. But because the show is about Powell’s secrets and the relationships of the hospital staff, both personal and professional, most of the women are just props to signify Powell’s specialization. In addition to Powell’s specialization in obstetrics being used to make him appear more compassionate to the viewer, Powell’s supposedly privileged knowledge of women’s bodies places him in a position of superiority in social situations, most of which have everything to do with sex, marriage and childbirth. The active women characters exist to be either protected and rescued by Powell, or seduced by him. The inactive women, most notably the women to whom Powell administers clandestine (and illegal) abortions, serve as pitiful emblems of the humane version of Powell we are supposed to come to understand. As the main mystery begins to unravel, the abortion subplot is dropped entirely, because by this point we should be on board with Powell.
The odd thing about Breathless is that it has very little to do with the actual practice of medicine. Powell’s authority and control over the women in his life is enacted socially. The writers use his specialization in obstetrics, and his merciful provision of abortions to women in need, to give him social power and moral authority. One of Powell’s patients, Margaret Dalton, is a middle aged, unmarried woman that runs her own business (strong female character alert). Powell diagnoses her with terminal cervical cancer and in choosing a nurse to provide palliative care, Powell selects the wife of Margaret’s lover (Powell’s younger colleague Truscott), in a twisted bid to bring the estranged couple back together by having them bond over the death of ‘the other woman’. Powell is afforded influence in Margaret's life and the marriage of his colleague by his specialization- his power is connected to his knowledge of women's bodies, even though he never has to treat Margaret, only prescribe end-of-life care.
Like other period dramas, Breathless has been praised for letting us “revel in what has changed, culturally and technologically, and to cringe at what has remained stubbornly embedded in our collective nature across the decades, most notably sexism.” (4) But the show doesn’t comment on illustrate contemporary forms of sexism. Rather it fetishizes ‘vintage’ sexism in broad strokes, and plays up its irrationality. We don’t often see the kind of overt sexism that the show displays, which makes it easy to dismiss as old fashioned. The creation of these kinds of archetypes undermines contemporary efforts to combat sexism that takes subtler forms today.
The re-presentation of vintage sexism, by pretending to a kind of historical objectivity that portrays past “how it really was,” is a missed opportunity for television, which has a great capacity to give voice to critical interpretations of the past. The emphasis on women’s medicine feels more like a lazy stab at “putting some women in.” Making the leading man an OB-GYN doesn’t count as telling women’s stories. Making him a merciful abortionist (who charges a fee for that service, by the way) doesn’t count as telling women’s stories. Using women to tell Powell’s story, in other words, doesn’t count as telling women’s stories, and the superficially “objective” re-presentation of a sexist social milieu isn’t criticism or commentary.
The show, at its heart, is a rather uncomplicated mystery- the plot could work in any number of settings. Why women's medicine then? Breathless is part of a growing group of uncritical shows that rehash stories about the professionalization of medicine, using advances in obstetrics as a shorthand for scientific progress. Using women’s medicine in this way reinforces problematic ideas about women’s knowledge and skills. (5) In Breathless, it is Powell’s knowledge of women’s bodies that allows him to exert power over the women in the story. In such a universe, women with knowledge about women’s bodies are dangerous and backward, while men who control such knowledge are modern and necessary to prevent suffering. In the same way that we are confronted with the boogeyman of mid-century sexism, Powell’s abortion practice is supposed to remind us how lucky women were to have him, and how far we’ve come. Even puff like Breathless should be part of a conversation about the way period television and movies encourage us to think about scientific and technological progress as the sole, benevolent driver of history, and how the engine of this kind of progress is invariably driven by men.
1. Mary McNamara, “Review: Secrets are perilous medicine in Breathless on PBS,” latimes.com, August 30, 2014.
2. PBS Masterpiece Breathless,
3. Matthew Gilbert, “Style Points for Soapy Breathless,” bostonglobe.com, August 21, 2014.
4. Brian Lowry, “TV Review: Breathless,” Variety.com. August 21, 2014.
5. There is a large body of literature on the emergence of modern medicine and its usurpation of women’s knowledge and control over their bodies. See for example Katherine Park, Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation and the Origins of Human Dissection (New York: Zone Books, 2006).
Fodder for Progress: Caesarean Patients in The Knick
Leila A. McNeill
Set in the surgical hospital The Knickerbocker (1) in 1900 New York, The Knick features many of the developments in modern medicine and surgery, and follows the doctors and nurses who work at the hospital. The time period in which this show is set was a rather exciting time in the history of medicine and surgery. Due to the 19th century’s discoveries of anesthesia and antiseptic techniques, surgeons at The Knick could experiment with new methods and implement life saving operations with less pain and risk to the patient. Yet, with all the excitement and promise of these discoveries, there was a darker side to this era, marked by what we would now consider highly unethical experiments of trial and error, and significant disappointment and loss of life. The flip-side is illustrated by Dr. JM Christiansen’s suicide and Dr. John Thackery’s insidious cocaine addiction, habit of frequenting brothels, and experimenting on a dead woman’s corpse without prior consent. When the creators of The Knick chose to depict this period of medical history of concurrent excitement and desperation on screen, they chose well—it makes great TV.
I really like The Knick because it has fantastic direction and film making, but mostly because I can finally see the research that I love integrated into popular culture with some first-rate production value and major financial backing. However, as much as I like this show, I still have to ask the annoying question: where are all the ladies at?
Sure, The Knick has women in it, but it is never about them-- even episodes or individual story lines that have an OB/GYN focus. The experiences and voices of women, especially women of the middle and lower classes and women of color, is startlingly absent from them. Instead, the show revolves around the educated men of science, the brilliant men to whom we owe modern Western medicine. The tagline for The Knick perhaps says it all: “MODERN MEDICINE HAD TO START SOMEWHERE.”
For the most part, women in The Knick serve merely as objects in a male-dominated narrative of progress. Consider the progressive development of the caesarean operation from the first episode to the sixth.
The first episode “Method and Madness” opens with a failed caesarean section. Head surgeon Dr. Christiansen gives himself and his team 100 seconds to complete the operation and stem the hemorrhaging of a mother suffering from placenta previa (2). With Christiansen unable to stop the hemorrhaging, the mother bleeds out, resulting in the death of both the mother and fetus. Upon the death of his patients, Christiansen turns to the onlooking students in the surgical theater and solemnly says, “It seems…it seems we are still lacking. I hope, if nothing else…this has been instructive for you all.” That was his twelfth failed caesarean operation. When Dr. Christiansen is later alone in his office, he quietly and methodically covers his couch with a white sheet, lies down, and shoots and kills himself.
In episode five “They Capture the Heat,” Clive Owen’s character, Dr. Thackery, who takes over as head of surgery at The Knick, attempts an emergency caesarean, again due to placenta previa. Like his predecessor, he fails, losing both mother and fetus. The scene of the aftermath shows pooling blood at the legs of the operating table, surgical instruments sticking out of the woman’s abdomen, and a despondent Thackery sitting on the floor, his bloody palms turned up in defeat. Dr. Chickering (aka Bertie), however, reminds Thackery that he did actually accomplish some progress compared to Christiansen who intended to take 100 seconds to complete the operation, whereas Thackery only took 72.
Finally, in episode six “Start Calling Me Dad,” Thackery and Bertie develop a new technique to solve such a problem. In a cocaine and prostitute fueled stroke of genius, Thackery invents a balloon/bladder catheter. Once inserted into the womb through the vaginal cavity, the surgeon inflates the bladder with water to put pressure on the hemorrhaging tear from inside the womb. This would slow the bleed long enough for them to complete the operation. To practice the technology before an actual operation, Thackery and Bertie experiment on two of Thackery’s (not even pregnant) prostitutes. During the caesarean operation later in the episode, Thackery and Bertie successfully implement the new technique, which saves both mother and baby. Upon completion of the operation, Thackery officially presents to the onlookers in the surgical theatre “The Christiansen, Thackery, and Chickering Placenta Repair.”
Gentlemen, progress, that’s why we’re all here!
It’s not that these episodes represent women in an explicitly negative light; it’s that they don’t represent them at all. Obstetrics and gynecology is exclusively a matter of women’s health, but this storyline revolves around the men, Christiansen, Thackery, and Chickering and their struggles. Though obstetrics and gynecology had improved considerably by the 1900s, women and babies were still brutalized again and again by invasive and debilitating obstetric methods. Pregnant women felt a very real terror of entering a hospital without knowing if they would come out. Yet, in each one of these episodes, the writers give the women only one to two lines before their operation, and afterward, we don’t even see their faces or see the tragedy of their deaths reflected in the response of their families that survive them. They have no agency, experiences, or stories of their own. Instead, our sympathies are entirely directed at the male doctors. In each case, the woman serves solely as a prop for men’s stories and an object of male-driven progress. “Modern medicine had to start somewhere,” and apparently, it started on a heap of dead women.
The problem with the progress narrative here is the same problem with the progress narrative in the study of history-- the voices and experiences of those who lost to progress are silenced, in this case, the voices of women. Their experiences are lessened or completely absent in light of forward-marching progress. Instead, we get a hearty dose of Great Man History (3) to further perpetuate the incorrect notion that white men are the sole agents of history, constantly moving the whole of humanity forward.
Rather than challenge the audience with powerful history that shows the rich and varied experiences of this moment in time, the writers, as New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum points out (4), opt for something “far simpler: a Great Man Tale, studded with lurid thrills.”
1. The set is loosely based on The Knickerbocker, a New York hospital established in 1885 under the name Manhattan Hospital. Located in Harlem, the hospital’s primary purpose was to serve poor and immigrant patients free of charge.
2. Placenta previa is a problem that occurs when the placenta forms in the lower part of the uterus and covers the opening of the cervix. If the placenta does not migrate to the top of the uterus, the cervix remains blocked when it comes time to deliver, which causes complications during the delivery.
3. “Great Man History” is the theory that history, and history as a tale of progress, has been driven largely by great men or heroes whose genius, discoveries, inventions, etc. moved society as a whole forward and has had a permanent impact on history.
4. Emily Nussbaum, “Surgical Strikeout: Steven Soderbergh’s Disappointing ‘The Knick,’” The New Yorker, August 2014.
Medical Violence in The Knick
Leila A. McNeill
I have written before about the history of medicine series The Knick and, specifically, about how the women caesarean patients serve as grist for the mill of progressive male medical science. Despite the objectification of women and women’s medicine, I still thought The Knick was a fascinating and aesthetically beautiful, even if grotesque, exploration of the surgical methods and medical breakthroughs at the turn of the century. However, upon finishing the first season, I see only a fetishizing of brutality toward women, a laundry-list of the ways women were stripped of their agency, and a whole lot of missed opportunities to tell powerful stories about women and their unique experiences. In other words, I’m exhausted from seeing women beaten, sexually harassed, experimented on, or killed for no meaningful end other than to advance the stories of men.
Along with the three previously mentioned caesarean patients, female patients disproportionately suffer from debilitating injury or disease and make up the largest death toll on the show. Of course, caesarean patients are likely to be women, but what about the others? Abigail Ford, who lost a nose to syphilis came into the story through Thackery as his ex-girlfriend. She sheds light onto Thackery’s past and his character, but she simply goes away never to be seen again. Eleanor, Dr. Gallinger’s wife, loses her baby to meningitis, becomes mentally disturbed, accidentally kills another baby, and subsequently is forced into an asylum where the doctor removes her teeth as part of her psychiatric treatment (1). An unnamed girl loses her life to Thackery’s cocaine inspired paranoia as he attempts untested blood transfusion on her. These are only a few instances of note and by no means all of the female patients and female deaths.
History shows us that women were often experimented on and treated inordinately worse than men in hospitals, especially mental institutions. Indeed, that would be an interesting story to tell. Yet, the fact that these patients are women in no way changes or enhances the plot of the show, or if they do serve any purpose, it is to highlight the stories of the men. Nothing in The Knick leads me to believe that the continued brutalization of women in this show is for historical accuracy. Instead, I find an odd and troubling preoccupation with victimizing women with medicine.
Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity to tell women’s stories in this show is the storyline with Sister Harriet, a nun and midwife at The Knick who administers clandestine, illegal abortions. Her character presented the writers with an opportunity to not only show the historical importance of midwifery in the lives of women, but to tell the stories of the socially disenfranchised and economically disadvantaged women that saw abortion as their only option. Instead, Sister Harriet’s story is hijacked by Tom Cleary, the lewd loud-mouthed sweaty ambulance attendant. He goes from condemning Harriet’s actions to joining forces with her (for money) when he becomes “moved” upon witnessing a woman die from a botched, self-inflicted abortion. This woman’s death serves only the purpose of bringing about Cleary’s superficial change of heart. When Sister Harriet asks Cleary if he then understands why she does what she does, he says that he still doesn’t approve, but does want to save lives. Understanding why Sister Harriet does what she does never gets answered or fully fleshed out. We only get glimpses and sometimes not even that much of her clients whose stories remain silent and untold.
By the end of the first season, this show had become a breakfast sampler of all the different ways women could be stripped of their agency: women committed to an asylum, women being experimented on, women being forced into having an abortion and entering a loveless marriage- would you like that marriage with or without a side of rapey father-in-law? Rather than pushing these issues further or bringing these underrepresented experiences to the fore, the writers decide to carry out Thackery’s uninspired and unoriginal drug addiction storyline to the bitter end, making him nothing more than a twentieth-century unfunny version of Hugh Laurie’s House M.D.
Telling women’s stories is important, and telling their stories in the history of medicine is, I believe, especially critical because women’s bodies continue to be a battleground of power and control. When the only stories writers tell are the ones in which women capitulate their power to male doctors without resistance or question, they reinforce the idea that women’s bodies are best understood by men and men alone.
1. Removing teeth as a treatment for mental illness was part of focal infection therapy. Focal infection therapy was derived from the belief that mental illness was the result of specific bacterially infected parts of the body, including the teeth but also the tonsils and spleen.
“High, Hot, and a Hell of a Lot!”: Women’s Medical Traditions in Call the Midwife
Despite the failings of many medical dramas, there is still potential for sensitive, interesting and nuanced depictions of the history of medicine on television. The beacon of that hope is the BBC show Call the Midwife. The series follows the life and work of a group of midwives who serve the working-class community of Poplar in the East End of London in the late 1950’s. The premise is based on a series of memoirs by Jennifer Worth recalling her own experiences as a midwife. (1) The first episode sets the tone of Call the Midwife’s approach to medicine with an amazingly frank depiction of a young mother’s fourth delivery- crumbling chimney, hot water enema, amniotic fluid and all. The hour long episode is rounded out by the stories of a mother with untreated syphilis who suffers a miscarriage and a husband and wife who don’t speak the same language and struggle to bring their 25th baby into the world. Many of the most serious faults with the other television series we have discussed are the same substance of Call the Midwife’s most important strengths.
The Cinemax series, The Knick, is less guilty of romanticism than something like PBS’s Breathless, just because it’s hard to feel nostalgic about Thackeray’s disgusting world. Breathless comes dangerously close by naturalizing virulent sexism and misogyny within a glitzy, jewel-toned version of the past that is designed to be as attractive as possible. Call the Midwife manages to not only avoid romanticizing its own setting, that of the late 1950’s (almost contemporaneous with Breathless), but it also actively dissuades the characters from romantic feeling about their own past. The specter of the workhouse is a perpetual presence in Poplar and a persistent concern of the show. (2) The show’s intimate portraits of working-class lives in the late 50’s form a much needed bottom-up retelling of the period, and reveal the realities of poverty and hardship that shows like Breathless are designed to elide.
Both The Knick and Breathless rely on the perversions and moral questionability of their heroes to generate interest. If you’ve been watching a lot of TV recently you’ll be familiar with their type, and perhaps a little worn out by the endless string of tragic, addicted, self-destructive genius men who somehow come out on top despite being cynical screw-ups who inflict staggering collateral damage on everyone and everything around them. Call the Midwife contains no such characters, and is undeniably refreshing for it. The midwives and nuns, the patients and community members are all finely drawn characters with flaws, of course, but there’s not one megalomaniac among them. This is possible only in a setting that doesn’t privilege stories of progress in science and medicine. Unlike Thackery and Otto, the midwives aren’t the heroes of the show or of their own stories. The show is adamant about this, and the characters articulate this structuring of the narrative as their understanding of their position in the community. In the very first episode, Trixie tells Jenny, “I thought she deserved all manner of medals [for long hours and lots of hard work]…and then one day I realized, I didn’t’ deserve any medals at all…the mothers are the brave ones, baby after baby in abominable conditions, and they keep on going. They’re the heroines. I’m just here to help.” (3) (S1, E1)
Patients are the raw material that powers Thackery’s single-minded pursuit of his own genius in The Knick. They don’t need to be well-drawn or even have names (or faces!) because they are only so much grist for the mill of progress. Otto’s patients are social bargaining chips and medals on his lapels that signify his status and power in Breathless. Patients in Call the Midwife are fully realized people. Because the practice of midwifery relies on house calls, we see patients in their own homes, with their families and their belongings, and we hear and understand their concerns and hopes. They are never unnamed, or shown covered by surgical sheeting. Their stories often arc over multiple episodes when they are not the sole focus of one episode.
Through the complex stories of patients, Call the Midwife tackles, of course, questions of gender and social order, but also race, class, disability, cultural difference, mental illness, and death and grieving, to name just a few of the show’s themes. Witness the sensitivity with which the show handles the complicated relationship of a brother and sister who grew up together in a workhouse, and now must face the brother’s terminal diagnosis. If you’re not sold on the show after watching episode 5 of the first season, there’s simply no convincing you.
Importantly for us, Call the Midwife tells women’s stories. Their stories aren’t filtered through the experiences of men or progressive stories of history. One of my favorite things about the show is that it doesn’t shy away from the physical realities of being a woman. There are no modest cut-aways when women give birth. There is no euphemistic hedging about sex and love and marriage and adultery. When a relative of a patient cheerfully asks Jenny to save the afterbirth for him (it’s great for the tomatoes) as she heads upstairs to deliver the baby, you understand that the show doesn’t care if you think women’s bodies are gross. If we can sit through a scene of Thackery having a nurse inject cocaine into his penis, we can listen to the nuns describe the purpose of the rubber sheet, and gleefully prepare enemas for the expecting mothers (high, hot, and a hell of a lot!).
So often when we find fault with the treatment of women in media it is because we are pointing out a ham-fisted attempt to “put some women in”, as though female characters are written only grudgingly or to meet some imagined quota. It often feels like other shows strain to meet laughably low standards for the inclusion of women (like the Bechdel-WallaceTest) (4) Call the Midwife succeeds where others fail because it takes as a given that women can lead full and interesting lives that are worthy of retelling on television. (5)
1. Jennifer Worth, Call the Midwife (Bardstown: Merton Books, 2002.)
2. Workhouses in the United Kingdom were public institutions that housed the destitute in exchange for labor, and were generally characterized by their appalling living and working conditions.
3. Call The Midwife, Season 1, Episode 1. January 15, 2012.
4. The Bechdel-Wallace test, named after cartoonist Alison Bechdel, is a metric for determining the presence and agency of women characters in fiction. The test’s standard, the presence of at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man, is generally considered a low bar for contemporary fiction.
5. See also Charlotte Brunsdon and Lynn Spigel, eds. Feminist Television Criticism (United Kingdom: Open University Press: 2007.)
In these pages, readers will find a variety of methods and approaches to writing history. The editors and contributors to this volume understand that the traditional model of defining Science and writing the history of science was a model created by and for white men. We must make room for marginalized communities. In order to do that, we know that we cannot simply add women or people of color to the existing historical narrative. Instead, we need to strive to create something new. We begin with an understanding of Science as a construction of a culture, not a singular entity operating outside of it. By approaching science through the purview of its culture, we will find a narrative where women and people of color are not working at the margins but at the very heart of scientific thought.
This volume is not to be read as just the culmination of a year’s worth of writing and thinking, rather it is the beginning of a long-term collaborative effort to find new ways to write women’s history and to bring it into the purview of the public. The topics covered in these pages are only a sample of the stories of women that have been silenced and excluded from the history of science, medicine, and technology and its popular representations. There are many women who made important contributions to this field who are understudied or completely unknown. Recent debates about endemic sexism in contemporary science demonstrate that there is still work to be done in exposing the historical roots of these systemic injustices and oppressions. And new theoretical approaches must be developed that help us to naturalize the specific ways that women have engaged in scientific, technical, and medical practice despite the best efforts of the establishment to exclude them. This is not and cannot be work that speaks only to academics and other closed communities.
Going forward, we, as historians and writers, want to take more risks with our approaches, methods, and narrative voice, and we hope that others, historian or not, who share our desire to bring feminist perspectives to the study of history and popular culture will lend their talents and skill to this project. We believe that open and accessible discussions about women in science are an important contribution to both a scientific establishment that is trying to adapt to a more and more plural culture and to the larger project of feminism and women’s liberation.
FermiLab History and Archives Project. “Jane Wilson,”
Manhattan Project Voices. “Lill Hornig,”
Clancy, Kathryn B. H. et al., “Survey of Academic Field Experience (SAFE): Trainees Report Harassment and Assault,” PLOS ONE 9, no. 7 (July 2014).
Gonzales, Leila and Christopher Keane, “Status of the Geoscience Workforce” (Alexandria, VA: American Geological Institute, 2011).
Apollo 13, Universal Pictures. Dir. Ron Howard. 1995.
The Bletchley Circle, ITV, UTV, STV. 2012, 2014. Creator: Guy Burt
Breathless, PBS. 2014. Creators: Peter Grimsdale, Paul Unwin
Call the Midwife, BBC. 2012-2016. Creator: Heidi Thomas
Halt and Catch Fire, AMC. 2014-2016. Creators: Christopher Cantwell, Christopher C. Rogers
The Knick, Cinemax. 2014-2015. Creators Jack Amiel, Michael Begler
Manhattan, WGN. 2014-2015. Creator: Sam Shaw
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Lady Science is a multifaceted collaborative writing project focused on women in science, technology, and medicine. Our purpose is to highlight womenâ€™s lives and contributions to scientific fields, to critique representations of women in history and popular culture, and to provide an accessible, inclusive, and collaborative platform for writing about women on the web. Unlike other specialized and academic publications, we do not recognize any disciplinary, generic, or stylistic constraints that sometimes curtail the ways in which womenâ€™s stories can be written. The essays in this book were originally published in 2014 and 2015 through a monthly email subscription. In the first year of the project, we published 24 essays on a wide range of topics related to the experiences of women in science, technology and medicine, using a variety of methodologies and approaches. Some of the essays lean toward history of science, while others engage with popular culture or critical theory. This first anthology contains the contributions of four guest authors in addition to essays by the editors.