Thursday, May 28, 2015

Book Review of Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science and the World

Recent articles on gender inequity in Silicon Valley serve to remind that women still have a long way to go to achieve employment parity. The distance, however is nothing compared to what all the female scientists experienced in the new book by Rachel Swaby. Today’s women in STEM fields may have a difficult time climbing the corporate ladder, but it wasn’t that long ago when the corporate ladder was clearly marked, Women Not Allowed.

Swaby’s book is divided into short chapters each highlighting an individual’s life and career. Don’t be surprise if you haven’t heard the names of most of the honorees. The author specifically selected women who, although produced significant contributions, are relatively unknown. No current women are included as Swaby also chose to concentrate on scientists whose professional life’s work is completed. The struggles to gain an education were impressive, doubly so when you realize they all lived in times when feminine worth was judged by looks and marriage potential. Education was often frowned upon or considered unnecessary, but each of the women in the book was gifted with an iron will and a burning desire to learn. Students often took many years to complete degrees as schools balked at accepting women into graduate programs and financial assistance for them was nonexistent. Education could come in fits and starts. Menial jobs had to be taken in order to earn enough money for classes to continue. Yet, they all persevered.

The list of accomplishments will surprise you. Every parent of a newborn has heard of an Apgar score, but almost no one knows it was named after the developer, Dr. Virginia Apgar. Have a family member in the military or police? Say thanks to the inventor of Kevlar, chemist Stephanie Kwolek, for helping to keep them safe.

A few names are familiar; Rachel Carson, Sally Ride, and Florence Nightingale are included. One will surely raise an eyebrow. The actress Hedy Lamarr was known for her beauty, not her brains, but during World War II she patented the idea for a frequency hopping system as a way to guide torpedoes. Years later, the technology found unexpected uses in wireless cash registers and bar code readers.

This book would be good companion piece for a teacher or anyone interested in the history of science and technology. The biographies are short, but engaging, and neither too technical nor preachy. The reader comes away with respect for these pioneers, and an understanding that the good old days were never that good for women. One quibble I have is that there are 52 profiles, but the only pictures are on the cover. It would have been nice to start each biography with a visual image.

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