09 February 2016

2016 Book Report: "Headstrong"

I recently finished Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science-and the World by Rachel Swaby. I really enjoyed it.  Science! and women all in one place? Obviously it is perfect.  My only comment is that I wish there could be a full length book on each and every one of the scientists listed within.

In reading about these scientists, I did notice two major trends.  First, and this is definitely addressed in the introduction, these scientist were really only able to overcome the historical barriers of sexism due to their privilege.  These scientists often had to work unpaid, unfunded and unrecognized just for the chance to work at all.  Given the situation for women at most points in history, only scientists who had some other source of income (be it family money or a supportive spouse) could really pursue research "despite the obstacles."  There has been, as there is even now, a dearth of women of color, women who came from less-affluent backgrounds and women who didn't come from academically minded families.  There is something to be said that this refrain remains the same many years after these women left their mark on science.

The second thing that was a constant theme: women were always willing to work just for the sake of the science.  While men were clutching their pearls about women "invading" the scientific domain, women were making huge discoveries with basically no institutional support.  While men were frantically undermining the scientific progress of women (often while simultaneously adopting the work for their own gain), women worked in closets and unheated garage spaces.  Women worked for no pay, attended classes with no chance of actually being conferred a degree, ran entire departments with no funding and taught themselves curriculum worth of ivy league institutions. In another motif that absolutely permeates science/academics today, while men were fussing about, women were quietly and determinedly getting the science done.  If there is a more perfect symbol of gender disparities in STEM fields, I have yet to find it.

All in all, five stars for this book.  Even though it is non-fiction, and base din some hefty science, it is a very pleasant read.  "Meeting" these women, and seeing how much of our daily lives is owed to their work, is a genuinely enlightening and entertaining experience.