Scientific discovery has a long history; each new breakthrough has built upon the work of countless individuals across years, decades, or even centuries. Many of the people who contributed to developments in science and technology were women: researchers like Chien Shiung Wu, astronomers like Maria Mitchell, and computer scientists like Grace Hopper are all celebrated today for their achievements. At the same time, many other women in science are not as widely known. This primary source set highlights some of the work that American women have done in science, technology, and medicine, whether their names are widely known today or not.
Women in science and technology have often had to struggle against gender-based discrimination and exclusion. Some found themselves directed toward fields that were considered “women’s work,” such as nursing or home economics. In computer science, for a time software and coding were viewed as work suitable for women, while men were seen as better suited to working on computer hardware. In some cases, women’s contributions were downplayed, concealed, or attributed to male collaborators or employers. Researching women’s roles in science and technology often involves looking closely at moments of great scientific progress and identifying the women who have been excluded from historical accounts and news coverage, or who appear only in the background.
The items in this set also provide opportunities to explore the many different kinds of work that are involved in scientific endeavor or technological development. Although there is a common idea of a scientist as a lone genius pursuing a “eureka” moment in a lab, or as a lecturer in a university hall, or as an entrepreneur building a world-changing device in their parents’ garage, such images don’t reflect the daily reality of many scientists, engineers, and medical workers. Some of the women represented in this set worked to manufacture chemical compounds, to keep airplanes in the air, or to provide nursing services for patients. Many women working in these fields may have pursued their work simply as an opportunity for employment or for public service. During wartime, many women were called into technological and scientific work to support the nation’s war effort.
Suggestions for Teachers
Choose a photograph for students to analyze. Different students or groups may analyze different photos. Compare it to photos of male scientists. How are these scientists portrayed differently?
Select a few items in different formats, such as a newspaper article, a video, and a photograph, and allow time for students to analyze them, either alone or with a partner. Ask students to compare how these women are portrayed in the media. What language is used to describe them? How are the images framed? What was the intended message? How do these portrayals compare to more current news stories about women in science or technology? What information do these portrayals leave out?
Ask students to scan the bibliographic information for photographs and list the names of the women shown. How many of them are named? How many are anonymous? Invite students to consider: What is the effect when the women are not named?
Ask students to compare the two images of students in classrooms. Then, ask them to reflect on their own experiences in science classrooms, and compare their experiences to what they see in these pictures. How has science education changed over time? If they were to pose for a photograph in a science class to show their work, what setting would they choose and what people or objects would they want to include in the photo?
Allow time for students to examine and consider several items from the set. Ask them: What stories emerge from women in science? What’s missing from these items? Encourage students to research to learn more about one of the women featured in the set, or to identify and learn more about other women who contributed to advances in science or technology.