Science is objective but a book about female scientists can be quite subjective. This book might be even more subjective than most.
Headstrong is a compilation of biographies of 52 women who changed Science – and the world, while they were at it.
All were women who made great contributions to their field of medicine, engineering, astronomy, chemistry, genetics, and the list of their realms goes on. Truly, they have impacted the world with their research findings, winning Nobel Prizes and cover stories in scientific journals, becoming the first woman admitted into their program of study or any of a list of firsts that is even longer than the number of women on the list.
Yet this book is not exhaustive. It doesn’t include every famous female scientist. Or even the most well known of the lot. As the author Rachel Swaby admits in the introduction, while there are hundreds, maybe thousands more names she could have included in this group of elite women, she chose to exclude some of the most well-known, like Marie Curie, in order to pay homage to some lesser known ones. So scanning the names in this book without first reading the Author’s note might elicit questions like, “Where’s so-and-so? Didn’t she…?”
Some time ago, the actress Jennifer Garner made headlines when she complained that interviewers always seemed to ask actress-mothers about the difficulty working and raising children. To her, repeatedly asking that question of mothers but not of actor-dads, seemed to reiterate that a woman’s place was in the home and no matter what she accomplished in her work outside the home, her domesticity was always going to be used to detract from her contributions elsewhere.
In 2013, The New York Times committed a similar faux-pas. Yvonne Brill, the award-winning female rocket scientist, who, in 1967, designed the electrothermal thruster still being used on satellites today, had died. During a six decade career, Mrs. Brill worked on the first weather satellite, helped launch the satellite that came closest to entering Mars’ orbit and had been awarded the National Medal of Technology by President Obama. Yet the opening line in her NYT obituary was that she was a good cook and followed her husband from job to job.
Would the Times have been so sparing with the accolades if a male scientist of such caliber had died?
Is it worse to mention an accomplished woman without focusing on the full scope of her talent? Or not to mention her at all?
While Headstrong does include Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, it omits Amelia Earhart, arguably the most recognized name in aeronautics. It skips Marie Curie who developed the radioactive material that won her not one but two Nobel Prize wins, but devotes 3 pages to her daughter, Irene Joilot-Curie’s contribution to the study of radioactivity, only mentioning her more famous mother in the context of their relationship.
Unfortunately, the book is not a complete Rolodex of all the women who have made their mark on the science world. But it does start the reader thinking who else has been omitted. And maybe that’s just the point of this book.
Headstrong would make a great gift for a young woman interested in a career in science – inspiration for what is possible and the cautionary tale of what women all over the world are still fighting for.
- Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science – And The World
- Author: Rachel Swaby
- Publisher: Broadway Books
- 224 pages plus notes
- Rated: 4/5 stars
Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review.