Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Women Working, 1800-1930

I just stumbled on the Harvard Open Collections Program "Women Working, 1800-1930", a great digital database of books, photos, diaries, and trade catalogs. It covers all kinds of work, from unpaid household labor to lawyers and politicians. And, of course, scientists.

A few of the gems:

Women in chemistry. New York City: Bureau of Vocational Information, 1922

This is a guide for women interested in pursuing a career in chemistry. According to their statistics, in 1920 about 5.2% of all chemists were women, and women received almost 10% of the chemistry PhDs (impressive considering many universities did not allow women into their chemistry programs). It also has this interesting tidbit:

Although their number is small, women are not newcomers in the field of chemistry. It was a book by an American woman, "Conversations on Chemistry*," written in 1813 by Mrs. J Marcet, of New Haven, which contributed to the great Faraday's first interest in chemistry, according to his own statement, when as an apprentice bookbinder he snatched moments form his work to read the books which came to be bound in his employer's shop. (p.3)
The tone is upbeat about the future of women in chemistry professions.
In short, the present is a good time for those women who will consider chemistry seriously as a career although tradition and prejudice against them are still to be reckoned with, especially in industry. The ability of women has been demonstrated. The air has been cleared in the period of economic depression; it is ability which will count in the future as better efficiency in industry is demanded.
You can read Jane Marcet's original 1809 Conversations on Chemistry (or the updated 1853 edition) thanks to Google Books. Marcet make no claim of being a chemist herself, rather she attended lectures on chemistry and was interested enough to further her own education.
But frequent opportunities having [after the lectures] occurred of conversing with a friend on the subject of chemistry, and of repeating a variety or experiments, she became better acquainted with the principles of that science, and began to feel highly interested in its pursuit. It was then that she perceived, in attending the excellent lectures delivered at the Royal Institution, by the present Professor of Chemistry, the great advantage with her previous knowledge of the subject, slight as it was, gave her over others who had not enjoyed the same means of private instruction.
She wrote the Conversations on Chemistry to share her knowledge with other women.

Richards, Ellen H. (Ellen Henrietta). The chemistry of cooking and cleaning. Boston: Estes & Lauriat, 1882.

The author of The Chemistry of Cooking, Ellen Swallow Richards, was a pioneer in both chemistry and in the education of women in science:

When she graduated [from Vassar] in 1870, she tried to find a job as a chemist, but there were none to be had, at least not for a woman. She decided to continue her study of chemistry and was accepted as a "special student" at the recently founded Massachusetts Institute of Technology. M.I.T. charged her no tuition, which she initially believed to be an effort to assist a poor student. Later she learned that it was so the president could "say she was not a student, "should any of the trustees or students make a fuss about [her] presence."

She received a BS from M.I.T in 1873 and continued her studies at the Institute for another two years. She never received the doctorate she hoped for reportedly because "the heads of the department did not wish a woman to receive the first D.S. in chemistry." While this was a deep disappointment (and a great injustice), the lack of a PhD. did not prove to be much of a hindrance to Ellen Swallow Richards in her work.
. . . after her marriage, Ellen Swallow Richards was able to devote herself to a cause very close to her heart, the scientific education of women. With funding from the Women's Education Association of Boston, in 1876 she established a Woman's Laboratory at M.I.T. — the first laboratory in the world specifically designed to encourage women to pursue scientific study — and assisted the professor who ran it. She contributed her services and an average of $1,000 a year during the lab's seven years of existence. Training was offered in chemical analysis, industrial chemistry, mineralogy, and biology, subjects many female students were encountering for the first time.

The Chemistry of Cooking and Cleaning is a basic primer targeted to non-scientist women, with the goal of both improving the efficiency of housekeeping and preventing the housekeeper from being cheated by worthless "patent" compounds. It talks about the atomic formulas of common household chemicals such as quick-lime and carbonic acid, explains how atomic weights are calculated and shows simple chemical reactions. It's sort of a 19th-century equivalent of a Harold McGee book.

What I love about the text is that it assumes that women are both interested in and capable of learning chemistry. No need to make it sexy or pink or frilly.

Mitchell, Henry. Biographical notice of Maria Mitchell. [Cambridge, Mass.?: Academy of American Arts and Sciences, 1889?].

Maria Mitchell was born in 1818, the daughter of a teacher and amateur astronomer. She became his assistant and made many astronomical observations, including Halley's comment in 1835. She eventually made novel observations of her own (including a new comet) and was the "first and only" woman inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1848. In 1865 she became the first Professor of Astronomy at Vassar. While she was influenced professionally by her astronomer father, her mother influenced her politics.
Maria Mitchell was selected as President of "The American Association for the Advancement of Women," at the meeting in Syracuse of 1875 , and again at the meeting in Philadelphia of 1876. And here again we discover a logical relation to the conditions of her early life. In what, long after, came to be called the "Woman's Movement," Miss Mitchell's mother had taken a decided interest, and lent to it her sympathy, at least to the extent that it sought ot open to young women larger opportunities for earning their living by intelligent labor. It was, to this extent, in the very genius of Quakerism and consonant with its "Discipline." Miss Mitchell took many steps beyond her mother in this direction, but always with a quiet dignity that became one whose life presented an illustration of the loftiest purpose that the "movement" entertained. (p. 341).
She died in 1889. I assume that the author of this text, Henry Mitchell, was Maria's nephew or brother. In 1908 the Maria Mitchell Observatory was opened in her honor in Nantucket.
After browsing through the Women Working collection, I learned about three interesting women I knew nothing of yesterday. I figure that means I've had a productive evening.

Tags: , , , . The image is a detail from "Observatory women computers", taken in 1891. "The women depicted in this photograph analyzed stellar photographs and computed data at the Harvard College Observatory."