Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Women in Science: The view from 1957

One of the things I love about this internet age of ours is that venerable periodicals are opening their archives to the public. The latest is the Atlantic Monthly, which includes articles from 1995 to the present, plus a sampling of other articles from earlier years. In one of those early articles, published in October 1957, economist Helen Hill Miller looked at Science: Careers For Women. She found that the opportunities for women were opening up in the traditional male fields of science:

Only yesterday, women who entered such fields as science, engineering, medicine, were looked on as square pegs trying to force themselves into round holes where they weren't wanted and didn't fit. Not many married women worked outside their homes in any occupation, and teaching and nursing were regarded as the suitable means of self-support by spinsters.
[. . .]
Now about 5 per cent of the doctors of the country are women; about 10 per cent of the chemists; out a quarter of the biologists. Some of these are the knowledgeable, careful assistants – the Marthas of the laboratory – who free top men for work on the frontiers of science, but by no means all.
I find the phrase "Martha of the laboratory" a bit cringe-worthy – it makes me think of a mousy glasses-wearing woman who works long hours to keep the lab running while pining for the love of the eccentric and clueless Scientist who is too busy making Discoveries to notice her efficient work or hidden beauty (or maybe I've seen too many bad movies). Anyway, Miller goes on to point to Nobel-prize winning biochemist Dr. Gerty Cori, as well as Helen Sawyer Hogg, president of the Astronomical Society of Canada, professor Harriet Creighton, president of the Botanical Society of America, and Dr. Hoylande Young, head of the Chicago section of the American Chemical Society. At the time the article was written, six women had been admitted to the National Academy of Sciences.

While women in 1957 were still overtly discriminated against, they still had it easier than the women who had come before them:
Much of the time and energy of women who entered the scientific professions in the nineteenth century was spent in either contriving to take barriers gracefully or crashing into them with results demolishing sometimes the woman, sometimes the barrier. Eminent women now in retirement well remember where fences were located and where they were coming down when they entered training. [. . .] To many a pioneer who came up the hard way, the lot of the science majors of the class of 1957 who are entering advanced study or employment this autumn seems a very easy one.
"Easy" being a relative term. While women in science today, half a century later, have it easier than the graduating class of 1957, some things haven't changed much at all.
Other types of restriction remain. One is the counsel that many young girls get when making up their minds about entering a profession. Interviewed in his private machine shop among boulders and birches at Belmont, Massachusetts, Dr. Vannevar Bush credited folklore with much of the reluctance of women to attempt disciplines based on logic, such as mathematics and physics. Promising youngsters, he remarked, are frequently scared off by the declaration: "Girls aren't good at math." Some girls, he believes, can be very good at it. Dean Gordon B. Carson of Ohio State's College of Engineering concurs: "There is still some social stigma and question in the high schools of the nation when girls major in the scientific-mathematics portion of the high school curriculum."
That paragraph could almost fit into an article published today. It just shows how entrenched the idea that "girls can't do math" is in our culture.

But the greatest barrier was a social one – the assumption that women will focus more time on her home life than on her career.
But the two-way stretch of a home and a job, during at least part of a married woman's life, is undeniable. To solve this highly personal problem without quitting requires finding an employing institution that can accommodate itself to maternity leave, part-time employment, sudden emergencies. It requires a family in accord with the effort. It requires finding, for at least part of the time when the children are young, another woman who can relieve the scientist of the necessity of being in two places at the same time. And it requires a certain philosophy, about scientific attainment: in today's competitive conditions, continuity of work is almost indispensable if one is to get as far as one might be able to go – as Vannevar Bush puts it, "Getting to the top on part time is doggone tough."
Note that Miller assumes a woman is needed for child care, and there is no mention of a husband that shares the responsibilities. And in this was in the midst of the post-war baby boom, with women marrying younger and planning more children than women had before the war. Miller goes on to describe how women balanced career and family life – by choosing more "flexible" specialties, by being part of a husband-wife team, or being a "lone wolf" like the brilliant, but unmarried, Barbara McClintock.

A lot has changed in the past fifty years. Certainly medical schools no longer limit women to 5% of the student body, and female astronomers can now use the telescopes at Mount Wilson and Mount Palomar. But the difficulties for women pursuing a career in science that Miller describes are mostly different in degree, not kind. Hopefully change will be faster over the next fifty years.

Related: io9 has tasty quotes about women scientists from 1950s issues of Seventeen, American Girl, and Woman's Home Companion, that praise their homemaking skills as highly as their scientific ones.

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Anonymous said...

"Martha" probably refers to the Martha of the Christian Bible's New Testament. Her sister Mary preferred to spend time with Jesus (and the male disciples) and Martha got mad about having to wash all the dishes alone!

Here's a link to the stories of Mary and Martha:
and a tinyurl in case that didn't work: