Book Review: Headstrong by Rachel Swaby
This is a collection of short biographical sketches of women who made advancements in various scientific fields. According to the introduction, it was inspired when the New York Times ran an obituary of Yvonne Brill that listed her home cooking as her most important accomplishment, followed by being a wife and mother. And only then mentioning that she was an award-winning rocket scientist that made it possible for satellites to adjust their orbits.
And it is true that scientists who happen to be women have often been downplayed or outright ignored in books on the history of science. So in the interest of making these scientists more widely known and giving role models to women and girls interested in the sciences, Ms. Swaby picked fifty-two stories to tell. One of her criteria was that they had to be dead, so their entire body of work could be assessed; she points out that this made her list less ethnically diverse as women of color and those outside the Europe/America culture area have been even more hampered in pursuing science careers, though strides have been made in recent decades. Also, she chose to write about Irène Joliot-Curie rather than her mother, as Marie Curie is the Smurfette (the one woman who gets to be in the club) of science books.
Ms. Swaby suggests reading one entry a week, but reviewers have to step up the pace, so I did it in two days. The biographies are divided by scientific fields such as medicine, physics and mathematics (Florence Nightingale was listed under the last category for her advances in statistical analysis.) The women profiled go from Mary Putnam Jacobi, who did a medical study disproving the then popular theory that a college education made women infertile to Stephanie Kwolek, the inventor of Kevlar.
Many of the stories are bittersweet; the women had to fight to even be allowed to study, were denied paying jobs in their fields, denied credit for their work, denied promotions, titles and awards–and these are just the ones who persisted! Things have improved over time, but one can see where systemic sexism has slowed advancements in science and technology.
It should be noted that some of the women in this book did work or had opinions that are still controversial, Certain readers may object to their inclusion, despite their prominence.
While the book is written for adults, the language is suitable for junior high students on up. It may be an uncomfortable fit for some male readers, but that’s the way it goes; growth is painful sometimes. Elementary school readers may enjoy Girls Research more; see my review of that book. The volume comes with endnotes, a bibliography for further reading, index, and credits for quotes used.
Highly recommended to science fans and those wanting a quick introduction to scientists they may not have known about before.
Disclaimer: I received this volume from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing this review. No other compensation was involved.