Book Review: Headstrong

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.

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14 thoughts on “Book Review: Headstrong”

  1. I love this – and want to run out and buy this book. I am raising boys, but want to show them the struggles of women and minorities in being heard for their brilliance. Thank you so much. I love the format of the book – the 52 profiles so we can easily set aside a night a week to talk about Women in Science. Bravo!

    1. Your boys might especially like hearing about Sally Ride, the first American woman in space.

  2. Sounds like a great book. When I was in design school, I had the opportunity to work on a project featuring 4 well-known women in graphic design. It was one of the most interesting projects I’d worked on. Learning about people in history, particularly the ones who aren’t always in the limelight, is a wonderful experience.

    1. It’s one of the joys of getting random history books to read–all the odd bits and pieces that also make up a larger picture as you learn more.

  3. I love reading books on the people who molded the science we have today. I think these books are very inspirational for anyone who feels like the world is against them and they are working on overcoming obstacles Great review and I’m enjoying the book!.

  4. This book sounds right up my alley! I used to under-appreciate science growing up, but now as an adult, I think science is so amazing and that we learn so many neat things. Maybe if I had had more examples of women accomplishing neat things in science, I could have come to appreciate it earlier. I will definitely add this book to my to read list.

    1. Several of the scientists in the book were told that science wasn’t for girls, or that they wouldn’t be good enough because they were women–culture is something that changes over time. Things have gotten better, but they can still improve.

  5. i’m going to check this book out! thanks for bringing it to my attention. My women inventors are next? I want to learn more about Hedy Lamar and her inventions that furthered wireless communications. But – I like the way this book is laid out – 52 women – 52 weeks.

    1. Ms. Lamarr is in here–she even made the cover, though you will have to zoom to spot her.

  6. Thank you for this SKJAM. I have to say biographies and memoirs are my favorite genre, so I may have to check this one out.
    Looking forward to following your reviews, Kimberly

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