I am looking at a bookshelf of fading stories. Here are biographies long out of print of women who changed their time (and ours) for the better but whose lives have shrunk with each year’s silence. In the merciless gnarl of the history of science, memory is often allotted to those who proclaimed their worth most confidently, and so we remember Otto Hahn but forget Harriet Brooks, remember Carl Linnaeus but forget Maria Merian, remember Edward Jenner but forget Lady Mary Montagu…
The list can be extended to dozens, hundreds, of names, but the story couldn’t be clearer: left to its own devices, history forgets people who don’t have institutions established to the preservation of their memory. For years, I collected these volumes of women scientists, as if the mere act of collecting them and preserving them in one private location would somehow insure them against the steady contraction of collective memory. And for years, that’s all I could do – collect the stories and share them with my students when I had the chance.
What I needed was an institution dedicated to the proposition that women’s history must be unearthed, told, and promoted with every scrap of know-how the Internet age has to offer, run by people who consider it a profound and humbling responsibility to provide these stories a home. That’s what Women You Should Know has become for me – an archive of endangered stories the mere existence of which stands as a bastion against the selective amnesia of standard histories. Here the forgotten come to find their voices again, and it has been one of the steady joys of my life to write the Illustrated Women in Science column here for the last two years.
I am looking at a bookshelf of fading stories. I have had the chance to tell one hundred and twenty eight of them so far, but there are so many left to tell, and without this home, I don’t know where I would be able to tell them. Here is Rebecca Crumpler, an African American physician of the 19th century who wrote a treatise on the care of women and children. Tatiana Ehrenfest, a statistical mechanics pioneer of the early 20th century. Katy Payne, who spent three decades analyzing the components of whale song. Harriet Boyd Hawes, an archaeologist who discovered the Minoan town of Gournia. Charlotte Friend, a viral oncologist who demonstrated that viruses are responsible for some forms of cancer. Lives on a shelf waiting for a telling that goes beyond the paragraph Wikipedia has allotted them.
I’m ready to tell them all, but to do that, I need this space, and for this space to keep existing, Jen Jones and Cynthia Hornig, who have been running the entire show out of their own pockets for years, need help. Not just a sudden spurt of once-off cash (though that would also be quite nice), but real and sustained help by people who believe in this project as much as we do.
If you can help us out, that would be grand, for there are stories to tell.