2019 has been an incredible year for books about the history of women in STEM. A short two decades ago, it would have been riches beyond telling to have two entire books published about women scientists in the space of a year, but the times are a changing! With so many new books to choose from, we figured you might need some help to target your holiday shopping, so here are some of my favorites from the last year (and a couple from 2018 for good measure!)
Women in their Element: Selected Women’s Contributions to the Periodic System – Edited by Annette Lykknes & Brigitte Van Tiggelen
This is a great volume organized around a novel theme featuring dozens of articles about women who have made important additions to our knowledge of the elements of the universe, written by an assortment of modern day historians of science. Spanning the 17th century right up to the current day, we are treated to pieces about regular favorites like Emilie du Chatelet, Marie Curie, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, and Lise Meitner, as well as delightful peeks into lesser sung heroes like Madame Lavoisier, Toshiko Mayeda, and Marguerite Perey. No matter who you are, there’s somebody here to learn about, and having all these resources collected in one book is a boon to chemical history buffs.
Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men – By Caroline Criado Perez
When I first reviewed this book, I called it perhaps the most important book I have ever read, and I stand by that statement. It’s blow by blow account of how almost every item and institution a woman interacts with in her daily life has been measured and designed by male metrics which at their best ignore her and at their worst actively harm her. Individually, these are things we are aware of and accept as isolated incidents of poor planning, but massed as they are in Perez’s book they present a towering monolith of bad data practice which threaten the lives of millions every day. An utterly necessary book for every human to read.
Handprints on Hubble: An Astronaut’s Story of Invention – By Kathryn D. Sullivan
This book, by the first American woman to perform a spacewalk, is a deeply interesting look at something we don’t think enough about – the science behind maintaining long-mission scientific devices. Our focus is almost always on the scientists charged with inventing a new device, and hardly ever on those with the equally difficult task of figuring out how to carry out the maintenance tasks and potential future upgrades that will make that device something of use for decades to come. Sullivan was an important force on the team determining how to expand the life and utility of the Hubble Space Telescope, and her story is a crucial one, firstly for peeling back the curtain on the long, hard work of space engineering, and secondly as a corrective for a culture that has increasingly allowed itself to expect short life spans from its technological products. We can do better, make things last longer, if we put time into valuing that aspect of science, and this book will go far towards that goal.
African American Women Chemists in the Modern Era – By Jeannette E. Brown
The follow-up volume to Brown’s 2011 must-have African-American Women Chemists, this book takes the story into the present day, profiling 19 current chemists and looking at big questions about how to inspire and support more children in the pursuing of chemistry as a career. Brown’s book has a wonderful organization made precisely for aspiring scientists who might wonder what exactly the range of possible jobs for a prospective chemist might be, breaking her material down by chapters that each highlight what different types of chemists do in different systems – from universities to national labs to private industry to large scale organizations, we learn the pitfalls and advantages of these different roads, and how relatively difficult it is for a person of color to break into each.
Vielfaltige Physik: Wissenschaftlerinnen schreiben uber ihre Forschung – Edited by Deborah Duchardt, Andrea B. Bossmann, and Cornelia Denz
This is, in every way, my kind of book. It’s a collection of women physicists explaining their science in their own terms for a generally scientifically literate audience. The science featured is a cornucopia of fascinating topics, covering neutrinos, plasma physics, quantum gravity, nanostructures, the development of galaxies, biomedical physics, and new possible physics beyond the standard model. It’s a candy store of modern physics topics, as told by the women researchers making it happen, and if you can read German passably well, it’s all yours for the reading!
The factory production of chickens for the meat industry represents one of humanity’s most scandalous examples of casually allowed horror in the name of cuisine, and Leah Garcés’s story of uncovering the true depths of the degradation, not only of the animals whose lives are ruined in the pursuit of cheaper meat, but the farmers who suffer at the hands of the factory farming system, is disturbing and deeply necessary. For the food activist in your life, or the open-minded carnivore looking for good reasons to change how they eat, Garces’s account of working together with farmers and industry chiefs to change an industry from within is a profound read.
Magnificent Women and their Revolutionary Machines – By Henrietta Heald
Heald’s tale of the outstanding personalities who came together to form the Women’s Engineering Society in 1919 is an engaging story of scattered professionals coming together to create structures to support their mutual endeavors and provide opportunities for those just coming up in the world. All of the battles about the future of the women’s engineering movement are laid out as conflicts of ideology and personality between scientists of widely varying backgrounds and perspectives, all leading up to the eventual triumph as women compelled the professional organizations of Britain to open their doors to women at last. The personal portraits are fascinating, and the example of how a few dedicated individuals used their abilities and capacities to nudge entire industries into recognizing equal talents is one that continues to be relevant.
A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War – By Patricia Fara
Put this together with Heald’s book above and you have the ultimate two-pack gift for somebody interested in the intersection of women’s organization with women’s increasing participation in STEM fields. Fara’s book casts a wider net, focusing less exclusively on the minute history of one organization and its founding figures, and more on the larger story of how the First World War changed how women were viewed by their society, how they participated in that society as scientists and researchers, and how their self-conception changed as a result of their wartime work. Individual portraits of fascinating scientists are interwoven with larger considerations of tectonic forces in the scientific community and larger society, creating a book of both profound scope and personal interest.
Frankie: How One Woman Prevented a Pharmaceutical Disaster – By James Essinger & Sandra Koutzenko
The story of Frances Kelsey’s role in the blocking of mass-distribution of thalidomide in the United States is one long past over-due in the telling. As an example of an individual standing against the pressures that could be exerted by a pharmaceutical industry that had not as of yet experienced meaningful regulation of its products, it’s an inspiring evolutionary tale of the emergence of governmental oversight and the importance of personal integrity in preventing a disaster of almost unfathomable scope.
Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet – By Claire L. Evans
This is a collection of stories of the contributions women have made not just to the development of the internet, but to the field of computer science generally, including the expected portraits of early innovators Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper, but quickly moving into what for most readers will be unfamiliar territory, including the tale of Nirvana-era electronic magazine pioneer Jaime Levy, Elizabeth Feinler’s role in the development of ARPANET, and Cathy Marshall’s work at Xerox PARC on hypertext research. For a sector steeped in code-bro expectations, it is a crucial corrective telling the story of diligent contributors working against long odds to succeed.
Quite the year, indeed!