________________ CM . . . . Volume IX Number 17 . . . . April 25, 2003

cover Super Women in Science. (The Women’s Hall of Fame Series).

Kelly Di Domenico.
Toronto, ON: Second Story Press, 2002.
102 pp., pbk., $10.95.
ISBN 1-896764-66-5.

Subject Heading:
Women scientists-Biography-Juvenile literature.

Grades 4-8 / Ages 9-13.

Review by Barbara A. McMillan.

** /4

If my memory serves me right, I read my first biography in Grade 3. This was the grade in which the teacher, a wonderful woman by the name of Mrs. Krems, would hand out a seal or a diploma-like certificate with spaces for four seals every time a student would read and report on five different books. A certificate with four seals represented 25 book reports. I finished the grade with four certificates. Whatever you may think of extrinsic forms of motivation like this, I believe it helped me to become an avid reader - a book enthusiast with an interest in a wide assortment of genres. One of these is the biography, and the biographies I vividly recall reading as a child are those of Louise May Alcott, Clara Barton, Elizabeth Blackwell, Ferdinand Magellan, Florence Nightingale, and Albert Schweitzer. The life stories told in the pages of these books fascinated me. It was not simply what each individual had accomplished, often at great risk, but why. Subconsciously, I must also have wondered if I would be capable of such grand achievements in my own life.

     Different biographies can be found on my bookshelves today. Most are life stories of scientists like Francis Crick, Madam Curie, Charles Darwin, William Harvey, and Lise Meitner. There also exists a small and growing section of juvenile biographies that tell about Archimedes, Rachel Carson, Eratosthenes, Galileo, Edward Jenner, Isaac Newton, Louis Pasteur, Snowflake Bentley, and others. I continue to read the stories told of scientists’ lives with the “what” and “why” questions of my youth in the back of my mind. To these, I have also added another question that has grown out of my developing understanding of philosophy and the nature of science. That is, how is it that these men and women came to see something, very likely seen by others, in a new and unique way?

     Glancing at the table of contents in Kelly Di Domenico’s Super Women in Science, I was struck by the fact that of the 10 women listed, I knew only the achievements of Hypatia, Mary Anning, Maria Goeppert-Mayer, Rachel Carson, Rosaling Franklin, and Birute Galdikas. I had never heard of Harriet Brooks Pitcher, Chien-Shiung Wu, Catherine Hickson, or Mae Jemison, and knew nothing of their scientific accomplishments. This was clearly a book I needed to read. I soon realized, however, that Di Domenico’s focus is as much on the impediments to the careers of these women as it is on their contributions to science knowledge and the community of scientists. The excerpts below will provide a sense of what I mean.

Most women throughout history have had to practice science as a hobby because universities would not accept them as students and the scientific community refused to accept them as professionals. (From “Introduction,” p. 8.)

Imagine trying to be a scientist during the 19th century, when men were even trying to use science to prove that women were inferior. They said that because a woman’s brain is shaped differently than a man’s, she must be less intelligent. (pages 26 - 27.)

In 1894, Harriet [Brooks Pitcher] was one of only a handful of female students at McGill. It was an uncomfortable situation, since some people didn’t want her there because she was a woman. McGill had only issued a degree to a woman for the first time in 1888, and according to Canadian law women were not even “persons”! Even though some of the male students on campus were rude to Harriet, staring at her or pointing and laughing as she walked down the hallways to her classes, she was determined to stay.

     This perspective gets in the way of writing accurate and objective biographies. Rather than drawing attention to the intentional and unintentional biases toward women that existed and continues to exist in the sciences, readers should be helped to see these 10 individuals as driven, gifted scientists with passion and commitment for their work. As it is, one can’t help but wonder if the “super” in the title refers to an ability to persevere in a climate of discrimination rather than the author’s assessment of the unique contributions made by each woman.

     My concern is that young female readers with a propensity for science may pick up Super Women in Science and decide that the gender bias and marginalization portrayed in the lives of these 10 women is too entrenched to eliminate. Reform, however, is always a possibility, and those writing about reform in science suggest that it will come about through effort and by putting women in academic positions with leadership responsibilities. Women with Ph.D. degrees currently account for less that 8 percent of National Academy of Sciences memberships. For the percentage of women in academic research to increase, it’s obvious that girls with a liking for the discipline will need to be encouraged, supported, and mentored, not deterred by stories that portray the “chilly climate” in which women scientists have and continue to work.

Recommended with reservations.

Barbara McMillan is a professor of early and middle years science education in the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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