by Rachel Swaby
In Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science--and the World, author Rachel Straby provides mini-biographies covering women scientists in fields including biology, paleontology, medicine, chemistry, genetics, environmental studies, physics, radiophysics, math, astronomy, seismology, astrophysics, technology, communication, and the military. Swaby's goal is to highlight the contributions women have made not only in these fields, but in our modern world as we now know it.
The lives and work of these women is undeniably impressive and world-altering. The text invites readers to question whether or not they can name many of these powerhouse women off of the top of their heads? Many might answer "Marie Curie" and then be out. Swaby pushes audiences to know and appreciate many more.
These nineteenth- and twentieth-century scientists encountered hurdles their male colleagues would never have faced. Furthermore, it was often their male counterparts imposing these professional barriers. Offenses are far-ranging: having their names removed from publications because of their gender; being accused of falsifying results because men believed certainly these were issues they would have noticed first; being the first women in their field; being the first in their field; being the first female faculty at their university; having their work stolen; having males claim credit for their results and findings; never receiving payment; being denied positions and having to work without an office.
These scientists' work impacted many aspects of our lives including improving infant mortality rates, identifying the harm of DDT and other pesticides on food, curing diseases, progressing diabetic treatment with insulin, identifying never-before-known fossils and species, discovering new elements, winning Nobel prizes, correcting human understanding of laws of nature, and bettering the world for humankind.
The pros of the text: expanding readers' knowledge and appreciate for strong leaders in these fields, encouraging younger generations, and overall contributing to the fight for equality of the sexes. The cons: Swaby's book reads much like a series of Wikipedia entries and definitely lacks racial and cultural diversity. In response to this last point, Swaby defends herself by writing that she was only covering scientists whose life contributions to their fields were complete and because these fields often remained closed to racial and cultural diversity, later editions of the text will remedy this as time proceeds. While I still feel the text was unnecessarily whitewashed and Swaby could easily have opened up her survey to female contributors across the globe (Swaby fails to consider related fields like obstetrics, midwifery, gynecology, and women who worked in apothecaries), these women are nevertheless worthy of study, note, and praise for their efforts and successes in changing our world.