Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship Winter 1999

Book Reviews

American Women in Science: 1950 to the Present

Julia Gelfand
Applied Sciences Librarian
University of California, Irvine

American Women in Science: 1950 to the Present. Martha J. Bailey. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC Clio, 1998. 455p. hardbound. $60.00. (ISBN 0-87436-921-5).

There have been several strong reference resources released recently as biographical dictionaries, and as overviews of contributors to specific disciplines. This is not surprising given the increased interest in biographies and autobiographies. Martha Bailey, a well-known and respected librarian, undertook an ambitious attempt to chronicle the lives of women in science. Her first work, American Women in Science: a Biographical Dictionary  (ABC-Clio, 1994) which covered primarily women in the physical and natural sciences in the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century (those who began their careers prior to 1950), was well received. The book under review became volume 2 with expanded coverage and scope.

This second volume is not only a departure from the earlier work but has a broader scope since it encompasses women who have worked in many fields of science. Seventy-eight different disciplines or subdisciplines are covered. Bailey errs on the side of breadth, to include policy scientists, management consultants and those who have roots in the social and behavioral sciences. She also includes journalists, applied scientists, clinical scientists, specialists in narrow fields as well as those known to work with broad strokes, penetrating a larger discipline. Many of the subjects in this volume are or were members of the prestigious national academies; Bailey tried very hard to include underrepresented minorities to an admirable extent.

What stands out in this book is the very readable introduction, which relaxes the reader and puts into context the incredible voyage women have taken in science. It also underscores what unbelievable advances took place in science in less than half a century. The book begins with a sense of adventure and an overview of how higher education has embraced science and women, and yet the range of obstacles which women had to face and overcome in advancing their careers in science, whether they were in academe, government research, or the private sector. Criteria for inclusion is clearly articulated in the preface. One knows just how selective a process Bailey engineered to come up with the list; each of these women have colleagues and students they have collaborated with and mentored, many of whom can complement a future volume.

By pointing to the elements of success in a professional science career, Bailey identifies five factors that are recognized throughout the stories of the women selected for this book. It is humbling to note them because of the frequency in which they appear:

The entries, alphabetically arranged, follow lists by names and professions Each entry has a standard introduction of educational background, where and when the subject obtained academic degress and honorary degrees; a review of professional experience and some personal information, including marital status and if she is a mother The content in these entries is woven into a readable story, highly inspirational and which offers glimpses of how our society has changed over the last few decades. The American higher education landscape has become far more multidisciplinary and inviting to women with many diverse interests. As difficult experiences as many women had, they proved themselves with achievements, recognition and lasting contributions. Each entry notes where else this subject has been included or referenced in a bio-bibliography.

One might expect this to be a volume of dry reading, but when asked to rev iew this book I found myself quite pleased, and in fact I became attached to it and read the first volume as well. The engaging style, the fact that I knew some of the people included, the details I learned about others of whom I had only heard about or  was in awe of, made this reviewing assignment delightful. (Knowing some of the people made me reflect  that one feels old, yet proud, when contemporaries are in the reference books!) Much of the specific information can be extracted from other reference sources, but the details from the interviews are unique and refreshing. The value of the work is that it is a good reference source for anyone who has to introduce one of these people, or to recommend or nominate them for something); it is also that it is a "good read". Now we have a pair of compatible volumes of reference works chronicling achievements of American women in science nearly to the present.

The emphasis to recruit more women into the sciences becomes paramount, as is the need to begin this process when women are just girls. By sharing with them how women such as these paved the way for them to achieve the success they can expect with  determination, strong academic skills, and curiosity makes this book even more valuable. It was just recently when the national press highlighted how Smith College, a traditional liberal arts college with strong science programs, is now establishing an undergraduate engineering program, hoping to attract more women into the profession. By creating a supportive environment for them to study, they will be the majority rather than the minority of students in a subject area.

Many of the women in this book had attended women's colleges, and it would have been most interesting to have some tallied sociological data about the unique elements of such a remarkable population. However, that is not the standard material of biographical dictionaries. The index is helpful by noting names, institutions, qualities, descriptive characteristics, etc. The bibliography is not exhaustive in including reference and historical works that cover women in science in the last half century, but certainly is substantial enough to support this reference tool. If one enjoyed this book, a related volume of interest released at about the same time is Margaret Eisenhart's Women's Science: Learning and Succeeding from the Margins (University of Chicago Press, 1998)


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