Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science– and the World

I picked this book mostly on a gut instinct based on the title and the cover while looking for my next book to blog for. I didn’t think twice about getting this one and ordered it immediately. When I received it in the mail, I was kind of astonished to realize that I’d already put it on my mental to-read list, though it hadn’t actually made it to my physical one on Goodreads. I’d stumbled upon the blurb originally during one of my monthly forays into the physical newspaper at work (I only browse it whilst waiting for my food to reheat in the microwave and usually don’t make it past the front page).

I can only say that I’m thrilled that this book reappeared in my life :-).

loved that the first mini-biography (or rather micro-biographies) was about Mary Putnam Jacobi (1842-1906) who put a lot of effort into writing a well researched paper on exactly why it was utter bullshit that educating women caused their ovaries to shrivel up and die (as was the leading argument by a male who didn’t like the idea of educating women). I though this the perfect place to start this amazing list of women.

However, if you were expecting to find a blurb on Marie Curie in this book, you’ll be sadly disappointed. I don’t really agree with the reasoning behind this omission (it’s discussed in the introduction)–that she’s simply too famous to be included. The methodology for choosing these 52 women (which does include Iréne Joliot-Curie, one of Marie’s daughters) doesn’t say that they must be women who were overlooked during their day. Unwittingly when I was ordering my books from the library for this month(s), I grabbed Almost Famous Women  where I do expect to find a lack of the usual favorites. The women in this book run the gambit of those who were ignored, stolen from, and those who were actually given a lot of praise sooner or later in their career (the category to which Curie belongs).

I have to say that I was somewhat disappointed by the limited scope of these micro-biographies. Generally, except for when a bit of author’s bias creeps in, these are cut and dry descriptions of where these ladies came from, what their passion was, and how they went about making their discoveries. There is just a bare hint that one of the reasons Jacobi was so pissed off by Clarke’s book (Sex in Education; or, A Fair Chance for Girls) was because she was a mother as well as a scientist, so obviously her ovaries hadn’t shriveled up beyond use. While I too find it appalling that the obituary that gave rise to this book listed Yvonne Brill’s “mean stroganoff” well before mentioning that she was a brilliant rocket scientist, I think it harmful to disregard how these women themselves felt about their circumstances.

I consider myself a “practical libertarian communist” with the communist aspect being relevant here: at work, I feel proud when we as a team succeed. I don’t need the personal accolades or recognition to feel like I’ve done a good job. I don’t even mind when someone else takes credit for something that I’ve done a lot of work on, namely because of the smug satisfaction I have knowing that without me they’d fall flat on their face. So long as I make a fair wage for the work that I’ve done, anyone and their brother can step in and claim all the glory. Of course, if they were able to reap the benefits of this glory without me benefiting as well (not foreseeable where I work), then I’d happily step aside and let the glory-takers prove their worth. Currently for me this “glory” is the responsibility of talking to customers and solving the problems that I try my damnest to prevent before they happen even though this is NOT my responsibility, which is why I can’t stop a good half of them.

Anyway, I just dislike when people decide that folks who are seemingly “oppressed” should feel outrage over their situation. Different strokes for different folks, as I say, so while it’s nice to see a generally cut and dry account of these women’s scientific achievements, I think it’s unfair to not list her children if at the end of the day she felt that that was her biggest achievement.

While these micro-biographies are informative, I think they should just be the jumping off point for further research. I know I plan to look into at least a few of these ladies more in depth. I may even finish Madame Curie which I set aside immediately after reading the part about her husband’s death. Otherwise it was a really good book!

I received this book for free from Blogging For Books in exchange for this honest review.

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