Monday, November 18, 2013

Women Who Changed Modern American Science

By Nancy Morrison, from the June 2013 Issue of Status: A Report on Women in Astronomy

The Boston meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in February, 2013, included a session on the history of women in science [1]. This article summarizes the presentation by Margaret Rossiter, which was entitled “Thirty Women Who Changed American Science, 1970–2010” and was based on the third in her series of books, Women Scientists in America. It described the changes these women wrought, not by means of scientific research, but rather by means of political and legal activity. Every woman who began a career in science in the 1970’s and later owes them a great debt.

Rossiter opened by remarking, “It goes without saying that we live in historic times.” In all fields of science, both the percentages and the absolute numbers of women students and degree recipients are rising. Employment is also going up, partly as a result of epoch-making legislation passed in March and June 1972. Before that time, nonprofit organizations, universities, and governments were exempt from equal-opportunity cases; their employees had no standing to sue. The Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972 [2] changed this situation. At the time, it received virtually no publicity, and even avid newspaper readers were barely aware of it.

Then in June 1972 was passed the Education Amendments Act, also known as the Patsy Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act. It includes Title IX, which made it possible for the federal government to investigate such things as admissions quotas, athletic scholarships, and stipend levels. Quotas of all kinds were common at that time. Universities were arrogant about these policies. In retrospect, their self- interest might have been better served through voluntary change, which might have kept the federal government out of their affairs. As it was, these laws had powerful effects on all women in science, especially mid-career women who were confronting glass ceilings.

Enforcement was crucial. Universities are powerful, have influential organizations in Washington, and might have been able to stymie enforcement. But, in the 1970’s, many activists, both paid and volunteer, were watching employment issues. Journalists were interested. Petitions were signed.

Recognition issues also came to the forefront, even when not legally mandated. Among the most visible markers of change were women who became scientific society presidents, university chancellors, and Presidential appointees.

Young society members learned the system, got on nominating committees, and made sure women became candidates for society offices. Rossiter presented a long list of women presidents of scientific organizations. Noteworthy among them is Mina Rees, the first woman president of the AAAS, elected in 1971. Bodil Schmidt- Nielsen became the first woman president of the American Physiological Society in 1975. In an autobiographical essay, she later wrote that she was embarrassed because her candidacy was actively promoted by the younger women in the society rather than by the senior men. C. S. Wu was elected the first woman president of the APS and Margaret Burbidge of the AAS in 1975 and 1976, respectively. The last to be the first woman president of a scientific society was Doris M. Curtis, who was elected president of the Geological Society of America in 1991. In some societies, a long gap occurred between the first woman and the second, while other societies have frequently had women presidents.


Some of these women were elected in the year in which the Equal Rights Amendment was on the agenda of the organization, and they were charged with promoting it. Many were not interested in politics and were not comfortable in this role, but their duty was to represent their organizations.

In terms of highly visible appointed positions, the first big breakthroughs occurred in 1987, when Donna Shalala became the president of the University of Wisconsin and Maxine Singer became the president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. The first Chancellors of universities in the University of California system were also appointed in 1987.

But the highest-profile positions of all were Presidential appointees. One was Marina von Neumann Whitman, who was appointed by Richard Nixon to the Council of Economic Advisers in 1973. Although a Presidential appointment was a triumph for women, it could be uncomfortable, because these women went to offices that had never had women leaders before. Although Whitman was not a feminist activist, she did a lot to help other women in the federal government, and having her there was a significant step forward.

At the same time, Eloise E. Clark was at NSF. Gerald Ford appointed a few women, and Carter more, including the young Donna Shalala. Under Reagan, Bernardine Healy became the first woman head of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). George H. W. Bush appointed only four women in four years. Clinton appointed quite a few; he was “one of the biggest glass cutters of all time.” George W. Bush was responsible for only three names in eight years. Obama has made several female Presidential appointments, and he still has time to make more.


Now let’s focus on the list of thirty during the period 1970 to 2000, which includes some names already mentioned. Some are no longer living. Future generations should know about these women because they still make a difference today. The highest accolade goes to six women who fought lawsuits, which dragged on for six months to ten years and were “lonely, expensive, and exhausting.” Among the few who won major victories were Julia Apter and the Association for Women in Science (AWIS), who sued the Department of Health, Education and Welfare in 1971-1972. Getting standing to sue the US government was a breakthrough. The immediate result was a dramatic increase in the number of women on NIH grant review panels.

June Chewning took on the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) (now called the Department of Energy). By collecting data, she showed that the agency was really an old boys’ network with a strong buddy system, so that women were always in junior positions regardless of qualifications. The Justice Department agreed fully, giving her a victory just on the basis of statistics.

Louise Lamphere led a class-action lawsuit against Brown University in 1977, alleging that the university had discriminated against women in the awarding of tenure. Needing to start a fundraising drive and not wanting a lengthy lawsuit, the university president settled quickly.

Shyamala Rajender v. University of Minnesota was a big case. She started alone, and then it became a class action lawsuit, won in 1980. The whole state university system was placed in the charge of a special master for years until many women were hired, especially in science. Retroactive to 1972, the award shows the influence of the laws that were passed that year.

Typically, the outcomes of these lawsuits were generous to future hires: grievance procedures and improved hiring protocols were instituted, managers were retrained, and so forth. But those who sued received only minimal financial settlements. These women deserve biographies or honorary degrees but probably won’t get the latter from their universities. [3]

Rossiter’s next group of noteworthy women are fifteen who led caucuses and other organizations. In particular, she mentioned: Alice Rossi, one of the founders of the National Organization for Women (NOW); Janet Welsh Brown, the first head of the AAAS Office of Opportunities in Science; Bernice Sandler, who worked with NOW and with the Women’s Equity Action League (WEAL) and made the first suggestion that led to Title IX; Abigail Stewart, a psychologist who runs the ADVANCE program at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor; and Betty Vetter, Executive Director, Scientific Manpower Commission, which was organized by the AAAS and other major scientific societies. [4]

These women got grants, hired staff on soft money, put out newsletters, spoke to the media, testified before Congress, and ran meetings. They cemented the connections between organizations in Washington and grass-roots activists on campuses and other institutions all over the country. They provided outreach to young women and sparked innovations in many areas.

Rossiter’s next group consists of eight women whom she calls gadflies or critics. This list overlaps the previous one, but other names include: Agnes Green, who produced the “list of zeroes” issued in 1970 by the American Chemical Society, showing that few chemistry departments had women faculty; and Sheila Tobias, who wrote well-known books on math anxiety.

Rossiter calls her final group of two women “influential insiders.” The first is Jewel Plummer Cobb, notably a Nixon appointee to the National Science Board. She set up a committee on minorities at the NSF. The other is MIT physicist Mildred Dresselhaus, who, when in New York city, always stopped to see influential people such as Lawrence Rockefeller, pleading that more be done to help women in physics and engineering.

That completes the list of thirty. They kept the movement alive through good and bad times. They knew each other, were in frequent contact, and formed a network (not necessarily in the sociological sense). They worked out a division of labor analogous to an “endless field hockey game,” passing the ball back and forth until reaching a goal and then moving on to the next playing field.

Some continuing goals and activities are identifiable. Activists worked for new legislation, and indeed a women in science bill was passed in 1980. [5] Another issue was enforcement of existing legislation, which requires funding and, therefore, constant urging of constituent to keep in touch with legislators. A result of this activity was the introduction of new programs at NSF, including the Visiting Professorships for Women (VPW) and Professional Opportunities For Women in Research and Education (POWRE). Critiques of the media began in earnest during those times. In general, the movement’s goals were to create space for equal opportunity for women and to protect it.

Absent here as individuals, but numerically very important, are students from the 1970’s and 1980’s. They voted with their feet, got degrees in science, and embarked on fulfilling careers. We don’t know what inspired them. Was it just removal of barriers, or was it hearing about prominent women? Was it positive recruitment through career programs? Saturdays at a federal laboratory? Sleepover at a natural history museum? Television programs such as NOVA? For whatever reason, thousands of young women obtained degrees in science who would not previously have done so.

The thirty women celebrated here are probably only a small fraction of the women who made contributions during this period. They had impact far beyond their numbers. Some dedicated thirty years or more of their lives to the cause of women in science. Every campus, scientific society, and government agency housed at least a few of them.

The study of the history of women in science continues. Biographies or autobiographies of many of these heroines are in progress. The American Institute of Physics has an oral history project and always needs more names of people to interview. Penn State has an oral history project on Nixon’s women appointees. [6]

Significant awards have been named for prominent women. For example, the NIH offers the Ruth Kirschstein National Research Service Award program. At Cornell University, the physics department has a room named for Barbara Cooper. But more should be done. By memorializing these women, we can work to change the atmosphere at institutions. No longer do we have to walk down corridors lined exclusively with portraits of bearded old men. “It’s not just Madame Curie any more;” there are lots of distinguished names in every field. Science needs its heroines, so that we can view their portraits, too.

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[1] The session was held in celebration of the 25th anniversary of “the first multi-author collection of essays on the history of women in science, Uneasy Careers & Intimate Lives, Women in Science, 1789–1979.” The speakers were Margaret Walsh Rossiter (Cornell University), Sue V. Rosser (San Francisco State University), Nancy G. Slack (The Sage Colleges), and Pnina G. Abir-Am (Brandeis University). Audio recordings of all the speakers and the slides from Rosser and Slack are available for sale here.

[2] The original text of the law before amendments is available here.

[3] Some stories end happily, though. About ten years ago, Lamphere gave Brown University a $1 million gift to support the Louise Lamphere Visiting Assistant Professorship in Gender Studies, and, in 2008, the university sponsored a scholarly conference in her honor. Diffily, A. 2008, “Five Questions for Louise Lamphere,” Today at Brown, October 16, 2008, accessed May 3, 2013.

[4] For this and other supplementary information, I have drawn on each woman’s entry in Wikipedia.

[5] “An act to authorize appropriations for activities for the National Science Foundation for the fiscal year 1981, and to promote the full use of human resources in science and technology through a comprehensive and continuing program to increase substantially the contribution and advancement of women and minorities in scientific, professional, and technical careers, and for other purposes.” http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/96/s568
[6] A Few Good Women Oral History Collection.