Women in the workplace do not always receive their due. A spate of books over the last few years reveals the stories of these previously unsung women whose work was instrumental in science, technology and the military.
The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars
by Dava Sobel
“Was it usual, Mrs. Draper wondered, to employ women as computers? No, Pickering told her, as far as he knew the practice was unique to Harvard, which currently retained six female computers.” In the late 1800s, astronomy was changing, and Harvard College Observatory, directed by Edward Pickering, hired women to do calculations of telescopic observations. As women learned about astronomy, they discovered celestial wonders, improved methods, and developed a system for classifying stars. “[Pickering’s] treatment of women, widely perceived as more than fair, invited fellowship funding that further advanced women’s participation in astronomy. . . . Cecilia Payne’s attainment of the first astronomy Ph.D. at Harvard, in the course of which she challenged the very fabric of the universe, could be traced directly to Pickering’s ‘harem’ and the observatory’s singular collection of glass plates.”
The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers
by Elizabeth Cobbs
“America’s first female soldiers had been stationed throughout shell-shocked France as part of a compact branch of the U.S. Army known as the Signal Corps…Their job was to send messages.” The military recruited bilingual female switchboard operators to work in Europe, although back at home women did not have the right to vote. “The Hello Girls” explores how Americans mobilized for World War I, telephones transformed the United States, females joined the armed forces, suffragists won the vote, and women and men fought together for justice.
The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women
by Kate Moore
“The girls sat in rows, dressed in their ordinary clothes and painting dials at top speed, their hands almost a blur to Katherine’s uninitiated eyes.” Because radium glows, painting watch dials for soldiers became an important job for women during World War I. Although touted as a wonder, radium had lethal effects on workers. In the 1920s, investigations and legal battles against the companies began, lasting throughout the 1930s. “The original radium girls were indeed Cassandra-like in their powers; and just like Cassandra, their prophecies were not always listened to. Safety standards only keep you safe if the companies you work for use them.”
The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II
by Denise Kiernan
“Women occupied every corner of every workplace at CEW, from the personnel processing down to chemical processing. They were janitors, saleswomen, chemists, operators, and administrators.” In World War II, the U.S. government built an immense secret installation in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, for the purpose of developing the atom bomb. Kiernan writes about life at “Clinton Engineering Works” (CEW), weaving in the narratives of a variety of women who came to work there. “But whether the Project had intended it or not, CEW was a social experiment of sorts. A military-run Reservation handling the most top secret of assignments but inhabited by not only military men, but civilians, women, children. . . . Women added a social dimension to this military installation that had not yet been taken fully into account. They were an essential part of the Project’s success.”
Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race
by Margot Lee Shetterly
“The human computers crunching all of those numbers — now that the astronauts understood. The women mathematicians dominated their mechanical calculators the same way the test pilots dominated their mechanical planes.” Focusing on four women, Shetterly relates the stories of black female mathematicians working for the National Advisory Committee (NACA) which became NASA. “Just as islands — isolated places with unique, rich biodiversity — have relevance for the ecosystems everywhere, so does studying seemingly isolated or overlooked people and events from the past turn up unexpected connections and insights to modern life. The idea that black women had been recruited to work as mathematicians at the NASA installation in the South during the days of segregation defies our expectations and challenges much of what we think we know about American history. It’s a great story, and that alone makes it worth telling.”
The Rutland Free Library has the books above and many others about women’s history.