9 Women In STEM You Didn't Learn About In History Books, But Should Have
One of the most important parts of growing up is realizing that history books don't always tell the full story. The narrative is controlled by the powerful, and in Western culture, that usually means wealthy, white men. As a result, women in STEM have been left out of history all too often, despite contributing just as much as to their fields as their male peers. Some men even used their work to make their own discoveries — Waston and Crick, anyone? — but when the time came to honor scientific breakthroughs or technological innovations, these women were shut out and ignored.
It's easy to dismiss sexism as a thing of the past, but in reality, the STEM fields still have a problem with women. The gender gap starts early; according to a survey commissioned by Microsoft this year, interest is fairly consistent across genders until girls reach 15 years old. At that point, interest drops of sharply and never recovers. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, even women who earn degrees in STEM fields are less likely than men to work in a field related to their degree. Instead, they tend to work in healthcare or education.
Unfortunately, the gender gap in STEM has roots reaching back centuries. Here are nine women scientists and innovators whom history forgot.
1. Margaret Hamilton
When you think of the first time humans landed on the moon, you probably think of astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. If you're really reaching for it, you might picture a command center filled with men in starched collars. Numerous women were involved in the operation, however, including one Margaret Hamilton. In preparation for the moon landing, the software engineer headed up a team of MIT scientists responsible for writing the code for the Apollo 11 guidance computer. She may not have had much recognition back in the '60s, but over the past few years, Hamilton has spent some time in the spotlight, thanks to the viral photo pictured in the above tweet.
2. Ada Lovelace
Computers are seen as a relatively recent invention, but Ada Lovelace was ahead of that particular curve. The 19th century aristocrat (and daughter of the poet Lord Byron) was tutored in math and science as a child, and she went on to translate a article on Charles Babbage's analytical engine, adding her own extensive notes on the early computer's potential applications. She died in relative obscurity, but interest in her notes was eventually revived, earning her the title of the world's first computer programmer.
3. Hypatia Of Alexandria
The word feminist may not have been around for very long, but that doesn't mean feminists didn't exist long ago. Meet Hypatia of Alexandria, a philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician born in Alexandria, Egypt, in the fourth century. Despite traditional gender roles at the time, Hypatia's father, a famous mathematician, taught her as he would a son, and she went on to become a respected academic in the city's university. Tragically, her life was cut short when she was murdered by Christian monks, but her work preserving Alexandria's heritage (not to mention all the minds she shaped) is worth remembering.
4. Elizabeth Blackwell
After a dying friend said she would have received better care if her doctor had been a woman, Elizabeth Blackwell decided to switch from education to medicine. She applied to dozens of schools around the country, but only one accepted her: Geneva Medical College, where the students voted to allow her to attend as a joke. Two years later, in 1849, Blackwell became the first woman to receive an M.D. from an American medical school. She went on to author several medical books about women in medicine and supported many other female physician's careers, particularly with the establishment of the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, which offered medical care to the poor and allowed women to learn medicine.
5. Lise Meitner
You may have heard of Otto Hahn, but what about Lise Meitner? She had just as much of a hand in the development of nuclear power as her coworker, but she receives far less recognition. After studying physics at the University of Vienna, Meitner worked with Hahn under famed scientist Max Planck; she took care of the physics, while he covered chemistry. Meitner and Hahn collaborated for decades, eventually discovering nuclear fission in 1939.
This was an incredibly significant breakthrough in nuclear physics, and Hahn was later awarded the Nobel Prize for his work in the discovery. Meitner, however, was snubbed and her collaboration buried. Fortunately, she's gained some recognition in the intervening decades; the element Meitnerium is named in her honor.
6. Caroline Herschel
Much of Caroline Herschel's existence revolved around her brother, William, to the point where she learned to sing to accompany his organ playing. When he became an astronomer later in life, she assisted him once more — and became an astronomer herself. Over the course of her career, Herschel discovered eight comets and hundreds of new star clusters, eventually receiving a gold medal from the Royal Astronomical Society. When William died, she retired to Germany and continued searching for new nebulae.
7. Nettie Stevens
Around the turn of the 20th century, before women could even vote in the United States, Nettie Stevens was graduating from Stanford University with a masters in biology. After receiving her PhD from Bryn Mawr, she focused her research on sex determination, discovering the X and Y chromosomes and concluding that sex is an inherited trait. Unfortunately, she died early of breast cancer, so we'll never know what theoretical leaps she would have made next.
8. Lillian Gilbreth
If you've ever worked in an office, you have Lillian Gilbreth to thank for the management style. The psychologist and industrial engineer began her academic career at the University of Berkeley, where she earned a degree in literature. She later received her PhD in psychology from Brown College and turned her attention to workplace psychology. Together with her husband, she helped shape the future of organizational management, eventually becoming the first female professor in Purdue University's engineering school. Oh, and she accomplished all this while raising 12 children.
9. The ENIAC Programmers
In 1946, a group of six women programmed the first entirely electric, programmable computer known as the ENIAC, but it was decades before their contributions were publicly acknowledged. When the Army decided to try to build an electronic digital computer in secret, they selected Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, Jean Jennings Bartik, Frances Snyder Holberton, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Frances Bilas Spence, and Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum to program it.
Each woman had previously worked as a "Computer," calculating ballistics trajectories by hand at the University of Pennsylvania, but this was an entirely new field — no programming language or manuals existed yet. Working from nothing but logical diagrams, they were able to program the ENIAC to run a ballistics trajectory in seconds. When it was unveiled to the public, however, these women went uncredited for their work.
The good news is that decades later, the ENIAC Programmers Project has drawn attention to their stories. Am I the only one who feels like a Hollywood adaptation is the natural next step?