The Amazing Cold War Advocates for Women in Science

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July 13 2014 11:30 PM

“Unclaimed Treasures of Science”

Even during the Cold War, these women brought feminism to STEM.

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Promotional materials from the time rushed to make clear that female scientists, engineers, and educators were still “typical girls” who just happened to like science.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Everett Collection.

In researching the history of the Westinghouse Science Talent Search a few years ago, I happened upon some amazingly gender-stereotyped publicity photographs of young female contestants in the 1950s. The girls—who had jumped a rigorous series of academic hurdles on the way to the national science talent competition—had been photographed holding up banquet dresses, sharing milkshakes with male contestants, and gazing at the Hope Diamond on a visit to the Smithsonian.

Rebecca Onion Rebecca Onion

Rebecca Onion, who runs Slate’s history blog The Vault, is a writer and academic living in Ohio. Follow her on Twitter.

The official government line during the Cold War was: STEM careers for everyone! But as historians Margaret Rossiter and Sevan Terzian have pointed out, that push for science, technology, engineering, and math conflicted with gender norms and discriminatory institutional practices, resulting in a confusing set of mixed messages for women and girls. The science talent search materials show how even the most accomplished got represented as “typical girls” who just happened to like science. Official press releases described the young women in feminine terms, hurrying to assure readers that the girls were attractive and interested in having families.

I confess to having thought of the Cold War as the Dark Ages for women interested in scientific careers before reading historian Laura Micheletti Puaca’s new book, Searching for Scientific Womanpower: Technocratic Feminism and the Politics of National Security, 1940-1980. Puaca writes about female scientists, engineers, and educators who used innovative tactics to help women succeed in STEM, long before second-wave feminism in the late 1960s and the 1970s made issues of employment equity and stereotyping part of the national conversation.

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Puaca found startling stories of advocates working from within colleges and universities, government agencies, and organizations such as the American Association of University Women (founded in 1881), the Society for Women Engineers (founded in 1950), and the women’s scientific organization Sigma Delta Epsilon (founded 1921). These activist women used Cold War fears about United States competitiveness like a lever, extracting funding and opportunities for female scientists and engineers from a reluctant establishment. “Very few of these women would have claimed the label ‘feminist’ for themselves” during the Cold War, Puaca told me over the phone. “But their programs and activities embodied feminist ideals.”

World War II gave these women their starting point. During the war, demands for more of what was often called “scientific manpower” and a shortage of civilian male workers prompted government and industry to start programs to train women in science and engineering. That climate allowed advocates such as Barnard College Dean Virginia Gildersleeve to push for long-desired goals: In 1942, Gildersleeve was finally able to parlay concern over national defense to convince Columbia’s School of Engineering to admit female Barnard students.

But when men returned from the service, women’s status in STEM fields worsened. The GI Bill sent a flood of male students to American universities, and opportunities—both for women who had gotten quick wartime training and for more established female scientists—dried up. Just as female war workers in factories found their well-paying, high-level jobs reassigned to men at the end of the war so, too, did women working in scientific fields.

Discrimination began to manifest itself in policies and in culture. Women in STEM during the Cold War faced the era’s standard social disapproval of women who combined career and family. Women married to other scientists (as many in STEM were) had trouble finding full employment at the same university as their husbands, as anti-nepotism laws effectively precluded it. (These laws, Sharon Bertsch McGrayne points out, were often bent to benefit brothers or sons, but not wives.) Many such women were hired as research associates at low pay. If unmarried, scientists or engineers often found employment at women’s colleges, which did not offer the same level of support for research. Women in STEM who did find jobs lacked the benefits, stability, or prestige that their male counterparts enjoyed.

The female activists Puaca writes about identified female scientific underemployment as a significant problem as early as a 1939 forum on women in chemistry. Ruth O’Brien, a chemist at the Department of Agriculture, condemned the suggestion that women should accept hybrid scientific-secretarial work:

For a really able woman chemist bent on maintaining her professional dignity, it is definitely derogatory to permit herself to have anything to do with a typing job … [there is] an octopus-like tendency of the typewriter to wrap its arms around her and refuse to let her rise above it.

Many of the wartime programs had no intention of boosting women to high positions within the professions, Puaca writes: “In the eyes of most government and industry officials, these programs … were designed to release men for more challenging and prestigious assignments.” Top wartime initiatives at Los Alamos or the Office of Scientific Research and Development weren’t staffing up with women; women had some lower-level jobs as assistants and technicians on these projects but weren’t in positions of authority.

Advocates for women in science during the Cold War fought against the tradition of underemployment, arguing that women wouldn’t enter STEM fields on the strength of such weak enticements. Chemist Ethaline Cortelyou critiqued the practice of hiring women into lower-level positions in the pages of Chemical Bulletin in 1958, arguing, pragmatically, “The prospects of ‘serving as another pair of hands’ for some man chemist is not sufficiently alluring to interest a girl in four years of hard work needed to obtain a bachelor’s degree in chemistry.”

These advocacy organizations were ahead of their time in their criticism of media representations of female scientists. In the 1950s and 1960s the Society of Women Engineers, Puaca told me, “was already saying things like ‘It’s good to give girls construction sets,’ and ‘We have to pay attention to media representations of women, and make sure we have public, popular representations of women as scientists and engineers in movies, film, and books.’ ”

Chemist Betty Lou Raskin titled her 1958 address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science “American Women: Unclaimed Treasures of Science” and blamed “cultural conditioning and poor vocational guidance” for women’s lack of interest in scientific careers:

They have made the mink coat, not the lab coat, our symbol of success. They’ve praised beauty, not brains. They’ve emphasized leisure time, not hard work and originality. As a result, today’s schoolgirl thinks it far more exciting to serve tea on an airplane than to foam a new lightweight plastic in the laboratory.

Raskin called for more female scientist characters on television and film. She even published a 1959 essay in the New York Times Magazine: “Women’s Place Is in the Lab, Too.”

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