“Unclaimed Treasures of Science”

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

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.

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.

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.”

On a pragmatic level, organizations put together mentorship and fellowship opportunities. Chapters of the Society of Women Engineers sent representatives to speak at luncheons and symposia and often met personally with female students to give them career advice. Sigma Delta Epsilon sponsored science fairs, invited winners to national meetings, and paired students with older pen pals.

Starting in 1959, the American Council on Women in Science administered a graduate scholarship for women who had taken a break from their careers to have children. Sigma Delta Epsilon created a program of grants-in-aid to help women who had been away from careers in service of domestic responsibilities—giving preference to applicants who were 35 or older.

Some of the Sigma Delta Epsilon fellowship recipients went to great lengths to restart their scientific research. “The industrious JoAnne Mueller,” Puaca writes, “who held a master’s degree from Indiana University, even set up a laboratory in the basement of her house. Working from home, which her award made possible, enabled Mueller to tend to her one-year-old child while still fitting in 40 hours of research a week.”

Another resourceful mother was Mary “Polly” Ingraham Bunting-Smith, who held a Ph.D. in agricultural bacteriology. Bunting had four children and was employed in a series of part-time research associate positions before her husband (who was on the faculty at Yale School of Medicine) died prematurely of a brain tumor. Bunting went on to become the dean of Douglass College, the women’s college at Rutgers University, in 1955, and then the president of Radcliffe. (She was also the first woman to sit on the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, in 1964.)

While at Douglass and Radcliffe, Bunting hatched several plans to help “housewives” return to STEM professions. Bunting’s first idea, which she implemented in 1959, was to create a mathematics retraining program for college graduates who had dropped out of the workforce after having children. In 1960, she founded the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study, a place for what she called “intellectually displaced women,” where both established researchers and those whose careers had been interrupted by family responsibilities could take up fellowships.

Advocates made accommodations to the dominant gender ideologies of the Cold War. Bunting, like many of the women Puaca writes about, emphasized that the women her programs were helping would balance domestic and intellectual duties.

Women argued over the need to convince skeptical onlookers that a person could be both feminine-looking and interested in STEM. “For the Society of Women Engineers” in particular, Puaca writes, “projecting a positive image of women engineers required accepting, on the surface at least, dominant notions of femininity.” Some members made sure to wear dresses, heels, and lipstick for presentations, reassuring people that professionalism and the standard beauty code of Cold War womanhood were not mutually exclusive.

Some members of these organizations pushed for a broader approach to feminist issues, arguing that women in STEM needed to ask bigger questions about gender roles and represent women’s interest in society as a whole. Member Olive Mayer wrote to the SWE president in 1957 pushing for the organization to endorse the Equal Rights Amendment, and to become politically active on matters such as equal pay and federal support for child care. “Cold War caution,” Puaca writes, “prevented SWE from issuing formal declarations on these topics or working with other organizations to effect change.”

Alice Rossi.
Alice S. Rossi.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Later, as the women’s movement entered its second-wave heyday in the 1970s, this picture changed. Take, for example, Alice S. Rossi, a sociologist who had raised three children while working in part-time lectureships and research associate positions. As Puaca writes, Rossi had a feminist awakening when a colleague helped her submit a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation (nonfaculty were not allowed to apply). After the proposal met with success, her colleague tried to take over the project and keep the money for himself. Rossi went on to write a pot-stirring 1963 essay, “Equality Between the Sexes: An Immodest Proposal,” in Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; in 1966, she was one of the founding members of the National Organization for Women.

During the 1970s, new organizations popped up advancing women’s agendas within scientific societies. The decade saw a shift in rhetoric, as advocates mostly ditched unfashionable Cold War arguments that fought for women’s place in a national security apparatus. As Puaca puts it, the new generation used “the language of rights rather than national security” to argue for representation.  

Boston’s WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) and similar groups brought together like-minded women to lobby for anti-discrimination measures and financial support for female students. The Association for Women in Mathematics convened consciousness-raising sessions at professional conventions, and, like the SWE before it, “protested objectionable images of girls and women in the media, guidance literature, and textbooks, such as problem sets that featured women calculating recipes and men calculating time travel to the moon.”

This history is simultaneously reassuring and wearying. It’s inspiring to think about people like Virginia Gildersleeve or Betty Lou Raskin working within a system that was so thoroughly stacked against them. But so many of our problems seem not to have shifted at all. See the most recent upsetting findings on gender balance in biology labs at top research institutions, or Eileen Pollack’s epic and discouraging investigation of STEM gender parity in the New York Times Magazine last year.

We still clap for self-consciously pro-girls-in-STEM bits of culture like last year’s epic GoldieBlox Rube Goldberg ad, as through these cheerleading moments constitute progress. But members of the Society of Women Engineers went on Mister Rogers in 1972, worked with the Girl Scouts, and published a coloring book. Everything old is new—and the sexism that kept so many women out of the lab lingers on.