Headstrong: 52 Women Who Change Science — and the World (Rachel Swaby)

3.5 out of 5 stars

This is a very well-intentioned book that is more informative and encyclopedic than actually inspiring. As a female engineer with two daughters, this is the type of reading material I want to see more of, and perhaps because I had such high expectations, I was ultimately disappointed.

The idea behind the book is fantastic: the introduction explains that a New York Times obituary for rocket scientist Yvonne Brill highlighted her cooking skills (I think specifically, beef stroganoff) and her relationship with her husband (following him to different jobs, raising three children)… as opposed to her own, individual accomplishments. ¬†You know, like being a rocket scientist.

A book with 52 concise biographies of women in science, math and engineering, does somewhat counteract the kind of mentality that a woman’s ¬†domestic accomplishments are somehow more valuable than their professional contributions. Yet beyond that, there is a dryness and quickness to the novel that feels glib and never allows the reader to delve more deeply into the scientist’s lives… or even truly understand the weight of some of their accomplishments.Some of the arguments, infighting and academic machinations relayed are done so quickly and slightly hyperbolic, so that you’re not sure what to make of it — was it dramatic and only resolved through chance? Through determination and grit? (In one case, a woman’s position was finally secured because her _husband_ was so heavily recruited that she was allowed to be part of the package deal… not exactly the message I want my young daughters to hear.)

As the book goes on, the sheer lack of times a woman’s outside family comes up (unless they have a husband who happens to be in the same field as they) starts to feel draining. You start to believe that science is a lonely path — by focusing on the accomplishments (often at the expense of anything else) the unspoken assumption becomes almost that these women gave up domesticity in order to pursue their research and careers. I know that’s almost certainly not what the author wanted or intended, but the hyper-focus on certain aspects of the women’s careers (the tough climb through discrimination, the persistence that starts to feel monotonous because it’s so repetitive) ends up leaving us with just as lopsided a view of these women as the starting obituary: instead of presenting the beef stroganoff along with the rocket scientist resume, we get _just_ the resume, unintentionally perhaps suggesting what needed to be sacrificed along the way towards becoming a female pioneer.


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