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Women's History Month 2013: Women Inspiring Innovation Through Imagination


Women's History Month 2013 posterWomen's History Month raises awareness of the essential and influential roles women play in the development of our shared history. Women's History Week was recognized by Congress in 1981, and in 1987, Congress designated the month of March to the celebration of Women's History in perpetuity. Each year, the National Women's History Project identifies a theme that highlights the myriad ways in which women have contributed to community-building and nation-building.

The theme for 2013 is "Women Inspiring Innovation Through Imagination: Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics." Women have long been underrepresented in these fields due to educational barriers and biases, and many of their contributions have gone unrecognized. Higher education for women had been championed in the nineteenth century on the basis that it would assist with their duties as wives and mothers; the physical sciences had no apparent practical application for the domestic sphere. A "woman scientist" was an oxymoron. Advanced degree programs in the sciences began to admit women by the early twentieth century, but employment opportunities in research were rare: institutions were willing to educate women, but not to employ them. Roles for "women's work" in the sciences emerged as early as the 1880s. "Women's work" could be defined hierarchically or territorially: as low-ranking positions or in separate spheres that catered to women's feminine sensibilities, such as home economics or botany.

The "cult of masculinity" that dominated the scientific fields persisted throughout the twentieth century. Even women's colleges by the 1920s and 1930s were bent on hiring male professors in order to increase their prestige and standing. After protests fell on deaf ears for decades, many women by the mid-twentieth century had accepted the prevailing attitude in order to gain entrance into scientific fields. The treatment of women in the sciences reflected the position of women in wider society. Second-wave feminism in the 1960s and 1970s forced a paradigmatic shift in the public consciousness, confronting women's inequality in the home and the workplace, laboratories included. Women's caucuses in professional organizations, the 1972 Equal Opportunity Employment Act, and women's advocacy organizations like the National Organization for Women (NOW) contributed to bringing women's personal and professional issues to the fore, and organizations like the Girl Scouts of America and the American Association of University Women (AAUW) have long supported education for women in the sciences. Rather than be the exception to the rule, women in STEM fields work to change scientific culture, promote gender equality in the sciences, and encourage girls' interest in science and mathematics from a young age.

Kelly Wellman.
Ada's Echo. [Oakland, Calif.] : This Is My Body Press, 2001.

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (1815-1852), known commonly as Ada Lovelace, is considered the first computer programmer. Her collaborations with English mathematician Charles Babbage on his Analytical Engine led her to create the first computer algorithm and to ruminate on future technological applications of computing systems other than mathematical calculations. Her translation of mathematician Luigi Menabrea's article on Babbage's Engine from Italian included her own expansive notes which set out out an algorithm for the Analytical Engine to compute the Bernoulli numbers. Lovelace was the only legitimate child of English poet Lord Byron, and it was her mother Annabella Milbanke who had insisted on her mathematical training from childhood. Ada Lovelace Day is celebrated yearly on October 16.

Kelly Wellman's artist book Ada's Echo incorporates handwritten excerpts from Lovelace's correspondence to Babbage, along with companion text written by Wellman, in which the computer is represented by the Greek mythological figure Echo on whose voice Ada Lovelace's innovations are carried to the present: "The valleys filled with silicon and I was forced to learn a new language. Now I speak in bits and bytes. Strings of zeros and ones. I navigate a new topography." With layers of translucent papers, Wellman overlays visuals of contemporary computer chips, Ada Lovelace's equations, fabric patterns (Lovelace had compared the Analytical Engine to a loom), with Lovelace's own words (in script) on the outermost layer, bringing her voice to the fore:

Left: "I do not think you possess half my forethoughts, & powers of foreseeing all possible contingencies (probable & improbable, just alike)."
Right: "That brain of mine is something more than merely mortal; as time will show."



Annie Jump Cannon, 1863-1941: census taker of the sky / design, Maria Hollenbach. [Blue Hill, ME] : Organization for Equal Education of the Sexes, Inc., c1987.

Annie Jump Cannon, 1863-1941: census taker of the sky / design, Maria Hollenbach. [Blue Hill, ME] : Organization for Equal Education of the Sexes, Inc., c1987.

Astronomer Annie Jump Cannon was a native Delawarean and the first Delaware woman scientist to gain international notoriety. Cannon's interest in science was nurtured by her parents from a young age. She studied physics and astronomy at Wellesley College. Cannon was hired at the Harvard College Observatory in 1896 to continue work on the Henry Draper Catalogue, an astronomical star catalog that classified and cataloged stars to the ninth magnitude.

The result of Cannon's work on the Catalogue was the Harvard Classification Scheme for Stars; the mnemonic device Oh! Be A Fine Girl—Kiss Me! (OBAFGKM) aided students and astronomers in learning the spectral classification she outlined. The classification describes various characteristics of stars, including temperature, color, composition, and age; it is still in use today. Cannon classified hundreds of thousands of stars over her forty-year career and discovered approximately 300 variable stars and five novae. She received a permanent position with the Observatory in 1938, only two years before her retirement.

Cannon received many honors from universities worldwide for her work. She received an honorary doctorate from the University of Delaware in 1918. The University established an endowment in her name; Dr. Henry L. Shipman currently holds the named chair, Annie Jump Cannon Professor of Astrology, Physics and Astronomy, which is funded by the endowment. Sharp Laboratory's conference room named for Cannon features a portrait of her. Cannon Hall is also named in her honor.



National and local materials promoting STEM education for girls. MSS 529 American Association of University Women. Delaware Division records.

MSS 529 American Association of University Women. Delaware Division records.

Founded in 1881, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) is a nonpartisan, non-profit organization that advances women's issues through "education, advocacy, research, and philanthropy." Women and girls' education is a critical component of the organization's mission. The AAUW manages several campaigns to provide leadership opportunities and technological skills for women in various professional fields, offers funding for research on women's education, and provides legal assistance to combat sex discrimination.

The AAUW Delaware Division was established in 1940; it has worked to improve education for girls and women around the state. Shown here are national and Delaware Division materials promoting education for girls in the STEM fields.



Dr. Elizabeth Dyer and two students, circa 1950. Photo courtesy of UD University Archives.

Dr. Elizabeth Dyer and students, circa 1950
Photograph courtesy of the UD University Archives.

Featured on the Women's History Month 2013 poster (above) is a photograph of University of Delaware chemistry professor Dr. Elizabeth Dyer (center) in the lab with students, circa 1950. Dr. Dyer's career at Delaware spanned nearly 40 years (1933-1971); she was hired as an instructor by the Women's College in 1933 and continued on as part of the faculty when the University went co-educational in 1945. The Elizabeth Dyer Excellence-in-Teaching Award was established in 1971.



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