4 Women We Wish We Worked With: Historical Women in STEM

Women in STEM

Welcome back to our Historical Women Series with our second edition, 4 Women We Wish We Worked With: Historical Women in STEM. In our first edition, we highlighted four women from the 1800s that helped pave the way for the women of today – if you missed it, you can find it here.

When the 20th century rolled around, women were still suffering in society despite considerable progress having been made. They were living within clearly defined, traditional gender roles and were mainly responsible for more domestic activities – firmly confined in a societal ‘box’ with little opportunity to move outside of it. This was due to societal perceptions and prejudices that had been ingrained in both sexes since their births: women were seen to be emotional-based creatures, lacking logical reasoning and the ability to fully understand the workings of the world. Luckily, we can thank – and cheer for – the many courageous and committed women that were untiring in their pursuit to prove society wrong.

In fact, Nellie McClung, the leader of the Women Suffragette Movement in Canada, helped intensify an improved societal shift during that time. With the guidance and perseverance of Nellie, Manitoba elected to give women the right to vote in 1914; providing women with a public voice. Following their lead, other Canadian provinces soon followed suit. Gaining the right to vote was a pivotal moment in women’s history, opening the door for many other women’s rights issues to be expressed and re-evaluated. Some of these are still being discussed – and fought for – to this day. There are, however, countless notable moments in history that allowed us to evolve and move forward as a society. Many of the greatest discoveries, for example, were uncovered by women – these discoveries reshaped the direction of society by changing how human rights, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics were approached and implemented.

4 Women We Wished We Worked With

Marie Curie (1867 – 1934)

Women in STEM inspiration
  • Born in 1867 in Warsaw, Poland.
  • Marie received her scientific background from the local school where she attended; and additionally learned from her father.
  • She moved to Paris in 1891, where she took physics and Mathematical Sciences at Sorbonne University.
  • Marie Curie was not only an inspiration to women in STEM, she was also highly regarded by the men in her field.
  • 1903 was a historical year for Marie Curie; she graduated with a Doctor of Science degree and received a joint Nobel prize for Physics with her husband Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel for their individual work on radioactivity.
  • Three years later, after her husband’s tragic death, Marie stepped into his position at the University of Sorbonne as a Professor of General Physics in the Faculty of Science.
  • She was the first woman to be appointed to this position.
  • Marie had many monumental achievements in her life, not only was she the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize, but she was the first person to be awarded with two Nobel Prizes.
  • The work she performed with radioactivity and her discovery of the element radium is still used today as a viable treatment for diseases, such as cancer.

Jeannette Rankin (1880 – 1973)

Women's rights
  • She was born in 1880 in Missoula Montana.
  • Jeannette Rankin was a leader in women’s rights and was instrumental in its progression.
  • She joined the Women’s Rights Movement while she was attending the University of Washington.
  • After the Women’s Rights Movement was granted the right to vote in Washington in 1910, Jeannette began to speak professionally for the National American Women Suffrage Association.
  • Her time and efforts paid off when Montana granted women the right to vote in 1914.
  • Two years after Montana changed their voting laws, Jeannette ran for the U.S. House of Representatives.
  • Her election was monumental, making her the first female in Congress; while in Congress, she formed ­– and was made leader of – the Committee on Woman Suffrage.
  • Jeannette Rankin devoted her life to women’s rights and world peace.
  • While in Congress, she actively voted for women’s voting and health rights, and voted against the U.S. going to war.
  • Following her time spent in congress, she joined and was a leader in the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

Grace Hopper (1906 – 1992)

Man-of-the-yea award
  • Grace Hopper was born in New York City in 1906, a time where women were working tirelessly to gain equal rights.
  • At the time, women were only allowed to work no more than 10 hour days (decided by the Muller vs Oregon case).
  • After Grace received her bachelor’s in mathematics and physics at Vassar College in New York, she joined their faculty as an associate professor.
  • During the time spent teaching, she was also attending school at Yale University to earn her MA and PhD.
  • In 1943, after receiving her PhD, Grace joined the Navy to serve her country during WWII.
  • Following the war, Grace Hopper joined the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation as a senior mathematician.
  • In 1952 she invented the first working computer compiler.
  • Among her accomplishments, she normalized artificial intelligence using different computer languages and was one of the programmers on the Harvard Mark I computer.
  • Grace Hopper was the first person to be awarded with the computer science Man-of-the-Year award in 1969 by the Data Processing Management Association.
  • She forever altered the advancement of technology and made life-changing progress on the development of computers (that we all can certainly appreciate).

Katherine Johnson (1918 – present)

First American in Space
  • Katherine Johnson was born in 1918 in West Virginia.
  • At just 13 years old and ahead of her class, she started high school in a predominately African-American school.
  • After graduating from college in 1937, she was one of three African-America students (and the only female) picked to attend West Virginia State to study mathematics in Graduate school.
  • In 1953, Katherine began working for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), in their Langley Research Center’s Guidance and Navigation Department, before it became NASA.
  • Since this was before the era of computers, her job, along with many other women, was to perform measurements and calculations of various flights. Katherine Johnson calculated the flight for the first American in space, Alan Shepard.
  • When it came time for astronaut John Glenn to orbit the earth, he requested that Katherine recheck all of the calculations performed by the computers.
  • Katherine Johnson proved to be irreplaceable in many NASA missions, including the Apollo Moon landing program. Among the many tributes to her invaluable work, NASA has erected a computer facility named after her in Hampton, Virginia.
  • In 2015, she received the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.
  • Check out Hidden Figures, a movie based on Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson and their work with NASA.

The Takeaway

These incredible women lived during a time of gross inequality and innumerable wrongdoings, but used those injustices to pioneer positive change, which made it possible for women to become more prevalent in society and the workforce. To be one of the few women in unfamiliar territory, surrounded by men and an unapologetic culture, requires unimaginable strength, fierce determination, and continuous bravery.

Marie Currie, Jeannette Rankin, Grace Hopper, and Katherine Johnson stepped up to the plate in this regard, becoming inspirations and role models for all young girls and women by proving women not only deserve equality but that our societies thrive with it. Without the hard work and willpower of these women and those both before and after them, the world we live in would be a different place. Their efforts created a solid foundation for our generation, and future ones, to build upon until women achieve genuine equality. When we look to the past, we can appreciate and thank them for everything they have done, but we must turn our gaze to the future, and ask ourselves: what are we going to do to ensure women, and all people, have equality? How will you help change the world?

Stay tuned for our third edition of our Historical Women Series where we will explore more current women that are making large strides in society, their fields, and human/women’s rights.

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