A few months ago, we began the early stages of re-conceptualizing the visuals for a project dedicated to preserving women’s intellectual history. How could we make this information more dynamic, more interactive, more collaborative? And, in turn, how could we make sure that this important, yet often unacknowledged history, becomes and remains a vital part of our educational standards? It’s an exciting project, for sure, but it’s also a project that reminds us that some histories aren’t as heralded as others. Names, faces, thoughts, and ideas. Movements, collectives, discoveries, and innovations. All of them here, many of them forgotten. Their works and their creations have either been relegated to footnotes, or continued on in our consciousness completely divorced from their makers.
The project’s director, New School professor Gina Luria Walker, noted in an interview with Broadly: “It’s too easy to blame the media, or blame big business, or capitalism, or white men. The issue is ancient. It is primordial.”
Simply: we don’t know these names because no one has ever told us that we needed to. But what if, from the very beginning, these names weren’t unearthed discoveries, but readily accessible knowledge? That knowledge has to come from somewhere, and it needs to start early.
Recently, I had the absolute pleasure of reading Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World (Ten Speed Press) written and illustrated by Rachel Ignotofsky. I suppose, that on its face, it may seem like a children’s book— it’s colorful, vividly illustrated, and contains short, easily digestible biographies of fifty women in science—it actually is perfect for the budding science-lover in your household. It would be a mistake to think that it’s only for kids, though (as evidenced by the excited ooohs and aaahs heard around the office when the book arrived). Honestly, how many us know the remarkable Annie Easley who, despite being subjected to the indignities of the Jim Crow south, went on the become a NASA engineer whose work formed the foundations for space shuttle launches? Or the work of particle physicist Sau Lan Wu who, against her father’s wishes, applied to college and later led one of the teams instrumental in observing the Higgs boson? For these names to become more recognizable, they need to be written about, read about, and spoken about by people of all ages. We can’t remember what we’ve never known.
One of my favorite images in Ignotofsky’s book is an illustration titled “More Women in Science,” where she highlights eight additional women and provides short bios for each. But it’s the ninth figure on the page that gets me. She leaves this one in shadow, mysterious—”The next great scientist could be you!” she writes. That gets to the heart of it; these biographies do more than uncover history, they make inroads for the future. It’s not important to keep these names alive just because it’s the right thing to do (it is), it’s important because knowing them could mean the difference between a kid seeing the possibilities and, well, not. Women in Science is an important book to hand to a kid because they need to know—as soon as possible—that history includes all of us. It’s also an important book to keep for yourself because, sometimes, whatever your age, you might need a reminder of that fact, too.