Women's History Month Honors Scientific Pioneers

By Leigh Elmore

Each year we celebrate the contributions of women in all aspects of our society with the designation of March as Women’s History Month.  National Women's History Month's roots go back to March 8, 1857, when women from New York City factories staged a protest over working conditions. International Women's Day was first observed in 1909, but it wasn't until 1981 that Congress established National Women's History Week to be commemorated the second week of March. In 1987, Congress expanded the week to a month. Every year since, Congress has passed a resolution for Women's History Month, and the president has issued a proclamation.

The 2013 National Women's History Month theme, Women Inspiring Innovation through Imagination, recognizes American women's outstanding contributions to the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, notes Molly Murphy MacGregor, executive director of the National Women’s History Project, the group that originated the annual observance.

“The impact of women’s history might seem abstract to some, and less pressing than the immediate struggles of working women today,” MacGregor says.  “But to ignore the vital role that women’s dreams and accomplishments play in our own lives would be a great mistake. We draw strength and inspiration from those who came before us – and those remarkable women working among us today. They are part of our story, and a truly balanced and inclusive history recognizes how important women have always been in American society.”

The 2013 honorees for Women’s History Month include: Hattie Elizabeth Alexander (1901-1968)
pediatrician and microbiologist;  Marlyn Barrett (1954)
 K-12 educator;  Grace Murray Hopper (1906-1992)
 computer scientist; Olga Frances Linares (1936) 
anthropologist and archaeologist; Julia Morgan (1872-1957) 
architect; Katharine Burr Blodgett (1898-1979)
 physicist and inventor; Edith Clarke (1883-1959) 
electrical engineer; Rita R. Colwell (1934) 
molecular microbial ecologist and scientific administrator;  Susan Solomon (1956)
 atmospheric chemist; Flossie Wong-Staal (1946) 
virologist and molecular biologist; Patricia Era Bath (1942) 
ophthalmologist and inventor;  Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) 
physician; Louise Pearce (1885-1959)
 physician and pathologist; Jill Pipher (1955)
 mathematician; Mary G. Ross (1908-2008)
mechanical engineer; Dian Fossey (1932-1985)
 primatologist and naturalist; Susan A. Gerbi (1944)
 molecular cell biologist; Helen Greiner (1967) 
mechanical engineer and roboticist.

“These women’s lives and work span the centuries of American history and come from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds,” MacGregor says.  “National Women’s History Month 2013 provides an excellent opportunity to honor all women seeking to advance these important fields.”

The Feminine Mystique Turns 50

Of course women are involved in all fields of American society, not just science and academia. “We all owe a great debt to the courageous women who stood up for equal rights for women throughout our history,” says René Street, executive director of the American Business Women’s Association. “At long last in the early 20th century women won the right to vote.  And ever since, women have been striving to narrow the gap between the genders throughout our culture.” 

“Prior to that time women in America were still second-class citizens,” Street says, noting that often women couldn’t work without their husbands’ permission! She observes that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking book, The Feminine Mystique, which in 1962 effectively launched the Women’s Liberation Movement of the late 20th century. “While we still have a way to go before all women experience true equality in the workplace, it’s heartening to know that today women routinely serve as top executives in the corporate world, are leaders in our government and serve vital roles in the U.S. military.” In her classic book Friedan wrote of the need “to change the rules of the game to restructure professions, marriage, the family, the home.”  “We are well along the road to realizing the vision that Betty Friedan wrote about so eloquently 50 years ago. I know that all members of ABWA owe a great debt to her courage and to the others who propelled the realization of women’s rights in the 1960s and ’70s.” 

sidebar: U.S. Women by the Numbers

158.3 million: the number of women in the United States (there are 153.3 million men). 

57.7%: the percentage of women 16 and older who participated in the labor force in 2012. 

41.7%: the percentage of women 16 and older who participated in management, professional and related occupations. (that compares with 35.1 percent of men). 

$37,118: Median annual earnings of women 15 and older who worked full-time in 2011. 

0.77: female-to-male earnings ratio in 2011. 

204,973: the number of women serving in all branches of the U.S. military in 2012 (38,378 were officers). 

$1.2 trillion: revenue for women-owned businesses in 2007. 

7.8 million: the number of women-owned businesses in 2007. 

7.5 million: the number of people employed by women-owned businesses in 2007. 

46.2%: percentage of female citizens 18 and older who voted in the 2010 Congressional election (44.8% of their male counterparts voted). 

85.4 million: estimated number of mothers in the United States in 2009. 

5.1 million: number of stay-at-home mothers nationwide in 2012. 

Source: U.S. Department of Commerce

Leigh Elmore is a Kansas City based freelance writer and editor.  For the last five years he has served as editor-at-large for ABWA’s Women in Business.  He is also the editor of Discover Vintage America, a monthly publication for the antiques trade.