Giant Isopod, USNM no. EO400404-DSP. Courtesy of the National Museum of Natural History.

“Fair Women Seeking Secrets of Plant and Animal Phenomena”

Exploring news coverage of women’s work in the sciences at the Smithsonian in the early twentieth century.

On October 22, 1905, the Washington Post featured a behind-the-scenes piece on women’s scientific research at the Smithsonian. Like its title, “Fair Women Seeking Secrets of Plant and Animal Phenomena,” the article takes its subjects’ research seriously while gawking at the scientists’ femininity.

The author tells us that Dr. Harriet Richardson, a researcher at the Smithsonian, has published a thesis on isopods (pill bugs), written seven additional papers, and was about to publish a book. We also learn: “She is splendidly built, with merry eyes and sunny, abundant hair, daintily gowned and quite as familiar with the ways of the social as of the insect world.” In the author’s estimation, she is “a woman of womanly and scientific attainment.”

Two pill bugs floating in a small jar.

Despite, the explicit sexism in this early-twentieth-century take on what it meant to be a womanly woman in science, the article provides exciting insights into the daily work and lives of early women in science at the Smithsonian. We learn that even though Smithsonian scientific illustrator Evelyn Mitchell’s family thought she was a “perfect freak” for wanting to study entomology at Cornell, she did it anyway. She’d “always been interested in bugs.” Her first childhood memory was observing a caterpillar and being fascinated by how it moved. And, the author gives Mitchell a platform to advocate for more women to take up scientific work:

There is no reason why a woman shouldn’t do scientific research and do it well, too…She ought to be expected to do it just as successfully as a man. Indeed, if more women knew how much more actually fascinating it is than sitting on a cushion and sewing a fine seam, there would be many more of them studying it. 

I find the mix of sexism and the enthusiasm for women in science in this article fascinating. Despite what seems like a contradictory combination, the article shows us what women were up against as they fought to work in science, as it reveals important details about their work. I’ve been able to find articles about all of the women who worked in science at the Smithsonian in the nineteenth century. I have to admit I was somewhat surprised by that—I found all of them featured in newspapers ranging from D.C.’s the Evening Star to the Topeka State Journal.

Most of the articles similarly marvel at the perceived oddity of women working in science while celebrating their work. With titles like, “Pretty Society Belle Studying Bugs,” “Washington the Nation’s Mecca for Women Distinguished in the Arts, Sciences and Literature,” and “What Becomes of American College Women,” the emphasis on gender and work is clear. However, there are others that are more straightforward in their representation of the scientific work undertaken by women: “Photographer of National Museum Does Remarkable Work for Uncle Sam” and “Mrs. Stevenson, Noted Ethnologist is Here: Having Achieved Fames in Works on Zuni Indians is Studying the Tewas.”

Illustration of two mosquito bugs from Mosquito Life by Evelyn Mitchell.

Looking at articles like these, over a period of time, can tell us more about what it has meant to be a woman and a scientist. Of course, it has never meant one thing to all people. However, we can get a sense of what gender norms were and how people pushed the boundaries of those norms—while working with and against them.

If you’d like to do some digging around in historical newspapers, I recommend Chronicling America. Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities teamed up to create a searchable database of U.S. historical newspapers, which includes a selection of digitized pages. It’s a treasure trove, and you can search for people, places, and key words that interest you.

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