Playing Against Type: Women, Science, and Stereotypes

In May 1956, Faye Marley, editor of Independent Woman, asked Jane Stafford to contribute an article

Earlier this year, the organizations LeanIn.org and Getty Images announced a joint effort to change how women are portrayed in media content and advertising (New York Times, February 9, 2014). The project will create special collections of stock photographs that represent women "in more empowering ways."

The practices that have prompted this project are neither easily changed nor new. While I was researching my recent contribution for Women's History Month (a post about Science Service medical editor Jane Stafford), I came across a striking example that involved editorial decisions by two accomplished, smart women sensitive to the trends of their times.

Jane Stafford's notes for her article written for Independent Woman in 1956.  Record Unit 7091 - Sci In 1956, Faye Johannes Marley (1900-1992), editor of Independent Woman, the magazine of the National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs, asked Stafford to contribute an article that would focus on "scientific work for the peaceful and constructive use of nuclear energy" by the "small band of pioneers who showed that women could make contributions" to science. After a telephone conversation to discuss the story, Marley wrote Stafford and urged her not to "emphasize the scholarship angle," but instead to play up "the various types of scientific work" that women might pursue after marriage.

Among the many "treats" that await historians in archival records are handwritten and marginal notes. Along with letters and drafts, these scribbles often expose the messy construction process that can precede a finished work. They can also reveal how biases and stereotypes influence content and editorial choices.

Jane Stafford's notes for her article written for Independent Woman in 1956.  Record Unit 7091 - Sci

Stafford's contemporaneous notes mention several non-scientific aspects, such as the "hazel eyes" and "brown hair" of astronomer Elizabeth Roemer. One note suggests that the article "play up the refugee angle" (a goal fulfilled by choosing Science Talent Search winner Taimi Toffer. Mentioning the husbands and fathers of the subjects (who included astronomer Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, chemist Marjorie Ann Gilbert Moldenhauer, ecologist Vera Rada Demerec Dyson-Hudson, and psychologist Gloria Lauer Grace) was another nod to cultural values of the time and a practice not usually followed when discussing male scientists.

Stafford's finished article emphasized, in language emblematic of the 1950s, that these representatives of the nation's "scientific womanpower" were "by no means the blue-stocking type." Young woman contemplating careers in science could have it all. The scientists profiled were said to "have feminine charm and athletic ability as well as intellectual prowess." "Playing this feminine role need not keep them from continuing their careers as scientists," she concluded.

Jane Stafford's notes for her article written for Independent Woman in 1956 offer a glimpse of why c

For keen-eyed consumers of popular culture, such examples will seem eerily familiar. The mass media and social media continually transmit and reinforce statements about the role and status of women in science. Each March, we make a concerted effort to highlight the remarkable achievements of remarkable women but the challenge remains unchanged: how to describe and discuss women in real terms while demythologizing the notion that only "superwomen" can become "superscientists." Real female scientists have hazel eyes, families, and charm as well as Nobel prizes, hundreds of publications, and ground-breaking discoveries. The challenge in the future will be to break down constraining stereotypes, while not closing the door on diverse choices and life paths.

Lean in, readers. Let the discussion begin.

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