Women in Science: What the Photos Say

Wanda Margarite Kirkbride Farr (b. 1895), sitting in lab with microscope New Use for Light Reflector, National Museum of American History

I was intrigued by a recent post on the National Museum of American History’s (NMAH) blog about the portrayal of women in the Science Service records. Arthur Molella director of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, writes:

“… women are invariably passive or admiring observers. In other words, females are shown dominated by rather than in charge of technology… On the contrary, at the Lemelson Center we have uncovered ample evidence of significant female contributions. But, given the skewed nature of the visual record, we have had to work very hard to find this evidence.” These couldn't be the same women I’d begun to know and love through the photos the Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA) posted to the SI Flickr Commons. And it certainly wasn't the women SIA archivists, Ellen Alers and Mary Markey, described in their posts. After giving a call over to SIA, I found out that when the Science Service records were transferred to the Smithsonian during the 1970s (over 500 boxes!), records were distributed throughout SI depending on their relevancy to a museum’s expertise and mission. So, for example, any material dealing with the history electrical innovation and invention went to the Division of Electricity and Modern Physics at what was then named the National Museum of History and Technology (now NMAH). Other parts of the Science Service records followed, going to other NMAH curatorial divisions, the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, National Museum of Natural History, National Portrait Gallery, and the Smithsonian Institution Archives. The women in the photos at the Lemelson Center indeed look more like early 20th century Vanna White's then the women in the SIA records. Once again, I’m reminded never to take any picture, or collection for that matter, at face value!

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