RACHEL CARSON “The Natural World…Supports All Life”

This image originates from the National Digital Library of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service

World-famous pioneering ecologist and science writer Rachel Carson turned nature writing on its head. Before she came along, notes Women Public Speakers in the United States, “the masculine orientation [to the subject] emphasized either the dominant, aggressive encounter of humanity with wild nature or the distancing of nature through scientific observation.” By creating a different, more feminine relationship to nature, Rachel Carson portrayed humans as part of the great web of life, separate only in our ability to destroy it. In a very real sense, Carson not only produced the first widely read books on ecology, but laid the foundation for the entire modern environmental movement.

Rachel inherited her love of nature from her mother, Maria, a naturalist at heart, who took Rachel for long walks in woods and meadows. Born in 1907, Rachel was raised on a farm in Pennsylvania, where the evidence of industry was never too far away. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Pennsylvania had changed a great deal from the sylvan woodlands named for colonialist William Penn. Coal and strip mines had devastated some of the finest farmland. Chemical plants, steel mills, and hundreds of factories were belching pure evil into the air.

As she grew, Rachel’s love of nature took an unexpected turn toward oceanography, a budding science limited by technological problems for divers. The young girl was utterly fascinated by this biological science, and though she majored in English and loved to write, she heard the ocean’s siren song increasingly. While studying at the Pennsylvania College for Women in the mid-1920s, she changed her major to zoology, despite the overwhelming advice of her professors to stay the course in English, a much more acceptable major for a young woman. Her advisors were quite correct in their assertions that women were blocked from science; there were very few teaching positions except at the handful of women’s colleges and even fewer job prospects for women outside of academia.

However, Rachel listened to her heart and graduated with high honors, a fellowship to study at Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory for the summer, and a full scholarship to Johns Hopkins University in Maryland to study marine zoology. Rachel’s first semester in graduate school coincided with the beginning of the Great Depression. Her family lost their farm, and her parents and brother came to live with her in her tiny campus apartment. She helped make ends meet with part-time teaching at Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland while continuing her studies.

In 1935, Rachel’s father suffered a heart attack and died quite suddenly. Rachel looked desperately for work to support her mother and brother, but no one would hire a woman as a full-time university science professor. Brilliant and hardworking, Rachel was encouraged to teach grade school, or better yet, be a housewife, because it was “inappropriate” for women to work in science.

Finally, her unstinting efforts to work in her field were ultimately rewarded
by a job writing radio scripts for Elmer Higgins at the United States Bureau
of Fisheries—a perfect job for her because it combined her strength in writing with her scientific knowledge. Then a position opened up at the bureau for a junior aquatic biologist. The job was to be awarded to the person with the highest score on a placement test; Rachel aced the test and got the position. Elmer Higgins saw that her writing was excellent, making science accessible to the general public. At his direction, she submitted an essay about the ocean to the Atlantic Monthly, which not only published Rachel’s piece but asked her to freelance for them on a continuing basis, resulting in a book deal from a New York publishing house.

By now, Rachel was the sole support of her mother, brother, and two nieces. She raised the girls, supported her mother, and worked a demanding full-time job, leaving her research and writing to weekends and late nights. But she prevailed nonetheless. Her first book, Under the Sea Wind, debuted in 1941 to a war-preoccupied public. It was a completely original book, enacting a narrative of the seacoast with the flora and fauna as characters, the first indication of Rachel’s unique perspective on nature.

Rachel’s second book, The Sea Around Us, was a nonfiction presentation of the relationship of the ocean to Earth and its inhabitants. This time, the public was ready; she received the National Book Award and made the New York Times bestseller list for nearly two years. The Edge of the Sea was also very well received, both critically and publicly. Rachel Carson’s message of kinship with all life combined with a solid foundation of scientific knowledge found an audience in postwar America. However, shy and solitary, Rachel avoided the literary spotlight by accepting a grant that allowed her to return to her beloved seacoast, where she could often be found up to her ankles in mud or sand, doing research.

As her popularity rose and income from book royalties flooded in, Rachel was able to quit her job and build a coastal cottage for herself and her mother. She also returned the grant money that had been given her, asking it to be redistributed to needy scientists. In 1957, a letter from one of Rachel’s readers changed everything. The letter came from Olga Owens Huckins, who was reporting the death of birds after airplanes sprayed dichloro-diphenyl- trichloroethane (DDT), a chemical then in heavy use. Carson was keenly interested in discovering the effects of DDT on the natural habitat. Her findings were shocking; if birds and animals weren’t killed outright by DDT, its effects were even more insidious—birds laid eggs with thin eggshells that broke before the hatchlings were fully developed. DDT was also suspected of being carcinogenic to humans.

Rachel vowed to write a book about the devastating impact of DDT upon nature “or there would be no peace for me,” she proclaimed. Shortly after, she was diagnosed with cancer. Despite chemotherapy, surgery, and constant pain, Rachel worked slowly and unstintingly on her new book. In 1962, Silent Spring was published. It was like a cannon shot. Chemical companies fought back, denied, and ran for cover against the public outcry. Vicious charges against Rachel were aimed at what many of the captains of the chemical industry viewed as her Achilles’ heel: her womanhood. “Not a real scientist,” they claimed. She was also called unstable, foolish, and sentimental for her love of nature. With calm logic and cold reason, Rachel Carson responded in exacting scientific terms, explaining the connections between DDT, the water supply, and the food chain.

Ultimately, President John F. Kennedy assigned his Science Advisory Committee the task of examining the pesticide, and Rachel Carson was proven to be absolutely correct. She died two years later, and although her reputation continued to be maligned by the chemical industry, her books had launched a movement that continues to this day.

Perhaps if Dr. Rachel Carson had been Dr. Richard Carson, the controversy would have been minor…. The American technocrat could not stand the pain of having his achievements deflated by the pen of this slight woman.

Joseph B.C. White, author


This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women Writers by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Mae Jemison: First African-American Woman in Space (But Not the Last)

By NASA – NASA Image and Video Library (file), Public Domain.

How many Americans are multilingual, let alone fluent in Swahili, Japanese, and Russian? Mae Jemison is an engineer and physician as well as a U.S. astronaut – an exceptional achiever by any measure. She was born in 1956 in Decatur, Alabama; her family soon moved to Chicago, for a chance at better schools and jobs. As a child, she remembers assuming that she would one day escape terrestrial confines: “I thought by now we’d be going into space like you were going to work.” Though her teachers were not especially supportive of her interest in science, her parents encouraged her; she was also attracted to the art of the dance and studied ballet, jazz, modern, and African dance. She graduated early and started at Stanford University at age 16 on a National Achievement Scholarship, graduating in 1977 with a degree in chemical engineering; she also fulfilled the requirements for a B.A. in African and Afro-American studies. Being a black female engineering major was no easy thing; as she recalls, “Some professors would just pretend I wasn’t there. I would ask a question and a professor would act as if it was just so dumb, the dumbest question he had ever heard. Then, when a white guy would ask the question, the professor would say, ‘That’s a very astute observation.’”

In 1981, Jemison earned an MD from Cornell Medical College. During her years at Cornell, she spent some of her time providing primary medical care in Cuba, Kenya, and a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand; she also kept up her studies of dance at the Alvin Ailey School. She interned at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center and then worked as a general practitioner. She joined the Peace Corps in 1983 and spent the next two years as the medical officer responsible for corps volunteers’ health in Sierra Leone and Liberia, as well as assisting with CDC vaccine research.

After completing her hitch with the Peace Corps in 1985, Jemison felt that since fellow Stanford alumna Sally Ride had succeeded in her quest to go to space, the time was ripe to follow her longtime dream, and she applied to join NASA’s astronaut training program. The Challenger disaster of early 1986 delayed the selection process, but when she reapplied a year later, Jemison made the cut, becoming the first African-American woman ever to do so. She was one of only 15 chosen out of 2,000 who tried. When she joined the seven-astronaut crew of the space shuttle Endeavour for an eight-day mission in the fall of 1992, she became the first African-American woman in space, logging a total of over 190 hours in space. She conducted medical and other experiments while aloft.

After leaving the astronaut corps in spring of 1993, she was named to a teaching fellowship at Dartmouth, and taught there from 1995 to 2002; she is a Professor-at- Large at Cornell, and continues to advocate for science education and for getting minority students interested in science. She has also founded two companies, the Jemison Group and BioSentient Corp to research, develop and market various advanced technologies, as well as the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, named for her mother, who was a teacher. “The Earth We Share” science camps are among the foundation’s initiatives, as well as the “100 Year Starship” project. Jemison has received many awards as well as honorary doctorates from institutions including Princeton, RPI, and DePaul University. Various public schools and a Chicago science and space museum have also been named for her. She has appeared in several TV shows, including an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, by the invitation of LeVar Burton.

“When I’m asked about the relevance to Black people of what I do, I take that as an affront. It presupposes that Black people have never been involved in exploring the heavens, but this is not so. Ancient African empires – Mali, Songhai, Egypt – had scientists and astronomers. The fact is that space and its resources belong to all of us, not to any one group.”
— Mae Jemison
This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.


Shirley Jackson: Black Brainiac

By Shirley_Ann_Jackson_-_Annual_Meeting_of_the_New_Champions_Tianjin_2010.jpg: World Economic Forum (Qilai Shen)derivative work: Gobonobo (talk), CC BY-SA 2.0, Public Domain.

Shirley Jackson is a highly-regarded physicist and the first black woman to earn a PhD from MIT. Her doctoral research project was in theoretical particles. Shirley has gone on to not only receive numerous awards and the highest praise for her work in elementary particles, but also for her advocacy of women and minorities in the science field. In 1995, Vice President Al Gore celebrated her contributions and her drive to be the best at her swearing in as chairman of America’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Gore told the audience that a four-year-old Shirley Ann Jackson informed her mother that one day she was going to be called “Shirley the Great.” Shirley made good on her promise as she pushed down barriers of segregation and bigotry to become one of the top scientists in the nation.

“I had to work alone…at some level you have to decide you will persist in what you’re doing and that you won’t let people beat you down.”
— Shirley Jackson

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Annie Easley: Girls Who Code

By NASA Science and Engineering Newsletter – Fagowees, Public Domain.

Annie Easley was an African-American computer scientist and mathematician as well as an actual rocket scientist. After joining NASA in 1955, she became a leading member of the team that wrote the computer code used for the Centaur rocket stage. Easley’s program was the basis for future programs that have been used in military, weather, and communications satellites. After taking college courses first one and then two or three at a time, she had to take three months of unpaid leave in 1977 to finish her degree; NASA normally paid for work-related education, but every time she applied for aid, she was turned down. But once she finished her bachelor’s degree, personnel decided she had to take yet more specialized training to be considered a “professional,” despite this discrimination. Easley continued as a NASA research scientist until 1989, making contributions in many areas, including hazards to the ozone layer, solar energy and wind power, and electric vehicles. She also worked concurrently as NASA’s Equal Employment Opportunity officer, a position where she could address discrimination problems in the agency and work for more fair and diverse employee recruitment.

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Christine Darden: When You Hear a Sonic Boom, Think of Her

By NASA – http://www.nasa.gov/centers/langley/news/researchernews/rn_CDarden.html, Public Domain.

Racial and gender discrimination in hiring practices at NASA hadn’t improved much by the time Christine Darden applied for a position in the late 1960s. Darden, despite her master’s degree in applied mathematics, which qualified her for a position as an engineer, was instead assigned to the segregated female “human computer” pool, the same as numbers of other black female scientists. She approached her supervisor, asking why men with the same education as she had wider opportunities, and gained a transfer to an engineering job in 1973, becoming one of a tiny number of female aerospace engineers at NASA Langley. In this role, she worked on the science of sonic boom minimization, writing computer test programs as well as more than 50 research articles in the field of high lift wing design. In 1983, Darden earned a doctorate, and by 1989 she was appointed to the first of a number of management and leadership roles at NASA, including that of technical leader of the Sonic Boom Team within the High Speed Research Program, as well as director of the Program Management Office of the Aerospace Performing Center in 1999. She worked at NASA until retirement in 2007.

“I was able to stand on the shoulders of those women who came before me, and women who came after me were able to stand on mine.”
— Christine Darden

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Mary Jackson: A Pioneer Both in Research and Ending Discrimination at NASA

By NASA – <a rel=”nofollow” class=”external text” href=”https://images.nasa.gov/details-LRC-1979-B701_P-07085.html”>NASA Image and Video Library</a>, Public Domain.

Mary Jackson, born in 1921, was an African-American mathematician who rose to the position of NASA’s first black female engineer. She had earned double-major bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and physical science in 1942, but worked as a schoolteacher, bookkeeper, and clerk for nearly the next decade before being recruited in 1951 to the gender and color-segregated “human computer” department by NACA, NASA’s predecessor as an aerospace agency. A couple of years later, she took another NASA position with an engineer working on the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel; she was encouraged to do graduate-level physics and math studies so she could be promoted to an engineering position. These UVA night courses were given at an all-white high school; she had to petition the city of Hampton, Virginia, her home town, for special permission to attend classes with white students. But nevertheless she persisted, and in 1958 became an aerospace engineer at what was now renamed NASA, researching airflow around aircraft.

While her contributions to aerodynamic studies were significant, after many years Jackson took an in-depth look at the inequalities built into the agency and saw that she could have the greatest impact in a formal human resources role. In 1979, she took on a new role as an affirmative action program manager and federal women’s program manager at NASA, taking a cut in pay to do so. In that position, she was able to make changes that empowered women and people of color, and helped managers to see the capabilities of their black and female employees. Even at the point that NASA administrators were finally forced to acknowledge black women’s work at the agency, the public generally had no idea about the contributions of the black women of NASA. Mary Jackson, together with two other veterans of the “human computer” segregation of women of color at the agency, inspired Margot Lee Shetterly’s book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Female Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, which was recently adapted into an acclaimed motion picture.

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Barbara McClintock: Gene Genie

By <a rel=”nofollow” class=”external text” href=”https://www.flickr.com/people/25053835@N03″>Smithsonian Institution</a>/Science Service; Public Domain.

When geneticist Barbara McClintock presented her findings about morphing genes in 1951 after a ten-year scientific study, the result was what is commonly known as a “roof job.” Her peers just didn’t get it; it went right over their heads. A pack of rabid Darwinists, her colleagues preferred to keep to the accepted notions of the day, that genetic change was random in the evolution of a species. Undeterred, Barbara went back to the drawing board and the sixty-hour-a-week lab schedule she set for herself. She preferred the relative peace of her lab to people, preferred corn to fruit flies (the research subject du jour) and she preferred to not publish her work, figuring it would be too much for her uptight colleagues to handle. As it turns out, Barbara McClintock was right an awful lot of the time.

Even as a young child, Barbara McClintock was content in her own company, pursuing her own interests. An avid reader, she was also quite a tomboy, preferring cards and engines to dolls and pots and pans, having no truck with other little girls and the sugar and spice routine. She quickly found her thing—science—and pursued it with a single-minded relentlessness that served her well through the years. Despite the displeasure of her parents, Barbara chose agricultural science as her field of study at Cornell. She performed brilliantly and was asked to stay on for the graduate program in genetics, where she earned a PhD.

She then began to teach and do research, so far ahead of the pack that she became one of only a handful of scientists in the world to first realize chromosomes were the foundation of heredity and to work from this vantage point and understanding. Indeed, she was the scientist to discover the nucleolar organizer within the structure of the chromosome that was the indicator of order during cell division. It would be thirty years after her discovery before science was able to explain her finding in terms of molecular biology. Despite this remarkable beginning to her career and an outstanding record as a genetic researcher, Barbara was never given a promotion while at Cornell. She left for Cold Harbor Laboratory, where her work so impressed everyone that she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1944 and went on to become president of the Genetics Society of America. The first woman to do so!

Not one to rest on her laurels, Barbara McClintock continued with her groundbreaking work, racking up all kinds of awards, prizes, and firsts. She became the first woman to receive an unshared Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine, and has been called the most important geneticist of the late twentieth century. She worked at Cold Harbor until her death in 1983 in the lab where she discovered what everyone wasn’t ready to see.

“It might seem unfair to reward a person for having so much fun over the years.”
— Barbara McClintock

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Anna Freud: A Mind of Her Own

By Unknown – [1] Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANEFO), 1945-1989 bekijk toegang Bestanddeelnummer 923-9360, CC0, Public Domain.
Pop culture may relegate Anna Freud to minor league status because of her associations with two icons, papa Sigmund Freud and patient Marilyn Monroe. But she should be remembered for her own ground-breaking work in child analysis and developmental psychology, collected in her eight-volume Writings. Although she didn’t overturn her father’s theories, she cultivated her own, concluding that an individual’s psychology developed uniquely from an influence of a number of what she called “developmental lines.” This multicausal approach to therapy was very different from the order of the day, attracting many patients to her clinic, including the famous blonde bombshell actress, the divine MM.

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Margaret Mead: Coming of Age in America

By Smithsonian Institution from United States – Margaret Mead (1901-1978)Uploaded by Fæ, No restrictions, Public Domain.

Margaret Mead still stirs controversy in some circles for her pioneering work in social anthropology. Like Rachel Carson, she wrote a scientific study that crossed over into the general population and became a bestseller. For this, she received derision from the academic community. But that didn’t bother the free spirit, who was one of the first women to earn a PhD in anthropology. Margaret was fortunate to be born in 1901 into a family of academics who disregarded convention and put learning and involvement in the world ahead of society’s rules. The firstborn of five children, Margaret’s parents were Edward Mead, a professor at Wharton School who taught finance and economics, and Emily Fogg Mead, a teacher, sociologist, and ardent feminist and suffragist. Margaret was homeschooled by her very able grandmother, a former teacher and school principal.

Margaret didn’t fall too far from the tree when she started The Minority, an antifraternity at DePauw University, where she was attending. Bored, she transferred to Barnard College where the academic standards were more in accordance with her needs. Originally an English major, Margaret attended a class in her senior year given by anthropologist Franz Boas, a virulent opponent of the school of racial determinism. She also met Ruth Benedict, then Boas’ assistant, who encouraged Margaret to join Columbia under Boas’ instruction. Margaret agreed and went on to graduate school after marriage to a seminary student, Luther Cressman. Soon after, true to her heritage as a free-thinking Mead, Margaret went against her mentor Boas’ urgings to do field work with America’s Native peoples, a pet project of his; instead she followed the beat of her own different and, as it turns out, tribal drums, setting off for Polynesia to explore the island culture. She reasoned that they were better subjects because they had been less exposed and, therefore less assimilated than Native Americans. She was absolutely right, writing up her field studies after living with and working alongside the Samoans for three years. The date was 1926. Divorcing Luther, she married Reo Fortune, and a mere three years later, published Coming of Age in Samoa, a ground-breaking work that shocked some circles for its frank and completely objective report of, among other things, sexual rituals and practices among the Samoans. Nearly overnight, Margaret was a superstar, fairly rare for anthropologists and even rarer for twenty-six-year-old female anthropologists!

After a stint in the American Museum of Natural History, Margaret got the jones for another field study, so she and Reo headed to New Guinea. Her resulting book, Growing Up in New Guinea, was another huge hit in both academic and popular circles. While in New Guinea, Margaret met and fell in love with fellow anthropologist Gregory Bateson; after her second divorce, she and Gregory married and she gave birth to her daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson. They worked together in New Guinea, but ultimately Gregory claimed that she was stifling his creativity and they divorced in 1943.

Margaret Mead spent the rest of her life working full-tilt in the field of anthropology, publishing forty-four books and over one thousand articles and monographs, and working as a curator at the American Museum of Natural History between trips to the field. She also sought to support and finance the work of young anthropologists. At the core of all her work was an analysis of childhood development (she was the first anthropologist ever to study childrearing practices) and gender roles, overturning many time-worn assumptions about personality and place in society for both sexes. Over and over, her studies demonstrated that there is nothing natural or universal about particular “masculine” or “feminine” roles; rather they are culturally determined. Detractors damn her fieldwork as being “impressionistic,”but Margaret Mead’s success in a male-dominated scientific field was a wonderful contradiction to the typical role for an American woman of her day and age. With forty-four books, she became a household name, made anthropology available for the masses, and blazed a trail for shero scholars of future generations.

“I have spent most of my life studying the lives of other peoples, faraway peoples, so that Americans might better understand themselves.”

— Margaret Mead

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Arlene Blum: “A Woman’s Place Is On Top”

By Cullen328 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Public Domain.

Arlene Blum has made a success by doing what she’s not “supposed” to do. Born in Chicago in 1945 and raised by her mother’s parents, Arlene overcame “arithmaphobia” to go to the top of her class in mathematics and science, where she developed a taste for competing academically with boys. She decided to study chemistry at Portland’s Reed College, ultimately earning a doctorate in chemistry from U.C. Berkeley. In an interview with Ms. in 1987, she indicated that this spirit of competition still propelled her, “I know that…girls weren’t supposed to be chemists. And it’s always sort of nice to do things you’re not supposed to do.” Reed’s location near Oregon’s mountain peaks was auspicious for the young scientist. She fell in love with mountain climbing and even worked it into her academic regimen by analyzing volcanic gas from the top of Mount Hood.

More exotic ranges beckoned, and Arlene soon trekked to Mexican and Andean peaks. An eye-opening event happened when she submitted an application to be a part of a team destined for Afghanistan and was turned down for being a woman. After a second ejection for an Alaskan expedition, Arlene Blum took the “bull by the horns” and put together her own all-woman team of six climbers, all of whom made the peak of Alaska’s Mount Denali (formerly known as Mount McKinley) in 1970. This was just the beginning for the barrier-breaking shero, who in 1978 took another all-woman team to Annapurna, one of the highest mountains in the world. At the time, only four teams had ever made it to the top of Annapurna, a treacherous mountain known for fierce storms and dangerous avalanches. In addition to the danger, such treks are always extremely expensive. Ever plucky, Blum and her team of Sherpas and sheroes paid their way to the top of Annapurna, the world’s tenth highest peak, by selling t-shirts and gaining corporate sponsorship. The t-shirts became real conversation starters with the winning slogan, “a Woman’s Place is on top…Annapurna!”

Amazing Arlene has gone on to walk the entire Great Himalayan mountain range, crest Everest, and organize many expeditions and explorations. She has also excelled at her other profession, chemistry, and helped identify a carcinogenic flame-retardant in children’s clothing. Arlene’s daughter Annlise joins her mother on climbs now, part of the generation of women for whom Arlene cleared the path. Arlene Blum showed the world that, when it comes to excluding women from sports, there “ain’t no mountain high enough” to keep a good woman down!

“People say I’ve organized all-women’s expeditions to show what we can do; but it wasn’t like that. It was more a rebellion against being told I couldn’t do something, or…that women couldn’t do something.”
— Arlene Blum
This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.