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Women Scientists in America: Before Affirmative Action, 1940-1972

Margaret W. Rossiter, Johns Hopkins University Press 1995. xviii+584pp. ISBN 0-8018-4893-8 (cloth), $35.95.

From: AWM Newsletter, March/April 1996

Reviewed by: Marge Murray, Book Review Editor, Department of Mathematics, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA 24061-0123; email:

At the Joint Mathematics Meetings in San Antonio in January of 1993, the AWM sponsored a panel discussion on what has come to be known as the 'two-body problem' for dual-career couples in which both spouses are mathematicians. The consensus emerging from the panel was that colleges and universities have been slow to respond to the needs of such couples. Too often, an applicant with a two-body problem is viewed as a liability rather than a potential asset in the job search. Still, several of the panelists related stories of success in landing suitable academic positions, in the same geographical area and often at the same institution, after a period of searching.

Disappointing and demoralizing as the panelists' experiences may have been, they pale by comparison to the bleak circumstances facing American women in science from the period immediately following World War II until the early 1970s. Their struggles are chronicled in Women Scientists in America: Before Affirmative Action, 1940-72, by Margaret Rossiter, published in November by the Johns Hopkins University Press. This is the long-awaited sequel to Dr. Rossiter's landmark study Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940, which appeared in 1982.

The first volume, aptly subtitled, chronicles both the adversities faced by early American women scientists, and the strategies they pursued which enabled them to persevere in productive scientific careers. The second volume focuses somewhat more narrowly upon the barriers to women's full participation in scientific work in the period from World War II until the early 1970s. The subtitle --- "Before Affirmative Action" --- is somewhat misleading; a more accurate subtitle for this second volume might be "Before Title IX". For it was Title IX of the Educational Amendments Act, signed into law by Richard Nixon in June of 1972, which effectively curtailed sex discrimination in employment at federally-funded educational institutions.

The book sets out to describe the extent of women's participation in American science during the 40s, 50s, and 60s, in a variety of settings --- academic, industrial, and governmental. Fuelled by victory in the Second World War, the spectre of competition with the Soviet Union, the onset of the Cold War, and the surprise of the Sputnik launch, the American scientific infrastructure underwent unprecedented expansion and development. What is surprising and puzzling about this period in American science is that, despite official rhetoric supporting women's increased participation, the proportion of women involved in science and technology in the postwar period in fact declined precipitously. Dr. Rossiter's primary emphasis here is on describing the barriers to women's full participation in postwar science and technology.

In educational institutions during the postwar period, the emphasis was upon growth and modernization, which in practical terms often meant "masculinization" (see, for example, p. 225). As public colleges were 'upgraded' from 'normal schools' to 'state universities,' women gradually disappeared from their growing faculties, as the majority of new hires were men. Women constituted an ever-diminishing proportion of the faculty even at women's colleges and in departments of home economics, where just a few years before the overwhelming majority of the faculty had been female. At some women's colleges, there was growing concern about the presence of unmarried women on the faculty; in an effort to "normalize" the teaching staff, these older women were systematically replaced by (married) men (see pp. 206ff). Among the most dramatic and explicit examples of this occurred at Smith College, where the percentage of men on the faculty increased from 39.9 in 1947-8 to 64.8 in 1965 (p. 224). At a variety of educational institutions, women on the scientific staff were frequently relegated to impermanent and insecure faculty positions, given titles such as 'Research Associate,' and prevented from applying in their own names for the ever-burgeoning number of federal grants in aid of scientific research.

Antinepotism rules, which gained currency in American colleges and universities in the 1920s and were widespread by the 1950s, were among the most effective tools of systematic discrimination against women in higher education. Dr. Rossiter discusses in some detail perhaps the most egregious case of such discrimination, that of the mathematician Josephine Mitchell, whose distinguished career as an active researcher in classical analysis spanned five decades, from the 1940s to the 1980s (see especially pp. 125ff). As a tenured associate professor of mathematics at the University of Illinois in the 1950s, she married a younger, untenured member of the same department. Under a blatantly discriminatory interpretation of the university's antinepotism rules, her husband was allowed to keep his untenured position, while Josephine Mitchell was required to leave. Both husband and wife protested the policy and communicated their protest to the academic community at large, including organizations such as the AAUP and the AAUW. After a number of years of 'wandering', in which they held a variety of academic and industrial positions, Josephine Mitchell and her husband were finally hired by the mathematics department at Penn State, one of a handful of institutions willing (in the late 1950s) to employ spouses on its faculty. Except in highly unusual cases, the academic two-body problem was all but intractable at major universities in the 1950s and on into the 1960s.

The situation for women in industry was also far from ideal: women were frequently employed in positions far below the level of their skills and training and given little opportunity for promotion. If a woman, perhaps out of frustration, decided to leave such a position, the employer could use her departure as further evidence of the undesirability and fickleness of women as employees in highly technical fields, thereby justifying continued discrimination against women in hiring and promotion.

The situation for women scientists in the federal government was somewhat better than in education or industry, in that women were frequently hired without regard to marital status and (in some cases) without regard to age. Women were also more likely to be promoted, and to be given awards or other official recognition of their achievements. Although the pay in federal positions was often considerably lower than in industry, the opportunities and the benefits were generally greater. Many notable American women scientists found a safe haven in which to grow and flourish in government laboratories, including the (eventual) Nobel prize winners Barbara McClintock and Rosalyn Yalow, who had been unable to secure satisfactory positions in academia.

Throughout the book, Dr. Rossiter describes the efforts of numerous individuals, women's organizations, governmental bodies, and others, to improve the situation for women scientists. In the final chapter, "The Path to Liberation", she details the developments in the mid-to-late 1960s which built to a crescendo resulting in the passage of Title IX, which "extended the Equal Pay Act of 1963 to higher education and banned sex discrimination in any program of an institution receiving federal funding" (p. 382). Title IX was not, in fact, affirmative action legislation; but it had the effect of almost immediately increasing the presence and prestige of women in the sciences on American college and university campuses.

It is regrettable that the book does not contain more thorough accounts of those women who created and sustained productive careers in science during the postwar years. It is true, as Dr. Rossiter asserts, that many of the successful women scientists of this period denied, sometimes emphatically, that they had been victims of discrimination. Some went so far as to deny that discrimination could possibly be an issue for any woman in science. (See, for example, pages 123 and 381.) Dr. Rossiter refers to such women variously as "the fortunate" or "the grateful few" (e.g., pages 122 and 123). It is difficult to pass judgment on their perceptions without a clear understanding of their experiences as women in science. Dr. Rossiter's account might have been yet more valuable had she described in greater detail the careers of those women who faced discrimination head-on, yet managed to survive and eventually thrive. Put another way: what were their "struggles," and what were their "strategies," for pursuing a career that they loved, and how did they contribute to the growing infrastructure of American science and technology?

It is perhaps unfair to be critical of a book which attempts to cover such a huge subject in such a comparatively small space. It is not possible for one person or one book to do justice to the experiences of American women in science in the postwar period. This book provides an excellent overview of the subject, touching on some of the major issues confronting women in science, and in academia and the professions more generally, during this turbulent time. Perhaps the most valuable resource in the book is the concluding bibliographic essay, which directs the interested reader to a panoply of primary and secondary sources on the various issues touched upon in the text.

At a time in our history when antidiscrimination legislation is under attack as unnecessary, this timely book reminds us of our recent past. Reading Dr. Rossiter's book is sure to be an eye-opener to any woman scientist, young or old, who believes that we live in an enlightened era in which there is no longer any need for legislation banning discrimination on the basis of sex. If we forget the struggles and sacrifices of the women scientists who have come before us, we may well, to paraphrase Santayana, be condemned to repeat them.

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