10 Books About Spaceflight Written by Women

Because we need to stop forgetting about the women who made space flight possible in the first place.

Photo by History in HD on Unsplash

This weekend was the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and what better way to celebrate than by reading about historic spaceflight? Some of the preexisting lists of books on other science websites were a little lacking in women writers — this list intends to remedy that oversight.

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Hidden Figures: The Untold True Story of Four African-American Women Who Helped Launch Our Nation into Space by Margot Lee Shetterly

Shetterly’s book, originally published in 2016 and now an award-winning film, is a biography of four black women who fought discrimination at NASA to make significant contributions to the Space Race. The book features three “Human Computers”, mathematicians who worked to solve problems for engineers, and the fourth woman researching supersonic flight. Despite being seen as inferior to their male colleagues, all of these women took a stand and helped make spaceflight possible. There is now a young reader’s edition of Hidden Figures as well, for kids who want to learn about Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Christine Darden.

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Wally Funk’s Race For Space: The Extraordinary Story of a Female Aviation Pioneer by Sue Nelson

Wally Funk excelled in Mercury 13, NASA’s 1961 Women in Space program for American pilots, beating even John Glenn’s scores for physical and mental tests. But even after preparing these qualified women for spaceflight, politics and gender-based prejudice caused the program to be cancelled. But Funk nevertheless went on to be come the first female aviation instructor and make great accomplishments, which Nelson documents in this exciting biography. This book shows exactly how women have been discriminated against and kept out of spaceflight. Nelson’s book was published in September of 2018.

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The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight by Martha Ackmann

Ackmann’s 2004 book was the first time the story of the Mercury 13 women was told. Despite the crushing disappointment of the program’s cancellation, each of the women went on to achieve great things: “Jerrie Cobb, who began flying when she was so small she had to sit on pillows to see out of the cockpit, dedicated her life to flying solo missions to the Amazon rain forest; Wally Funk, who talked her way into the Lovelace trials, went on to become one of the first female FAA investigators; Janey Hart, mother of eight and, at age forty, the oldest astronaut candidate, had the political savvy to steer the women through congressional hearings and later helped found the National Organization for Women.”

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The Space Race: The Journey to the Moon and Beyond by Sarah Cruddas

Space expert and astrophysicist Sarah Cruddas guides readers through the thrilling history of space exploration, from moon-landings to plans to what our future in space may look like. Geared toward young readers, this book will introduce children to the history of space travel and inspire them with questions about what the future – their future – in space could be. Cruddas’ book was published earlier this year.

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Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, From Missiles to the Moon to Mars by Nathalia Holt

Also published in 2016, like Hidden Figures, Holt’s book goes deeper into the elite young women of NASA’s new Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Human Computers that made satellites and space exploration possible in the first place. Holt’s book contains extensive interview with the women and takes readers through what it would have been like to be an accomplished, intelligent woman in science at the time and the discrimination they face every day in the workplace.

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Breaking the Chains of Gravity: The Story of Spaceflight Before Nasa by Amy Shira Teitel

In this 2015 book, Vintage Space‘s Amy Shira Teitel investigates the steps Germany took toward space flight just as America was learning to launch its own rocket-like aircraft. Exploring the rivalries between the countries that led to the Space Race, Teitel gives a thrilling account of everything that led up to Neil Armstrong’s historic walk on the moon.

Galaxy Girls: 50 Amazing Stories of Women in Space by Libby Jackson

Published in 2018, filled with gorgeous and colorful illustrations, Jackson’s book could not be better described than it is on Harper Collins website: “a groundbreaking compendium honoring the amazing true stories of fifty inspirational women who helped fuel some of the greatest achievements in space exploration from the nineteenth century to today—including Hidden Figure’s Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson as well as former NASA Chief Astronaut Peggy Whitson, the record-holding American biochemistry researcher who has spent the most cumulative time in space…Galaxy Girls celebrates more than four dozen extraordinary women from around the globe whose contributions have been fundamental to the story of humankind’s quest to reach the stars.”

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Women in Space: 23 Stories of First Flights, Scientific Missions, and Gravity-Breaking Adventures by Karen Bush Gibson

Profiling 23 women and their pioneering experiences, Gibson’s books underscores the scientific and technological accomplishments women have made despite the discrimination they experienced: “By breaking the stratospheric ceiling, these women forged a path for many female astronauts, cosmonauts, and mission specialists to follow.” Published in 2014.

The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars by Dava Sobel

In this thrilling and award-winning account, explore the extraordinary discoveries and accomplishments of the women mathematicians working at the Harvard College Observatory. Sobel documents how “at the outset this group included the wives, sisters, and daughters of the resident astronomers, but soon the female corps included graduates of the new women’s colleges—Vassar, Wellesley, and Smith. As photography transformed the practice of astronomy, the ladies turned from computation to studying the stars captured nightly on glass photographic plates.” Published in 2016.

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Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space by Lynn Sherr

As a kid, when my dad worked for NASA and we lived near JPL in Southern California, he used to tell the story of how he met the first American woman in space. I was always mesmerized when he talked about her, imagining what it would have been like to be Sally Ride. In this biography, Sherr tells the story of how Ride made history “when NASA chose her for the seventh shuttle mission, cracking the celestial ceiling and inspiring several generations of women.” Sherr’s book was published in 2014.

For more biographies of women in space flight, including Find Where the Wind Goes by the first African-American woman in space Dr. Mae Jemison herself, check out this Bustle list!

This list was inspired by SPACE.com’s Best Space Flight and History Books, published earlier this year, and this list from Science News, which some readers felt was rather lacking in books by and about women. Taking the time to increase the visibility of women and women of color is, this writer believes, well worth the effort.

The Glowing Girls of America’s Radium Industry

This summer, I’m reading eight historical biographies themed around women and science. This first review features The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore. Radium Girls was also one of Science Friday’s 2019 summer reading picks!

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Girl using radium to paint clock face, Jan 1932.

Lip, dip, paint. The girls were told that this was the best way to get the glowing paint perfectly onto the numbers of the watch faces. Using their lips to point the brush, the girls delicately painted each number so it could be more easily seen in the dark. Yet with each stroke, they unknowingly delivered a dangerously radioactive substance into their bodies.

So begins the story of America’s shining women.

It was America’s roaring twenties, and the girls had a well-paying and enjoyable position with Radium Dial. They reveled in the attention they received for their ghostly glowing clothes and skin after working with the paint. Sometimes they’d decorate their faces and dresses with the radium paint before they went dancing or partying. At the time, the dangers of radium were virtually unknown. The United States Radium Corporation (USRC) boasted a myriad of health benefits from their product. After all, how could such a beautiful, luminous substance do any harm? It wasn’t until the girls began to fall ill and die, each of them only in their early twenties – one after the other – that they and their families and medical experts began to realize the substance the girls worked with was deadly. Getting anyone to believe them, however, was another matter entirely. All the while, their time was running out — the glowing girls were “doomed to die.”

Radium Girls is a thrilling account of the lives of the girls who worked for the USRC in the early twentieth century. Moore includes details about the girls that bring them to life so that the book doesn’t feel like a historical account, but a riveting novel. Careful not to let her readers slip into the sense that the book is not a true story, Moore provides subtle reminders that these girls were very real, and the lives lost to radium poisoning were casualties of a greedy corporation unwilling to admit their product was at fault. Compelling and immersive, Moore’s book invites readers to step back into the twenties, just before and at the start of the Great Depression, and experience factory work along side the radium girls. As girl after girl fell ill, the company did its best to keep the rest of the workers from knowing whether they, too, might be in danger.

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Moore’ cast of characters – the real girls and their families, the doctors and dentists and lawyers, and the members of the USRC – is extensive. It can be difficult to keep up with at times, especially because the groups of girls and split into two different cities. But Moore does a wonderful job of emotionally attaching her reader to the characters and making sure their individual personalities shine enough that you are able to remember who’s who as Moore takes you through their stories.

I enjoyed the scenes in court the most. After losing friends and family to radium poisoning, and working with scientists and doctors to prove radium was truly harmful, the girls managed to take the Radium Company to court. The scenes there are exciting and frightening because the laws were not in the girls’ favor, but clearly an injustice was indeed happening. The girls were mocked, scorned, and many did not believe them. And yet their bodies, their bones, were evidence: as the girls grew more sick, their jaws fell apart. Their teeth fell out. They grew sarcomas and lost movement in their legs or arms. Reading about the effects on their body was often sickening.

Yet the bravery of the girls, and those acting on on behalf of them, is memorable:

“Human lives,” [the lawyer] continued, bringing his introduction round to the woman at the center of the case, “were saved among our country’s army of defense, because Catherine Donohue painted luminous dials on instruments for our forces. To make life safe, she and her coworkers [are] among the living dead. They have sacrificed their own lives. Truly an unsung heroine of our country, our state and our country owe her a debt.”

Radium Girls, by Kate Moore

I was often touched by the ways the girls’ families stepped in to help them, the ways their husbands and, in some cases, children’s lives were affected. Some of the girls were as young as I am (21, 22) when they died, their lives cut short by radium. When they worked in that factory with the luminous paint, they had no idea they had unwittingly accepted a terrible, painful death.

Reading about the girls’ pain – in one scene, a girl named Catherine holds up her jaw bone in court after it had fallen out – is enough to make you nauseated or simply cry. The outrage the girls’ pain evoked, the sheer grief experienced by their husbands, moved me to tears at some scenes. Moore quietly reminds you, as the reader, are carrying on these girls’ stories. We are keeping them alive after all these years in order to protect other innocent workers from every suffering the same fate.

Radium Girls is a tale of what happens when a corporation silences women and suppresses science. It’s a caution against heedless belief in a substance we don’t quite understand, and an outcry against unjust treatment of innocent workers. In some ways, it reminded me of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, in some ways, perhaps with a more positive note.

“The Radium Girls did not die in vain,” Moore writes. “Although the women could not save themselves from the poison that riddled their bones, in countless ways their sacrifice saved many thousands of others.”

A Computer Scientist Explores the Hazards of Digital Addiction

Computer scientist, MIT graduate, and bestselling author Cal Newport’s new book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World uses science to investigate the impact of technology on our psyches and our lives in today’s increasingly digital world.

I recently had my first experience going “viral”. Within hours of sharing my thoughts on a controversial issue in a Twitter post, my phone was blowing up with notifications. At first, it was exciting to see the number of likes and retweets skyrocket. The spiteful comments from those who disagreed with my point didn’t even bother me – other users were jumping in to counter their arguments. But as the numbers climbed into the hundreds of thousands, with my tweet garnering millions of impressions and being screenshot for shares across multiple platforms, I began to feel a strange sense of discomfort creep in. It wasn’t just the strange feeling of seeing my face and name pop up randomly while scrolling Facebook. As hate-filled messages flooded my Twitter direct messages and my Instagram (which I use to promote this blog) was targeted by angry users, I quickly tired from shooting off witty retorts and checking my mentions for chances to debate. Just a few days later, checking my social media had become emotionally exhausting.

Around the the same time as my viral misadventures, I came across Cal Newport’s article on how to declutter your digital life for the New York Times. His suggestion to return to analog activities while breaking from social media, before limiting its use, seemed useful and applicable to my circumstances. After all, he’s a computer scientist, so he must know what he’s talking about. When his book Digital Minimalism arrived on the shelf of the independent bookstore in Oregon where I work, I was immediately drawn to it.

Ironically, when I picked up Newport’s book, I quickly discovered that I had already implemented his 31 day digital decluttering experience. I’d removed social media from my phone and limited my check-ins to a browser. I only logged on to Instagram and Facebook for my job, which involves managing social media for the bookstore. In fact, everything Newport suggests in his book were things I was already implementing based off common sense. At least I was reassured I was on the right track.

One of the things I think Newport’s book is missing, despite how much I enjoyed it, is a personal connection to the impact of social media usage. While the visceral experience of going viral – including its ups and downs – was fresh in my mind, Newport has not personally used Facebook and Twitter. If he had, he would undoubtedly have dived more deeply into the emotional and psychological impacts of using social media. Without a personal connection, I felt at times that his overview of its downsides could be superficial, resigned to the facts without a deeper exploration of the personal impact. But perhaps that is where the reader is meant to insert themselves and their own experiences, ultimately drawing their own conclusions about their digital life.

I also struggled to agree with Newport in Chapter Two, where he praises the Amish and Mennonite communities extensively for their rejection of many modern technologies. Although Newport does admit, in a singular and brief sentence, that these communities disenfranchise women, he utterly neglects their backwards and repressive views that make internet-accessible phone ownership so contraband for their communities. It isn’t simply about the technology and its positive and negative aspects, as Newport claims – it’s also about keeping women away from information that might liberate them. His justifications for teenagers who choose to stay in the communities also neglects to address that many of these teenagers hardly have a choice – why would they leave their families and resources of support? I think Newport could have taken a more nuanced look, rather than made a passing comment regarding the repressive ideals of these communities.

In another regard, because Newport is not a woman, he misses out on the chance to analyze our dependence on social validation from using picture-driven social media platforms such as Instagram. This external validation regarding beauty – something I see significantly fewer men interested in, as none of my male partners have been particularly interested in posting pictures of themselves on Instagram – is seriously addicting for women. Newport, unable to relate, completely ignores this aspect of social media usage and focuses instead on optimizing our time. But for a woman, spending large amounts of time on our appearance and taking a high quality photo that garners hundreds of likes is extremely addictive. Again, had this book been written from a female perspective, readers might have had a deeper exploration of the gender issues regarding our social media usage.

In addition, Newport spends considerable time worshiping the habits of Thoreau and Nietzsche (what else would we expect?), but if you’re willing to look past the rambling bromance-like adoration he holds for them and their ilk, Newport’s argument that we waste a substantial amount of time and energy on our phones — at the cost of our happiness. His points that we should enjoy our leisure time, our solitude, our face-to-face (or phone-to-ear) interactions, and our relationships more than endless scrolling is perfectly logical. Another argument he makes is for productive use of our leisure time, which is nice in theory, but not everyone wants to create and distribute valuable commodities in their limited free time. Newport is more on the nose when he explores the potential of rebuilding face-to-face interactions.

But as a computer scientist, he also has a deeper understanding of how these devices and apps have been strategically designed to manipulate us into feeling rewarded for checking our social media accounts, and to feel entertained by endless scrolling. Apple and Microsoft and the thousands of app designers out there want us to check our phone as frequently as possible – it’s the drug they’re selling, a drug we are deeply addicted to. And like every addiction, it comes with a cost.

Ultimately, the idea of decluttering your digital life – only checking social media via a browser, or reducing your phone usage, etc – is effective, useful, and productive. But the biggest obstacle to Newport’s argument is that, without personal experience, his book lacks the profoundness of a personal connection to the book’s material. How easy it must have been for him to implement his own solution – he’s never had Twitter or Facebook in the first place! Of course, he only addresses this downside in a footnote. It seems unimportant to him that he can write a book on a subject he has very little experience with, but I digress.

My criticisms are only that Newport, had he given a more nuanced investigation to certain issues regarding social media or had more personal experience with it himself, he could have presented a more convincing argument. What saves his book is that the audience is likely readers who are already experiencing doubts about their phone usage and are looking for solutions. That’s exactly what Newport has to offer: simple, useful solutions.

Pioneering Fossil Hunter Mary Anning Gets Her Dues

Mary Anning’s fossil findings helped lay the groundwork for Darwin’s theory of evolution. Today, women in science who were once lost to history are being rediscovered and celebrated for their contributions. Is Mary Anning finally getting the credit she deserves?

March was Women’s History Month, a chance for women’s accomplishments to be acknowledged and celebrated, and the Read More Science Book Club read Shelley Emling’s book The Fossil Hunter to learn about a woman whose work changed science. This review is being posted late, but was meant to acknowledge that month. Centuries after her death, Mary Anning and her incredible contributions are finally getting the attention they deserve. A new biopic of Anning’s life, Ammonite, starring Kate Winslet, is currently in the making.

Author Shelley Emling has conducted some serious research into her subject’s life. The way she weaves fact into storytelling — and her cautious approach to retelling Anning’s story based on what Emling believe may have happened – makes for a trustworthy read. Emling is clearly passionate about making sure readers understand just how much of an impact Anning’s work has made on our understanding of dinosaurs and evolution. For a woman with no education, at a time when women were expected to be wives and mothers, Anning abandoned all that to earn money for her family and make a name for herself as a fossil hunter.

Emling does a great job of guiding readers through Anning’s life story. The book is vivid and even includes a few illustrations and photographs that bring the characters and setting to life for the reader. The book feels exactly the right length. In fact, the only strange component that may turn some readers off (it took some adjusting for me to get used to) is that Emling writes without assuming. The language she uses is “Mary may have done this” or “this may have happened,” careful to never state something happened when Emling could not be sure. Although this is technically correct – it’s not as if Emling witnessed the events she is retelling – it gives the book a strange suspension. It’s difficult to connect to the story when you feel detached from the events, unsure whether or not to believe they happened at all. I wish Emling had written her book with greater confidence or asked readers to suspend their disbelief through assertion.

I feel as though male popular science writers are more willing to tell the story the way they believed it happened, and some female writers are careful to be cautious. However, I have never read a book written in the style Emling employs in The Fossil Hunter. If you don’t enjoy the first chapter, it’s not likely to get better for you. But I think if you can get past the style, it’s worth giving the book a chance because it is an important and wonderful story and Emling delivers it well. Just be prepared for all the “Mary may have…” and “Mary likely thought or felt…” and “Mary might have then…”, because it may take some getting used to.

Overall, The Fossil Hunter is a good book to breeze through this summer if you want to learn more about the accomplishments of an incredible woman who was barred from participating in the scientific world at the time.

Why a Sense of Wonder is Your Greatest Scientific Tool

My exploration into science literacy began with a sense of wonder for the world around me. Today we’ll explore wonder and why it’s one of the greatest tools both a scientist, and science literate citizen, can have.

Nature inspires wonder. Photo by Elena Prokofyeva on Unsplash.

It’s no coincidence that many great minds have commented on the value in having a sense of wonder for the world around you. Here are some of their thoughts:

Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.

Socrates

I was a young man with unformed ideas. I threw out queries, suggestions, wondering all the time over everything; and to my astonishment the ideas took like wildfire.

Charles Darwin

The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.

Rachel Carson

The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver.

Richard Dawkins

What does having a sense of wonder mean for a scientist today? To wonder is, in my own words, to marvel with curiosity. It means you ask questions because something about the universe impresses or astounds you. Why is this thing or phenomenon the way it is? What causes it? How? These are good questions from which you can formulate a research question, a hypothesis, or simply set out to learn more about something if the question has already been answered. This is how wonder drives both science and science literacy.

One of my favorite books that is in many ways about wonder is Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World. His book explores some of the most wonder-provoking questions: Is there other forms of intelligent life, or are we alone in the universe? What happens when we die, and can we speak with the dead? Sagan treats each and every odd question and conspiracy theory like a legitimate scientific investigation, reasoning through with evidence and a healthy dose of skepticism (and a little hope that, just maybe, something extraordinary might be true). But as he says, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and in most cases, this evidence doesn’t seem to exist.

As science communicators and as science literate citizens, we can balance our wonder with skepticism without losing our awe of the universe and our world. There is no reason we can’t be amazing by the human body, evolution, and our existence even if we weren’t created by a divine being. There’s no reason to think less of the stars if they don’t have planets with intelligent life orbiting them that we know of. It’s inspiring to ask exciting, controversial questions. Until we have good evidence for or against, we shouldn’t try to make firm conclusions. We can say, “I don’t believe this, but when we have evidence to support it, I’d be very interested,” or, “I feel comfortable believing that we haven’t yet been visited by extraterrestrials – the evidence seems insufficient.”

Wonder can inspire and ignite curiosity to learn about the world. Indeed, wonder is what drove me to read popular science books in the first place. It’s important to cultivate it in children and young adults, and to retain that sense of wonder through college and graduate school. At least, I’m aiming to. This fall, I start the next half of my undergraduate studies at Oregon State University. I’ll be a microbiology major delving into research and STEM for the first time. Wonder about the microcosmos, the world of invisible microorganisms and their ecosystems, is what drives me toward my degree.

Stephen Hawking was another scientist who understood the value of wonder. In a tribute to his life on Space.com, ‘He Inspired Us All to Wonder’: Scientists and the Public Remember Stephen Hawking, they remember how Hawking valued and encouraged having a sense of wonder. Hawking’s commitment to being in awe of the universe is one of the (many) attributes that makes him such a memorable scientists. So I want to end on one of his quotes, which never fails to bring tears to my eyes:

Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at.

Stephen Hawking

Evolution and Feminism in Nineteenth Century America

Kimberly A. Hamlin’s book From Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science, and Women’s Rights in Gilded Age America is a triumphant argument for the ways in which evolutionary theory and feminism interacted with and supported each other in the nineteenth century. Her investigations of the push for birth control and reproductive choice is startlingly relevant to America today.

Hamlin’s From Eve to Evolution is startlingly relevant to the tumultuous politics of reproductive rights and female autonomy in America today. If you’ve kept up with the news at all over the past few weeks, you could hardly have missed the fact Alabama just instituted an abortion ban, and more than handful of states are implementing restrictions of their own. Women’s reproductive choices and bodily autonomy are, apparently, up for debate once again. I’ve had Hamlin’s book sitting on my shelf for a while now, and it suddenly seemed like an extremely appropriate time to read and review it. And I cannot recommend it enough.

Hamlin begins with Eve’s curse. Christian or not, most people in America know the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in Genesis — or at least the part about Eve eating the forbidden fruit. The original sin, in which Eve convinced Adam to partake in the forbidden fruit and they are subsequently cast out of the paradise God created for them, has long had negative ramifications for women, specifically the pain of childbirth. Eve was also subsequently created from Adam’s rib, meant to be a “helpmeet” for him, therefore earning women their secondary position to men. Then, along comes Darwin with his theory of evolution, casting significant doubt on the idea that the human race descended from the pair cast out of the Garden of Eden. In fact, his theory cast a lot of doubt on the idea humans were specially created at all.

But we know Darwin was no feminist. How then, could his theory have bolstered the feminist movement in the nineteenth century? “Even though Darwin and most other nineteenth-century scientists believed that evolution, like Genesis, demanded women’s subservience to men and total devotion to maternity, his theory of evolution contained the seeds of radical interpretations as well as conventional ones,” writes Hamlin. “Many feminists and other reformers were keen to these revolutionary insights and embraced evolutionary science as an ally.”

In the late 1800’s, the United States was captivated by the implications of Darwin’s book The Descent of Man, and perhaps none more so than those involved in the budding feminist movement. “For those readers who were already inclined to challenge the existing order, Darwin provided the scientific justification to question whether or not patriarchy, monogamy, and female domesticity were in fact natural…Sexual selection theory also introduced the provocative and potentially radical concept of female choice of sexual partners, providing attentive readers with a new way to think about sexual relations and power systems.” Hamlin explores these radical concepts in depth throughout the rest of the book, relying on the writings of a handful of prominent feminist thinkers whose messages grew from Darwin’s revolutionary theories. Leading into this research, she writes, “perhaps the most notable aspect of the American reception of The Descent of Man is that so many women enlisted it for feminist purposes.”

It’s important to remember that science, at this time, was still an ambiguous and all-encompassing term for the research happening in many fields at the time — it was also becoming more masculine and exclusive with each passing decade. “Even though women were, for the most part, excluded from the institutionalization of science, they, too, were inspired by Darwin, especially his materialistic explanation of organic life,” writes Hamlin. This materialistic explanation came at exactly the right time for some feminist thinkers, who saw the belief of creation, Eve’s transgression, and patriarchal Christianity as repressive for women, because “Evolutionary science…allowed women to contemplate a world free from gendered biblical restrictions.”

In the first chapter, Hamlin references feminist Helen Hamilton Gardener’s 1885 essay “Men, Women, and Gods”. The quote she drew made me sit bolt upright: “It is always a surprise to me that women will sit, year after year, and be told that, because of a story as silly and childish as it is unjust, she is responsible for all the ills of life.” “That because, forsooth, some thousands of years ago a woman was so horribly wicked as to eat an apple, she must and should occupy a humble and penitent position, and remain forever subject to the dictates of ecclesiastical pretenders.” Then, Gardener writes with finality, “The morals of the nineteenth century have outgrown the Bible….we, who are fortunate enough to live in the same age with Charles Darwin, know [the Bible] to be the expression of a low social condition untempered by the light of science.”

I cannot tell you what it was like to read those words and know that two centuries ago, a feminist was writing that the morals of her century have outgrown the Bible — as I sit here (a feminist, a woman in science, and an ex-Christian), writing about how America needs to shed the repressive Christian doctrine that holds back women as well as science. It’s difficult to express the depth of how reading that part of Hamlin’s book impacted me, but tears rolled down my cheeks. Have we made no progress? Surely if Gardener could see what women have achieved today, she would be glad and say we have. And yet, at the same time, we are still struggling to protect the right to birth control, abortion, equal pay, and fight everyday sexism around us — which continues to be reinforced by the pseudo-morals of conservative Christianity.

In the nineteenth century, Darwin’s theory of evolution was especially powerful for “presenting an alternative creation story,” thereby offering “to revolutionize popular thinking about gender and sex difference.” But the women (and men) writing about this were not immune to a serious flaw of the time: chasing the rights of white women at the expense of people of color. “As the historian Louise Michele Newman and others have persuasively argued, white racial superiority was a core element of women’s rights rhetoric, and women often invoked evolutionary discourse regarding the racial hierarchy of civilization to support suffrage arguments based on whiteness,” Hamlin writes. Unfortunately, white women placed themselves at the top of the hierarchy with white men as they advocated for the vote, ignoring the needs of others who could have benefited from the suffrage movement. As the 100-year anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment was this month, it’s important to note that it only granted the vote to white women. Hamlin does a great job recognizing and addressing the inherent whiteness of the women’s suffrage movement without discrediting the work some of the women did do for people of color.

One of the ways Darwin’s theory worked inclusively in favor for all women was opening up opposition to the authority of the Christian church, whose doctrine preached the subordination of women and encouraged it as a form of godliness and an example of faith. The more obedient and compliant with her place a woman was, the greater her reward in heaven. Gender equality threatened the patriarchy of this doctrine. “Recognizing women’s equality would ‘compel an entire change in church canons, discipline, and authority, and many doctrines of the Christian faith,’ [writes Elizabeth Cady Stanton], ‘as a matter of self-preservation, the Church has no interest in the emancipation of woman, as its very existence depends on her blind faith.'” Stanton also wrote, “The Bible rests simply on the authority of man, and its teachings are unfit for this stage of evolution in which the sexes occupy an equal place in the world of thought.”

In order to fight Christian doctrine that preached women were inferior, nineteenth-century feminists needed science. Darwin’s theory of evolution provided the perfect platform on which to build a compelling argument against Eve’s transgression as well as women’s natural (or God-ordained) inferiority. This led to the “Science of Feminine Humanity”, or the objective and scientific study of woman. In 1886, Smith College built the Lilly Hall of Science, “dedicated to women’s scientific studies and experimentation.” It was named after its donor, Alfred T. Lilly, who “was a supporter of women’s education, as well as a critic of Christian orthodoxy,” and who believed science and truth was equally valuable to women as it is for men. And as science made tremendous progress establishing itself as a formal field and distinguishing itself from non-science, the scientific investigation of sex and gender began to really take root. Spying an opportunity, women began to take aim at male scientists who claimed to use science and studies to assert male superiority.

As scientific debates about brain size and physiology raged, “In 1887, [Gardener] turned her attention to convincing the public, especially women themselves, that women’s brains were in no way inferior to men’s and that female physiology did not limit women’s mental powers.” In contrast, the popular thought of the nineteenth century was that “women were intuitive not abstract, imitative not original, and emotional not reasonable. Darwin himself said as much,” but it was a doctor an neurologist named William A. Hammond who first connected the idea of “female inferiority to the structure of the female brain.” The brain debate became public in Popular Science Monthly, and Hamlin delightfully describes the intense debate between Gardener and another female-inferiority convinced brain scientist in a series of letters to the publication. It’s worth noting that the scientists who argued in favor of women’s biological inferiority were greatly influenced by Christian orthodoxy: “The problem then was not science but science improperly practiced owing to the lingering influence of the Genesis creation story and its insistence on inherent female inferiority.”

Hamlin does an astonishing job exploring this debate. Although she is a historian, not a scientist, and her tone can be very academic, her book is a fascinating and riveting read for anyone interested in the subjects she explores. Because the book is only a handful of chapters, it makes for a brief, but intense, read. I can’t help but highly recommend it given the important discussions going on around women’s reproductive rights, and even the science around male and female biological differences and what that means in terms of “superiority” and “inferiority”. If you enjoyed Angela Saini’s book Inferior and want more like it, this is a good book to follow-up with.

One of the final, and most interesting, subjects Hamlin investigates is the role of birth control and its links to science: “In some ways, then, the ultimate success of the birth control movement might tell us just as much about the growing cultural authority of science as it does about the campaign for women’s rights. One might further argue that the particular trajectory of the American birth control movement owed much to the gendered (and racialized) development of scientific establishment (men on the inside as scientists, women on the outside as agitators) and to women’s enthusiasm for science, even though such enthusiasm was often unrequited,” writes Hamlin. “Drawing on science, especially evolutionary theory, allowed feminists, socialists, and sex reformers to claim that their proposals were natural and to attach themselves to the cultural prestige of science, which connoted modernity, research, and truth in contrast to the tradition, moralizing, and dogma associated with religion.”

Finally, Hamlin persuasively argues “Darwinian theory overturned Eve’s curse; inspired women to trust science as an ally; initiated the scientific study of sex; and gave women a credible, scientific concept to draw on in arguing for reproductive autonomy.” She breaks this down further into several succinct points. First, that the biblical conviction men are superior and women are destined to suffer during pregnancy was wrong. Second, that they needed to enlist science as an ally and third, think critically about motherhood and domesticity. Finally, arguments for reproductive autonomy were bolstered by the idea of sexual selection and evolutionary theory in a broad sense.

Hamlin concludes,

“Those interest in countering the claims of biological determinists would do well to recall their turn-of-the-century predecessors who saw in Darwinian evolutionary theory…the potential to revolutionize traditional ideas about gender and sex in order to allow for greater female reproductive autonomy.”

The Histories Within Our Bones

Paleontologist Brian Switek’s new book Skeleton Keys explores the bones beneath our skin and the evolutionary story they reveal; Switek also investigates the bones’ role in uncovering history, as well as the illegal trading of bones today.

Note: This review has been updated to reflect the author’s preferred pronouns (they/them). Though the review refers to the author as Switek, their name upon publication, the author now identifies as Riley Black. You can read about their story on Nature’s Career Column, “Queer voices in paleontology.”

The first thing you’ll notice about author Brian Switek’s most recent book is that it’s a light read. It’s a small, comfortable-to-hold hardback that promises a brief but enthralling read. But a whole book, you may be wondering, about bones? Is there really that much to say on the matter? There is, and you’re left with the feeling that Switek knows significantly more than they let on.

Skeleton Keys is one of those beautiful popular science books you can devour over a weekend or during a long flight. Because it reads like a conversation between you and the author, it’s hard to put down and break away from. While you read, you get the feeling Switek is a friendly person who genuinely cares about making sure you understand and are excited by the stories they have to share. Their warmth and humor emanate from the page.

But enough about Switek. It’s really the content of the book that matters, isn’t it? Skeleton Keys does not disappoint. We get to explore museums alongside Switek, even visiting the legendary Lucy:


“The first time I saw one of the restorations of what she looked like in life, a the American Museum of Natural History’s Anne and Bernard Spitzer Hall of Human Origins, I was shocked by how a human with such a massive reputation could be so tiny. In that display, eyes scanning the horizon and holding hands with another of her kind, Lucy stands only a meager three feet, seven inches tall. Prior to that point all the images and restorations I had seen had shot Luct straight from the front or angled up, making her seem larger than life. The bones told the same story. If I lifted off the glass and carefully plucked up each piece – which I was not crazy enough to try to do – I could have easily cradled what remained of Lucy’s skull in one hand.”

Brian Switek, Skeleton Keys, 2019

The care with which Switek treats their subject is like an invitation to the reader to view bones with the same sense of wonder and appreciation. As they describe various skeletons and their features in depth, you may, as I did, find yourself marveling at your own elbow or hand. You might, as I did, reach up and touch your cheekbones, gently reminding yourself of the skull beneath your skin. Your bones are an intimate part of who you are, and yet we’re so out of touch with them, we don’t think about them unless we accidentally break one, or if they cause us pain.

Switek wants to wake their readers to wake from their state of unconsciousness and inspire a fascination, like the curiosity of children. With their enthusiasm for dinosaurs, this comes naturally. As readers, I think there is something deeply and inherently valuable about embracing this childlike curiosity and enthusiasm, with no inhibitions. We are learning about our world, and ourselves.

“If only a skeleton from our species had been laid out next to Lucy’s in that dark exhibit hall. Then the family resemblance would have struck home even harder,” writes Switek. “Not to mention that it might have given visitors a better appreciation for what’s inside of us. I know I didn’t appreciate our own skeletal form until around the time I visited Lucy, when I was taking a human osteology course at Rutgers University.”

Inspiring a newfound appreciation for bones and the skeleton within us is the ultimate goal of Skeleton Keys. You’ll be armed with enough surprising facts to impress any guest at the next cocktail party you attend, but more importantly, this book will inspire you to think more about the bones that make your body possible.

While I read this book, I live-tweeted some of my thoughts about it. You can read those tweets below:

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