‘Headstrong’ by Rachel Swaby

July 8, 2015 at 5:30 am Leave a comment

HeadstrongIn her Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science — and the World, author Rachel Swaby provides 52 mini-biographies of the famous and forgotten women of scientific history. Each one is brief — too brief, I dare say — and begins with a snappy hook, followed by a recitation of each woman’s early life (and inevitable early calling to scientific endeavor), and a review of her incredible accomplishments.

As a lover of the history of science and women’s history more generally, I was charmed and intrigued by Swaby’s opening salvo in which she berates the New York Times for its sexist obituary of rocket scientist Yvonne Brill (it began by calling her “world’s best mom” and praised her for following “her husband from job to job and [taking] eight years off from work to raise three children” before mentioning her scientific achievements). Swaby, understandably, took offense and was inspired to write Headstrong in hopes of taking one small step towards halting the all-too-common prioritzation of a woman’s professional accomplishments somewhere below her domestic ones.

It’s a great Introduction. Indeed, the Introduction is probably my favorite part of Headstrong. The rest of the book, I’m sorry to report, is hagiography, unapologetic and gleaming with fervor, in its purest form.

In her efforts to correct historic and prevelent sexism, Swaby ends up over-simplifying and under-selling these women’s stories. Each biography is impossibly short, which means every single one follows the general script of “she was brilliant from a young age, faced adversity, proved her brilliance to the rest of the scientific community, and won a Nobel Prize!”

At no point are shades of grey acknowledged — these women were 100% superheroes of their respective fields and none shall gainsay their accomplishments! Nor shall we explore how deeply hard it must have been for them — they lived for the good fight and relished being discriminated against so they could fight against the Man!

I love a good “rah rah women!” book as much as the next woman, but this constant attitude of positive hero-worship wore a trifle thin even for me. They were remarkable women who accomplished things no one expected. And for that they deserve a more nuanced treatment that fully presents their stories.

That said, Headstrong could serve as a fruitful starting point to discover interesting women to read more about. I know many of them have separate biographies devoting ample ink to their lives and Swaby is a great place to get a little taste before delving deeper.

I would also recommend Headstrong to younger readers. While it is clearly intended for adults, it reminded me of a book I adored as a middle schooler that provided similar simplified biographies of great women throughout history. With its focus on math and science, Headstrong could be a fantastic read for middle- and high-school age young women. I would have unequivocally loved it back then!


Entry filed under: Biography. Tags: , , , , .

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