Women in Science and War—Out from under the bushel

women in scienceThere are so many—they're the unsung heroes—WOMEN who made astonishing contributions to science and to the Allied war efforts.

For half a century or longer, their lights were hidden under bushels—but not by their own doing.

Their accomplishments went unrecognized, were dismissed, in come cases, ridiculed … and for one reason: they were FEMALE.

Thankfully, today, many are finally getting the recognition they deserved yet were so long denied. Their achievements have been heralded through a profusion of recent books. It's time.

Let's start in 2016 with Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly's book about the black female mathematicians at NASA during the early rocket age: they struggled in the face of both sexism AND racism—a doubly high barrier.

Though Hidden Figures is hardly the first book about unrecognized women, it's perhaps the most famous. In addition to reaching bestseller status, the book also became a BLOCKBUSTER FILM—earning close to a quarter of a BILLION world-wide.

This January Marie Benedict published The Only Woman in the Room, a novelistic treatment of the famous Hollywood film star, Hedy Lamarr. Lamarr led a double life: she was also a crack scientist who invented a radio-guided torpedo system.

Although dismissed by the military during World War II, Lamarr's invention later played a role in developing GPS and cell phones. Hedy's Folly, a nonfiction work on the same subject, was published by Richard Rhodes in 2011.

Also out this January is Larry Loftis' nonfiction account of Odette Samson, a female British spy dropped into Nazi territory—Code Name: Lise.

AND get this! Pam Jenoff has just released a FICTIONAL treatment of real life female British spies … dropped into Nazi territory—The Lost Girls of Paris.

THIS just in, a late entry: April 9, 2019, saw the release of Sonia Purnell's A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win  World War II.

2017 saw a number of books about female breakthroughs in male domains. CODE-BREAKING proved a big topic that year: strangely, TWO nonfiction works were both devoted to one woman in particular—Elizebeth Smith Friedman.

Elizebeth, a groundbreaking cryptologist, founded along with her husband the modern science of cryptology prior to and during WWII. After the war William Friedman went on to head up NSA's cryptology unit—and even had a building named in his honor. It took decades for Elizebeth's name to be added to the plaque—even though some considered her the BETTER coder.

Check out these two nonfiction works on Elizebeth Smith Friedman:
    • The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone
    • A Life in Code by G. Stuart Smith

In the VERY same year (we're still in 2017), came Code Girls by Liza Mundy. Again, during the war years, the Army and Navy recruited women from around the country to learn code-breaking. They moved to Washington to take up the challenge, and only now, after years of secrecy, are we learning of their impressive contribution.

Also, in 2017, Jennifer Chiaverini came out with The Enchantress of Numbers, a fictional telling of Ada Lovelace, daughter of poet Lord Byron. More than a century passed before Lovelace was acknowledged as the developer of computer language (i.e., code). That's right, she was essentially the FIRST computer programmer—and it was the 19th century!

Finally, in 2017, moving away from math and science, Chuck O'Brien released Fly Girls, a nonfiction account of female aviators during the 1920s and '30s. The women, talented flyers in their own right, had to fight in order to compete against men in popular air races. In the face of ridicule, they managed to beat their male counterparts … a lot.

This is hardly an exhaustive list, but I'll stop here. There are many more books championing unsung female achievements; these are just the ones that came to mind.

So wouldn't it be a great idea to spend an ENTIRE BOOK CLUB YEAR reading about these remarkable women … and the many others I've left out?

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