Portraying women in science and technology

Were we to judge by images alone, invention has been a man’s world, and only a man’s world. The title of one of the iconic paintings of 19th-century invention, Men of Progress by Christian Schussele, says it all. I’m sure no one then was even thinking about “Women of Progress.”

Floodlight_danceElectric Light, about 1946. Shirley Yager, Schenectady balleteuse © General Electric

Has that changed? One resource for understanding popular perceptions of scientists, engineers, and inventors in 20th-century America is the Smithsonian’s Science Service Historical Image Collection. America’s first science news agency, Science Service produced and distributed photographs for newspapers, magazines, and other media.

While women appear in numerous Science Service photos, how they are portrayed is an interesting question. Many photographs show women assembling or testing technological devices, for example. While there are literally hundreds of photographs of white-coated male researchers making or using scientific instruments, there are almost none of women doing comparable things. Rather, women are invariably passive or admiring observers. In other words, females are shown dominated by rather than in charge of technology.

Science Service images were typical of those presented by other contemporary media, save for the occasional movie about Madame Curie. None of this means, of course, that women did not play active roles in science and technology over the last two centuries. On the contrary, at the Lemelson Center we have uncovered ample evidence of significant female contributions. But, given the skewed nature of the visual record, we have had to work very hard to find this evidence. While image isn’t everything, it counts for a lot in today’s visual culture.

My feeling is that the media today are doing a much better job of bringing women into the frame, but also that these representations are still nowhere close to reflecting actual numbers. Women’s History Month is a good occasion for us to bring women in science and technology into focus.

Arthur Molella is Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Director of the National Museum of American History’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation.

Posted at 5:28 pm EDT in From the Collections,Women's History