Cinderellas of Conflict and War

3 Book Review by Jim Scott

  • A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War

          by Patricia Fara

  • Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II

          by Liza Mundy

  • Hidden Figures:The Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win The Space Race,

          by Margot Lee Shetterly

 

These are three, celebratory narratives of women excelling in science, engineering and mathematics in the shadow of war and international conflict.   

Patricia Fara, a Cambridge science historian, writes convincingly of the wholesale, societal animus against women in Britain 100 years ago.  Based on her prodigious research, she celebrates the work of historically marginalized women scientists, previously excluded from the solidly male territory of the technically elite.  Fara delivers a lasting tribute to the women who bridged the science and engineering talent gap caused by WWI’s absorption of male counterparts.

Accomplished journalist Liza Mundy extols the work of several thousand, mathematically astute, American women recruited in WWII by the U.S. Army and Navy and deployed successfully as code-breakers of German and Japanese war communications.  Mundy passionately and effectively portrays the mind-numbing tedium and frustration of their clandestine work, and holds no punches in assailing society’s entrenched misogyny before, during, and after the war.

Margot Lee Shetterly, daughter of a Black research scientist at NASA-Langley Research Center, founded “The Human Computer Project” as the research vehicle resulting in the paean, Hidden Figures.  The focus was the successful struggle of segregated Black women mathematicians who played key roles inside NASA, with clear impact on the U.S./U.S.S.R. space race of the ‘50s and ‘60s.  She illuminates the human computers’ efforts to overcome Jim Crow and “gender-smack down” realities, both of which failed spectacularly to attenuate the spunk and value of the women to NASA’s successes. 

As Frederick Douglas wrote presciently in 1870: “Women’s natural abilities and possibilities, not less than man’s, constitute the measure of her rights in all directions and relations, including her right to participate in shaping the policy and controlling the action of the Government under which she lives…” These 21st century stories reflect the “Douglas touch” on women’s rights, extending from a suffrage base of counting politically towards one of competency-based, professional equality.  

These mathematicians, scientists, and engineers were clearly Cinderella figures, where war and conflict were wicked stepmothers, with a fairy godmother nowhere to be seen until the likes of Fara, Mundy, and Shetterly appeared to reveal their exciting stories from obscurity.