When I delivered the 33rd Helen Stubbs Memorial Lecture in the fall of 2021, one of my themes was women. I started it with a reading from Saturday Walk, a book I’d read as a child, back in the 1950s. It’s about a young boy walking with his dad observing all the men at work around his community, having waved goodbye to his aproned mother standing in the doorway of their home. An abundance of males populate the book’s pages. Even the firemen’s dog is male. And by the last spread of the book, Mother in her apron has vanished.
Despite many great achievements by women over a great many years, the limited ways in which women are often seen has persisted into the 21st century, and perhaps more crucially, how they are not seen.
I was browsing Libby early in January in search of an audiobook to listen to on my daily walks, when the title Invisible Women caught my attention. It’s subtitle: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. Caroline Criado Pérez did an incredible amount of research in order to cover issues related to women’s lives in so many areas of life and in so many parts of the world, and wrote about what she found in a clear and compelling way. Economic development, education, healthcare, public policy, and even snow removal, are all biased toward men. It was way more interesting than I expected a book about data to be!
Soon after reading about how language around people often defaults to mean men, even in the age of google, I was tagged in a number of posts on Instagram about recent translations of The Lady with the Books. Curious to see what was being said in Spanish and Italian about this story based on the work of a woman in post-war Germany, I got Google to translate. Jella Lepman, the Lady (with the Books) was referred to repeatedly as he.
Sadly, it’s not only Google who makes this kind of mistake. Far too often, if we hear someone speaking of an electrician, for example, or a police officer, we are as likely as not to picture a man.
I love reading about women who have achieved great things, especially when they defy societal expectations. One I’ve especially enjoyed was Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier, a 19th century paleontologist whose discoveries were often claimed by men.
I’ve recently started reading The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race, and I’m just getting into how her work relates to Covid-19. A high school guidance counselor told Jennifer in the 1970s that girls don’t become scientists. Fortunately she did not listen. In 2020 she received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Unless you’re Walter Isaacson (author of The Code Breaker), it can be hard to convince a publisher to take on a book about a woman few people outside their field have heard of, which of course perpetuates the invisibility of their accomplishments.
But Fitzhenry & Whiteside was as excited as I was about Anne Innis Dagg’s story and opted to publish The Girl Who Loved Giraffes and became the world’s first giraffologist. When Anne’s career as a scientist was thwarted because she is a woman, she became an avid feminist. Dr. Dagg had written her own books about her life and I was thrilled that young readers would now have the chance to be inspired by her story too.
There are, happily, a great many good books about women and their wonderful achievements, for adults and for kids.
What’s your favourite biography about a woman? Is there an “invisible” woman you wish someone would write about?