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Where Women Scientists Belong: Placing Feminist Memory in Biography Collections for Children

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Pages 187-209 | Published online: 26 Jul 2021


For decades, feminists have observed a double bind in commemorations of women who attempt to enter male-designated places: Women must simultaneously be honored as rightfully occupying those places and yet noted as worthy of unique commendation as women. This essay examines how these challenges are negotiated rhetorically in biography collections about women scientists produced for children and adolescents. We perform a rhetorical analysis of such collections to explore how they complicate demarcations of what counts as science and who counts as a scientist. While these collections challenge gendered assumptions, many also reinforce divisions between men and women in order to celebrate the unique achievements of women scientists. Combining scholarship on feminist public memory and tropes in the rhetoric of science, we argue that the biography collection creators rely upon placial topoi, both metaphorical and literal, to recover and celebrate women scientists in the scientific canon and in public memory.


An earlier version of this essay was presented at the 2019 Alta Argumentation Conference and the authors thank the attendees of their presentation for providing valuable feedback in the development of the project. The authors also wish to thank the anonymous reviewers and Dr. King for their feedback.


1 We acknowledge that gender is not binary and scientists who are neither men nor women exist. Despite these limitations of the term “women,” we follow the lead of our texts in using that term. The term “women” denotes that the figures featured in children’s biographies generally identify and were identified as gendered female. As we discuss in the analysis, their social positioning as “women” meant that they experienced discrimination on that basis, which is a key theme of the texts. We also believe, however, that challenging stereotypes of scientists as male and/or masculine can make the field more accessible to all genders, not just those identifying as women.

2 We use the term “creators” to refer to all individuals whose ideas went into the creation of the text. While we are primarily referring to the named authors, this term encompasses the collaborations that often go into producing books for children (VanderHaagen, Citation2012).

3 The WorldCat search may not be inclusive of all biography collections of “women scientists,” and the corpus is also limited by the availability of these texts for our perusal. For example, texts that were out of print could not be included in the analysis.

4 It is possible that race features more prominently in individual biographical profiles within the collections as opposed to the peritextual materials, which aim to provide a collective overview of the subjects as “women scientists.” Such an examination could be conducted in a separate study as an extension of this work on the disciplining of identity boundaries in science.

5 Jocelyn Bell Burnell was a PhD student at the University of Cambridge who discovered the first radio pulsars in 1967, but it was her advisor, Anthony Hewish, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery. Similarly, Chien-Shiung Wu was part of the research team that disproved a fundamental law of physics called “the law of conservation of parity.” Despite the study being colloquially referred to as “Wu’s experiment,” only Wu’s male colleagues were listed as Nobel Prize winners in 1957.

6 Because these texts seek to constitute “women scientists” as a coherent group, the peritextual materials emphasize commonalities rather than differences of class, racial identity, sexuality, marital status, reproductive status, and the like. More recent books drew attention to the impact of discrimination based on intersectional identities of the scientists but did not explore them in detail in the peritextual material. The following quotation from Di Domenico (Citation2012) is representative: “Other trailblazing women in science faced discrimination not only as women, but as people of color.”

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