Tag Archives: Gender

Mining Old News For Fresh Historcal Insight

This week I had the honor of participating in the Library of Congress’ national strategy for digital news summit. The Library gathered together a diverse mix of corporate and public archivists, representatives from public and private foundations, and librarians to discuss the digital future of news. The conversations focused on both how to preserve born digital news and how to archive old news migrating into digital forms. I was honored to have a chance to bring in my perspective as a consumer of that archived news.

I gave a short presentation about some of the ways digitized historical news enables historians to ask different kinds of questions. I think the talk has some implications for both historians and digital archivists, so I thought I would share the gist of the talk here to continue the conversation we started at the meeting.

In my mind this contributes to ongoing discussions about the role that digital tools should play in re-framing conversations about historical methodology. Since the structure of the archive plays a significant role in the structure and character of the kinds of questions a historian can ask it’s crucial for historians to be involved in helping shape these archives.

A Use Case for Historical News: Marie Curie Visits America

On May 11, 1921, the world’s most famous female scientist disembarked from a long Atlantic voyage in New York City. For the ten weeks Marie Curie toured the United States, she was greeted as an international celebrity, according to the New York Times, the “biggest hit of any celebrity who has come to New York” for quite some time. Curie was greeted with speeches and fanfare in New York, Washington DC, Pittsburgh and Chicago, gracing major news papers several times a week. Less than a year after American women won the right to vote through the 19th Amendment, Marie Curie —the only noble laureate twice over and worlds most distinguished women of science— visited the United States. Last year I decided to explore how different periodicals reported on Curie’s visit. Analysis of coverage of her visit exposes divergent ideas about the place of women in American science, society and work emerging in the early twentieth century. For our purpouses, this case also exposes some of the transformational power  databases and digital tools present for  historical inquiry.

Asking A Database Historical Questions

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It took me six seconds to find the 1512 references to Marie Curie in the entire history of the New York Times, the Atlanta Constitution, the LA Times, the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and the Wall Street Journal. Now this obviously saved me a ton of time, but the implications of this search are much deeper than this. Reading the entire history of these publications for mentions of Curie would not only be impractical, it would be impossible.

If I had wanted to explore press coverage of Curie in the pre-full-text search world, I would have selected a few key dates when I would expect her to have been mentioned, gone to the library, and rolled out the microfilm. I would have found many of these articles, but the time it takes to find them requires a larger upfront commitment to exactly what I intend to explore, and how I want to explore it. With search I have the ability to quickly get a feel for different questions in different queries while simultaneously uncovering mentions of Curie on editorial pages and in periods I would not have expected to find her mentioned.

Personal Archive Tools Exponentially Increase This Transformative Power

Repositories like Proquest historical News are powerful, and their ability to allow users to explore connections between items inside their collections has a powerful effect on the kinds of questions historians can ask about their contents, but that is just the surface of the potential these databases afford. With a tool like Zotero it is possible to aggregate materials from a variety of different sources and mine them in sophisticated ways for historical insights.

After I gathered the relevant items and fulltext PDFs from Proquest I pulled a similar search through Reader’s Guide Retrospective. While readers guide retrospective did not offer seamless integration with Zotero I was able to pull out structured data for hundreds of references, and with a few clicks had submitted inter-library loan requests for fulltext scans of the most relevant articles. When I received those PDFs I was able to simply drag and drop them into Zotero to store alongside the data. As I constructed my personal archive I was then able to turn Zotero’s search capabilities on the collection to explore interesting relationships between my data.

Zotero Library

Data fields carry unexpected potential

I created a variety of saved searches from criteria in my research data. Page numbers are included in this data for a specific reason, they are crucial for citation. Beyond that purpose, page numbers also represent an important statement about the objects in my collection. While all of the articles I discovered about Curie are relevant to my analysis articles on the frontpage of a newspaper are particularly relevant to questions about how Curie was presented to the public. This field in my database, the page on which each article can be found, was included to help people find the articles in citations, but it, like many other fields in my database, also communicates an historical significance.

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Facets of that significance can expose historical insight

Once I had isolated the frontpage stories about Curie I had the opportunity to further explore this subset of thirty or so articles. Zotero’s ability to visualize the collection in a timeline allowed me to quickly visualize the chronology of Curie’s appearances on the front page. From there I could use the “highlight” function to further explore the data. Based on my experience with discussions of Curie’s visit to America I decided to highlight the mention of cancer in titles, finding the word in a plurality of the frontpage studies leads to a particular historical insight.

Marie Curie’s contributions to science are impressive, but the connection between her work and a cure or treatment for cancer is tenuous. While the word cancer does not appear, in any significant fashion, across all the hundreds of article titles about her visit, it does show up in a significantly larger portion of the front page story titles. This provides tentative support for the notion that Curie’s work, and importance, was misrepresented in feminine terms, framing in the feminine role of healer instead of the masculine role of a scientist.

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Implications for history and digital archives

Implications for historical methods: While it is indeed possible to count these things out without these sort of tools, the ease at which I was able to mine a large set of documents for relevant information, and historical insight, has important ramifications. As far as I am concerned, the only way that historians can overcome the issues that arise from the problem of abundance of historical materials is to begin using tools for data analysis that allow for “distant readings” of texts. This can only be accomplished if some larger issues are observed in the creation and digitization of historical records and texts.

Implications for historical archives and databases: Exposing fulltext and coherent metadata is essential, building fancy repository specific visualizations and manipulations is extravagant.  What is going to matter to historians of the future is the ability to take your data, dump it onto a tool like Zotero, and use any number of analytical tools to explore that data in relation to information from other repositories. In that light, any fancy encoding and detailed levels of information you work into your resources is of limited use if that is not carried across into other spaces. We are not going to solve the problem of abundance by digging deeply into small sets of documents encoded in TEI, were going to get there with the metadata we have, dirty OCR and the emerging universe of entity extraction.

Marie Curie on Ada Lovelace Day

Today is Ada Lovelace Day,  an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology. From their website, ‘Women’s contributions often go unacknowledged, their innovations seldom mentioned, their faces rarely recognized. We want you to tell the world about these unsung heroines.” I think the day is a great idea, and it offers another opportunity . Not only is it crucial to highlight the accomplishments of these tech heroines, it’s also important to make sure that memory of these women is not distorted through gendered lenses.

I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Marie Curie, one of the worlds most famous scientists. Her life story is by all accounts an amazing story of a woman’s success in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. While Curie may seem like a strange choice for a day celebrating unsung heroines, the way in which stories of her youth are generally distorted underscores a need to check up on stories to make sure they do not distort the accomplishments of women through gendered lenses. Consider the difference between different stories about Curie in children’s books.

Curie Cries

While Marie Curie is one of the most well known scientists when we tell her story to children it is generally through a deeply gendered lens. Practically every children’s book about Curie focuses on following story. In this story Manya Skłodowska (Curie’s childhood name) was the youngest and smartest student in her class. The occupying Russian forces forbid teaching children in Polish and teaching Polish history. Instead, schools were required to have children memorize Russian history and learn the Russian language. The school that Manya attended disobeyed these rules. When Russian school inspectors came to check on the school a look-out in the hallway would warn the class and the class would hide their Polish books. Once the inspector came in, the teacher would call on Manya to answer his questions. In the story, Manya succeeds by answering all of the Russian inspector’s questions in Russian to his liking. After he leaves, apparently exhausted, she cries and is comforted by her teacher.

In this story it becomes apparent that while Manya is very smart and strong she still has a kind of frailty. In this situation readers see that Manya’s knowledge gives her a kind of importance. She is called on in class because of her impressive memory, and saves the class from the inspector. While there is a clash with the authority of the inspector the story places Manya in a much more traditional relationship with the authority of her teacher, who comforts her once the inspector leaves. While the stories of Einstein were marked by an exaggeration that stressed his clashes with authority, the story of the Russian inspector is usually treated in a way that is much more consistent with the authoritative texts.

Curie The Rebel

A very different picture of Curie emerges in the other stories from Curie’s youth. These selections come from the second chapter of Eleanor Doorly’s 1939 book, The Radium Women: Madame Curie book, appropriately entitled “Rebels.”

In the Russian-run high school Manya and her friend Kazia “took delight in inventing witticisms against their Russian professors, their German master, and especially against Miss Mayer who detested Manya only a little less than Manya detested her.” Their teacher Miss Mayer stated, “It’s no more use speaking to that Sklodovska girl than throwing green peas at a wall!” On one occasion Doorly tells us of a time in which Manya was openly disrespectful, and witty. “I won’t have you look at me like that!’ Miss Mayer would shout. ‘You have no right to look down on me!’ ‘I can’t help it,’ said Manya truthfully, for she was a head taller that Miss Mayer. No doubt she was glad that words sometimes have two meanings” (1939, pp. 21-22).

In all of these other school stories the young Manya is openly disrespectful of her teachers. While the story of her encounter with the Russian inspector is interesting it should be just one of several stories about Manya’s school experience. Importantly, it is the only story that puts her in a position of weakness against the authority of both the teacher and the inspector. Other stories show the potential of portraying a Manya who is similar to the exaggerated Einstein, openly disrespectful of a rather hostile teacher.

Curie’s Curls

To highlight the extent to which current portrayals in children’s books have departed from Doorly’s 1939 children’s biography of Curie and Eva Curie’s depiction of her mother, consider the following two discussions of Manya’s curls. According to Keith Brandit’s 1983 picture book about Marie Curie,

Manya was the picture of the perfect pupil. She stood straight, her face calm and serious. Her hair was neatly braided and tied with a dark ribbon. She wore the school uniform: a navy-blue wool dress with steel buttons and a starched white collar. On her feet were dark stockings and polished, black, high laced shoes (1983, p. 35).

Here, not only is she the perfectly upright pupil, she is also the picture of the perfect student. Compare this with Doorly’s 1939 Manya.

Look at your ridiculous, frizzy, disorderly head, Manya Sklodovska! How often have you been told to confine your curls? Come here and let me brush them down and make you look like a decent school girl.” “Like a German Gretchen!” thought Manya, but she said nothing. So with the brush that brushed everybody’s hair, she set on Manya’s head with good hard blows. But however hard she brushed, the curls were rebels, still those light, capricious, exquisite curls that framed Manya’s round rebellious face (p. 25).

Putting these two texts in parallel it is hard to see them as discussions of the same individual. In the 1939 piece from Doorly, we see a witty and rebellious student far more exciting than Brandit’s 1984 “picture of the perfect pupil.” Both the story of the inspector and the other stories originate in Eva Curie’s biography of her mother. However the only story included in practically all books after 1939 depicts Manya’s power as something subject to the authority of the teacher. The Curie books ignore parts of her story to emphasize just the opposite point. All of the incidents between Curie and her teachers at the Russian school are ignored and young readers are left with only the incident with the Russian inspector. While Curie does exercise a kind of power in the incident with the inspector, it is subdued.

Recognition Is A Good First Start, But It’s Not The End

Women in science and technology are often enough uncredited, and it is important that we make sure their accomplishments are recognized. But even when they are, like in the case of Marie Curie, it is not enough. Not only is it crucial that women are recognized its also crucial that recognition is scrutinized to be sure that it is not simply recycling the gendered stereotypes.

References:

Brandt, Keith. Marie Curie, Brave Scientist. Mahwah, N.J: Troll Associates, 1983. 

Doorly, Eleanor. The Radium Woman, a Life of Marie Curie; and Woodcuts. New York: Roy Publishers, 1939. 

This post draws on information from a larger study, published in the journal Cultural Studies of Science Education.

Another way to count the books

I asked a sociologist why there are more kids books about Curie than Einstein. He looked puzzled for a moment and then responded, “Of course! If your going to write a book about a scientist for girls you don’t have that many options, but if you are writing a book for boys there are so many options.” This would quite naturally inflate the number of books about the individual female scientists. In this scenario it is crucial to consider how many of the total quantity of books about each scientist are written about men and how many are written about women.

The initial data would seem to support this. While the woman and the black man are each respectively the most written about scientist and inventor, women and blacks are still dramatically underrepresented in the total quantity of books.

Children's Books in english by Gender

Children's Books in english by Race

Still, they are represented much more equitably in children’s literature than in books for a adult audience. See the charts below.

Books for adult audience sorted by the gender of their subject

Books about black scientists compared to white scientists

Final thoughts: I find it fascinating that the percentages for gender and race mirror each other so perfectly. In some sense it makes the comparison all the more powerful. While gender and race are radically different it is interesting to see that they have such a closely mirrored place in children’s books about scientists and inventors.

I think there is something to this sociologists idea but I am not sure it quite satisfies me. It is still nonetheless interesting. The next project is to historicize the information. The next way I want to play with the numbers is to see when Curie and Edison became the most written about scientist and inventor.

Curie and Einstein Go To School

These are two of my favorite pictures from my research on children’s books about Einstein and Curie. (You can click on them to see the bigger images). They are I think, the most visual example of my thesis’s argument and I think they are also illustrative of exactly what we need to pay attention to in Children’s biography.

Stories about famous figures’ biographies are the most directly applicable aspect of children’s literature. This is the part of the story that with which children can most readily identify. Tragically, this part of the story of these lives is generally the thinest part of the historical record. Because children’s literature is so rarely reviewed by historians, this is not an issue for many children’s authors. They can simply invent the figures childhood.

Albert Einstein and His Tutor

The first picture is a picture of the young Albert Einstein terrorizing his baby sitter. Albert is described as cruel, and angry, he throws tantrums the text tells young readers that “His temper so terrifies a tutor hired to help young Albert prepare for school that she runs away, never to be seen again.” In the picture Albert and his anger are foregrounded as the tutor runs away in terror, apparently never to be seen again. You will be hard pressed to find historical precedent for this story: By all accounts Albert was a much more timid boy, but it is easy to see here how masculinity and power are imbued on this child.

cries.jpg

The second picture is of Curie crying in the arms of her teacher. Before I get into the details, consider the differences between these two images. Notice the relative size of Curie and her teacher. Einstein is bigger than his tutor, while the small (and surprisingly Aryan) Curie is presented as significantly smaller. In the second picture, the teacher does not come down to her level and instead maintains her size and visual power. This story appears in almost every single children’s book about Curie. The young Manya Skłodowska was the youngest and smartest student in her class. Her school, which was run by Polish teachers, was under constant threat from the Russians who occupied Poland. The school was barred from teaching children in Polish and teaching Polish history. Instead, schools were required to have children memorize Russian history and learn Russian language. The school that Manya attended disobeyed these rules. When Russian school inspectors came to check on the school a look-out in the hallway would warn the class and the class would hide their Polish books. Once the inspector came in, the teacher would call on Manya to answer his questions. In the story, Manya succeeds by answering all of the Russian inspector’s questions in Russian to his liking. After he leaves she cries.

In this story it becomes apparent that while Manya is very smart and strong she still has a kind of frailty. Readers are told that Manya’s knowledge gives her a kind of importance. She is called on in class and because of her impressive memory; she saves the class from the inspector. While the stories of Einstein were exaggerate stories that stress his clashes with authority the story of the Russian inspector is usually treated in a way that is much more consistent with the authoritative texts. However, Eva Curie tells several other stories about Manya that only make it into one of the children’s books, and thus the picture of the young Manya is shaped more by exclusion than by exaggeration.

The following anecdotes come from Eleanor Doorly’s 1939 book, The Radium Women: Madame Curie. Doorly’s book went through many printings and was highly acclaimed, being recommended in three consecutive editions of the Children’s Catalogue. Doorly states quite clearly in the opening of her book that it is a children’s adaptation of Eva Curie’s biography of her mother. This book stays very close to Eva’s biography and offers insight into a different trajectory that could have been developed in accounts of Curie. These selections come from the second chapter of her book, appropriately entitled “Rebels.”

In the Russian-run high school Manya and her friend Kazia “took delight in inventing witticisms against their Russian professors, their German master, and especially against Miss Mayer who detested Manya only a little less than Manya detested her.” Their teacher Miss Mayer stated, “It’s no more use speaking to that Sklodovska girl,” she said, “than throwing green peas at a wall!” On one occasion Eva tells us of a time in which Manya was openly disrespectful, and witty. “I won’t have you look at me like that!’ Miss Mayer would shout. ‘You have no right to look down on me!’” Manya responded “‘I can’t help it,’ said Manya truthfully, for she was a head taller that Miss Mayer. No doubt she was glad that words sometimes have two meanings.”

In the second series of stories, the young Manya is openly disrespectful of her teachers. While the story of her crying in front of the Russian inspector is interesting it should be seen as just one of several stories about Manya’s school experience. Importantly, it is the only story that puts her in a position of weakness against the authority of both the teacher and the inspector. Other stories show the potential of portraying a Manya who is similar to the exaggerated Einstein, openly disrespectful of a rather hostile teacher.

Brown, Don. Odd Boy Out: Young Albert Einstein . Houghton Mifflin, 2004.

Doorly, Eleanor. The Radium Woman, a Life of Marie Curie; and Woodcuts. New York: Roy Publishers, 1939.