Oral History Project

Statement of Significance and Impact of Project

The Archives of Women in Science and Engineering ongoing Oral History Projects will document the experiences of American women in science and engineering. Historically, women have been denied the opportunity to pursue their career goals in science and engineering, although many women still managed to contribute. The advent of World War II had a particular impact on the education and employment of women in traditionally male dominated fields of science and engineering. In the post-war period, women were discouraged from seeking careers and this trend continued into the 1950s and 1960s. With the advent of the women's movement however, women began to move back into the areas from which they had been pushed.

The goal is to create a collection of oral history interviews which will be part of the archival collections in the Archives of Women in Science and Engineering. Transcripts will be created from each interview and will be available at Iowa State University, as well as to related repositories that focus on women or the history of science, and will be available as finding aids on the World Wide Web. The interviews will also be individually cataloged on OCLC and RLIN. In 2001, the WISE Archives received $25,000 from the Dreyfus Foundation for a project focusing on women in chemistry and chemical engineering.

Oral history can provide new ways to document the social history of women in science and engineering in several ways. First, it offers an opportunity for women to speak for themselves. Secondly, it concentrates attention on women who traditionally have been ignored, or rendered invisible by the dominant scientific and engineering cultures. And lastly, oral history provides a view of female subcultures which have traditionally been created where women were not allowed to fully participate. The history of science is one of the primary historical events of the twentieth century, and these oral history interviews will illustrate the integral role that women have played in its development.

Nature and Significance

Society and history have long been dependent on the written record of individuals and organizations, such as letters, diaries, financial records, court records and newspapers. In the 20th century however, with the proliferation of information, paper reco rds, and the advent of the telephone, increasingly the written record is not as encompassing. The purpose of oral history is to provide additional historical information, to "fill in the gaps," so to speak. Working women especially, may not have time to record their thoughts in a written document. Women scientists and engineers not only may not have the time to create documents that reflect their experiences, but may not see the value of personal papers and discard them. In addition, the written record does not always record the perceptions of all who were involved, and oral history gives that opportunity to those who might not be heard. Oral histories are utilized by historians, genealogists, researchers, students, scholars, and sociologists.

The Archives of Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) was inaugurated in April 1994. Its creation was inspired by researchers' requests for women in engineering collections. The Iowa State University Library decided to create the Archives of Women in Science and Engineering to focus on documenting these women. Although women's collections were included in a number of repositories' history of science collections, none were specifically dedicated to women. The Archives also collects the papers of women who were not necessarily in the forefront of scientific research, but those who worked as researchers, or who possibly moved on to other careers. The mission of the WISE Archives is therefore two-fold: to collect the papers of American women scientists, and to record the wider twentieth century social experiences of women in regard to their work. The goal of the WISE Archives is to collect records that illustrate the diverse lives of women who chose the nontraditional careers of becoming scientists and eng ineers. A gender based archives is important for a number of reasons. Most importantly, it allows those who formerly had no voice, an opportunity to be heard and documented.

The WISE Archives currently has approximately 100 collections and approximately 70 oral history interviews that span the United States, including botanists, chemists, engineers, entomologists, geologists, and physicists. There is also a growing rare book collection that includes works written by and for women. Iowa State University, being specifically devoted to engineering, science and technology, is well suited to house the WISE Archives. An edition of Mary Somerville's (1780-1872) On Molecular and Microscopic Science (1869) was purchased for the first graduating class of 1872. Alda and Elmina Wilson graduated with engineering degrees in 1891, and the University has produced numerous women researchers and scholars in the various fields. During World War II, Iowa State served as a location for the Curtiss-Wright Cadette Program, which trained young women in engineering. And finally, in the mid-1980s Iowa State founded a Program for Women in Science and Engineering, which assists students in preparing for their careers. Iowa State has a long term commitment to the role of women in the sciences and engineering, and the Archives of Women in Science and Engineering reflects that commitment.

The collections already in the WISE Archives provide excellent documentation of the challenges that women faced when pursuing careers in science. Verona Burton's papers illustrate the impact of academic nepotism rules when she was forced to leave her pos ition due to marriage to another faculty member. Mary K. Hurd's correspondence includes a letter from Tau Beta Pi, an engineering honorary society, that states although she had the qualifications for membership, the society did not accept women members. And finally, Fann Harding's collection documents her efforts to sue the National Institutes of Health for sexual discrimination by including hostile memorandum from supervisors and co-workers. These papers provide excellent examples of the experiences o f women in scientific fields, but unfortunately, this evidence is all too rare for several reasons. Firstly, fewer individuals are documenting any part of their lives by written records, which will have a direct impact on the quality of the archival record for the future. Secondly, many women scientists do not have the time to produce the written documents on which so many historians and researchers rely upon. Oftentimes they do not value this type of material and will throw out years of documentation upon moving or retirement. Finally, the experiences of women will oftentimes be part of a larger system. For example, women in academia have traditionally been hired in at the level of Instructor or Assistant Professor, and are retained there for the length of their careers. This type of institutionalized discrimination will not necessarily be recorded in their personal papers or in the institutional records. It is therefore necessary to document these events in another way. To combat this future dearth of information, it is therefore necessary to record the perspectives of these women on their lives and work, as this information will not appear in any other form.