Women in Science History Review: Rise of the Rocket Girls

March 27, 2017 Uncategorized 7 ★★★★

Women in Science History Review: Rise of the Rocket GirlsTitle: Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars
Author: Nathalia Holt

Review: This was a fun read and highlighted some important work, but I would have liked more depth on the technical side of the story.

Long before ‘computers’ were calculating machines, they were mathematicians (primarily women) and eventually the first software developers. Working at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, an elite group of female computers fought hard to balance personal lives with careers they loved at a time when that was still considered a highly unusual thing for a woman to do. Through their expertise and painstaking effort, these computers “transformed rocket design, helped bring about the first American satellites, and made the exploration of the solar system possible” (source).

I was initially a bit disappointed by this book. The first story, focused on Barby Canright, spent a lot of time talking about her clothes, her makeup, and her relationships. That wouldn’t bother me, except there were also very few technical details of her work and a lot of the story focused on one of the men she worked with. Fortunately, it got better from there. All of the other women’s stories also talked about their relationships, but this was balanced by information about the work they did. I suspect that the bad beginning at least partially reflected the fact that earlier women computers were primarily doing math to implement other people’s ideas. They weren’t allowed to serve as engineers and were probably not often able to suggest experiments.

Occasionally, I did still feel that the author was stereotyping the women, (for instance, an older women was put in charge of the group not because of her experience, but because she was ‘a  mother hen’) but overall the stories got better towards the end. I did really like that the author just told the women’s stories, without digressing into discussions of stereotypes and the barriers they faced. She let their stories speak for themselves. And they were great stories! Like in Hidden Figures, the author followed many women over decades, so we could see how many different women chose to balance their careers and how things changed over time. Many of the women worked on incredibly important space exploration efforts. The missions that gave us our first images of other planets were particularly awe-inspiring. Overall, I had a lot of fun reading this book. I just would have liked some more technical details to round it out!

7 Responses to “Women in Science History Review: Rise of the Rocket Girls”

  1. Jane @ Raincity Librarian

    This sounds fascinating, but I can see how an author might struggle to tell a story like this, or experience pushback from publishers. On the one hand, these women are scientists, and the science behind their work should be an integral part of the story. But, to make the story as marketable as possible to as broad an audience as possible, the science can be too detailed or pronounced, so as to appeal to the average reader. And then there’s that frustratingly pervasive idea that women are more interested in clothes, makeup and relationships. Still, I’m glad stories like this are being told, and I’m glad you enjoyed it overall!

    • DoingDewey

      Good point! I do often wonder when I wish a book was more technical, if other readers would feel the same way. I did worry, though, that the author was playing into stereotypes of women here at first. As we went along and she talked less about clothes and makeup when discussing the other women, I felt hopeful that she was just accurately sharing that the first woman she discussed really was interested in makeup and clothes 🙂

  2. Shay

    Brought this one home from the library recently, but unsure if I will get to it before it has to go back. Did you learn much new compared to Hidden Figures?

    • DoingDewey

      It was a pretty similar read. The author might have talked more about push-back these women received from their husbands and the difficulty they had having outside social lives than the author of Hidden Figures, I think. There wasn’t much about the history of female computers and programmers that was new to me, but there was information about different space missions than in Hidden Figures. And, perhaps obviously, the race of the women in this book was generally discusses less and caused them fewer challenges, since most of the women were white. Those are the main differences 🙂

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