28 Nov 2014

DePizan Awards go to Three Amazing Scientists! Who Ahem Happen to be Women...

Posted by Helaine Becker

Earlier this month I had the privilege of attending the award ceremony for the De Pizan Awards, given by the National Women's History Museum in Washington, DC. The awards are named for Christine de Pizan, the first woman in the West to write about women's history (that was in the 14th century!).

This year, the awards went to three incredible women, all of whom worked in STEM fields, and all of whom work to make the world a better place.

The first was Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Interior. Trained as an engineer, Jewell has worked tirelessly for environmental issues. The award she received is named for Rachel Carson, scientist and the author of Silent Spring, the book that 'kickstarted' the environmental movement.

Sally Jewell accepting her award, chokes up as she thanks her 'brave' grade 4 teacher!
Jewell gave a moving speech in which she thanked yet another woman for inspiring her love of science - her 4th grade teacher. She said how this 'brave woman' took an entire class of 9-year-olds out into the woods for two weeks to give them a chance to explore, and to do science investigation in the field. She owes her career, she said, to this one great lady.

The second winner was Katherine G. Johnson, a pioneering mathematician who calculated the trajectories to the moon for the Apollo space program. She received the Maria Mitchell Award, named for an influential American astronomer and educator (more about Katherine below!)

Katherine Johnson sent a video acceptance for her award.

Johnson's daughters, Kathy and Joylette, shown here with NWHM's President,
 Joan Wages, accepting the award on Johnson's behalf.

The third award went to  Debbie Sterling, the inventor of Goldieblox. Sterling earned a degree as a Mechanical Engineer. She tells how she had a revelation when visiting a toy store, and being shocked and disgusted by the 'pinkified' toy aisles featuring toys ' for girls' - toys that included ironing boards and dress up princess outfits. She decided she'd use her training as an engineer to create construction toys that would defy stereotype and convention. Check out this PSA which Sterling spearheaded: "This is Your Brain on Princess."

Debbie Sterling, accepting her award, speaks out against sexism and 'pinkification.'
I had attended the event because I intend to write a biography about Katherine Johnson. I learned about her inspiring career this past summer, when working on a book about space for National Geographic Kids. I was shocked - and disgusted - that there isn't a single book about Katherine Johnson out there.

Why is this? It's not bad enough that girls and women have been denied opportunities in the STEM fields.

Or that girls and women are told, explicitly and implicitly, that science careers are not for women (witness the pinkified toy aisles, or the teacher who holds up one of my science-related books in front of a class and says, 'You boys will like this one!').

But even when women DO make careers in science, and contribute hugely, like Katherine Johnson, their accomplishments are ignored, swept under the carpet, neglected. Their stories are lost to history, confirming what is patently false: that women don't do science.

Here is the truth:

Women do science. They excel at science. They make great discoveries and advance the knowledge of the human race, just as capably as men.

So I have decided to correct the injustice, in my own small way, by making it my 'mission' to tell stories like Johnson's. I'm a writer, and a science writer. I can do this!

But where to start?

In August, I contacted the Johnson family and told them what I wanted to do. I asked for Johnson's blessing, and permission to interview her and her family about her extraordinary life.

Johnson was delighted - no one had ever asked her if they could write a children's book about her! It turns out she'd volunteered as a literacy tutor for much of her adult life, so the idea of having children be able to read about her...well, let's just say it made her happy to imagine kids being inspired by her story.

That initial conversation brought me to D.C. for the De Pizan awards, where I was able to meet Johnson's family in person for the first time.  They have so, so graciously invited me into their lives, and are giving me the opportunity to conduct interviews with them all! I am looking forward both to getting to know this wonderful family better, and to hearing what I am sure are going to be some incredible stories.

I know I'm not alone in wanting to tell stories like Johnson's. The We Need Diverse Books campaign evolved out of frustration at the glacial pace of change in the children's book industry. The campaign seeks to correct the imbalance that exists in children's books, which still predominantly feature subjects and authors that are primarily white and primarily male.  (For more info, see  stats here.)

So let's get cracking! Please support the We Need Diverse Books Campaign, and the National Women's History Museum!

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