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Women in STEM through Generations

The Middle Ages, which started after the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, reserved education for privileged young men and religious devotees. Women could only pursue an education if they entered a convent, making the earliest female intellectuals nuns. They studied mathematics, astronomy, herbal medication, and the natural world. During the Age of Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, noble and wealthy women could pursue interests ranging from literature to physics. Literacy among middle class women also increased as religious groups organized to have a more literate public. During the 19th centuries and beyond, women started to actively campaign for rights concerning education, and later even voting. There have been many women in STEM throughout history, but below is a list of 15 women, in no particular order. These women, and many others not listed below, have helped shape history, allowing future generations like us to pursue their passions for STEM.

● Ana Roqué de Duprey wrote the Botany of the Antilles, which was the most comprehensive study of flora in the Caribbean in the early 1900s.

● Nettie Stevens attended Stanford University and later Bryn Mawr College, receiving bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology. Her investigations in cytology, which involves the study of cells, and the regenerative process led to her discovery of X and Y chromosomes.

● Lise Meitner, known as the “Mother of Nuclear Power,” teamed up with chemist Otto Hahn to discover nuclear fission.

● Lillian Gilbreth was an American psychologist and industrial engineer known for being the first female commencement speaker at the University of California, the first female engineering professor at Purdue, and the first woman elected to the National Academy of Engineering.

● Katherine Burr Blodgett was the first woman to earn her doctorate from England’s Cambridge University and the first female scientist to be hired at the General Electric research lab. She developed the first system of creating non-reflecting glass, improved the effectiveness of smoke screens, and helped develop a device to measure humidity.

● Florence Seibert is known for developing a system to purify a protein from tuberculosis (TB) bacteria, which became the international standard for TB testing and is still used today.


● Ruth Rogan Benerito was an American chemist and pioneer in bioproducts. Due to her discovery of a process to produce wrinkle- and stain-free and flame-resistant cotton fabrics, she is credited with saving the cotton industry in post-World War II America.

● Edith Clarke was a pioneering electrical engineer who performed difficult mathematical calculations since modern-day computers and calculators had not yet been invented. She was even inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2015.

● Mary Engle Pennington was an American chemist who worked as a bacteriological chemist in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and later became chief of the Food Research Laboratory.

● Ellen Ochoa was the first Hispanic woman to go into space, serving on a 9-day mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery. She is also the first Hispanic and second female to be named Director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

● Grace Murray Hopper was at the forefront of computer and programming language development from the 1930s-1980s. One of her main achievements was the development of computer languages in English, rather than mathematical notation.

● Katherine Johnson was an African-American space scientist and mathematician who made enormous contributions by incorporating computing tools to America’s aeronautics and space programs.

● Ada Lovelace is considered to be the first computer programmer and the founder of scientific computing.

● Sally Ride was the first American woman to fly into space. She later founded an organization, Sally Ride Science, to support students interested in STEM.

● Barbara McClintock was an American geneticist who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology for her discovery of “jumping genes,” where genes can change positions on the chromosome. Even now, she is still considered to be one of the world’s most important cytogeneticists.


BY: Richa Kuklani References: “The Past, Present and Future of Women in STEM.” ​PCS Edventures​, edventures.com/blogs/stempower/the-past-present-and-future-of-women-in-stem. Scholastica, The College of St. ​12 Historical Women in STEM You've Probably Never Heard Of​. 16 Nov. 2015, www.css.edu/the-sentinel-blog/historical-women-in-stem.html. “The Untold History of Women in Science and Technology.” ​National Archives and Records Administration,​ National Archives and Records Administration, obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/women-in-stem.

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