While home for the holidays, I was asked by my mother to clean out a bookcase in my old bedroom. As I sat among the dusty books, surrounded by titles such as Caddie Woodlawn and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I found what may have been the most influential book of my childhood, Girls Can Be Anything by Norma Klein. Inside the front cover, an inscription read "For Sydney on her sixth birthday, from Mother and Daddy, April 1973." How lucky I was to have such supportive and thoughtful parents at a time when a book like this was available. Unfortunately, young girls have not always received similar encouragement regarding career possibilities or aspirations. Women have participated in scientific pursuits throughout history, but their contributions rarely have been recognized. Often relegated to supporting roles, women found ways to satisfy their drive for scientific knowledge despite being denied the recognition, prestige, or power enjoyed by their male colleagues. In the early 1900s, women began to enter postgraduate degree programs, thus to render their qualifications for scientific contribution equal to those of men. These early academic scientists were true pioneers in the advancement of women's positions not only in science but also in many other male-dominated professions. Admirably, these women continued to pursue their work in the face of limited societal support or respect for their career choices. Not until the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964 did the United States begin to reduce the atmosphere of discrimination in the workplace and redirect the general population toward a greater acceptance of diverse professional roles for women.
In 1973, Girls Can Be Anything first made its way onto the bookshelves of little girls' bedrooms. In the story, kindergartners Adam and Marina argue while choosing roles for playing Hospital. Adam proclaims that "girls are always nurses and boys are always doctors . . . because that's just the way it is." When Marina complains about Adam's attitudes to her parents, they tell her not only that women can be doctors but that her own aunt is a surgeon. Throughout the story, Marina counters Adam's gender-based occupational biases with real examples of female airline pilots and world leaders. At the end of the book, Adam comments that "according to you, girls can be anything they want." Marina replies "well, that's just the way it is now."
It is now 2000, and while there are many advances still to be made in minimizing gender gaps in the sciences and other professions, the situation for women is gradually improving. For example, the five-year-old daughter of a woman in my laboratory personally knows more female scientists than male scientists. The increasing abundance of visible role models will certainly alleviate some of the problems experienced by young girls in prior generations. Of course, discrimination and bias still exist. Another person in my laboratory told us that only five years ago, his grandfather wondered what all the women bustling around a college campus were doing there. The older man's best guess was attending "finishing school."
In celebrating 50 years of women at NSF, we are recognizing women who challenged the perception of women and women's capacities to succeed professionally. Women like these provided the inspiration for books read by six-year-olds pronouncing that girls can be Anything. These women enabled someone like a young Sydney Gary to say, "when I grow up, I want to be a molecular biologist . . . or an astronaut . . . or a teacher. I can be Anything." Thank you to the many women who forged the path into the realm of Anything.
Klein, Norma. 1973. Girls Can Be Anything. E.P. Dutton & Co. Inc., New York.
Morse, Mary. 1995. Women Changing Science: Voices from a field in transition. Plenum Press, New York.