The Archives of Women in Science and Engineering

A Conversation with Amy Bishop

Four women with model airplanes

Amy Bishop, rare books and manuscripts archivist at Iowa State University, talks with Choice about the Archives of Women in Science and Engineering, a collection that gathers and preserves the personal and professional documents of women in the science and engineering fields.

Amy Bishop has been the Rare Books and Manuscripts Archivist at Iowa State University for two and a half years. Her position includes shared oversight over the Archives of Women in Science and Engineering.

How would you describe the collection to a perfect stranger?

The Archives of Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) collects the personal and professional papers of women in all areas of the sciences and engineering except the medical sciences, as well as the records of women’s professional organizations in these fields. Because women have struggled to receive recognition and/or to advance in these fields, the Archives seeks to collect broadly, including not just the records of widely known women in their fields, but also those who have pursued science or engineering as an avocation.

What is the origin of the Archives of Women in Science and Engineering? How did you come to house the archive?

The WISE Archives would not be what it is today without the hard work and support of the curators and library administrators of the past twenty plus years, particularly its founding and long-time curator, Tanya Zanish-Belcher. The Archives of Women in Science and Engineering was founded in April 1994 as part of the Special Collections Department at Iowa State University Library and was supported by an Advisory Board that assisted with policy development and soliciting collections. It was also allied with the university’s Program for Women in Science and Engineering, which was founded in 1986 to encourage young women to consider careers in the sciences and engineering. The strength and reputation of the WISE Archives is due to the work of Zanish-Belcher and the advisory board in making connections with the women and organizations that donated their collections as the WISE Archives got up and running. This program is still active at ISU, and the Archives continues to support classes on Women in Science and Engineering.

What was/is the process of acquiring and selecting materials like?

Black and white photograph of Ada Hayden
Ada Hayden in college pasture, 1926. Ada Hayden Papers, RS 13/5/55.

When the WISE Archives was founded, it was perhaps the only archive specifically collecting the papers of women in the STEM fields, and so its collecting scope was broadly defined geographically (to include women from any part of the United States as well as American women working abroad) and temporally (from any period of history). This is a departure from our other collecting areas as a department, which tend to focus primarily on Iowa and secondarily on the Midwest.

With the wideness of scope, there is still the usual selection criteria to consider when deciding whether or not to take in a collection: evidential value of the records; uniqueness of the content of the collection; quality of the documentation in level of detail, completeness, and quality of the information; condition of the materials; legibility and access concerns.

Most of our collections have come from donations. In the two years I have been in my current position, I have acquired one new collection for the WISE Archives. The family members of the late DeLyle Eastwood contacted me because they had discovered the Women in Science and Engineering Digital Collection, a selection of the WISE Archives that we have digitized and made available online, and they were interested in donating their aunt’s papers. Dr. Eastwood was a physical chemist who did pioneering work in fluorescence spectroscopy and had worked for a number of different organizations and universities. Because the papers were at the other end of the country, the selection process was aided by email and phone conversations to learn more about the content and condition of the papers. Once I determined the papers were a good fit for the archives, the family members shipped the boxes, and now they are awaiting processing.

What is the mission of the WISE Archives? What is the intended audience?

Drawing of a wing
Drawing of wing of Braconid Helcon, early 20th century. Hortense Butler Heywood Papers, MS 194.

According to its mission statement, the WISE Archives “seeks to preserve the historical heritage of American women in science and engineering.” The mission includes the charge to serve as “a local, regional, national, and international resource for information on women in science and engineering, with particular emphasis on K-12 and college-level students.” So our intended audience specifically includes both younger and college-level students. Because the WISE Archives aligns itself with the University’s Program for Women in Science and Engineering, it is ready to support instruction in this area with relevant primary source material.

How do the WISE Archives help researchers looking to learn more about the history of women in science and engineering?

Whereas a publication on women in the STEM fields will often give generalizations of women’s experiences, or will focus on the lives of particular women of note, the collections in the WISE Archives allow a researcher to dig deeply into the lives of particular women at work in the sciences and engineering, and generally women who are not necessarily well known. Reading the correspondence of these women gives insight into the particular questions that itched in their brains and drove their research; the inconveniences, indignities, and barriers they sometimes faced in their field, as well as their strategies for overcoming them; and their personalities. Some collections document the support networks, both formal and informal, that women have created to mentor and strengthen one another in sometimes hostile environments.

I noticed that one of the ways the WISE Archives collects information is through oral interviews. Can you tell us more about the collection of oral history interviews and its contribution to the WISE Archives as a whole?

Oral histories are particularly important for filling in the gaps in areas that suffer from underdocumentation. Because women have traditionally been, and still largely continue to be, underrepresented in the scientific and engineering fields, there are fewer collections of their papers in archival repositories. Women’s experiences in these fields may be undervalued, not least because they have generally held less prominent positions in organizations and universities. They may hold more junior positions or not receive recognition for the research they have done. Their stories and experiences often go unrecorded, or the documentation gets thrown away or does not make it into a repository. Even when the professional papers of a woman working in STEM make it into an archive, they do not necessarily capture the woman’s reflections on her experiences as a woman in the field. Oral histories can then be used to document those experiences and capture the personal reflections that may not be documented in more traditional types of records.

The WISE Archives was more active in recording oral history interviews in previous years than currently, although we may return to actively recording them again in the near future. We will consider donations of appropriate oral history interviews that follow the best practices outlined by the Oral History Association, and include proper release forms from the interviewer and interviewee.

Black and white photograph of Margaret Sloss
Margaret Sloss in Pathology Preparation Room, Iowa State College, 1924. Margaret W. [Margaret Wragg] Sloss Papers, RS 14/7/51.

What importance does an understanding of women’s history in science and engineering fields hold for today’s students, especially female students?

I think it is important for students today to know that women have been studying and working in science and engineering fields throughout history, even right here at Iowa State. For example, we have the papers of Alda and Elmina Wilson, sisters who both received bachelor’s degrees in civil engineering in the 1890s from what was then known as Iowa State Agricultural College. The Wilsons went on to have careers in engineering.

Although the STEM fields have historically been male-dominated, women have been pursuing education and careers in these fields for many years. As students investigate the stories of the women in the WISE Archives, they can place their own experiences in these fields in context. They can see both what has changed over time and what has remained much the same for women working in STEM. I hope that they find some inspiration from the women of previous generations to carry them through their own careers!

Tell us what you think is the coolest thing in the archive, the most popular thing, or a little-known treasure.

This past semester, while preparing a guided research activity for a class session using the WISE Archives, I delved deeply into several of the collections and found a treasure trove of documentation in the Fann Harding papers. Fann Harding was a health scientist and administrator working for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the 1970s when she brought a lawsuit against her employer for sex discrimination in hiring and promotion. She kept meticulous documentation as part of her effort to prove her case, and that documentation became part of her donated papers. They thoroughly record the interactions between Dr. Harding, her supervisor, and the upper administration at NIH, both in their own and Dr. Harding’s words, as recorded in interoffice memos, performance evaluations, and reports. The collection’s almost exhaustive documentation of Dr. Harding’s case provides a good case study for in-depth analysis by a researcher. It also provides a wonderful opportunity for the students to consider bias and point-of-view in the archival record! This level of documentation is unique in the WISE Archives, and so it is a wonderful collection for studying women’s issues in employment practices.

Microscopic photograph
Microsopic photograph of anthrax in a guinea pig liver, 1925. Margaret W. [Margaret Wragg] Sloss Papers, RS 14/7/51.

Why is it important for you to include the stories of all women in science and engineering fields, even those whose contributions are not well known or publically recognized?

Women’s experiences in STEM are already underdocumented, and if we were to focus solely on collecting the stories of well-known women, we would be missing a whole range of experiences that are important for understanding the history of women in the sciences. For a long time, there were only a few socially acceptable ways for women to engage in the sciences, such as through botanical illustration, rather than through lab work or other types of “hard science.” For that reason, the WISE Archives seeks to document the broad spectrum of women’s engagement in the sciences in order to fully represent women’s contributions to the STEM fields.

Visit the Archives of Women in Science and Engineering to learn more: Archives of Women in Science and Engineering

This interview was conducted by Ana C. Peguero. She is a Southern Connecticut State University graduate and an editorial intern at Choice.