Women in American Paleontology

Early in American paleontology, women participated at the periphery.

 
Illustration by Orra White Hitchcock, courtesy Amherst College Archives & Special Collections

Illustration by Orra White Hitchcock, courtesy Amherst College Archives & Special Collections

 

They were able to contribute to science, but only in ways deemed “feminine” – upper class women were trained as assistants to their fathers or brothers. Women wrote educational books about natural history for children or other women who homeschooled their children. Others drew or painted the world around them, capturing details or flowers, landscapes, or fossils. 

By the late 1800s, many women’s academies and colleges had opened their doors. With the emotional and financial support of their families, some women pursued education in paleontology. But advanced degrees did not guarantee a career.  Positions considered suitable for women scientists were often low-level staff and service positions, or situated in women’s colleges or in disciplines like home economics. 

World Wars I and II had an enormous impact on the everyday lives of American women, and those pursuing paleontology were no different. With these shifts in industry and political climate, women found new ways to make contributions to paleontology. Micropaleontology was a new and growing field that had significant implications for industry and business – and it was more welcoming to women scientists than other fields.

Women who entered the field of paleontologist in the late 20th and early 21st centuries have built professional careers, while still experiencing shared gender-based struggles. Even though in the U.S. women now outnumber men among undergraduates, women remain underrepresented and disadvantaged in many disciplines, especially the physical sciences.