Ellen H. Swallow Richards (1842-1911)
“The present-day housewife is not afraid of chemical substances.”
I’m telling you not to be afraid, ladies. We’re in this together.
We’re going to do chemistry right under their noses.
We’re going to tell our husbands and our sons it’s for them we’re doing it.
We’re going to tell our daughters how to get away with learning chemistry.
The “average intelligent housewife” can “lift the monotonous operations of distasteful drudgery to a plane of scientific processes” if she has a “sense of control, of power…”
Now I’m giving you the tools. Not just the stove and the sink, ladies.
The word empower doesn’t exist yet, but that’s what I’m doing.
I’m very, very, angry, ladies. Do not assume my domestic advice
comes from my desire to nurture or care. It comes from a need for change.
“The leaf is covered by the wind-blown soil and soon no leaf is there; but the matter of which it was composed is still somewhere, for that is never lost.”
We are the leaves, ladies, and they are the soil. The men who deny us
entry to the lecture halls, access to the science labs. They cover us up,
make us invisible, or disappear us. But do you notice my metaphor?
They are soil. They soil us. We are beautiful living things, and we must die.
Soil does not live. It has never lived. Wait until we get to the section on cleaning.
We’re going to scrub them out. We’re going to eradicate that dirt.
“Death comes when these ‘vital’ changes can no longer proceed…”
I’m making you a map. Change is the definition of life, and our world
is going to change. My book is going to stay in print for decades, each version
longer and better than the last. The meaning of my words will change
for every reader, for every new era of our world. It’s our world, ladies.
For the housewife, chemical symbols will soon be “as familiar as the recipe of her favorite cake.”
See how I slip in these jibes? See my cleverness? Your husbands want cake, dears.
Your husbands are going to get cake – and you are, too – but only if you learn to read
these signs. NaCl is Sodium Chloride, ladies. Salt. The symbol for sucrose is
more complicated, but you will learn it, and what to do with it. Feed them,
in their prisons. Feed them until their hearts can’t take it anymore. Interpret that
as you wish. You are the boss of this lab I’m calling a kitchen.
The housewife must understand that “power does not come from nothing…”
Are you listening?
The human body requires fuel in order to do “its thinking, its talking, or even its worrying.”
Yes, I have my doubts. I’m not always so sure of myself as I sound. I need friends
to buck me up. I need friends to back me up. So do you. I am talking to you from
the 19th century and telling you we’re the same, and I’m marching in your protest,
and you’re full of rage on my behalf – aren’t you? I tell myself you will be. You
have to be.
“A cow may retain her milk by force of will. It is well known how much a contented mind has to do with her readiness to give milk and the quantity of milk she will yield.”
Oh, ladies, you hear what I’m saying loud and clear. Have you read Lysistrata?
I like to think about the books you’ll read, the books you’ll write.
I’m not calling you a cow, I promise. I know what they say about the free milk.
My mother said it to me, and yes, I married. I struck a deal. No kids, just science.
And all the milk he could ever want.
“The head of every household should study the condition of her family…”
These blueprints put you in charge. Study your families, ladies, and study yourself.
You are the bosses of the houses. I was the first woman allowed into MIT.
I’m not proud of it, I’m disgusted. That all the women before me were turned away?
It’s despicable. All my teachers and all my classmates were men. I sat there and steamed.
“When this science and this art takes its place beside the other sciences and other arts, one crying need of the world will be satisfied.”
I can’t stop all the crying. I know you are still crying. I know how to mop up the residue
of the NaCl and H2O left by centuries of crying girls, mistreated and abused much worse
than I ever was. I know how to scrub that salt away. But what if instead we let it
build up until it formed a monument? What if we made our own world out of it?
Chemistry is good for many things, ladies. Chemistry is power.
“Air is a real substance. It can be weighed.”
Let’s think of some things that are made of air. Our voices. These words
I’m speaking to you through ink, or whatever you use in your future.
The space between you and the centrifuge, or the sink. The cold of the icebox,
the air that keeps the cow’s milk fresh and safe. Chemistry is what causes
that milk to sour, if left out in the regular air too long. What kind of air
are you putting your milk in?
“The sticky fly papers do not kill but hold the insects, and they die from exhaustion.”
This is the final line of my book, of my life’s work. I didn’t change this line
from the first printing to the fourth. Remember what I said about change?
I saw my women friends trapped against the adhesives of love and family.
I kept my hands free to cook and clean and write. Science is what allows
and causes all of this. Everything we do. It’s still true.
“If any housekeeper finds a method better for her purposes than the ones specified here, let her keep to its use and tell it to others.”
These lines are in the front of the book, before exhaustion sets in for either of us.
I am inviting you to join me. Or maybe I am inviting myself to join you,
women of the future, women sitting next to other women in the lecture hall,
women standing next to other women in the lab. I don’t know the chemistry
that will make this happen, but you do, and you’re doing it.
All quotes are from Richards’s Chemistry of Cooking and Cleaning, 1881.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell (b. 1943)
Inside me, something rotated.
I walked three miles of data,
a spiral spun out of the telescope
I helped build,
and saw a shape repeating.
Like a pulse. Like a period.
Like the circle of an egg, like something
alive, being born. Something I myself
could bear, like a baby,
My eyes. My brain. My child.
Stolen away in a typical
kidnapping. We were all minions.
I didn’t fight it. What mattered
was the science, the growing.
The baby is not the final thing.
It’s only the beginning.
The pulsar only goes so far.
It’s not a remnant. It’s a relative.
Jessy Randall’s poems, comics, and other things have appeared in Poetry, McSweeney’s, and The Best American Experimental Writing. Her most recent book is How to Tell If You Are Human: Diagram Poems (Pleiades, 2018), and she has a new collection, Mathematics for Ladies: Poems on Women in Science, forthcoming from Gold SF / University of London in 2022.
Kathryn Leonard-Peck writes poetry, plays, and short stories, and is completing her first novel. She also paints. She graduated from Dartmouth College and Columbia Law School, and is an attorney. She lives on a farm on Martha’s Vineyard with her family. Her work has been published in literary journals, including THEMA, Blink Ink, IHRAF Publishes (the International Human Rights Art Festival magazine), Auroras & Blossoms/F Point Collective, South Road, and The Stonefence Review. She was the second place winner for the Martha’s Vineyard Institute for Creative Writing (MVICW) Vineyard Writers Fellowship.