Women’s Work Is Never Done—or Paid For. Ellen Swallow Richards

These days as we try to cope with a frightening pandemic, we are accustomed to seeing pictures of women hovering over test tubes in laboratories developing vaccines and other medicines. News broadcasts feature pictures of doctors, both men and women,  swaddled in bulky protective equipment administering treatment for Covid 19 patients. Women in labs and hospitals have become the norm.

Now that science and medical services, not only in America, but around the world, are heavily dependent on women, it’s hard to believe that generations of women had to fight to be allowed to study and become part of these life-saving processes. What on earth were the men thinking?

Ellen Swallow Richards

In 1870, when Ellen Swallow, a graduate of Vassar College, who also held a masters degree in chemistry, tried to find further education, she was turned away from every laboratory and school where she applied. After great effort, a former professor of hers was able to get her admitted into the brand new Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but only on the grounds that her admission “did not establish a precedent for the general admission of females”. Were men really so frightened of women taking over their schools?

After two successful years of studies at MIT, Swallow’s thesis was accepted, but she was not given the PhD she had earned, because the school did not want to award an advanced degree to a woman. Nonetheless, Swallow stayed on at the school, married one of her fellow students, and continued to do research and to teach. She did not receive a salary but was supported by her husband who also continued to teach at MIT. It seems the men who claimed women did not have the ability to teach or do research, were perfectly willing to accept the benefits of women’s unpaid labor.

As time went by, Swallow was able became a consultant and helped to develop safe and sanitary water systems. In Massachusetts, she was responsible for the first state-wide sanitary water system in the United States. She applied her scientific knowledge to helping women to improve the domestic sanitation in their homes. Her book Food Materials and Their Adulterations (1885)  led to the passage of the first Pure Food and Drug Act in Massachusetts.  

Swallow continued to be tireless in her work to develop the scientific study of Home Economics and has often been called the founder of the ecology movement. During her long career, she received many honors and became a mentor to women who wanted to enter the fields of science and medicine. I have to wonder whether the men who tried so hard to keep her from studying science ever wondered how they could have gone so wrong.

There seems to be no easily available biography of Ellen Swallow Richards, but there is a long article about her in Wikipedia which includes a list of her many publications. For lighter touch, you can also read about Ellen Swallow as a character in Matthew Pearl’s mystery story, The Technologists (2012). Although the story is fiction, Pearl sticks close to the facts about the background of life at MIT in the years after it was founded and the experiences of Ellen Swallow.