Literary Explorations of Women in STEM: Background information when reading The Tenth Muse

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The Tenth Muse

A Novel

by Catherine Chung

The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung X
The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2019, 304 pages

    Apr 2020, 304 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Michael Kaler
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About this Book

Literary Explorations of Women in STEM

This article relates to The Tenth Muse

Print Review

Cover of Hidden Figures by Margot Lee ShetterlyThrough a compelling fictional storyline, The Tenth Muse draws attention to the sexism that pervades high-paying STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) careers, and charts an expansive global tradition of underappreciated female trailblazers. In this, novelist Catherine Chung joins a chorus of other American women writers, spanning fiction and nonfiction, engaged in recognizing the overlooked contributions made by women in the STEM fields.

Two of the most memorable of these titles are Margot Lee Shetterly's Hidden Figures (2016) and Liza Mundy's Code Girls (2017). These works of science journalism bring to the surface repressed tales of exceptional women who aided America's scientific research. Hidden Figures narrates the stories of the talented African-American women whose work at NASA helped America win the space race. Code Girls recounts the history of the 10,000+ women who served as code-breakers in Washington D.C. at the height of WWII while men fought overseas. As with The Tenth Muse, books like these diversify the history of STEM fields that have long overlooked the achievements of women and people of color.

Granted these nonfiction books tell the tales of women whose contributions were guided by outside forces. Both Code Girls and Hidden Figures, along with comparative titles, narrate "untold stories" about how bright American women were mobilized during the labor shortages of World War II and directed to use their intelligence to help the nation's government achieve much sought-after goals—winning the war or developing rocket technology, for instance. Far from being simplistic celebrations, the books dramatize the complex ways these women balanced pursuing their passion with fulfilling the demands of the state. The book that arguably launched the trend of female-centered STEM histories, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010) is centered around a woman whose immense contributions were entirely involuntary.

Some of the most inspirational books about women in STEM have been aimed toward juvenile audiences. Author Isabel Sanchez Vegara's recent picture book series Little People, Big Dreams (2018) features uplifting tales of amazing women scientists, including Jane Goodall, Marie Curie and Ada Lovelace. Rachel Ignotofsky's Women in Science (2016) offers 50 biographies of "fearless pioneers who changed the world" to middle grade and young adult readers. By vividly recounting women's productive careers, these books act as aids to parents and teachers concerned that widespread sexist stereotypes might deter girls from becoming interested in STEM subjects.

In 2019, the trend toward acknowledging the accomplishments of women mathematicians and scientists seems at last to have reached the realm of literary fiction. Historical novels like The Tenth Muse, and Marie Benedict's The Only Woman in the Room consider what it means for women to thrive in a field dominated by misogyny. Unlike their nonfiction counterparts, these novels center on the lives of individual women, not groups, even as they gesture toward other women's successes.

As STEM jobs continue to be overrun with gender and racial bias, hopefully books highlighting the achievements of women can dispel stereotypes. Popular and accessible, such works pique the interest of readers disillusioned with a society fixated on trivializing and erasing female accomplishment.

Filed under Medicine, Science and Tech

Article by Michael Kaler

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Tenth Muse. It originally ran in May 2019 and has been updated for the April 2020 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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