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Girls should be free to make messes and keep the science tidy

Girls should be free to make messes and keep the science tidy

This October, astronomy enthusiasts in the northern hemisphere can spot a comet first seen by Pierre Méchain in 1786 and named for Johann Franz Encke, who calculated its orbit. But when my daughter and I venture out to catch a glimpse of the icy rock, I will be sure to mention Caroline Herschel, the first salaried female astronomer who discovered her first comet the same year as Méchain.

Herschel would go on to discover seven more comets while cataloguing 2,500 nebulae, an accomplishment that earned her a Gold Medal and honorary membership in the Royal Astronomical Society. Honorary, of course, because she was a woman.

I am no morning person. But I will get up before dawn any day to teach my 8-year-old daughter that she — like Hershel — is a scientist. Nothing honorary about it.

As a historian of children’s science writing, I have spent the last several years reading books that encourage boys and girls to take an interest in science and technology. They do this by depicting fictional siblings, much like Caroline and her brother William Herschel, making their first discoveries together at home.

At times, these beautifully illustrated, lovingly crafted books leave me infuriated by how little has changed about gender stereotypes in science. Over a century later, I look back and see my own small world, through the wrong end of a telescope.

The familiar problem I see in old books is that science-minded girls must prove their worthiness to learn by first tidying up. Meanwhile, boys require no such domestic litmus test.

In fact, as Victorian authors will eagerly explain at length to harried mothers like me, wreaking havoc in the home is a sure sign that a son has a knack for science and engineering, and you had better get him out of the house and safely to a tool shed before he brings Armageddon. Failure and disarray, so unappreciated by mothers concerned for spotless linens and flammable furniture, are necessary precursors of a successful STEM career.

My fury at these stories has a lot to do with how much of myself I see in these fictional parents.

As I write this, my living room buffet (which rumor has it is for serving dinner) is covered with assorted crafts created (or abandoned) by my two daughters. Candles, painted ceramics, construction paper, a Modge Podge vase, and my eldest’s current obsession: a half-built wooden hand-crank mechanical model of the solar system.

These old books have one thing right: Children’s creative spaces easily descend into intolerable chaos, while girls are made to feel that disorder and dirt reflect poorly on themselves. And here’s the rub: I fear they reflect poorly on me.

As a working parent, I can’t shake the feeling that I am supposed to keep my house organized and raise my daughter to do the same. And if I can’t, I should sure as heck hide that fact from the neighbors. In a world where women have too much work, my daughter and I find ourselves unfairly pitted against one another in a contest for our family’s most limited resource: time.

Nor are the consequences of messiness entirely superficial. We want our children to grow up to be tolerably responsible adults who feed themselves and respect their partners by sharing domestic labor. And I have the deepest sympathies for any parent reading this who thinks there is no way they can live in a small space with small humans unless they shut down their child’s latest effort to shred construction paper for some incomprehensible project, so they can grasp the last pieces of their shredded mind — and dear god, please stop digging through the recycling box with that roll of duct tape!

Unfortunately, when we deliver these messages to girls, we double down on a point they already receive loud and clear: that learning is something they earn after caring for everyone else. Learning, making, inventing — that’s the second shift.

One of the few Victorian children’s biographies I could find that features a woman inventor is about Barbara Utman of Saxony, who saves her starving children by creating a new method of bone lace weaving. But not before she cleans her house and cooks for her family.

Then, Barbara would “shut herself up in the little inner room of her cottage” unless “her presence was absolutely necessary for the comfort of her family.” Instead of a workshop, Utman retreats further into her home. Afterward, Utman refuses to patent her method and teaches anyone who asks to learn. Community mindedness looks different in stories about male inventors, whose rise to wealth is their own gift to the world. Utman’s story says nothing about what she did in that room, but I like to think she made a mess.

Trained by her mother for domestic work, Caroline Hershel first came to England as her brother’s housekeeper. After discovering Neptune, William retrained Caroline as a research partner. Her biographies depict both her domestic and astronomical labor. An 1896 lithograph of the two shows Caroline serving William tea while he polishes a lens; and according to a 2020 children’s picture book, before joining William, Caroline “knitted enough stockings to last her family for two years.”

Perhaps Caroline Herschel’s organizational competence speaks to her success cleaning astronomical data for the Historia Coelestis Britannica, a catalogue of nearly 3,000 stars compiled by Royal Astronomer John Flamsteed and republished in 1798 with Hershel’s corrected calculations and an additional 500 stars. Herschel, in turn, had astronomer Margaret Flamsteed to thank for posthumously publishing her husband’s star catalog and atlas. Like Hershel and Flamsteed, some children use orderliness to innovate or choose so-called “feminine” activities to remake their world.

Children have a moment when they first identify themselves as loving what they will love their whole life — when they first say, I am a reader, a maker, an inventor, or an astronomer. If we want girls to see themselves as scientists and engineers, then we should praise them when they make a mess. For an 8-year-old, messiness is what discovery looks like.

The other day I stopped my daughter as she swept out the door for school to let her know she forgot to brush her hair. Perplexed, she asked, “Why do I need to brush my hair?” She was right. Let the hair go. Let the whole house go. What she needs is to get to school on time so she can learn.

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