Today, we know that the gender gap in physics is large. This gender gap might lead to the misconception that, with a few famous exceptions like Marie Curie and Lise Meitner, women were rarely involved with physics until very recently. However, women have always been involved with physics, throughout the history of physics. Historian Joanna Behrman notes in her article “Physics … is for girls?” in Physics Today magazine,
At the dawn of the 20th century, more than half of secondary-school physics students were female, but by 1950 only 20–30% were.
Physics has never been a static discipline, but significant change happened in the field during World War II, sometimes known as “The Physicist’s War.” The changes are complex and driven by a wide variety of factors, but one impetus for the changing status of the field was the race to make nuclear weapons for the war and subsequent deployment of nuclear weapons, which threw the discipline of physics into the spotlight and increased its desirability as a career. This, combined with societal trends of the 1950s that emphasized women’s place in the home, may have contributed to the idea of physics being a field for men. For this Photos of the Month, I explored the Emilio Segrè Visual Archives to take a look at images in our collection of women involved with physics before World War II in the United States - some subjects well-known, some less-known, others unknown.