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‘Courage and passion’: Twenty female scientists profiled in new museum exhibit

July 27, 2018
Taylor Blewett, Ottawa Citizen

Curator Cindy Stelmackowich gestured to the photographs of trailblazing women surrounding her, each profiling a story of remarkable scientific endeavour found in a new exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Nature.

“When I first started the research, I didn’t know about the marriage ban,” Stelmackowich said.

“She was single, she was single, she was single.”

The Carleton University professor was referencing a Privy Council Office policy instituted in 1920 and maintained until 1955. It prohibited married women from holding full-time federal government jobs, unless their husbands were unable to work.

During her preparations for the exhibition, titled Courage and Passion: Canadian Women in Natural Sciences, Stelmackowich visited Library and Archives Canada to research historical gendered labour policies. There, she discovered a letter from then-Clerk of the Privy Council Rodolphe Boudreau, laying out the “marriage ban.”

“It put everything into context,” she said, looking around at the faces of the women who worked in science during that era — such as nuclear physicist Harriet Brooks, who retired at the ripe age of 31 after marrying.

A copy of the marriage ban letter is now part of the exhibition, which profiles 20 Canadian women in natural sciences fields who either had to overcome gender barriers to succeed professionally — or had their careers derailed by those obstacles.

Early into Kathy Conlan’s career as a deep sea-diving, Arctic-exploring marine biologist, she was invited by her male boss to do fieldwork on a research ship.

“I was pregnant with my first child, and I didn’t tell them until it was too late because I was just afraid that he would not let me come. He probably wouldn’t have,” she recalled Thursday, standing beside a display showcasing her scuba suit and accomplishments, including being named one of the country’s greatest explorers by Canadian Geographic.

“That was the old adage — if you have women in your team, then it will disrupt the team.”

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