While doing research on the strong women who have risen to the surface of my focus, more and more appear. Women, who have been just under the radar of acknowledgement over the centuries, are now emerging. None of this is by accident. The more eyes and ears that learn of them, the more it gives credence to the paradigm shift occurring all over the planet. Obscure names now prominent and “real her-stories” unveiled.
The most prominent female American chemist of the 19th century, Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards (1842–1911) was a pioneer in sanitary engineering and a founder of home economics in the United States. She was the first woman to be admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Besides earning enough money to fund her education, Ellen succeeded by graduating from Vassar and then MIT, in Chemical Engineering, where she continued to fund other women in their studies, while working and teaching alongside her husband. She was noted as a “special student” to get into MIT, with her bright mind being multi-lingual in a variety of languages. This also made her a sought out tutor and interpreter. But what brought her recognition was in the establishment of water quality standards, a personal mission of mine in today’s world.
Women rallying behind environmental protection has deep roots: 150 years ago, chemist and public safety advocate Ellen Swallow Richards solidified the idea of “human ecology,” the study of how people shape their environments, and how their environments shape them.
Ellen is a heroine. Because of her foresight, food testing began on commercial products in her Women’s Laboratory at MIT that led to food labeling in Massachusetts. She had convinced MIT of the connection to chemistry and human ecology, such as food safety. It was another twenty years before the Food and Drug Act would be established, in 1906. Ellen also understood if the dealer was subjected to even the simplest of tests, he would be more careful to offer up the best.
Next up, clean water.
In 1887, at the request of the Massachusetts State Board of Health, Richards and her assistants performed a survey of the quality of the inland bodies of water of Massachusetts, many of which were already polluted with industrial waste and municipal sewage. The scale of the survey was unprecedented: it led to the first state water-quality standards in the nation and the first modern municipal sewage treatment plant, in Lowell, Massachusetts.
Her other concerns were that of applying scientific principles to domestic topics of good nutrition, pure foods, proper clothing, physical fitness, sanitation, and efficient practices. She set up model kitchens open to the public, established programs of study and organized conferences.
Free lunch programs were also established in some Boston High Schools, first as a learning tool for nutritional meals, but soon as a needed social service.
Richards made great strides, but she also may have perpetuated racist beliefs that non-Western people were backward and regressive. In one realm, however, she was right: Women do have the ability to bring change and balance to an unequal system. When women have access to education and resources and when their knowledge is valued, they have the power to shape society itself.
As written over and over again in these posts, we are witnessing the paradigm shift, as his-tory is being re-written with her-story, no longer hidden beneath the pages of time. Women know that knowledge is their strongest ally and they have used it to shape society itself. We become stronger by each one of them and a new appreciation of what they did, in spite of what obstructions were placed before them.