Honoring BU’s Women in STEM through Artwork
ARROWS Hidden HERstories project is looking for students to pitch site-specific artwork for BU’s public spaces
A professor who sued her workplace over an alleged lack of promotional and pay equity, which started the national movement for equal pay. An entomologist who worked (mostly unpaid) at the Smithsonian to classify over 800 beetle species. And an astronomer who helped to make the Milky Way constellation system famous.
All of these women are Boston University alumnae who never received proper acknowledgement during their lifetime. Now, a new undertaking , called Hidden HERstories, aims to pay homage to these trailblazers with five site-specific projects to be installed in STEM departmental spaces on campus.
The project is led by ARROWS (Advance, Recruit, Retain, and Organize Women in STEM), a group whose mission, according to its website, is “to organize, align, and vertically integrate programs advancing women throughout BU’s STEM community.” The goal of Hidden HERstories is to highlight women through artwork in the University’s STEM spaces, as well as show the BU community that women have always been a part of BU’s STEM legacy. ARROWS is seeking proposals from visual artists across campus for the project.
“BU has a long history of really strong role models of women in STEM; we just wanted to make their stories unhidden,” says ARROWS director Joyce Wong, a College of Engineering professor of biomedical engineering and of materials science and engineering. “People can’t be what they can’t see.”
Any undergraduate or graduate student interested in pitching artwork must do so by Friday, November 5. Art proposals can vary, from murals to stained glass to sculptures and more, depending on the space (artists can read each alum’s bio page for information about where the art will be displayed and the requirements). Students can fill out this form, providing such information as a brief explanation of which alum they would like to focus on, a vision of the artwork they plan to produce, and links to their portfolio. Students selected for the project will be notified by November 18, and will have until February 4 to complete their artwork. Each artist chosen will receive an $800 stipend and up to $200 for materials and fabrication costs.
The alums being honored are Anne Everest Wojtkowski (ENG’56), a former mayor of Pittsfield, Mass., who fought for equal pay earlier in her career; Doris Mildred Holmes Blake (CAS 1913), an accomplished entomologist; Helen Stevens (CAS 1905), the second hire in BU’s fledgling chemistry department, which she subsequently help build; Helen Thayer (CAS 1910), a noted photographer and one of the first women science and math teachers in the Boston area; and Priscilla Fairfield Bok (CAS 1917), an astronomer who popularized the Milky Way.
The idea for Hidden HERstories started with ARROWS administrator Cristian Morales (ENG’16,’22), who says that when he was first hired, he would walk around campus, and when he walked through one of the STEM departments and saw a poster with headshots of its faculty members, he noticed how few were women. “That made me think of the signals that we send with the visual media we hang up on our walls,” Morales says, “and how new media could be created to better reflect who we are and who we’re working to become.”
BU has a long history of really strong role models of women in STEM; we just wanted to make their stories unhidden.
In 2019, Evelynn M. Hammonds, Harvard’s Barbara Gutmann Rosenkrantz Professor of the History of Science and of African and African American studies, delivered the annual ARROWS lecture, and during her talk, mentioned that the history of women in STEM in America started around the 1820s and 1830s. Morales knew BU was founded in 1839, and he thought about BU’s own early history of women scientists.
Later that year, ARROWS received a SEA Change Institutional Bronze Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) recognizing BU’s work to increase the diversity, inclusion, and equity of its STEM community. The award requires institutions to create an action plan, and the ARROWS team vowed to share stories and role models in the community.
When the team decided to highlight women from history, they brought on Marina Wells (GRS’22), a PhD student in the American & New England Studies Program, to help identify candidates and write bios on the chosen alums.
“As an American studies scholar, I jump on any opportunity to bring people together across disciplines,” Wells says. “This is the perfect kind of conflation of STEM, history, and women’s/gender studies. And that feels like such an important kind of foundational aspect of this project…it’s necessary to combine all of these things in order to bring more exposure to students, and show that representation matters.”
She focused on alums who had amazing accomplishments, but had never received the recognition they deserved. Wells looked at the impact they made on other women in STEM, how compelling their stories were, and whether students could relate to their lives. She then wrote the bios, gleaning information from BU yearbooks, library archives, old issues of Bostonia magazine, and newspapers.
“These women were all really complicated and navigating complex challenges posed by their own time—and some of them weren’t that long ago,” Wells says.
Wong adds that all of them “were really pushing at the corners of the edges, given the limitations of their time, and the hands they were dealt.”
Wells says that there’s a reason the five women kicking off the inaugural project are all white. “Finding and unearthing women’s history is difficult,” she says, “but unearthing the history of women of color, of queer women, of gender nonconforming people, that proves very difficult in the archive. So that is a goal for future iterations of the project.”
“As more people broaden their definition of who belongs in STEM,” Morales says, “we’ll get closer to our ultimate goal of making STEM something that anyone can participate in.”
Wong says honoring these five women is just the beginning, and that ARROWS hopes to add more women to the roster in the future. She’s excited, she says, by the convergence of history, science, engineering, math, technology, art, and storytelling the project has wrought.
“It was really fun just saying, ‘Wow, this could really make an impact if you just actually become aware that your spaces around you really matter,” she says.