Book Review: “Rise of the Rocket Girls” by Nathalia Holt

Rise of the Rocket Girls promised an intersection of two of my favorite non-fiction genres: science, and the too-often-overlooked impact of women in history. I expected a book comparable to Radium Girls, which portrays its subjects as memorable personalities in a suspenseful narrative; or Code Girls, the captivating account of female cryptologic analysts during WWII. (Why always “girls”? Didn’t these women struggle enough for professional respect without suffering diminutive labels in their own annals?) This tale of the lady “computers” instrumental in the founding of NASA’s Joint Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) held similar promise. 

RocketGirlsUnfortunately, awkward storytelling sabotages the book’s purpose. Rather than a chronological flow, episodes are fragmented and and scattered throughout a chapter, making events difficult to follow. But what really galled me was the emphasis on stereotypical female behavior. Author Holt goes out of her way to describe the women’s fashion choices, hairstyles, and dates. She often devotes more text to the women’s family lives than their space exploration work, and it frequently lapses into maudlin.

Every woman in the book who becomes a parent is “so excited to be a mother” and “so in love with her baby”. I almost threw aside my Kindle in disgust when one character’s mother “knew her daughter’s ambition would soon soften into a desire for motherhood.” Seriously? A book purportedly highlighting women’s contributions to rocket science should be ashamed to insult that legacy with such revolting endorsements of biological determinism. Authorial bias is evident here: the book opens with the anecdote about how Holt stumbled across the topic while researching names for her own daughter. That perspective may have been what decayed Rocket Girls from a thoughtful exploration of marginalized history into a soggy ode to the challenges of working moms.

Granted, the topic isn’t entirely irrelevant. Maternity leave did not exist in the 1950s, nor did readily available birth control, so marriage augered the end of a woman’s career.  (Maybe that’s the reason for “girls” in the titles of all these books; as my Laddie observed when he started reading Code Girls, these fields accepted only young, unmarried women.) But when a book is marketed as a history of women in STEM, readers expect a substantial account of the science they pioneered, not just a treatise on workplace inequality. Especially when given only  a superficial sense of who those women were. Most of the rocket girls followed an alarmingly similar trajectory:

“Betty was a math prodigy, the lone female student in her advanced classes. But her only career options were teacher and secretary. Luckily, she knew someone affiliated with JPL, who recruited her as a computer. Her critical calculations advanced the field of aerospace engineering. Then she got married, got pregnant, and quit (but she was sooooo happy to be a mom)!” 

[This is my snarky summarization, not an actual quote from the book, but nearly every computer profiled lived some variation on this theme.]

The uniformity of these experiences, combined with the author’s remote handling of her subjects, made it hard to tell some of the stories apart. Episodes from JPL/NASA history, and the contribution of female engineers to those programs, were worth reading. But it felt like Holt’s esteem for her subjects made her hesitant to go beyond shallow hagiography. Rocket Girls shoots for the stars, but lacks sufficient momentum to escape its own sentimental gravity.

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