Two centuries ago, most women couldn’t work outside the home — and until several decades ago, marriage could end a woman’s career. Yet those barriers didn’t stop several remarkable Canadian women from pursuing a passion in the natural sciences and a new exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Nature brings some of these forgotten stories out of the vault.

Courage and Passion: Canadian Women in Natural Sciences will be on display in Ottawa until March 2019. The exhibit highlights the contributions of trailblazers in botany, zoology, geology, agriculture, physics, paleontology, and early medicine.

“We celebrate Canadian women who fought against cultural norms and turned their passion for science into exciting careers,” says Nicole Dupuis, the exhibit’s Content Developer. “Their contribution to our understanding of the natural world is immeasurable.”

In the Victorian era, botany was viewed as “suitably feminine,” and a small opening for women interested in science was made available. One of the celebrated herbarium books of early botanist and settler Catharine Parr Traill is on display as archives from that time. So too are 17th-century apothecary tools of nuns who used to prepare herbal medicines, and ran the Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal, one of the first hospitals in Canada.

The exhibit also features a mounted giraffe skeleton highlighting the work of Anne Innis Dagg, a feminist and zoologist, who became the first Western scientist to study them in the wild at 24-years old in the 1950s.

^ The Champions of Equality section of the exhibit covers the period from 1950 to 1979 where new advances, such as the advent of computers and the discovery of DNA, created new career opportunities.

Gender barriers, then and now

Other artefacts at the exhibit — sponsored by Enbridge, Lundin Mining, and Sherritt International — include glass physics equipment from the turn of the last century, archaic clerical machines from the 1950s to the 1970s, and a reproduction of a letter issued by the Privy Council Office officially banning married women from full-time work in the federal government in the 1920s. In the context of a society with such arcane and sexist rules, the achievements of Harriet Brooks in physics seem even more outstanding. Her experiments led to new discoveries in radioactivity, but she was forced to retire by McGill University administrators at age 31 in 1907 when she got married.

^ Dr. Kathleen Conlan’s marine biology research has taken her to the Arctic and Antarctic. Credit: © Canadian Museum of Nature

Unlike the scientific artefacts and specimens on display, gender barriers aren’t relics of the past. “Today, women have access to full professionalization in science,” Dupuis says. “They are awarded important research grants, lead field trips, head university departments, and drive research. Still, they make up only 22 percent of the current STEM workforce in Canada,” says Dupuis.

To encourage young women and girls to consider the field, visitors can view contemporary videos of women scientists at work and participate in experiments through digital interactives. Dupuis hopes visitors take home a simple but powerful message, unthinkable just decades ago: girls and women belong in STEM.

The Canadian Museum of Nature is located at 240 McLeod Street in Ottawa. Visit nature.ca for fees and hours.