The importance of citing Black women in physics
The 2016 film Hidden Figures follows a group of women who worked at NASA in the 1950s and 1960s during the space race between the US and the Soviet Union. The movie is based on research conducted by Margo Shetterly and Duchess Harris, inspired in part by Harris’s grandmother who was one of the hidden figures. When it comes to awareness of Black women in science, I believe there are two eras: one before the film’s release and the other after.
I came of age in the era before Hidden Figures when public acknowledgements of Black women scientists were largely limited to the extraordinary Mae Jemison – the first Black woman to go to space. These days, students use social media and search engines to find each other. Even so, the reality of ensuring that Black women in science get their due is only just beginning.
Black physics students, especially women and non-binary people, still struggle to find information about role models – and their work. When I started university in 1999 I didn’t know any Black women physicists until I met Nadya Mason during my degree. She had just completed her PhD at Stanford University and was beginning as a Harvard Society Junior Fellow.
Soon thereafter, I attended the 2003 annual conference of the National Society of Black Physicists and Black Physics Students, where I shared a hotel room with Jami Valentine, a PhD student in condensed-matter physics at Johns Hopkins University. For the first time, I met Black women who shared my passion for physics and who also set an example for me to emulate.
Valentine, now Valentine Miller, went on to become the first Black woman to earn a PhD in physics from Johns Hopkins. Perhaps aware of her position as a barrier breaker, one of her extracurricular activities involved publicly tracking Black women with PhDs in physics. She maintained a list on her Johns Hopkins website, which is now maintained by African-American Women in Physics (AAWIP) – a non-profit organization that Valentine Miller co-founded and still runs.
This list became a reference point for me. It allowed me to track my place in a growing legacy, and to remind myself that I am not alone. Several years ago, I became curious about how many Black women had done research in fields related to mine: cosmology and particle physics theory. Based on the AAWIP list, I compiled a blog with links to the dissertations of myself and four other women in related fields: nuclear physics, particle physics and cosmology.
As I became aware of others, I began to wonder how we could learn about their work. I was also thinking about how ideas circulate in physics, and how race and gender shape what we know about the physical world. I realized that what’s important is whether someone stays active and remains a continuous advocate for their ideas by giving talks and writing papers.
Whole lines of thought get dropped when Black women walk away from physics and aren’t there to advocate for their contributions. This, of course, is true about anyone who leaves the field. But given the severe under-representation of Black women in physics – and also the unique barriers presented by misogynoir – it’s clear that race and gender shape scientific outcomes.
Through my other interests in Black feminist science, technology and society studies, I came across the Cite Black Women Collective, which encourages researchers to cite Black women’s work in their scholarship. Would it be possible, I wondered, for me to encourage people to cite Black women in physics? Thanks in part to a grant from the Foundational Questions Institute, in 2021 I hired two undergraduate research assistants – Sabrina Brown and Tessa Cole – to build a bibliography of all the publications by Black women and gender minorities with PhDs in particle physics, cosmology and astrophysics. Brown had expertise in information science while Cole has a background in engineering. Together they compiled entries for every single person on the AAWIP list – going beyond their original mandate.
In December 2022 I unveiled the Cite Black Women+ in Physics Bibliography. It connects to a Zotero database with more than 4000 entries of papers authored and co-authored by US-based or rooted Black women and gender-expansive people in the 50 years since 1972. That was the year when Willie Hobbs Moore became the first Black woman in the US to earn a PhD in physics. This public resource is a first-of-its-kind bibliography of papers by a marginalized community of scientists. Hopefully it won’t be the last.
It’s not perfect. I had to update it almost immediately for someone we did not previously know about. This isn’t a knock against AAWIP – it’s important to recognize how complex a task maintaining the AAWIP list is. Indeed, the AAWIP runs on donations and is not fiscally backed by any of our major professional societies, such as the American Physical Society or the American Institute of Physics.
Until the AAWIP came along, no organization provided systematic support for Black women and gender-expansive folk. After I began it as a solo project, the AAWIP took over maintaining a Facebook group for Black women and gender minorities in physics and astronomy. The organization also provides fiscal support for community members in crisis, to attend conferences, and to organize social gatherings at conferences.
I have been asked whether it is possible to replicate this effort in other countries, such as the UK or elsewhere in Europe. While I can’t make recommendations about how to do so, what I can say is that in the US we have been forced to do this work ourselves and with insufficient resources. Others shouldn’t have to make the same mistake.
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