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Betty Justice: How famous science camp came to include those with two X chromosomes

By By Betty Justice

The Gazette recently published its annual editorial lauding the opening of the National Youth Science Camp. The Gazette rightfully brags that the camp brings stature to the state and provides participants with an extraordinarily high level of intellectual activity. Marissa Mayer, the current CEO of Yahoo, is a Science Camp alumna and was quoted in a California business journal a few years ago as crediting her participation in the Camp with stimulating her interest in symbolic thought and communication. But there is a back story to the participation of Ms. Mayer and other young women in the National Youth Science Camp, one of which they are probably unaware and one which too few West Virginians know.

The National Youth Science Camp began in 1963 as a way to commemorate West Virginia’s Centennial. This undertaking coincided with the beginnings of outer space exploration, advances in the biological and environmental sciences, and dazzling technological inventions like the transistor that made science sexy. The governor of West Virginia would invite the governors of the other 49 states to nominate two high school students to come to West Virginia for a several-week intense immersion in complex inquiry, discussion and study with master teachers.

This amazingly forward-thinking educational program was conceived and implemented at a time when the popular image of West Virginia was that of a battlefield in the “War on Poverty.” A widely read sociological study “The Other America” published in 1962 described the residents of Central Appalachian as a culturally isolated, superstitious, poorly educated population living in dilapidated housing amongst general poverty, deprivation and trash. What a quixotic choice that West Virginia would decide to develop a program premised on values that were the dramatic antithesis of the media image of the state. The state is rightfully proud that visionary leaders chose to honor West Virginia’s birth with an ongoing event that has such positive and lasting outcomes.

But even visionaries often have blinders. The Science Camp commemorated the birth of West Virginia, which resulted from the greatest struggle for human rights in U.S. history. The camp was dedicated to the expansion of knowledge based on facts, not superstitions, prejudices or stereotypes. However, apparently without recognizing the irony, founders invited governors to nominate only those promising students who had been born with just one X chromosome. The camp was not actually a camp for “youth,” it was a camp for boys. For more than a decade, no female students participated.

In the early 1970s, the Morgantown Chapter of the National Organization for Women began advocating for girls to be considered as eligible participants in the Camp. NOW began its effort with reasoned arguments. First was that it was a matter of basic fairness that girls not be excluded from this exceptional educational opportunity. The second was the potential contributions that educated girls could bring to the scientific professions. Camp administrators were not persuaded. By this time, the United States had landed men on the moon and safely returned them to earth. But camp administrators were totally flummoxed in how to organize bathroom and shower schedules so that both sexes could use the facilities.

A few years of advocacy using logic and common sense were unsuccessful. This led Morgantown NOW to mount a national campaign writing letters to the governors of other states asking them to decline to nominate participants for the camp unless they were free to do so without regard to gender. NOW chapters in other states were tasked with making the issue a public one and in lobbying their governors to refuse to participate as long as West Virginia maintained its “boys only” policy.

Equal rights for women and girls was a front-burner issue in the mid-1970s. Soon governors of other states began conveying concerns about the exclusionary policy. Faced with a challenge to its credibility and its very existence, administrators of the camp figured out how to meet challenges they had created for themselves. A Charleston Daily Mail front page teaser on July 2, 1975, noted an inside story heralding the change: “Science camp co-ed this year for the first time.”

This year is the 40th year that girls have been included in the Science Camp. Science plus political action triumphed over ignorance, prejudice and stereotypes, and the nation is the better for it. The history of how girls were finally invited to participate in the Science Camp should itself be a lesson to the current students — the application of science to real life is often a matter of political choices.

Betty Justice lives in Charleston.

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