11/10/14 – ABCs vs PCBs

November 10, 2014


“Toxic substances hardly would seem a likely field of feminine expertise,” began an article from the Seattle Times in June 1980. Yet Margo Partridge, a woman who worked for the EPA, “finds more of a challenge in PCBs than the A, B, C’s of the kitchen.” Despite the fact that Partridge was an expert on the human health risks associated with asbestos, arsenic, PCBs, and other contaminants at the time, the article made sure readers knew that she was also “a young Puget Sound householder.” 1980 doesn’t seem that long ago, but in terms of gender neutrality in reporting, it is light years behind us. The rest of the article was informative, explaining the EPA’s program to combat asbestos, especially in school buildings. The focus on Partridge was meant only to provide human interest, novelty, and what was undoubtedly intended to be humor. The article returned to Partridge’s gender at the end, pointing out with a laugh that she was bad at chemistry in school and that “despite her job assignment, she still does not own a chemistry set.” [i]


Margo Partridge


Equal opportunity and treatment for women in science have come a long way since Partridge fought Seattle area contamination, though there is still plenty of room for improvement. In the archives, articles like this one are not uncommon, and the tone is familiar. Perhaps the most sobering aspect of this particular article is the suggestion that challenge is not for women, that rudimentary ABCs are where women belong. Why should Partridge have a chemistry set when she was “one of the region’s ranking authorities” on the dangers of toxic contaminants? Although a mere 25 years ago, and long after Rachel Carson’s renowned success in the field, Partridge was clearly still paving the way for women in science.

– Naomi Heindel

Editor’s Note:  From time to time, SHRA comes across fun, interesting and notable items in the archives that we think would be of interest to our readers but that don’t warrant a longer blog post.  This piece is one of a series of vignettes that we hope will bring some of these discoveries to life.  If you’re looking for one of our longer pieces, click on “Features” under “Categories” in the left navigation column.


[i] Skreen, Chet. “The E.P.A.’s ‘one-woman army’ against asbestos,” The Seattle Times, June 29, 1980