The women in Judith Love Cohen’s family--her mother and aunts--worked at Great-Uncle Harry’s dress factory in Brooklyn, and that was that. Growing up in the ‘40s, Cohen sewed lace doilies at home. But for fun she turned to her father, a soda salesman, who taught her basic geometry by using ashtrays to demonstrate lines, angles and equations.
By fifth grade, kids started paying Cohen to do their math homework. In junior high school, she was the only girl in intermediate algebra. In high school, she won a state scholarship to Brooklyn College and thought about becoming a math teacher. But her guidance counselor told her that girls don’t go into math or science.
“You know, Judy,” the 66-year-old Cohen remembers her counselor telling her, “I think you ought to go to a nice finishing school and learn to be a lady.”
Instead, Cohen earned engineering degrees at USC and worked on NASA projects. Today she is the co-author and co-publisher of a series of books encouraging elementary school girls to consider careers in science and math. The 11-book series features female professionals such as a paleontologist, Egyptologist and marine biologist. Cohen’s first book in 1991, “You Can Be a Woman Engineer,” traces her arc from a girl who had never heard of female engineers to a woman who led a team of engineers on the design for NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.
“You only think about things when you see people doing it. Most girls know now they can be lawyers” from TV shows like “Ally McBeal” and female lawyers in the news, Cohen said. “They know that they can work in an emergency room--they’ve seen ‘ER.’ But I don’t recall that anyone has seen scientists on a large scale, except for a few paleontologists in ‘Jurassic Park.’ ”
At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, physicist Barbara Wilson, 50, said she never knew of any female scientists while growing up in the Midwest. At age 10, she started reading science fiction books for inspiration, but none of them featured women. In school, counselors dismissed the idea of her becoming a scientist, saying she should consider jobs that “women are more likely to be good at.” Books like Cohen’s would have provided the validation she sought, said Wilson, JPL’s chief technologist.
“It was really difficult psychologically and emotionally to be better than all the boys in math and science,” she said. "[The books] really would have helped encourage my feeling good about myself, that this was the direction I wanted to go. I didn’t see role models. I didn’t get encouragement other than at home.”
Working for the Day
Series Won’t Be Needed
The books are illustrated by Cohen’s husband, David A. Katz, 50, formerly a substitute teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District. In 1989, the couple formed a publishing company, Cascade Pass Inc. in Marina del Rey, to put out the series. Three years ago, Cohen quit her engineering job and Katz gave up substitute teaching to work full time on the books and related products such as CD-ROMs, CDs and teaching kits. The products are aimed at girls 8 to 14, but at book events, boys ask their parents to buy the books too, Katz said.
“The truth is, someday we hope we won’t need these books,” he said. “We’ll live in an equitable society, and we won’t need to have boys or girls in the title.”
For now, though, the books help open up a new world for girls, said Gayle Horn, principal of Washington Elementary School in Corona.
“I think girls are underrepresented in the professional fields involving math and science still,” said Horn, who is organizing a math and science conference for girls at the school in November. In 1995, women received 31% of all science and engineering degrees, according to the National Science Foundation, slightly better than the 26% of a decade earlier.
“We still feel we’re not making headway in the professions,” Horn explained. “We feel that teaching them in junior high school and high school is not enough. We’re really pushing the idea of getting girls involved in changing their self-perception on careers in math and science.”
In May, Cohen and Katz released their latest book in the series--a profile of Cal Poly Pomona botanist Kristin Rose Bozak, who researches the cloning of DNA from avocado plants to control the ripening process.
And in July, they started a separate series to encourage girls to participate in sports and other disciplines that round out a person. In the new series, the first book, “You Can Be a Woman Basketball Player,” chronicles the rise of WNBA player Tamecka Dixon of the Los Angeles Sparks. Cohen, the mother of four grown children from previous marriages, dedicated that book to her only daughter, a women’s basketball fan, who is a legal secretary and musician.
Inspiration Came From
The couple have built their lives around the company, using vacations to drive to book events, schools and publishing conventions. In their cramped warehouse office, each brims with ideas and worries about small details, such as how the plastic kits for the botanist book--which includes a shovel and zinnia seeds--could get frozen shut this winter in shipments around the country.
Katz got the idea for the books from his work teaching fourth-grade students in South-Central Los Angeles. He could not believe what he heard when he asked girls what they wanted to do when they grew up.
“I was kind of shocked because they came up with what I think of as stereotypical answers,” he said. “The girls would say, ‘Teaching. Nursing. Secretary.’ ”
He came home and told Cohen, who thought back to her days in Brooklyn, before she got bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering at USC. No one had ever encouraged her to pursue science, and five decades later, it seemed as if girls were not even thinking about careers as engineers or scientists.
She remembered how lonely she felt as a top math student in elementary school. The other girls thought about parties and the cheerleading squad. Her mind was a jumble of Xs and Ys: How fast was that corn pouring out of the silo? How long would it take those men to unload the bricks?
Cohen wanted to tell schoolgirls her story, how she felt different because she liked to figure out math and science equations. With Katz’s help, she wrote her story, and the couple printed and stapled copies of it. Word spread, as Katz distributed free copies at school, and teachers started requesting the handouts and designing lesson plans around them. After they published the engineering book, the couple helped write the stories of other women, such as an assistant curator at the San Diego Zoo and a marine biologist on Catalina Island.
So far, the couple have sold 80,000 books. The paperback and hardcover books, which sell for $6 to $7, are sold at science museums and other book stores; some are available in Spanish. The books are available online at https://www.cascadepass.com.
At book signings, Cohen tells girls not to shy away from male-dominated fields. In the late ‘60s, when she began her career, only one-half of 1% of all engineers were women--but that didn’t faze her.
“I had already figured out,” she said, “that I was going to do things that no [other girls] ever did.”
Renee Tawa can be reached by e-mail at Renee.Tawa@latimes.com.