Images of Lego figure versions of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the three women that preceded her as Supreme Court justices swamped the Internet last week. The creator of the “Legal Justice League,” as she likes to call them, is Maia Weinstock, deputy editor of MIT News at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has also written about women in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields; organized edit-a-thons to increase the presence of female figures on Wikipedia; and built Lego figures of scientists.
In this Q&A, Weinstock talks about her past and in-progress projects, and about the bigger picture of writing women into history. Following are edited excerpts:
How did the idea for the SCOTUS women Lego figures came about?
I honestly don’t remember the exact impetus. I do a lot with women in science, and people in science generally. It just, I’m sure, popped into my head one day that it would be awesome to make Supreme Court justices that are female into mini-figures, and I knew that there were only four of them, so I figured that would be relatively easy to do and a great way to celebrate those four pioneers who have been trailblazers. I’m sure you’ve seen the Notorious RBG Tumblr. It’s kind of fun that there’s a celebration of being smart and of being interested in cerebral topics and in bettering our country. I thought that it would be a fun idea to do that for Legos, which is sort of what I have been working on for a while. Who wouldn’t want a little set of the Supreme Court?
What have been the reactions?
I’ve heard from people who are parents who want to buy, like, five copies for all their friends’ kids. I have had people who are lawyers themselves. I have had people who have connections to the actual justices and are like, “Oh, I would love to get a gift for them.” Lots of female lawyers who say, “Every female lawyer I know would want a set of these.” And plenty of men too who think they’re awesome, and people just generally outside of law.
This isn’t your first foray into Lego, though, right?
The first one that I had made was as just a gift to a friend of mine who’s a planetary scientist, Carolyn Porco. I thought it would be fun to make a few more that were of other scientists. I specifically wanted to do living scientists because so few people can actually name a living scientist, any scientist. I felt that being able to popularize them with a toy that everyone can relate to, like Lego, would be one way to make them into like action figures and heroes. So that’s what I started to do with the SciTweeps set and continue to do. I’m constantly adding to it. That’s sort of the same purpose as what I had done for this Legal Justice League, but instead of science and technology I wanted to focus on law and civics and government.
And the focus on female figures?
I think we can always have more and more role models for young girls. They’re given messages about how they should act and what they can be from a very, very early age. And that can begin with many types of media, including books, TV shows, cartoons and certainly toys. I think giving positive role models in the form of known people, like actual historical figures, or characters that are generic, not necessarily after one person but that are in fields that people don’t necessarily associate with women. I think my project aims to try to help provide an example for girls, and boys. Also, to see that girls can do these careers, like being an engineer. It’s great to be able to offer characters that kids can look up to. Or at least role-play with and imagine that they could be that person someday.
What was the first event you organized around writing women into Wikipedia?
I had been involved with Ada Lovelace Day, which is a celebration of women in science and technology, since its inception. And I heard in 2012 that some folks in the U.K. were doing an edit-a-thon for Ada Lovelace Day for women in the STEM fields. I didn’t see any happening in the United States so I decided to make one happen here. I’ve been organizing events since then, and many of them are around women in the sciences, but some of them are just about women generally, and some of them are on other topics too. Basically, I’m trying to help close the gender gap on Wikipedia. There are sort of two gender gaps. One is in the representation of women on the pages of Wikipedia, and the other gender gap is in the editorship of the pages.
Do you think that one causes the other?
I would argue that that is probably the case to a certain extent, yes. People come to Wikipedia to edit what they are interested in and knowledgeable about. It’s been established in many different realms that there are unconscious biases that we all have about how we deal with gender and race and people with disabilities.... And people tend to be left off sometimes. I think there are many textbooks in which women are hardly mentioned in the annals of history. In the past, history has been written largely and exclusively by men about men, pretty much. I think that there is definitely a case that once you start having more female voices they will insert some of their experiences—or, by extension, of people like them—that might be overlooked.
What’s the bigger picture here, the goal of all these projects?
One of my half-finished projects is a book project that I’ve been working on, very on and off for the past three or four years, to highlight women in the STEM fields. I have this stack of books sitting in front of me that’s four and a half feet high, and it’s all history of women doing amazing things in math, science, technology, engineering, who 99.9 percent of people in the world have never heard of. And yet the accomplishments and contributions that they’ve made in society have been in some cases enormous and just immeasurable. So I have always wanted to bring the stories of these people to light as much as I can and to highlight them and to celebrate them. And so I hope in some way with all the projects that I work on that I’m able to do that. There are many different types of media that can teach about history and that can call out people who have been left out.