Women’s History Month: Rosalind Franklin, Forgotten Discoverer of DNA

Rosalind Franklin

If you ever spend more than two hours in Cambridge (UK), you’re sure to walk past The Eagle Pub and hear the story of its claim to fame. It is here that James Watson and Francis Crick – of DNA prominence – celebrated discovering the “secret of life.” This jolly story of two scientists drinking to an incredible breakthrough conjures images of smiling men sitting around beer glasses talking excitedly about how they’ve just jolted science into a new era. And that’s probably a good enough estimation of what happened – except that there should have been at least one other person at their table: a woman. The lady in question died of ovarian cancer a few years after they had that beer, and her work, which hugely contributed to the discovery of the structure of DNA, was largely forgotten. That woman was Rosalind Franklin.

Rosalind Elsie Franklin (25 July 1920 – 16 April 1958) had a short but very eventful life, the work of which has been underappreciated for decades. Rosalind Franklin’s story is one of a brilliant child from a privileged background, making the most of what the circumstances of birth offered her. She was born into a wealthy, well-connected British family. Her father’s uncle was Herbert Samuel (later Viscount Samuel), appointed Home Secretary in 1916, and the first practising Jew to serve in the British Cabinet. Her aunt, Helen Carolin Franklin, was a trade unionist and suffragist married to the Attorney General of British Mandate of Palestine.

[Read more...]

A History of Women in Medicine

The other week, Maria wrote a great history of midwifery, a field of medicine that was traditionally practiced by women into the 1800s. But at the same time that male physicians were insisting that they were the only ones qualified to treat women, some women were insisting that they were qualified to become physicians themselves.

In 1848, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman admitted to Geneva Medical College in New York – but her admission was based less on her merit and more on, well, the whims of the all-male student body. Apparently the school’s administrators didn’t want to risk rejecting a woman, so rather than make a final decision, they asked the students to decide if Blackwell should be admitted. The students thought that a rival school had admitted Blackwell’s application as a joke, and agreed to admit her.

Two years later, the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania – which, as the name implies, was the first medical school for women – opened; forty women immediately enrolled. [Read more...]

Women Studies Founder Explains Her Passion for Women’s History

I’ve long held an interest in women’s history, but that interest became a passion when I took a class with Dr. Mary Rothschild when I was in the Women’s Studies Program at Arizona State University. I took an oral history class with Mary that changed my life. Suddenly history wasn’t just boring memorization of names and dates – it was collecting living women’s stories to preserve our history. Ever since that class, I’ve let that passion continue to sizzle. In fact, it’s a big motivation for our Feminist Conversations column, as well as our effort to celebrate Women’s History Month every year here on the blog.

For those who don’t know my shero, Mary Logan Rothschild is a Professor Emerita from Arizona State University in Women and Gender Studies. She was an early leader in the Women’s Studies movement nationally and is the only person in the country who has been a Women’s Studies Program Chair or Director on her 30th, 40th and 50th birthdays. Her specialty is American Women’s History and her great love is the history of American feminism. She has been very involved in women’s oral history, the movement to include women in public history and, especially in the early decades of her career, the gender equity movement in education. I hope you enjoy reading Mary’s story as much as I have enjoyed her mentorship over the years.

1. When did you know that you wanted to be a historian?
I didn’t know I wanted to be a historian until very late in my undergraduate career, although I was a History major. For graduate school, I was accepted into the School of Social Work at the University of Washington and I wanted to work with inner city children, but I had a kind of “conversion” experience in my final year and decided I had to at least get a Master’s in History, so I applied to the History Department. Miraculously, I was offered a four-year fellowship (though I had missed the deadline to apply for financial aid) to do a PhD, so I immediately went into the PhD program. [Read more...]

Women’s History Month: Marie Stopes

Marie Stopes as a young palaeobotanist

Marie Stopes is the ultimate ideological yin and yang, a woman who was the perfect mix of the best and the worst of an activist. She started the first family planning clinic in the British Empire in 1921 and sent personal poems expressing her infatuation to Adolf Hitler. She campaigned for women’s right to make their own fertility choices while claiming that the poor and sickly should not be allowed to have children. She even disowned her own son and cut off all contact with him for marrying a myopic woman. Stopes realized that control of her fertility is key for a woman who wants to be able to make her own way in life, but felt a deep connection to a man who thought that an Aryan woman’s place is in the home and there should be no place at all for Roma, Polish or Jewish women.

In August 1939 the world was on the brink of World War II and Marie Stopes was busy with her clinics and  politics (campaigning for eugenics and family planning), but she still found a little time to send a letter to her hero:

“Dear Herr Hitler, Love is the greatest thing in the world: so will you accept from me these (poems) that you may allow the young people of your nation to have them?” (August 1939)

Classy, eh?

[Read more...]

Women’s History Month: Margaret Edson and Wit

Today I want to celebrate the playwright Margaret Edson, the Pulitzer Prize winner for Drama in 1999. Last weekend I saw her play Wit starring Cynthia Nixon; and if it were not closing this weekend, I would urge you to grab a wad of tissues and get thyself to the theater. I do recommend you do the second best thing —read Witand the third or fourth—ponder the ideas about women and achievement it stirred up in me. Mind you, these are not the play’s primary concerns. The main character, renowned Donne professor Vivian Bearing, loves to point out that metaphysical poets like Donne contemplate the most rarefied matters of human existence: “Life, death, soul, God… past, present.” The biggies, I want to say. The play makes it impossible to ignore them, but with a little distancing trick (the cutesie of “biggie”) I’ve managed to put them in the (im)proper perspective this many days later.

That’s not to say I haven’t been thinking or feeling. I can very happily say that I can’t identify first-hand with the main character’s plight; but I have had a second-hand seat and no crystal ball to see into the future. All the same, watching the play was like watching a former version of myself. A smarter, more articulate, more imposing version, to be sure, but still: Vivian Bearing is a word-lover. I’m a word-lover. Vivian is a scholar. I was a scholar, and then I decided to leave the academy behind. I got out into the world in a way that Vivian did not, not when her mentor tells her to do exactly that, and not in the life she recounts during the course of the play. Or did I?

Vivian’s life seems to begin and end with her work. And much of the play is weighted towards her realizing that there is much more to life than the sum of one’s greatest deeds. But from where I was sitting in the not-facing-cancer-today seats, Vivian’s research and world-renowned scholarship brought on a serious case of the “What ifs,” even though I have a sneaking suspicion the answer is, “Not a chance, not in a million years.” [Read more...]

Women’s History Month: 5 Royal Women I LOVE

I have always been interested in monarchies, especially royal women. Like many a young American girl, the notion of being a princess appealed to me on many levels. The interest in royalty has continued into my adult years and as a lover of historic biographies I have devoured many books on the lives of various royal figures and often find myself falling asleep to David Starkey’s Monarchy (as you can see, when it comes to entertainment, I prefer it as dry as it comes). As a feminist I have come to view the lives of many royal women in a different lens than many, and respect many of them in profound and personal ways.

In honor of Women’s History Month, here is a tribute to five of my favorite royal women:

Queen Elizabeth 1: Probably my most favorite historical figure. Lacking any type of female example, Elizabeth beat the countless odds stacked against her and became one of the most successful heads of state England has ever known. After numerous decades of turmoil and instability, Elizabeth propelled England into what would come to be known as The Golden Age for its prosperity and relative peace.

We all know about Elizabeth’s refusal to marry, which was a remarkable decision. What many don’t realize is not only did she continue to receive proposals late into her life; she did in fact allow herself to fall in love more than once and had more than one love affair. She was, however, a career woman at heart, and never lost sight of her true purpose in life, to serve her country as she saw fit. Her life and legacy are still an inspiration to strong women today. [Read more...]

Women’s History Month: What do YOU think the future holds? Call for submissions.

What do you think the next 10 years holds for the reproductive rights movement? Are you excited, fearful, faithful, or all of the above? What do you see as the primary issues feminists face over the next decade? Where do our efforts need to be most focused? How will history view this era of the reproductive rights movement?

Choice Matters, the oldest on-going pro-choice advocacy organization in the nation, is asking you to share your thoughts. The organization is observing their 40th Anniversary and asking “where are we today and what will the next 10 or even 40 years bring?”

Choice Matters (http://www.choicematters.org/) is asking for blog posts and video responses to the above questions. Responses will be used in a video presentation at their anniversary event and in future marketing materials. It is a great opportunity to have the voices and opinions of young feminists represented, and to show to world that we are here!

Make your voice heard! Submission can be sent to catherine@choicematters.org and must be turned in by May 1st.

Women’s History Month: Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman, "Untitled, #92, 1981." Image courtesy of www.vanityfair.com

Cindy Sherman’s photographs are so striking and lush that it’s no wonder one of her pieces sold for nearly $3.9 million last year – setting a record at the time for the most paid for a single photograph by any artist, male or female. Since the mid-1970s, Sherman’s photos have examined ideas of gender, history, sexuality and artifice, with Sherman herself often serving as the subject for her work. As Ingrid Sischy writes in Vanity Fair, Cindy Sherman

“has probably put on more wigs, noses, lips, eyebrows, and hats—but never airs—than anyone alive … she has created a body of work that also serves as a meditation on aging, and on the ages … When she first began exhibiting her photographs, critics correctly contextualized the work as belonging to the feminist discourse of the time, but the pleasure and more personal emotions she got from playing with her characters were always important to Sherman, too.”

Despite this critical interpretation of her work, Sherman has said that “[T]he work is what it is and hopefully it’s seen as feminist work, or feminist-advised work, but I’m not going to go around espousing theoretical bullshit about feminist stuff.” While I appreciate and admire her restraint (after all, so many artists seem to have no problem espousing large amounts of theoretical bullshit!) many of her individual photos and series do have an arresting take on how women are viewed in society. For example, Sherman’s “film stills” series, from the late 1970s, see the artist experimenting with different archetypes of women in film, deconstructing the stereotypes that permeated popular culture.

In 2008, Sherman addressed women and aging with her well-received “society portraits” series. Eve Respini, the associate curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (which is currently hosting a Sherman retrospective), explains the power of these images: “Here you have these photographs of women that on the surface seem perfect and glossy … But if you look carefully, there is this darker reality lurking underneath. These images presaged the financial collapse, and these women are very of the moment – of an era of excess and overcompensation of wealth and status.”

As Sherman’s career moves into its fourth decade, I can’t wait to see what this always thought-provoking and contemporary artist unveils next.

Maria Skłodowska-Curie: Not Even Two Nobel Prizes Can Save You From Slut-Shaming

Women’s History Month is a time to remember incredible women and here I’ll be giving my own little twist to remembering the past and calling out the awfulness of the present. I have to admit that this post really is quite a treat for me – I get to remind the world that Marie Skłodowska-Curie was Polish and denounce slut-shaming all in one go – yay! So with no further ado, ladies and gentlemen I present to you the first woman to win a Nobel prize – Marie Skłodowska-Curie.

Official Nobel Prize photo

To this day Marie Skłodowska-Curie is also the only woman to win in two fields and the only person to win in multiple sciences; she was also  the first female professor at the University of Paris. Just one of these accomplishments would have been enough for her to go down in history, but all these combined make her a veritable science superstar. Her academic accomplishments are well known and widely publicized and I don’t want to turn this post into a reiteration of stuff you could find on her Wikipedia page. Instead, I want to talk about the darker side of her story, her personal life and the shaming she had to endure for her choices (also, there will be a rant about respecting her Polish identity, so bear with me).

Maria Skłodowska-Curie is often simply called Madame Curie these days and if her name is mentioned, it is given in its French form as Marie. That bugs me a little, and I dare say it would bug the great lady herself. She was Polish, lived in Poland for almost a quarter of a century, and double-barreled her last name so as not to have to give up her Polish identity and made sure her two daughters learned her native language (btw: fun fact for the day Skłodowska-Curie’s daughter and son-in-law also won Nobel prizes, making them just about the most Nobel Prize-rich family). What’s more, she named the first radioactive element she discovered >>Polonium<<, so as to honor her native country. Being Polish was obviously a pretty big deal to her and an important part of her identity, so why do we keep ignoring it for the sake of ease of pronunciation? I don’t think that’s very fair – we owe her the discovery of radioactivity and the mastering of the medical x-ray. We could at least be bothered to thank her by calling her by the name she preferred. What’s more, by calling her simply Curie we ignore her conscious rebuttal of patriarchal rules, by which she should have simply taken her husband’s name. It’s still an uncommon thing today and was nearly unheard of back in Skłodowska’s days and do we really want to simply ignore her strong convictions and ideals for the sake of phonetic simplicity? [Read more...]

Women’s History Month: Dorothy Allison

Image courtesy of dorothyallison.net

“It is easy to be an entertainer as a woman. It is easy to tell stories to charm people. But mostly we believe our stories aren’t worth anything, that our stories aren’t important, and that if they are important, they’re dangerous, and therefore too dangerous to tell anyone. The only way I ever began to write was because there was a women’s movement. If there had not been a women’s liberation movement in the early 70’s, I would not only have not started writing. I would not be alive.”

-Dorothy Allison

I recently mentioned to a friend that I wanted to re-read Dorothy Allison’s 1992 masterpiece, Bastard Out of Carolina. “Hmm,” my friend, who admires Allison greatly, replied. “I don’t know if I’d want to re-read that book, even though I really like it.”

I know what she means. Bastard is written by a woman that knows how to tell a good story, filled with vibrant people and achingly realistic dialogue. But it is also a book about brutality, poverty, and the heartbreaking ways that families let each other down, no matter how much they love each other. The physical and sexual violence that the protagonist, a girl named Bone, experiences at the hands of her stepfather is difficult to read, even as you keep going, deeply invested in Bone’s survival and happiness.

[Read more...]