The Year of the Woman

The year 2020 has arrived, and I can hardly contain myself. Not only is it the dawn of a new decade, but I think it has the potential of being so much more. I think we’re looking at the Year of the Woman. The Me Too Movement sparked not only a call to end sexual harassment and assault, but also a call for women’s voices to be heard.

Already, I look around me and see more women in prominent positions once the exclusive territory of white males. As I write this, four women are in the race for Democratic candidate in the next presidential election. Another woman leads the House of Representatives with a dignity that seems to have escaped current politics. The leader of New Zealand is another example of a woman leading with poise and grace.

In media, women like Oprah Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon call the shots. A number of female-led television shows have debuted to join trend setters like Pretty Little Liars, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and Madam Secretary. According to Variety, women make up 54% of key roles in network TV. And 2018 had the highest percentage of female-driven movies in 12 years.

Women have won 53 Nobel prizes, starting with Marie Curie. Recently, Esther Duflo won the Nobel in Economics. The numbers of female technology leaders has never been higher, leading companies like Oracle, IBM, Space X, YouTube, and more. In October, astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir made the first all-female spacewalk. And it wasn’t just for show. They also replaced a failed power charging unit and installed a frame on the Columbus module in preparation for a new European Space Agency payload platform in 2020.

Coincidentally, 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote. In terms of history, a century is a drop in a bucket. While my mother and I have both voted proudly since we came of age, her grandmothers—my great-grandmothers—were not born with that right.

Women picketing outside the White House in the early 20th century.

Understandably, some readers will have to go back further in their family tree to locate women not allowed to vote. I am young enough to have never questioned my right to vote or to be anything I wanted to be. However, I’m old enough to have not received encouragement nor opportunities to explore science, math, and technology as a girl. While there is still a ways to go, I believe it’s changing for today’s girls. And it’s about time.

I certainly never saw female role models. My dad was the engineer, not my mother. Doctors, school principals, scientists, and politicians were men. History class focused on the men. With the exception of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery and Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time, I can’t think of any other female writers I was exposed to until college. Now, books by J.K. Rowling and Suzanne Collins lead the way. Yet before the 1997 release of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Joanne Rowling’s publisher suggested that she use initials instead of her first name because boys might not want to read a book written by a woman.

I regularly write about fascinating females for children’s books. I’m always amazed at what I learn during my research. I often ask how is it that I did not know this? Why didn’t I learn about Ada Lovelace, Mary Anning, or Grace Hopper in school?

I understand that a movie about famed fossil finder Mary Anning will be released in 2020. Ammonite stars Kate Winslet as the woman who made it possible for the science of paleontology to grow exponentially in the 1800s.

I can think of dozens more stories featuring women that are worthy of being on the small or big screen. Hundreds of women with interesting stories. My hope is that the Year of the Woman brings us more of these stories.

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Patriotism by Word & Action

I have experienced the heart of patriotism. In simplest terms, patriotism is devotion to one’s country. It’s no surprise that the heart of patriotism lives in our nation’s capital. No, it’s not the Capitol nor the Supreme Court. Certainly not the White House. More important than the location, however, is that this shining illustration of patriotism is going away at the end of this year.

The Newseum lies on Pennsylvania Avenue between the Capitol and the White House. From its terrace on the top floor, you can look down Pennsylvania toward the Capitol. What a perfect location for the Fourth Estate, the moniker first coined by Edmund Burke in 1787. The Fourth Estate observes and reports on the political process. It’s another check and balance for democracy.

This news journalism museum is immediately identifiable by a row of the world’s front pages of the day running the length of the building. Look up. Engraved on a tall granite panel running the height of the building is the First Amendment. These 45 words are the essence of American democracy, and I will see them repeated many times and in many variations inside the Newseum.

I didn’t tour the Newseum in the recommended way. I stumbled on a brief orientation film in the Hubbard Broadcasting Concourse at the end of my journey. The film suggested starting on the sixth level and working your way down. Oops!

Much as I approach life, I forged my own path and started with the first floor Pulitzer Prize Photographic Gallery. It seemed so innocent, photographs since 1942 lining the walls. But they were more than photographs. They were stories of humanity. Some were whimsical. Others offered hope—children playing in the Chicago projects, the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, moving children to freedom through a barbed wire fence.

Noted photographer Eddie Adams, himself a Pulitzer Prize winner, once said, “If it makes you laugh, if it makes you cry, if it rips out your heart, that’s a good picture.” I saw many good pictures that day. By the end, they blinded me with my own tears.

I revisited my early childhood with the emotional appeals from photos capturing the Kent State shootings and the Vietnam War. I relived the day of the Oklahoma City bombing with the image of a first responder carrying Baylee Almon from the devastated Murrah building.

When a photograph reached out and grabbed me, which was often, I could read about the photographer and the circumstances surrounding the shooting of the prize-winning photograph. The famine pictures were painful to see. Then I came to a photograph of a vulture stalking an emaciated young girl in the Sudan. This 1994 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography haunted me. Apparently, it also haunted its 33-year-old photographer. Months after the Pulitzer, Kevin Carter took his own life.

Had I followed the recommended route, I would have started with the beginnings of American democracy in 1776 when the Pennsylvania Evening Post became the first newspaper to publish the Declaration of Independence. I saw how the Constitution, created in 1788, was anchored by the First Amendment a few years later.

Exhibit after exhibit documents how the First Amendment provided the rights that our democracy is based upon—religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition. Rights that changed history. Rights that led to women getting the right to vote. Rights that fought segregation and wars. With Watergate, these rights showed Americans that no one was above the law.

I passed a quote – Journalism is the first draft of history – attributed to Washington Post publisher Phil Graham. If he wasn’t the first to say it, he certainly made us understand it.

The fourth floor 9-11 Gallery demands another hard look at journalism and democracy. A timeline of that fateful day circles around a mangled piece of the broadcast tower from the first World Trade Center tower. Newspaper front pages from around the world wallpaper a wall two stories high. The headlines and the photos convey the shock in reporting the news.

The Newseum didn’t just show history. It also offered a sobering view of the current status of free press around the world. A world map lights up green (freedom of the press), yellow (partial freedom), and red (no freedom of the press). Green is not the majority color. And if that isn’t a wakeup call, then the Journalists Memorial is an ear-splitting alarm. Reporting the news can be a dangerous job whether you’re reporting wars or you’re reporting on governments that don’t value transparency. Over 2,300 journalists around the world have died on the job. 

Any doubts about the important role journalists play in society are quickly erased in the Bloomberg News Gallery, a collection of non-print news from radio to the Internet. I settle into a chair and watch television footage of 9-11 and the Oklahoma City bombing. I witness change agents in action from the mid-1960s—James Meredith getting shot during his March against Fear and the Freedom Riders exposing segregation.

Weighed down by the seriousness, I find some lightness at the NBC News Interactive Newsroom, where children of all ages sit in the broadcaster’s seat to deliver the news on camera. The power of television is demonstrated once again with the Jon Stewart exhibit. News has been delivered with a dose of comedy since the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour of the late 1960s. Excerpts of it are running along with clips from Saturday Night Live, the Stephen Colbert Show, and of course, The Daily Show.  All showed me what an impact comedy has had in introducing people to current events. Yes, sometimes you have to laugh at the absurdity of it all, and then you take steps to learn more about issues that affect you.

At the end of December, the Newseum will no longer stand guard on Pennsylvania Avenue. It is closing its doors. This non-profit museum just doesn’t have the numbers of visitors it needs to sustain itself. It faces intense competition from the Smithsonian museums—all free—standing just hundreds of feet away along the National Mall.

The Newseum is rumored to reopen its doors in another city someday. I doubt it will have the same impact that it does on 555 Pennsylvania Avenue. I hope I’m wrong. We need this reminder of patriotism in action.

Until then, if you have the opportunity to visit the Newseum, I strongly recommend it. Just look for these words– Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

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The World All Lit Up

Sometime you can be aware of something without comprehending its significance. That describes my relationship with Christmas lights to a T. The Christmas lights of my youth don’t hold an important place my memories. I remember outside lights being much larger than present day bulbs. Smaller lights decorated the Christmas tree in our living room. More memorable was that the home we lived in longest during my childhood had a vast living room where the tree resided, but the fireplace was in the family room where the stockings were hung by the chimney with care. Each Christmas morning would find us around the tree opening gifts and forgetting about the stockings that were in another room. But when we remembered, it was like extending the Christmas joy a little longer.

Holiday lights

Out in the world, holiday lights were just something that happened during a specific time of year, like the leaves changing colors in the autumn. Until one year at a youth shelter where I first did a practicum and later worked during graduate school.

On occasion, we took our teenage residents out. Often for a change of scenery like a park. Sometimes hiking. Perhaps to the movies if we could find a theater willing to donate admission. One year, we went to see Christmas lights. Our youth shelter van joined a line of cars snaking through a well-appointed neighborhood far from the neighborhoods most of our teens grew up. I was amazed by the number of hoses with lovely and sometimes elaborate light displays. And even more amazed by the people dedicating an evening to viewing them. It added to that holiday feeling that warms you no matter the temperature outdoors.

Thanks to Thomas Edison’s invention of the light bulb, which he patented in 1880, holiday lights are a major industry today. Approximately 150 million light sets are sold in the United States each year, joining the millions brought out from closets and attics after the Thanksgiving meal is over for another year. Festive lights adorn 80 million homes, not to mention businesses and commercial displays. Each December, these holiday decorations consume 6 percent of the nation’s electrical load.

The Germans introduced Christmas trees or the Tannenbaum. By the latter half of the 19th century, the Christmas tree industry was in full swing. Decorated with ornaments, the tree became even more exceptional when lit. The first Christmas tree lights were candles. Can anyone say fire hazard?

outdoor tree with lights

Edward Hibberd Johnson, an associate of Edison’s, had an AHA moment. He hand-wired 80 red, white and blue light bulbs together and strung them around a Christmas tree. The idea caught on, particularly once electricity became easily available. In in 1894, President Cleveland put electric lights on the White House tree. As lights became more affordable in the 1940s and 1950s, people began putting them up on their houses, and a trend was born.

When my children were young, we journeyed to see the best regional light displays. It was an event that almost always included hot chocolate. On the home front, I would climb on top of the house and put up our own lights. Not a display worthy of a line of cars, just a nod of recognition to the season.

Bricktown Canal holiday boat ride

These days, I’m not as eager to crawl around on the roof, so the lights adorn my front porch instead. I’ve added canal boat rides to my lights itinerary. The Riverwalk in San Antonio, and most recently, Bricktown in Oklahoma City. There’s something about the lights reflecting in the water that makes it ok to crowd into a boat with a couple of dozen strangers.

Perhaps what holiday lights do is remind us to stop and take notice. It really is the most magical time of the year.

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Women and Computer Science

Typically when I’m researching one of my female subjects for STEM books, I have to hunt hard for women in the early days of a particular field. In the history of sciences, women’s work was often appropriated by husbands or other males. Women scientists spent incredible energy fighting for the right to even attend college. Then they had to fight for jobs and membership into professional societies. They constantly fought for recognition…to be taken seriously. With all these uphill battles, you wonder how they had the energy to discover anything.

Imagine my surprise when I was researching “Gutsy Girls Go for Science: Programmers” to find that not one, but two of the first names in programming belonged to women! In 1843, Ada Lovelace published the first computer program. It was for the analytical engine, a mechanical general purpose computer designed by Charles Babbage.

A century later, Grace Hopper becomes the chief programmer for the Mark I, an electromechanical computer used by the military to program rocket trajectories and solve engineering problems. She wrote the first programming manual—500 pages on the Mark I. Later, she developed the first compiler, a translator that turned human commands into computer-speak. She also led a team to develop an early programming language for business, COBOL.

In 1946, the first electronic computer was created. The ENIAC ushered in the modern age of computing. When it was unveiled, it became a major news story featuring physicist John Mauchly and electrical engineer J. Presper Eckert. The news ignored the ENIAC programmers, but if you look in the background of the photos, you can see some of these six women.

So, how did the face of computer programming become a young white male? In the early days of computing, men were interested in the hardware—the circuits, wires, and drives. But all that changed with the advent of the PC in the 1980s. People realized that the BRAINS for the computer was in the programming…the code. Suddenly, programming became a men’s club.

Research shows that around age 12 both boys and girls have a similar level of interest in computer science. The problem is that females are half as likely to be encouraged to pursue it by both teachers and parents. While females make up 56% of all AP test takers, only 19% take the Computer Science AP Test. While women earn 57% of all undergraduate degrees, only 18% of computer and information science degrees are earned by women.

It’s Computer Science Education Week as I write this. Change is happening, and efforts need to continue. Consider this:

  • Females who take the AP Computer Science exam are 46% more likely to become a Computer Science major.
  • Females who are encouraged in technology and see representations of females in technology are more likely to be Computer Scientists.
  • The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that next year will see more than 1.4 million computing-related job openings. At current rates in computer science education, only 30% of those jobs can be filled.

We must continue to expose girls to computer science at all ages. Yes, diversity matters. And yes, this is what’s fair and right. Even more, our future technology depends on the inclusion of females.

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Storytelling Beginnings from Native American Cultures

For writers, it’s all about the story. We tell stories, whether it’s about a murder, planning a trip to Santa Fe, or a boy wizard conquering evil. They are all stories. And while readers read for multiple reasons—to learn, reduce stress, build skills, improve vocabulary—ultimately it’s the story that draws us in and keeps us interested.

Long before we had keyboards, typewriters, or writing implements to pen our stories, storytelling was already a rich tradition in Native American cultures. Oral storytelling could be dramatic or humorous. Both villains and heroes were present. Stories had plot points that moved the story along. And themes? These stories explained the world and how to live a good life.

native storyteller with young children

Because storytelling was so valued, tribal culture and beliefs was passed down from generation to generation. Listeners remembered the entertaining stories that explained who they were and where they came from. Like any great allegory, Native American storytelling helped listeners understand how to survive and thrive. For the educators out there, look at the effectiveness of this form of pedagogy. Wow!

There are thousands of Native American tribes, each with a distinct culture, traditions, and language. Yet many share common threads in storytelling. Here are a few I most enjoy.

Creation myths

Actually, creation myths aren’t unique to Native American culture. Greek, Roman, and Nordic cultures also had stories about how the world came to be. Wanting to know where we came from is Human Curiosity 101.

Is the earth a great island suspended by four cords hanging from the sky? Did the Eagle mold the first human out of clay? Perhaps the gods Tepeu and Quetzalcoatl thought the physical world into being, and then wanting to be praised, created people from clay and wood. When these beings angered the gods, did the gods sent a great flood to take them away before starting over again? Did the Ant People help keep the Hopi from starvation?

One of my favorites is the Iroquois creation story and perhaps why I have such an affinity for turtles. When Sky Woman was pushed from the sky by an angry husband, the animals caught her. Little Toad gathered mud from the bottom of the ocean in his mouth. The animals took this mud and spread it over the back of Big Turtle. The mud spread and became North America. Sky Woman stepped onto the land, then created the stars, moon, and the sun.

Listen to a creation story.

Anthropomorphism

Anything can be a protagonist or antagonist in a Native American tale, including elements of nature or the gods. They talk. They feel compassion or anger. But the majority of anthropomorphic characters were animals. And they taught lessons, like how conceit or vanity should be avoided. When Coyote felt invincible, he decided he could dance with a star. He ended up burning up.

Have you ever heard the story of Possum’s tail? Once upon a time, possum had a long, silky tail. He was very proud of his beautiful tail and made sure everyone knew it. The other animals soon tired of hearing about it. Rabbit told Possum he was invited as an honored guest at a council meeting, but suggested Possum clean his tail so it looked its best. After spreading a special medicine on the tail, Rabbit wrapped it in snake skin. Rabbit left instructions to leave the snake skin on until the council meeting. When Possum arrived at the council meeting, he ceremoniously unwrapped his tail and all the hair fell off. Possum fell to the ground and pretended to be dead, which he still does to this day. We’ve all heard of “playing possum.”

Listen to this animal tale.

Trickster

As you can probably guess, Trickster played tricks, but he was so much more than that. He was incredibly sharp, and he enjoyed creating chaos. Trickster could be any animal. In Lakota culture, the Trickster was a spider named Inktomi. Trickster caused a split between the Sun god and the Moon god, which led to night and day.

Often, Trickster is a coyote, seen as a sly and devious creature. Yet even though Trickster is smart, someone can usually find a way to thwart Trickster. A common theme is that by working together, we can adapt and survive.

Learn about Te Ata.

Today, we may view stories as entertainment and escapism. But remember that stories are so much more than that. They teach us about ourselves and our world. And ultimately, they teach us how to survive and be better people. Here’s hoping you discover some wonderful stories this Native American Heritage Month.

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