We may just be two months into 2018, but if social media and award shows are any indication, this is the Year of the Woman. Powered by the #MeToo movement that is educating the world about the prevalence of sexual harassment and sexual assault, women are standing up to be counted and have their voices heard.
Although #MeToo first became newsworthy because of the voices of famous (and largely white) actresses, #MeToo actually began 12 years ago by a woman of color, Tarana Burke. Burke, also a victim of sexual assault, wanted to help other women and girls, particularly those of color.
What does that have to do with Women’s History? Yes, I digress, but I believe Burke should get credit for her work and a phrase that has led to a movement. I also like using the word “digress.”
However, there really is a connection, and it is this—when women start reclaiming their power, they can start looking at history with new eyes. They can see that history is full of amazing stories of courageous and fascinating women. Sometimes we need to dig a little deeper because often women’s contributions to science and history were either largely ignored or credit was given to the husbands.
Here are just a few of the many examples of this that I’ve come across in my research as a writer—
- James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins won the Nobel Prize in physiology/medicine in 1962 for their discovery of DNA structure. A crucial part of the discovery came from an X-ray diffraction image showing the structure of DNA. It was taken by chemist Rosalind Franklin, who died in 1958. Nobel Foundation statues dictate that the Nobel can’t be given to anyone who died before award winners are announced. Which means Franklin’s contribution was anonymous for a long time while Watson and Frick became household words to anyone working in cell science. Interestingly, the Nobel statues also say a prize can’t be divided between more than three people. If Franklin had lived, who would NOT have received the Nobel Prize in 1962?
- Anne Morrow Lindbergh was an accomplished aviator in her own right. But she went through life identified as the wife of Charles Lindbergh.
- Lynn Margulis was an American biologist who proposed the endosymbiotic theory in 1971. The theory states that eukaryotic organisms (composed of cells with nuclei) evolve through symbiotic relationships with other cells. She was dismissed as a kook. As molecular and cellular biology advanced, she was proven right and awarded the 1999 National Medal of Science.
- The field of paleontology grew in the 1800s due the efforts of a young woman who lived in poverty, Mary Anning. She discovered some of the first ichthyosaurs and other species on the coast of England, rarely receiving credit.
- Ada Lovelace wrote the first computer program.
- Informally they’re known as the Mercury 13, after a great book by Martha Ackmann. This group of women underwent astronaut training in the late 50s and early 60s. Several of them performed better than the Mercury 7 astronauts during testing, yet the final decision was that women didn’t belong in space.
- Mary Leakey was another accomplished paleontologist, often overshadowed by her husband and later one of her son’s, also scientists. She discovered the first fossilized Proconsul skull, an ancestor to humans, and the earliest known human footprints.
- Grace Hopper was one of the first programmers of the modern computer and wrote the first compiler, COBOL, and other programs.
- Thanks to women, the United States continued operations during World War II as men of draft age were called into service. Women tested and transported new airplanes. They monitored the weather for government weather agencies. They ran new computer devices and kept the factories operational. Approximately five million women entered the workforce between 1940-1945 and performed the jobs that needed doing. And even though they performed their jobs well, many were fired when the war ended.
To paraphrase something said before—Women’s History is Everyone’s History.