Women’s History Month 3/7/22

Thoughts with Richard Bleil

Today I learned that, since 1987, March has been designated as National Women’s History Month.  Who knew?  It seems ironic that we’re discussing women’s HIStory, but there it is anyway.  And it’s fair.  Women have played an enormous role in history, but much of their contribution has been assigned to men, overshadowed, ignored or just denied.  Women themselves, even today, are treated as inferior and second-class citizens, and frankly it’s time we stopped. 

We probably all know a few notable famous examples of important women.  I’ll not pretend to be able to list them all, but my favorite example must be Madame Curie (a movie based on her life is available on some streaming movie channels).  Early in the twentieth century, Marie Curie worked with her husband in their laboratory in Paris on radioactive elements.  She was, by all accounts, the talent in the research, but being a man, he received the glory.  Some accounts have him trying to get recognition for her, but to little avail.  In 1906, Pierre died not from radiation, but rather from a horse and carriage accident.  She continued her research and being known in the scientific community continued presenting her findings at the science societies, eventually gaining the notoriety that she so rightfully earned.

Not every female scientist was recognized as widely as Ms. Curie.  Rosalind Franklin was a biochemist in the mid-20th century.   Her X-Ray crystallography of DNA revealed the true structure of DNA, a mystery so elusive that even Linus Pauling (brilliant chemist) took a stab at it and failed.  Scientists point out that it might have been a case of being too involved to see what was in front of her, but most agree that she would have figured it out.  A copy of her work was inappropriately given to Watson and Crick who immediately saw what it meant and were the first to publish the correct structure.  It is very possible that she would have shared the Nobel Prize with the two, but she died in 1958, four years before the Nobel was presented to Watson and Crick, and as a policy, the Nobel Prize is not presented posthumously.  For many years, only Watson and Crick were mentioned in science textbooks with regards to DNA structure, although modern textbooks do a better job of referring to Ms. Franklin today.

Not all influential and important women are restricted to science.  For two years, German Dutch born Anne Frank had to hide from the Nazis because she was Jewish.  She was captured in 1944, at fifteen, and died a year later.  During the years of hiding, she maintained a personal diary documenting her experiences during the Nazi occupation, which was subsequently turned into a book and published posthumously in 1947.  This is a remarkable story of courage, and there is no way that she could have known her diary would be published, and yet, today in the face of the rise of the neo-Nazis and holocaust deniers, it is a critical reminder to our society of the atrocities of fascism especially in the face of the invasion of the Ukraine.  I doubt that she ever thought of her actions as brave, but her influence is still felt today.

The reality is that women are extremely courageous.  Amelia Earhart has been called one of the first female aviators, which in and of itself was quite an accomplishment, but it was not enough.  Throughout her career, she constantly sought longer journeys as a single pilot.  Finally, in 1937 she was lost in her last fateful journey.  At the time, the US was not at war in the Pacific, but tensions were growing with the Japanese empire.  Nobody had suggested that she was shot down by Japan (although maybe), but recently a photo has surfaced which shows a woman in the background (assuming it had not been tampered) that looks strikingly like Amelia in a Japanese controlled island.  It is possible that she did survive the trip but could not get off of the island (or was not allowed to leave or try to communicate).

Throughout history, and even today, women have been marginalized.  When women could not join the army or fight, they put themselves in harms way in service of those who did fight, as nurses, delivering food, and even entertaining the troops.  Some women hid their gender to participate in fighting, or, in the case of Mary Shelley, just to write and get published.  Often working from the shadows, what influence and support did Elanor Roosevelt, or Michell Obama, or other first ladies (or wives of congressmen) provide.  Yes, women do deserve a month of recognition.  Hell, they actually deserve at least a century of recognition for all they have done.

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