Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Women's History, Day by Day

The Monstrous Regiment of Women Daybook Launches 1 January 2015

Beginning on Thursday, I hope to post a brief essay or note every day for the entire year--365 posts documenting women's history and women's accomplishments. 

Not Women's History Day (International Women's Day was first celebrated in 1911), not Women's History Week (first proclaimed by Jimmy Carter in 1980), not even Women's History Month (first designated by Congress in 1987). But an entire damn year of women's history.

Check back . . . 

Monday, December 1, 2014

Remembering Rosalind Franklin--and Forgetting James Watson

A Case Study of the Difficulties Faced by Women in Science

As The Guardian reports today, the Nobel-prize winning scientist James Watson--who is also a notable racist and sexist bigot--is having to sell his Nobel medal because he is "poor." He is quoted as saying that, despite his "academic income," he is so poor in fact that he can't afford to buy a David Hockney painting. (In 2009, a Hockney painting sold at auction for £5,235,328, so I'm pretty sure most people can't afford paintings by Hockney.)

Although Watson has brought all his problems on himself, he still feels he is misunderstood--as reported in the Financial Times, "Mr Watson, who shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for uncovering the double helix structure of DNA, sparked an outcry in 2007 when he suggested that people of African descent were inherently less intelligent than white people." To Watson's surprise, he became an "unperson"; or, as he says, "no one really wants to admit I exist." 

Unfortunately, Watson's 2007 comments are just part of a much longer history. As Laura Helmuth writes, Watson has a history of making "ignorant" and "prejudiced" comments, in particular racist and sexist comments, throughout his career. For Watson's bigotry, and for the "outcry" about it that he decries, you can check out the stories in the Financial Times or in The Guardian (where the headline says Watson "deserves to be shunned"). My interest here isn't in wasting more time on Watson but on taking this opportunity to remember the crucial work of Rosalind Franklin. 

Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins, and Watson were jointly awarded the Nobel prize in 1962 for their "discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material." But their contributions to understanding the structure of DNA were based on Rosalind Franklin's research. As The Guardian notes, "The story of the unveiling of the double helix is messy and complex, just like all biology. It has been pored over and studied and embellished and mythologised. But simply, the race was won by Crick and Watson, and in April 1953 they revealed to the world the iconic double helix. The key evidence, however, Photo 51, was produced by Rosalind Franklin and Ray Gosling, at King’s College London. Franklin’s skill at the technique known as X-ray crystallography was profound, and was indubitably essential to the discovery. Crick and Watson acquired the photo without her knowledge" (emphasis added).

For many years Franklin's contributions were largely unrecognized--they may have been acknowledged or understood among some in the scientific community, but they were not widely known. And Franklin's untimely death of ovarian cancer in 1958, when she was just thirty-seven years old, contributed to her obscurity. 

The first real public acknowledgment of Franklin's contribution was made by Watson, in his 1968 autobiography The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA. There, as The Guardian reports, Watson "patronisingly refers to Franklin as 'Rosy' throughout, despite there being no evidence that anyone else ever did. Here’s a sample of how he described her in the first few pages: 'Though her features were strong, she was not unattractive, and might have been quite stunning had she taken even a mild interest in clothes. This she did not.'''

And here is what Watson had to say about Franklin some forty years later, in a 2007 interview:
He smiles. "Rosalind is my cross," he says slowly. "I'll bear it. I think she was partially autistic." He pauses for a while, before repeating the suggestion, as if to make it clear that this is no off-the-cuff insult, but a considered diagnosis. "I'd never really thought of scientists as autistic until this whole business of high-intelligence autism came up. There is probably no other explanation for Rosalind's behaviour.”

Rosalind Franklin's English Heritage plaque
was placed in 1992
outside the Chelsea home she occupied,

Watson's reduction of Franklin to the diminutive "Rosy" in his autobiography, his sexist references to her appearance and clothing there, and his failure to acknowledge sufficiently her critical contributions to his work inspired Anne Sayre's corrective, Rosalind Franklin and DNA, published in 2000.

The last three decades have brought Franklin the recognition she so richly deserves; for those of us who are not scientists, the PBS Nova broadcast from 2003, Secret of Photo 51, offers an excellent introduction. The program website offers biographical information, articles, interviews, and online galleries and slideshows. Of particular note is an interview with Lynne Osman Elkin on Franklin's legacy. (You can watch the original Nova episode on YouTube by clicking here.)

I might also recommend Brenda Maddox's Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA for its analysis of the sexism, egotism, and anti-Semitism that Franklin faced. Beyond her particular case, you might also check out Julie des Jardins' The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science. There is a chapter on Franklin, subtitled "The Politics of Partners and Prizes in the Heroic Age of Science."

Over the last few years, while increasing focus has been on Franklin, I've heard a fair number of people try to excuse Watson by saying that all the attention on Franklin is misplaced, since she couldn't have been included in the Nobel because the scientists weren't recognized until 1962, after Franklin's death, and the Nobel is never awarded posthumously. That's not the issue at all--the issue isn't whether she "won" a Nobel, but whether her life and work have been recognized, or whether she, like so many women, has simply been written out of history. 

Thankfully, that has not happened. 

So too bad for poor James Watson.

Update, 5 December 2014: As has been widely reported, Watson's medal sold for $4.1 million at the Christie's auction.

Update, 9 December 2014: Again, as it has been widely reported, the anonymous buyer of Watson's Nobel medal has revealed himself as Alisher Usmanov, described by Forbes as the "richest man in Russia." Usmanov has has accumulated a fortune estimated at $15.8 billion, garnered through steel and mining interests, telecom interests, and "investments." Usmanov plans to return the medal to Watson. Maybe Watson will be able to sell it again.

Update, 22 February 2018: For a fascinating discussion of the life, career, and contributions of Rosalind Franklin, you may want to listen to this In Our Time podcast, "Rosalind Franklin."

Update, 1 January 2019: One more, in the continuing "Ugh" that is James Watson--this time on Watson and race. From The New York Times: Amy Harmon, "James Watson Had a Chance to Salvage His Reputation on Race. . . .

Update, 25 April 2023: An excellent new report on Rosa Franklin's contribution to the discovery of DNA. I'm linking here to the article by Emily Anthes in today's New York Times, "Untangling Rosalind Franklin’s Role in DNA Discovery, 70 Years On." 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Women and the 2014 Election

Women and the 114th Congress--Good News, Sorta (Or Is It Bad News?)

The Center for American Women and Politics (Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey) has issued its "Election Watch" report for the 2014 election: "2014: Not a Landmark Year for Women, Despite Some Notable Firsts." While there is some improvement in representation for women, the pace is glacial. 

So, first, the good news: "At least 101 women--and possibly as many as 105--will serve in the 114th Congress" (CAWP). And then the bad: even with 20 women in the Senate and 81 in the House, women will still hold only 18.5 percent of the combined 535 seats in the U.S. Congress. If all five women whose races have not yet been decided (1 in the Senate and 3 in the House of Representatives) are ultimately elected, this percentage could climb all the way to 19.5 percent.

By way of contrast, there were 99 women serving in the 113th Congress, 20 in the Senate and 79 in the House.
This graph is from Slate's report on the election
The figures for statewide elective office aren't cause for much optimism either. While the highest rate of representative for women in statewide elective offices is 41.1 percent (Vermont), the lowest rates are grim (South Carolina, 10 percent; Louisiana, 12.5 percent; Oklahoma, 13.4 percent). 

As Gail Collins notes in her post-election op-ed, "Always Look on the Bright Side," at its current rate of growth, American women can expect to achieve equality of representation "sometime around 2078." That's about twenty years after women might finally achieve equal pay: the Institute for Women's Policy Research calculates that, if change continues at the same slow pace it has since the passage of the 1963 Equal Pay Act, it will take another fifty years, until 2058, for women to finally reach pay parity. 

Unlike Collins, I pretty much never look on the bright side.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

On Ada Lovelace Day: Trota of Salerno

Celebrating Ada Lovelace Day, 14 October 2014: Trota and The Trotula

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, described by its sponsoring organization as "an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM)." As part of the worldwide event, we are all encouraged to write about an inspirational woman and her achievements in one of the STEM fields.

A female medical practitioner, likely Trotula
(MS 544, Miscellanea Medica XVIII,
from Wellcome Collection, London)
To that end, I'd like to contribute the name of Trota of Salerno, a twelfth-century physician and medical writer.

Although her achievements--and even her existence--were disputed for centuries, Trota is now recognized as the most famous of the mulieres Salernitanae ("women of Salerno") known to have practiced medicine in Salerno in the Middle Ages. 

According to Monica H. Green, "Trota and her medical practices are attested by three distinct textual sources." The first of these is Practical Medicine According to Trota (Practica secundum Trotam), "a compendium of seventy-one different remedies for gynecological and obstetric conditions," and includes a wide variety of treatments for other, more general, medical problems, from lice and burns to toothache, hemorrhoids, and fever.

The "second witness" to Trota's medical expertise is On the Treatment of Illnesses (De egritudinum curatione), an anthology that includes the work of seven medical writers, including Trota. The third text associated with Trota is The Treatments for Women (De curis mulierum); Green suggests this volume may well be "a transcript of Trota's cures as she orally recounted them to a scribe, who then added further elements of his/her choosing."

Trota's name ultimately came to be associated with a group of three crucial medical texts devoted to women's healthcare, known collectively as "the Trotula." From the twelfth through the fourteenth centuries, the Trotula circulated widely throughout western Europe; today, nearly two hundred manuscript versions survive. A definitive edition and translation of these texts is Green's The Trotula: An English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women's Medicine. Her introduction includes information about the twelfth-century "school" of Salerno and its role as a center for medical study, information about "pre-Salernitan Gynecology," and a well-detailed discussion of women practicing medicine in Salerno in the twelfth century. 

Justine Siegemund, from the 1723 edition of her handbook
On this day celebrating the achievements of women in science, three other women practicing gynecology and obstetrics might also be mentioned here. 

Jane Sharp, a seventeenth-century English midwife, published The Midwives Book; Or the Whole Art of Midwifery Discovered in London in 1671. 

Some twenty years later, in 1690, the German midwife Justine Siegemund published The Court Midwife. (To view a digital copy of the 1723 edition; click here.)

And, last but not least is Sarah Stone, an English midwife who published A Complete Practice in Midwifery in 1737. You can read her early eighteenth-century handbook, filled with case studies, here.

Update, 28 October 2023: I just ran across Isabella Gagliardi's "How the Middle Ages' Female Doctors Were Consigned to Oblivion," posted earlier this year at The Conversation. It includes a reference to Trota as well as other women who studied at Salerno's Schola Medica Salernitana.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Women Writers and the New York Times Book Review

"Women in Power," New York Times Book Review, Sunday, 12 October 2014

Today's "Special Issue" of the Times Book Review is, as its title proclaims, "special": "special," in this case, meaning that it focuses on books by women. The "Fiction" section looks at one novel by a woman, Caitlin Moran's How to Build a Girl, reviewed by Anne Friedman, and includes the "Shortlist," reviewer Meghan Daum's quick view of three novels by women, Rebecca Makkai's The Hundred Year House, Susan Croll's The Stager, and Margaret Bradham Thornton's Charleston.

The "Nonfiction" reviews also feature works by women, including, among them, Katha Pollitt's Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights and Joan Biskupic's Breaking In: The Rise of Sonia Sotomayor and the Politics of Justice, as well as Jonathan Eig's book on "women's" issues, The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution (in addition to Margaret Sanger, Eig's "four crusaders" include Gregory Goodwin Pincus, John Rock, and Katharine McCormick). There is also an interesting "Author's Note" by Alexander Chee, "Gender Genre," responding to several recent calls to "read more women this year." Chee writes, "In 1988, at the age of 20, I stopped reading men and read only women for a period that lasted almost three years." These days it evidently takes a hashtag to encourage readers to read women writers?*  

Not that this effort to highlight books by women is problematic. Who would complain? But why do we need #Readwomen2014 or a "special" issue? Why can't reading work by women be normal, regular, routine, the way things are and should be? This week's NYT fiction bestseller list ("Hard Cover Best Sellers"), for example, includes 8 books by women writers among the top 15. The nonfiction list is less balanced, with 10 books by men, 3 by women, and 3 coauthored by a pair of writers, one man and one woman. (Books by Joan Rivers and Hampton Sides are tied for the fifteenth spot.) So why does writing about women's work require a "special" issue? Why do we have to enlist Twitter to normalize reading books by women? 

It's not that readers, male and female, aren't reading books by women. It's that their work still isn't being reviewed adequately and sufficiently, and that women still aren't afforded enough opportunities for reviewing the work of others, work written by men as well as other women. As the latest VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts count illustrates, women are making some, but not enough, progress:
Each year women from across the country dedicate thousands of combined hours to perform an arduous task: we manually, painstakingly tally the gender disparity in major literary publications and book reviews.We break down thirty-nine literary journals and well-respected periodicals, counting genre, book reviewers, books reviewed, and journalistic bylines to offer an accurate assessment of the publishing world.
We were not surprised to find that men dominate the pages of venues that are known to further one’s career.
The VIDA Count, annual since 2010, has not only effected change in the publishing industry, but has also created a strong community of writers and advocates who stand with us. There is much more work to be done.
With our annual VIDA Count we offer up concrete data and assure women authors (and wayward editors) that the sloped playing field is not going unnoticed. We ignite and fan the flames of necessary discourse. Our literary community can only benefit from a range of voices.**
VIDA notes that the Times gender disparities have "significantly" improved in its latest count, but there is still quite a way to go:

From the 2014 VIDA Count

A weekly Book Review issue that pays attention to women writers and that affords women writers the opportunity to review the work of others should be normal, not "special."

*Update, 12 October 2015: And now even the hashtag is dead!!!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Ada Lovelace, Women in Math and Technology, and Walter Isaacson

"The Women Tech Forgot"???

In today's New York Times, Nick Bilton's brief piece, "The Women Tech Forgot," is inspired by the forthcoming publication of Walter Isaacson's The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. Isaacson seems to have been inspired to write his book, at least in part, by his daughter, through whom he was introduced to the English mathematician, Ada Lovelace.

Any focus on women who have been written out of history, their achievements and inventions either forgotten or credited to others, is always welcome. And the diminishing role of women in technical fields is stark. As Bilton notes:
The exclusion of these women has not only reinforced stereotypes about women and technology, but has arguably had a self-fulfilling effect. In 1985, 37 percent of computer science undergraduate degrees were earned by women. By 2010, that number had fallen by half to 18 percent. 
While Isaacson's book will include an account of Ada Lovelace, as well as making some mention of the women who worked Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) program in the mid-twentieth century, there are a couple of problems with Bilton's otherwise welcome piece. 

First, its focus on Isaacson's forthcoming book is a bit problematic--there is no available table of contents to see exactly how much of this book about "hackers," "geniuses," and "geeks" is actually about women. The cover itself is interesting and perhaps illustrative--the images feature four people, only one of them female (Lovelace).

If the purpose of Bilton's piece is to introduce readers to women's roles in science and technology, there are many terrific books out there that are actually about the role of women in science and technology, including Vivian Gornick's Women in Science: Then and Now, Julie des Jardins's The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science, and Emma Ideal and Rhiannon Meharchand's Blazing the Trail: Essays by Leading Women in Science. And that's just for starters. Autumn Stanley's Mothers and Daughters of Invention: Notes for a Revised History of Technology, first published in 1995, is still in print, nearly twenty years later.

(Meanwhile, even Wikipedia has extensive entries for Ada Lovelace and all of the women who worked on the ENIAC program, among them Kathleen McNulty Antonelli, Betty Jean Jennings Bartik, Adele Katz Goldstine, Betty Snyder Holberton, Marilyn Meltzer, Frances Bilas Spence, and Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum. Bartik told her own story in  Pioneer Programmer, published in 2013. And there is also an excellent new documentary telling the story of these women, The Computers, produced by the ENIAC Programmers Project.)

Again, it's hard to tell exactly how much of Isaacson's book is actually about women in science and technology, but Bilton seems to regard Isaacson's ignorance about Ada Lovelace as indicative of her "lost" status. "While some in tech may know of her," Bilton concludes, Lovelace "is far from a household name." Despite Bilton's unfamiliarity--and Isaacson's--I find it hard to believe any university student studying computer science today wouldn't have heard of Ada Lovelace--according to Bilton's own piece, Isaacson's daughter Betsy was writing her college entrance essay about Lovelace! The US Department of Defense named its computer programming language Ada in her honor--it was first released in 1980. Lovelace is a figure who appears frequently in pop culture, Ada Lovelace Day has been celebrated internationally since 2009, the Ada Initiative, founded in 2011, was named after her, and she was even honored with her own Google Doodle in 2012!

But the bigger problem--and a real howler--is the place this piece occupies in the Times. This article about "the women that tech forgot" is not included in the Technology section or the Science section or even among the book reviews. Bilton's essay about how women in science are either ignored or forgotten is printed in the Fashion and Style section--because, you know, women. Yeesh!

Isaacson's may well be an inclusive book, going far to reintegrate women into the history of "the digital revolution." But if you're interested in reading about women in science, there are many other excellent resources--and you can easily find them with a few tools produced by that digital revolution--with Google and a few clicks of your mouse.

Update: Brendan Koerner's review of Isaacson's The Innovators appears in the Sunday, 5 September NYT Book Review (BR 13). Among the "hackers, geniuses, and geeks," Korner mentions only one woman in his review, Ada Lovelace. And while his review is accompanied by a 1943 photo of ENIAC programmers Bartik and Spence, he mentions only John Mauchly and John Atanasoff's "bitter patent fight" in his discussion of Isaacson's book.

The table of contents of The Innovators is now available via Amazon. The table of contents notes Ada Lovelace in the opening and closing chapters. Under "women" in the index, there are only two entries: "as ENIAC programmers, 95-100, 117" and "math doctorates received by, 88." There is a fair amount of coverage of Grace Hopper, a pioneering computer programmer, 88-95 and 117-18, with a few additional scattered references. And Bill Gates's mom, Mary, gets a shout-out on p. 361. And so it goes . . .

By the way . . . Ada Lovelace day is coming soon--Tuesday, 14 October. You can honor the "women tech forgot" by checking out the events at the website Finding Ada 

Monday, September 29, 2014

Gloria Steinem and Rutgers University

Rutgers University and an Endowed Chair for Gloria Steinem

Rutgers announced today its campaign to create an endowed chair named for and in honor of feminist Gloria Steinem. From Rutgers Today, 29 September 2014:
Rutgers has launched a campaign to create an endowed chair named for Gloria Steinem – one of  the most prominent modern American feminists – that will focus on the creative and complex ways information technology and new media are reshaping culture and power relationships. 
The Gloria Steinem Endowed Chair in Media, Culture and Feminist Studies will be a unique collaboration among Rutgers' Institute for Women's Leadership, School of Communications and Information, and Department of Women’s and Gender Studies at the School of Arts and Sciences.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Prudence Crandall, Education, and Integration

Honoring Prudence Crandall

Tammy LaGorce's piece in today's New York Times, "Honoring a Teacher Who Fought for Equality," not only offers a profile of Prudence Crandall, it also highlights the museum dedicated to her and her work, the Prudence Crandall Museum in Canterbury, Connecticut.

Prudence Crandall
Born in 1803, Crandall opened the Canterbury Female Boarding School in 1831. But, as LaGorce notes, rather than teaching her young pupils "traditionally female skills like needlework, Crandall taught chemistry, geography and, generally, the kinds of rigorous coursework presented at mid-19th century boys’ schools."

In the fall of 1832, Crandall integrated her school, enrolling Sarah Harris, an African American girl, as a student. The parents of her other pupils reacted with hostility, but rather than expelling Harris, Crandall decided instead to open a school for African American girls. Miss Crandall's School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color opened in 1833 with some twenty students from Boston, New York, and Philadelphia in addition to students, like Harris, from the state of Connecticut. 

The resulting furor led to the passage of the state's so-called Black Law, which made it illegal to teach students of color from outside the state. Crandall's commitment to integration, despite arrest, legal actions, and persecution, led to a series of trials. Although a decision against Crandall and her school was eventually reversed, Crandall's school was repeatedly vandalized. In 1834, Crandall closed it permanently.

There is an excellent article on Crandall at the National Women's History Museum website; to access that essay, click here.

A number of letters and documents related to Crandall and her school are available at the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, & Abolition; to access them, click here.

An advertisement announcing Crandall's School for African American Girls

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Mary Beard Takes on Internet Trolls

"The Troll Slayer"

The 1 September 2014 New Yorker has a wonderful profile of classicist Mary Beard. The piece, written by Rebecca Mead, is titled "The Troll Slayer," and subtitled "A Cambridge Classicist Takes on Her Sexist Detractors." (For a link to the piece, click here.)

Mary Beard, image from the New Yorker article
The New Yorker profile begins with a reference to Beard's February 2014 London Review of Books lecture at the British Museum, a lecture on the silencing of women's voices in western culture, "'Oh Do Shut Up Dear': The Public Voice of Women." You can get a sense of the presentation from the two clips available at the BBC Radio Four website.

But you can listen to the entire lecture and read the complete text at the London Review of Books website--which offers a free sample access. To listen and/or read, click here.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Women in the American Civil War?

Karen Abbott's Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War

Trained as a medievalist, I spent my professional career teaching, researching, and writing about western European literature and history from Homer through Mary Astell. When this daybook begins with daily entries, my posts will reflect my own background  and areas of expertise.

But I relish the opportunities for widening my horizons and learning more about women's history--I've just enjoyed listening to an hour-long interview with writer Karen Abbott, whose own work focuses on the American Civil War. Her new book, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, details the exploits of four women whose roles are representative of the ways many women played a significant part in the conflict. 

Abolitionist and Spy Elizabeth Van Lew
Abbott's liar, temptress, soldier, and spy are Belle Boyd, Rose O'Neal Greenhow, Sarah Emma Edmonds, and Elizabeth Van Lew. Abbot's interview with Tom Ashbrook, "A Secret History of Civil-War Women," is a fascinating recounting of the the stories of these four women--and of many other women whose stories are far less familiar than those of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, William Tecumseh Sherman, or even Harriet Tubman. Though, as I have now learned, this "secret" history of Civil War women is not-so-secret--there are many wonderful online sources and references available for those who are interested. (The National Archives has a very informative set of articles by DeAnn Blanton on women who fought as soldiers during the Civil War; to access this series, click here.)

In addition to her new book, Abbott has also recently published an engaging piece on Southern women on the homefront in The New York Times, "The Civil War and the Southern Belle" (18 August 2014).

Friday, August 29, 2014

Update . . .

In the coming months, before daily posting begins on 1 January 2015, I will be writing occasionally, noting stories of interest from the news. 

And in the mean time, if you have questions about the name of the blog, its purpose, and its inspiration, check out the pages, accessed by clicking on the links in the box to the right: "About the Title of This Blog," "About the Daybook on Women's History Project," and "Founding Mothers."

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Coming Soon . . . 

This blog is currently under construction. I have recently added information about the plan for this women's history daybook--with the project itself set to begin daily posting on 1 January 2015. 

Please check back soon!