And It’s Surely To Her Credit…

I share other bloggers’ hesitations towards Women’s History Month (and International Women’s Day). It seems, sometimes, like a sop to distract us from the ongoing problems facing women.

On the other hand, I’ll take any excuse to talk about awesome ladies.

Of course, there are way too many awesome ladies for me to possibly write about them all. This post’s theme, then, is women whose accomplishments were credited to or overshadowed by men. This is, to be clear, not always the fault of the particular men involved. But regardless of why these women have been less celebrated, let’s celebrate them now.

images of women throughout history

These women’s stories, after the cut.

Clockwise from the top left:

Annie Edson Taylor, daredevil

Annie Edson Taylor, widowed and childless, was afraid of the poorhouse – more afraid of it, it seems, than a 173 foot drop into churning, rocky water. Determined to provide for herself, she saw the fame and prize money showered on daredevils and stunters and decided to ride over Niagara Falls in a barrel. On her 63rd birthday, she did so, becoming the first person to ever survive a trip over the famous waterfall. Unfortunately, she didn’t fit the world’s image of a daredevil. Her manager absconded with her barrel and hired an actor – a brawny young man – to take her place. Although Annie’s feat is now acknowledged, she got little credit during the remainder of her life, which she spent scraping by. (You can hear a great version of her story on this RadioLab podcast.)

Jocelyn Bell Burnell, astrophysicist

Jocelyn Bell Burnell was a graduate student when she began work on the construction of a state of the art radio telescope. After two years, she began collecting data and was responsible for analyzing the 30+ meters of chart data generated each day. She noticed a strange regularity in the data, a “pulse”, and determined that it moved with the stars in the night sky – suggesting it was not man made. Bell’s discovery of pulsars had an enormous impact on the astronomical community and it was deemed worthy of a Nobel prize – one awarded to Bell’s advisor, not Bell herself. She accepted the snub with grace, saying, “After all, I am in good company, am I not!” Yes, yes you are. (Wikipedia pages for Jocelyn Bell Burnell and her good company: Lise Meitner and Rosalind Franklin. For a lovely study of underappreciated women scientists, try The Madame Curie Complex.)

Hazel Scott, actress and musician

An incredibly talented pianist who won a scholarship to Julliard at age 8, Hazel Scott went on to become a widely respected musician and one of the first black film stars. She was also the first African American to have her own television show, a title frequently credited to Nat King Cole six years later; unfortunately, she was targeted by the House Unamerican Activities Committee and her show was canceled only a few months after it began. (Watch Hazel play, read more about her.)

Dolores Huerta, union organizer

When I was little, I used to love wearing my mother’s old t-shirt, the one that demanded, “Boycott Grapes!” And yet I never knew the name Dolores Huerta – the woman who successfully organized the California grape boycott and who co-founded the National Farmworkers Association with the better known Cesar Chavez. Huerta, who was born into a farmworker community, negotiated the first collective bargaining agreement between farmworkers and their agricultural bosses. Huerta has been arrested 22 times for participating in protests and strikes, and in was severely beaten during a peaceful protest of then-president George H.W. Bush. The award from her successful lawsuit went to benefit farmworkers. (Read More. Boycott grapes!)

Jeanne Baret, botanist

In 1766, Jeanne Baret disguised herself as a man so she could accompany her co-worker and lover, the naturalist Philibert Commerson, on an expedition around the globe. Although the leader of that expedition has been immortalized in the plant bougainvillea – a plant which Baret herself likely discovered – and Commerson had 70 different plants and insects named after him, not a single genus has been named after Jeanne Baret. When she was discovered, she and Commerson were put off the ship, and it took them over nine years to get home. (Read more.)

Harriet Taylor Mill, feminist and philosopher

It is a sign of John Stuart Mill’s character that he would have been greatly disappointed to learn that while his name has been on the lips of every philosopher and political history student, his wife’s has receded into relative obscurity. In a letter to her, he writes, “I shall never be satisfied unless you allow our best book, the book which is to come, to have our two names on the title page. It ought to be so with everything I publish, for the better half of it all is yours”. Why she refused the acknowledgment is unclear, but there’s no doubt that she exerted an enormous influence on Mill’s writings and in some cases, published her own work under his name, including the highly influential “The Enfranchisement of Women”. (Read more.)

One Thought on “And It’s Surely To Her Credit…

  1. The additional weird twist with the story of Rosalind Franklin is that she was ineligible for the Nobel prize because it cannot (or could not at that time) be awarded posthumously. Not that I think she would have been fairly recognized had she lived; the willingness of Watson and Crick to simply lift (sorry, the word I’m actually looking for is “steal”) her data off her desk and use it without proper attribution, says a lot about how seriously they were willing to take her as a scientist and colleague. It’s a really shameful story.

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