In the title essay of ‘Men Explain Things to Me and Other Essays,’ writer Rebecca Solnit describes how, at a high-profile party in Aspen, Colorado, the host engaged Solnit in conversation just as she was leaving. He had heard Solnit had written a couple of books – by that stage in her life, in her early forties, she had published seven books. The host proceeded to tell her about a very important book about time, space and the industrialisation of everyday life, recently released. Overhearing the conversation, Solnit’s friend, Sallie, interrupted to say he was talking to the author of the book. Sallie repeated herself three or four times before the man registered what she was saying, paused speechless for a moment, and then continued to explain Solnit’s book to her, still not realising ridiculousness of the situation.
The purpose of this story is not to shame the host, but to acknowledge that there is a long way to go until women accomplishing great things is an accepted norm – when it is the achievement that is celebrated, not the gender. The tides are turning. Yet there are still greater seismic shifts needed to ensure that women receive their full share of the limelight. Perhaps the most important work that can be done is to give voice to the stories that have historically been silenced – to have women explain things to us, in their own words, and by doing so empower younger generations to take bolder steps towards a more glorious kind of freedom.
In honour of International Women’s Day, here we celebrate five great women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), who remained dedicated and committed to scientific enquiry, investigation and research, even when the rest of the world refused to acknowledge their discoveries or when their achievements were credited to men.
Primo tip: If you would like to plan an impactful International Women’s Day event at your school or in your community, check out these empowering resources.
Hypatia (c.350-415 CE)
Born in Alexandria, Egypt, Hypatia was an astronomer, mathematician and philosopher. Instructed by her father, the scholar Theon, she quickly overtook her father and became preeminent in her field. She provided commentary on Theon’s mathematics, and made her own discoveries and contributions to geometry and number theory. Hypatia was also an expert in platonic philosophy and one of the first female teachers in Alexandria, with people travelling from far and wide to learn from everything that she had to share. Alexandria, with its huge library and known as a great place of learning, was nevertheless a dangerous place for Hypatia and her father to live. Religious tensions meant it was risky for them to be open about their Greek traditions, and in 415 Hypatia was killed for her ‘pagan’ teachings by extremist Christians.
Mary Anning (1799-1847)
As a young girl, paleontologist Mary Anning collected fossils from the beaches and cliffs near Lyme Regis, UK, which are a rich source of fossils from the Jurassic period. Anning’s family was poor and they sold fossils to boost their meagre income. Her father died when she was 11 and and she took over the fossil business. Aged 12, she found the skeleton of an Ichthyosaur skeleton – the first complete one of its kind – and soon after uncovered two Plesiosaur skeletons, a previously unknown species of dinosaur. These and other discoveries were proof that animals could become extinct and that fossils were not just unusual stones. While she was not able to publish her work because she was a woman, she did gain respect from male doctors and geologists. Yet, even as they drew on her findings in their papers, they edited out her name.
Emmy Noether (1882-1935)
A friend of Albert Einstein, who recruited to her to help him develop his general theory of relativity at the University of Göttingen, Emmy Noether was a German mathematician and theoretical physicist. Since it was against the law for women to go to university, Noether took her education into her own hands and sat at the back of classes and lectures to learn all she could. Eventually, she was accepted as a student and went on to lecture at the Mathematical Institute at the University of Erlangen – without a job title or a paycheck. When she joined Einstein at Göttingen, she went onto develop mathematical equations that still form a fundamental part of our understanding of physics today. Noether, who was Jewish, fled the Nazi regime for North America, where she taught at the Bryn Mwyr College and lectured at the Institute for Advanced Education in Princeton until her death aged 53.
Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)
In her 37 years of life, Rosalind Franklin studied physics and chemistry at Newnham College, Cambridge, and later earned a PhD in physical chemistry which enabled her to travel and teach around the world. While working at King’s College, Cambridge, she spent hours with an X-ray to try and solve one of the biggest scientific problems of the time – the shape of DNA. It is her photo of DNA that proved it was a double helix. At the same time, Francis Crick and James Watson were tussling with this question, too. They took a sneaky peak at Franklin’s findings and used them in their own publications. They did not credit Franklin and it wasn’t until Watson wrote, scathingly, about Franklin in his book ‘The Double Helix’ that the game was up and people began to realise her contribution. Franklin also pioneered research on the tobacco mosaic virus and polio.
Mae Jemison (born 1956)
Graduate of Stanford University in chemical engineering and African-American Studies, Mae Jemison later went to Cornell, where she became a doctor. She then joined the Peace Corps in Africa and, after seven years, returned to the USA to pursue her dream to be an astronaut. Jemison had been inspired by the Apollo missions and TV show ‘Star Trek,’ in which the character Lieutenant Uhura provided her with a role model. Jemison fulfilled her dream in 1992 when she became the first African-American woman in space aboard the shuttle Endeavour. But, it didn’t end there. A year later she left NASA to start a number of companies that innovate in science and technology. Mae continues to expand her vision and is principal of the 100 Year Starship project, which has its sights on human travel to the next solar system.
For more inspiring female scientists who set their sights on the stars, read our blog post on Brilliant Female Programmers.
Jessica Adams is a writer, yoga teacher and mother of two. She has over nine years’ experience of raising boys and a lifelong love of learning, play and creativity.