Sunday, 8 March 2020

Hidden Figures

One of the best films I have seen for ages, Hidden Figures (2016) tells the story of the computers whose calculations gave the early space-race a significant boost. In those days, a ‘computer’ wasn’t a PC or a laptop, but a human mathematician.

The three heroines of Hidden Figures are Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson. In the early days of their employment at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, when it was part of National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the facilities were racially segregated, and the characters are shown overcoming the systemic barriers put in place by the practice of segregation. When NACA was absorbed into National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the facilities were desegregated.

Eventually it all comes to a head when Katherine is forced to run half a mile across the campus to the segregated bathroom, and Kevin Costner’s character smashes the ‘Colored Bathroom’ sign. This didn’t actually happen in real life, as in reality she just used the nearest bathroom and got away with it, but it’s a visually satisfying shorthand for the dismantling of systemic oppression.

Halfway through the film, human computers are replaced by electronic computers, and Dorothy Vaughan teaches herself and her staff FORTRAN so that they won’t be made redundant. She had a 28 year career at Langley, and was the first African-American woman to hold a supervisory post there.

Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson is a mathematician whose calculations of orbital mechanics were critical to the success of the first and subsequent U.S. space-flights. During her 35-year career at NASA and NACA, she used her exceptional ability to perform complex calculations of trajectories, launch windows and emergency return paths for space-flights, the space shuttle, and a planned mission to Mars. In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Mary Jackson was initially a mathematician working alongside Dorothy Vaughan and Katherine Johnson, but then took advanced engineering classes and became NASA's first Black female engineer in 1958. To qualify as an engineer, she needed graduate-level qualifications in physics and mathematics. She had to petition the City of Hampton to allow her to attend the courses, which were at an all-white school. She analyzed data from wind tunnel experiments and aircraft flight experiments at Langley. The results improved the scientific understanding of air flow, thrust and drag forces.

These days, people tend to think of computing as a male-dominated field, but in the early days, it was predominantly a female area of employment.

I find it incredibly inspiring that these women overcame all sorts of obstacles to become top mathematicians, engineers, and computer scientists.

Saturday, 7 March 2020

Necessity is the mother of invention

International Women's Day is marked on March 8 every year and celebrates the cultural, social, economic, and political achievement of women around the world. Women of all walks of life have contributed to the development of science, technology, engineering, and medicine. Here are a few examples.

Sarah Goode (1855-1905), Inventor of the Folding Cabinet Bed

Goode was an entrepreneur who had many customers with very small apartments. She invented the folding cabinet bed to save space. It was a desk by day and a bed by night. When Goode registered her patent for the folding cabinet bed in 1885, she became the first Black American woman ever to get a United States Patent.

Her aim was to balance out the weight of the folding of the bed so that it could be easily lifted up, folded and unfolded, and to secure the bed on each side so that it would stay in place once it was folded. She provided supplementary support to the centre of the bed when it was unfolded.

Mary Golda Ross (1908-2008), engineer

Mary Golda Ross was the first known Indigenous female engineer, and the first female engineer in the history of Lockheed. She was Tsalagi (Cherokee). She was one of the 40 founding engineers of the Skunk Works project at the Lockheed Corporation. She worked at Lockheed from 1942 until her retirement in 1973. She is best remembered for her work on aerospace design – including the Agena Rocket program – as well as many "design concepts for interplanetary space travel, crewed and uncrewed Earth-orbiting flights, the earliest studies of orbiting satellites for both defense and civilian purposes."

Asima Chatterjee (1917-2006), chemist

Asima Chatterjee was a chemist who is greatly renowned for her contributions to organic chemistry and phytomedicine. She developed cancer medicines, anti-epileptic and anti-malarial drugs. She was the first woman to be named a Doctor of Science by an Indian university. She studied at the University of Calcutta and wrote several volumes of work on the medicinal plants of the Indian subcontinent. She was nominated by the president of India as a member of the Rajya Sabha.

Bette Nesmith Graham (1924-1980), Inventor of Liquid Paper

After she got divorced in 1946, Bette took a job as a secretary. Typewriters with carbon ribbons had just come into widespread use, and the old erasers that were previously used just smudged the paper. So, Bette, who had trained as an artist, came up with a mix of tempera paint to paint out her mistakes. Her boss never noticed the corrections. Soon other secretaries wanted a bottle of her special paint, and she realized that she had come up with something that would sell. When Liquid Paper (also known as Tippex and White-out) became a multi-million dollar company, she created two foundations to help women find new careers, especially unmarried mothers. The foundations also created college scholarships for older women and gave shelter and counselling to battered women. She described herself as a "feminist who wants freedom for myself and everybody else."

Fun fact: she was also the mother of Robert Michael Nesmith, the guitarist in the band The Monkees.

Frances Gabe (1915-2016), Inventor of the Self-Cleaning House

Before there was the Roomba, there was the self-cleaning house, with resin walls, waterproof furniture, no carpets, and a device in the ceiling that emits a jet of water, soap, and hot air to dry everything in the room after it has cleaned it. These labour-saving devices were invented by Frances Gabe, who went partially blind for 18 years after the birth of her first child, and grew up accompanying her architect father to work.

Lynn Conway (born 1938), inventor of new computer chip designs

Lynn Conway invented scalable, dimensionless design rules which hugely simplified chip design and design tools; and a new form of internet-based infrastructure for rapid-prototyping and short-run fabrication of large numbers of chip designs.

She was born in 1938 and transitioned to female in 1968. She was fired by IBM but went on to work for Xerox and DARPA.

She has five patents to her name, and retired to Michigan, USA. In Fall 2012, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers published a special issue of the IEEE Solid-State Circuits Magazine devoted to her career, including an autobiographical account of her career, and commentaries by the former Director of Engineering at HP, a Professor of EECS at U.C. Berkeley, and a Professor of Electrical Engineering and Biomedical Engineering at Columbia University.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Why International Women's Day?

I saw a couple of posts on my Facebook timeline asking why there is International Women's Day, and not "international equality day".

Firstly, there is the specific history of International Women's Day, which is about upholding women's rights to exist without fear of violence (rape and domestic violence inflicted on women is still higher than that inflicted on men) and to be paid equal wages for equal work (although there is equal pay legislation, women's work is still undervalued), and to have autonomy over our own bodies. The statistics are absolutely shocking.

Secondly, there is International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, there's Transgender Day of Remembrance, LGBT History Month, Black History Month, and International Women's Day. Why? Because these are the groups that get marginalised, persecuted, and generally disregarded and written out of the histories — so we focus on them to redress the balance.

Thirdly, you can't lump all equalities issues into one mega-issue, because the origins and history and conditions of oppression are different. Obviously, yes, all these different forms of oppression intersect, but you still need to analyse them separately, and the people affected by them sometimes need to come together as a community to experience solidarity, celebrate our triumphs, and mourn our losses.

The people about whom all the histories are written don't need a special day, because they get all the attention on the other 364 days of the year.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Women's history 101

People often ask, why are there so few famous women writers, artists, scientists, and intellectuals?

They seem to be forgetting that, in previous centuries, it was rare for women to be educated. Women also often died younger due to infections contracted in childbirth.

Women were not allowed to attend university until the 1870s, and even then they were not allowed to graduate.
At the beginning of the 20th century it was very difficult for women to obtain a university education. In 1870 Emily Davies and Barbara Bodichon helped to set up Girton College, the first university college for women, but it was not recognised by the university authorities. In 1880 Newnham College was established at Cambridge University. By 1910 there were just over a thousand women students at Oxford and Cambridge. However, they had to obtain permission to attend lectures and were not allowed to take degrees. 
Without a university degree it was very difficult for women to enter the professions. After a long struggle the medical profession had allowed women to become doctors. Even so, by 1900 there were only 200 women doctors. It was not until 1910 that women were allowed to become accountants and bankers. However, there were still no women diplomats, barristers or judges. (John Simkin)
The first social groups to routinely educate their daughters were the Unitarians and the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), starting in the 1840s.

When women did succeed in producing literature or scientific research, quite often someone else got the credit for it, or their contribution or achievement was minimised. Even now, there are people who dispute that Ada Lovelace wrote programs for Babbage's calculating engine, and want to impute authorship of the Brontë sisters novels' to their brother Branwell. The scientific achievements of Lise Meitner, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Hedy Lamarr, Dorothy Hodgkin, Rosalind Franklin, Katherine Jones, Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, Caroline Herschel, and many others, are forgotten or sidelined. I did not learn about any of these women at school - I found out about them by researching on the internet, and reading blogposts from the Finding Ada project.

Many nineteenth-century female scientists and mathematicians were told that their scientific and mathematical activities were bad for their womb. Many were prevented from attending university, or not allowed to graduate, or made to work in a separate laboratory from the men.

The work of female writers, poets, artists, composers, and playwrights suffered a similar fate. Artemisia Gentileschi's paintings were attributed to her father. The Nobel Prize for Jocelyn Bell Burnell's discovery of pulsars went to her male PhD supervisor. The work of the women Pre-Raphaelite and Impressionist artists is largely forgotten.

A similar fate happens to Black & minority ethnic (BME) and LGBT scientists, authors, and heroes. And if you are a woman and BME and LGBT, then you are doubly or triply doomed to be sidelined. Just look at the marginalisation of Mary Seacole, Edward Carpenter, Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, and many another BME and/or LGBT person.

Even today, women's novels are marketed as less serious than novels by men. They also receive less reviews in serious journals.  The novels of white male authors are taught on English literature courses; the novels of female authors are taught on courses of women's studies or women's literature. Maureen Johnson writes:
For much of history, women read the works of men. Every once in a while we see a woman cracking through, maybe changing her name, maybe hiding her work, or maybe breaking through the strength of her genius or good luck or both. Then we see a huge break in the early 20th century, a flux of brilliant women. Women start to climb into the bestseller charts, but not so much into the reading lists.
There is no doubt that women (despite massive disadvantages) have achieved great things in every field of artistic, literary, and scientific endeavour, but all too often, they are forgotten, sidelined, their achievements dismissed or diminished, their work not taught in schools or universities. The corpus of literature that is considered "the canon" is overwhelmingly by white men (usually dead white men, usually heterosexual). No-one is saying that these authors should no longer be taught; just that "the canon" should include women, BME people, and LGBT people.

Inspirational women

All my Finding Ada blogposts in one place:

Katherine Jones, Viscountess Ranelagh, sister of Robert Boyle. She conducted chemistry experiments.

Wendy Hall, computer scientist

Anita Borg, computer scientist

Caroline Arms, metadata pioneer

Hedy Lamarr, inventor

Lisa Barone, SEO expert

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (May 10, 1900 – December 7, 1979) was an English-American astronomer who in 1925 was first to show that the Sun is mainly composed of hydrogen, contradicting accepted wisdom at the time.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Her name was Reeva Steenkamp

The other day, I attended a talk on feminism, and one of the women on the panel described how South Africa was gearing up for a major campaign on rape and violence against women, when (and I quote) "a fluffy two-dimensional model got murdered and it was all over the news" (thus knocking the campaign out of the headlines).

Her name was Reeva Steenkamp. She was a lawyer as well as a model. She was a feminist. She had tweeted support for the anti-rape and anti-violence campaign. It was not her fault that she was killed. It's not her fault that the media were more interested in her good looks and her modelling career than in the fact that she was a lawyer and a feminist.

As feminists, we should look behind the headlines and the media hype to see what is really going on, and not mistake the sexist and patriarchal nonsense peddled by the tabloids for anything resembling reality. And we should not refer to other women with the sort of insults that patriarchy dishes out.

I would have challenged the woman on the panel who said this, were it not for the fact that a woman in the audience had said something even more outrageous, which I also felt the need to challenge.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

What about teh menz?

"But what about racism against white people?" is a tactic used by racists to minimize and deny racism against people of colour.

"But what about violence against men?" is a tactic used by misogynists to minimize and deny violence against women. In 2009, 9000 men and 69000 women were raped - and that's just the reported rapes. Often the rape of a man by another man is designed to 'relegate' him to female status.

And "but what about the whole cause of the Left?" and "it's mean to call me cisgender" are tactics used to minimize and deny transphobia.

We need to examine the specific causes and instances of oppression in order to dismantle the systematic abuses of the kyriarchy.

Oppression and prejudice are perpetrated by people with privilege and power against people without them, because they want to hold on to their power and privilege and think that it is a finite resource. Power structures are maintained in such a way as to exclude the marginalised from power. If you don't think, dress, and act like a neurotypical white heterosexual man, you are more in danger of being killed, raped, beaten up, underpaid, unemployed, and disenfranchised. Look at this post outlining how people of colour are erased from violent crime statistics towards other marginalised groups. It shows that the more minority groups you belong to, the more in danger you are (especially if you are a person of colour).

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Your privilege is showing

So apparently some of those upper-class gels over at the posh school think that the rest of us are not clever enough to understand the word intersectionality, and they are upset that what they thought was their exclusive little club is being overrun by All the Wrong Sort.

Well, here at Bluestocking central, we pride ourselves on being the Wrong Sort, and we don't think it's very hard to explain intersectionality – all one has to say is that women can also be working class, people of colour, LGBTQ, older people, a different religion, disabled, etc and that these groups’ concerns intersect with feminist concerns. I figured this out well before anybody coined the word intersectionality to describe it, and I am sure lots of other bluestockings did too. I knew that my privileged existence was only one tiny corner of the giant tapestry of feminism. I also knew that my concerns about how I might be marginalised for my gender intersected with my concerns about how I might be marginalised for other reasons.

Isn't intersectionality exactly what third-wave feminism concerns itself with? Or perhaps the posh gels over at Vagenda Towers haven't heard of third-wave feminism?

Black feminists have been there from the beginning, but apparently some hoity-toity types haven't noticed. Ladies, your privilege is showing. Perhaps you should tuck it back in. It's not very lady-like.


Tuesday, 11 September 2012

The Goddess is not your bitch

Laurie Penny, in an excellent critique of Naomi Wolf's book, Vagina, has drawn attention to a worrying new trend.
Throughout Vagina, Wolf refers to something called the 'Goddess', a sort of wibbly-wobbly divine feminine energy that can be woken by appropriately angled vaginal massage and a nice bunch of flowers, a strategy known, and I really wish I were making this up, as the 'Goddess Array'. This 'Inner Goddess' idea is having a moment right now.

It crops up as a clunky motif in the wildly popular Fifty Shades of Grey series, in which the protagonist's 'Inner Goddess' responds to the virile attentions of the millionaire stunt-dick in a variety of interesting ways. As the heroine administers a simple blow-job, the reader is informed that her 'inner Goddess is doing the merengue with some salsa moves'. Imagery matters, even clunky, awkward imagery: in Wolf's hands, this weirdly retro goddess conceit becomes a manifesto, informing the female reader that no matter what her life may look like, no matter what gender inequities she may experience every day, there is something wonderful, special and mysterious about being a woman, and especially about being a woman receiving sexual attention from a man, that should be its own reward.
The idea of the Goddess does not have to be - indeed, should not be - some fluffy flower-bedecked Persephone tripping through the meadows waiting to be abducted by Hades.

Goddesses include the hag Lilith who rejects men, the subversive Baubo who makes Demeter laugh, Eris who sows dissent, Ishtar who destroys, Kali the slayer, Pele of the volcano, and Artemis the hunter.

Because the Goddess is 'Mother Nature', she is not always sweet and kind; sometimes she is the terrible mother, dealing death mercifully. In Paganism, death is regarded as a natural part of the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth.

It's true that the idea of the Goddess was first popularised by a woman who thought that women were somehow essentially different from men, namely Jacquetta Hawkes, a prominent enthusiast for the Goddess in the 1930s, who believed that women and men were fundamentally different and that the role of women was to remain in the home and bring up children. This is rather ironic in view of the next generation of enthusiasts, the separatist feminists of the sixties and seventies. And clearly Naomi Wolf's inner goddess, and the inner goddess of Fifty Shades of Grey, are also pandering to socially conservative essentialism and the idea that women are just there for men to have sex with; not as beings in our own right.

Can we reclaim the idea of goddesses from this essentialist and socially conservative discourse? I think the first step is to regard them as goddesses, not the Goddess - if they are plural, there's a range of gender expressions available, and there can also be transgender goddesses. Each has her own story and her own political stance. Each expresses her gender differently, which encourages us to see that gender is a social construct and not an essential attribute.

As Laurie Penny says, we don't need the kind of feminism peddled by Naomi Wolf; we need a feminism that affirms women's worth as human beings, and campaigns for women's rights around the world, and that fights back against the current tidal wave of misogynistic rhetoric and legislation.

The Goddess should be on the side of real feminism, not putting women back in frilly nighties in the bedroom. She is not the bitch of patriarchy - she is the wild instinct of women yearning for freedom and human rights.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Suffragettes and tea rooms

Who knew that researching the tea rooms where suffragettes held meetings would provide such a rich vein of historical information? Elizabeth Crawford at the Woman and her sphere blog has been researching this, and appeared on Radio 4 to discuss it.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

A bluestocking hero

It will soon be time for Finding Ada Day 2012. it's on 16 October. Start researching your favourite women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, medicine) now.

Meanwhile, a splendid chap called Alex Brown has blogged about how much he hates sexism in science. He is the new Bluestockings' hero. Oh yes. The blogpost also includes some rather fabulous pictures and videos of how to paint your fingernails in a sciencey way.

He makes the point that sexism in science is what is driving women away from it, diminishing the diversity (and therefore the creative potential due to different perspectives being applied) of science. His ire was aroused by a sexist comment posted on a photo of some fingernails painted with mathematical symbols in a science group on Facebook.

And I thought I would round up all my Finding Ada blogposts in one place.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Great fictional tomboys

Following the excellent article by Dawn H Foster in The Guardian about why being a tomboy is completely marvellous, and praising some fictional tomboys, I thought it would be fun to make a list of great fictional tomboys. Here are my favourites:
 Can't get enough tomboys? Here are some other people's lists:

But what does being a tomboy mean?

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Feisty fighting females

The British Pathé blog has a wonderful post entitled Ladies Who Lunge: Women Fighting Through History (great title too). It features early film clips of women stage fighters doing boxing, judo, and so on. I had rather hoped that it was about women fencers, which would have been a very bluestocking activity, but nevertheless these gals certainly have gallantry and gumption!

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Women's rights around the world

The United Nations has just published a report on women's rights around the world, and The Guardian has created an interactive timeline of when women got the vote in various countries around the world, as this is a key indicator of women's rights being taken seriously.

However, women's rights more generally are still a work in progress:
More than half of working women in the world, 600 million, are trapped in insecure jobs without legal protection, according to the first flagship report of the new agency UN Women. A similar number do not have even basic protection against domestic violence, it finds, while sexual assault has become a hallmark of modern conflict.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Suffragette surveillance photos

BoingBoing has a great blogpost about surveillance photos taken by Scotland Yard of suffragettes in 1912.

The original article from which the photos came was in the BBC Magazine in 2003.
"On the one hand, the state considered them dangerous terrorists, but on the other it simply did not know what to do with them," says Ms Tulloch.

"The police and prison officials were so worried about what to do they made sure that every step they took was authorised by the Home Office. In the records you can find daily communications between the governor of Holloway Prison and Whitehall. In that era it was extremely rare for government to communicate so quickly."

But the police surveillance did nothing to stop the movement - nor did it dim the growing support they were finding in the country.

There's also a potted history of the suffragettes on the BBC site.