How Italian Physicist Laura Bassi Became the First Woman to Have an Academic Career in the 18th Century

The practice and privilege of academic science has been slow in trickling down from its origins as a pursuit of leisured gentleman. While many a leisured lady may have taken an interest in science, math, or philosophy, most women were denied participation in academic institutions and scholarly societies during the scientific revolution of the 1700s. Only a handful of women — seven known in total — were granted doctoral degrees before the year 1800. It wasn’t until 1678 that a female scholar was given the distinction, some four centuries or so after the doctorate came into being. While several intellectuals and even clerics of the time held progressive attitudes about gender and education, they were a decided minority.

Curiously, four of the first seven women to earn doctoral degrees were from Italy, beginning with Elena Cornaro Piscopia at the University of Padua. Next came Laura Bassi, who earned her degree from the University of Bologna in 1732. There she distinguished herself in physics, mathematics, and natural philosophy and became the first salaried woman to teach at a university (she was at one time the university’s highest paid employee). Bassi was the chief popularizer of Newtonian physics in Italy in the 18th century and enjoyed significant support from the Archbishop of Bologna, Prospero Lambertini, who — when he became Pope Benedict XIV — elected her as the 24th member of an elite scientific society called the Benedettini.




“Bassi was widely admired as an excellent experimenter and one of the best teachers of Newtonian physics of her generation,” says Paula Findlen, Stanford professor of history. “She inspired some of the most important male scientists of the next generation while also serving as a public example of a woman shaping the nature of knowledge in an era in which few women could imagine playing such a role.” She also played the role available to most women of the time as a mother of eight and wife of Giuseppe Veratti, also a scientist.

Bassi was not allowed to teach classes of men at the university — only special lectures open to the public. But in 1740, she was granted permission to lecture at her home, and her fame spread, as Findlen writes at Physics World:

 Bassi was widely known throughout Europe, and as far away as America, as the woman who understood Newton. The institutional recognition that she received, however, made her the emblematic female scientist of her generation. A university graduate, salaried professor and academician (a member of a prestigious academy), Bassi may well have been the first woman to have embarked upon a full-fledged scientific career.

Poems were written about Bassi’s successes in demonstrating Newtonian optics; “news of her accomplishments traveled far and wide,” reaching the ear of Benjamin Franklin, whose work with electricity Bassi followed keenly. In Bologna, surprise at Bassi’s achievements was tempered by a culture known for “celebrating female success.” Indeed, the city was “jokingly known as a ‘paradise for women,’” writes Findlen. Bassi’s father was determined that she have an education equal to any of her class, and her family inherited money that had been equally divided between daughters and sons for generations; her sons “found themselves heirs to the property that came to the family through Laura’s maternal line,” notes the Stanford University collection of Bassi’s personal papers.

Bassi’s academic work is held at the Academy of Sciences in Bologna. Of the papers that survive, “thirteen are on physics, eleven are on hydraulics, two are on mathematics, one is on mechanics, one is on technology, and one is on chemistry,” writes a University of St. Andrew’s biography. In 1776, a year usually remembered for the formation of a government of leisured men across the Atlantic, Bassi was appointed to the Chair of Experimental Physics at Bologna, an appointment that not only meant her husband became her assistant, but also that she became the “first woman appointed to a chair of physics at any university in the world.”

Bologna was proud of its distinguished daughter, but perhaps still thought of her as an oddity and a token. As Dr. Eleonora Adami notes in a charming biography at sci-fi illustrated stories, the city once struck a medal in her honor, “commemorating her first lecture series with the phrase ‘Soli cui fas vidisse Minervam,’” which translates roughly to “the only one allowed to see Minerva.” But her example inspired other women, like Cristina Roccati, who earned a doctorate from Bologna in 1750, and Dorothea Erxleben, who became the first woman to earn a Doctorate in Medicine four years later at the University of Halle. Such singular successes did not change the patriarchal culture of academia, but they started the trickle that would in time become several branching streams of women succeeding in the sciences.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Mattel’s Barbie Turns Women of Medicine, Including COVID Vaccine Developer, Into Dolls

The multinational toy manufacturer Mattel is encouraging youngsters to play doctor — not a euphemism — and honoring first responders with the recent release of three healthcare-themed “Career Barbies.”

The company is putting its money where its mouth is by donating $5 to the First Responders Children’s Foundation for every doctor, paramedic, or nurse Barbie purchased at Target through August 28.




Mattel has also identified six female healthcare pioneers whose efforts during the pandemic merit a one-of-a-kind Barbie who shares their likeness.

Vaccinologist Sarah Gilbert, who led the team that developed the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, describes this unexpected honor as “a very strange concept” (presumably as compared to being awarded a damehood or receiving a standing ovation at Wimbledon.)

The 59-year-old Oxford University professor added that she hoped the characteristically smooth plastic doll would be “part of making it more normal for girls to think about careers in science, although, to be honest, when I was a young girl I never believed that I wouldn’t have a career in science.”

If the doll falls short of inspiring girls to consider a career in STEM, Women in Science & Engineering (WISE), the nonprofit organization Professor Gilbert chose to receive a donation from Mattel on her behalf, can take up the slack.

One of the most compelling of the six custom-made Front Line Responder Barbies is based on veteran nurse Amy O’Sullivan, a heavily tattooed, queer mother of three, who cared for the first COVID-19 patient (soon to become New York City’s first official COVID death) in Brooklyn’s Wycoff Hospital.

Soon thereafter, she survived being put on a ventilator with COVID herself, eventually winding up on the cover of Time Magazine, in the same neckerchief, floral socks, eye catching surgical cap and woven bracelets her tiny scrub-suited doppelganger wears.

Surely Amy O’Sullivan is a better all around role model than the similarly inked Tokidoki Barbie or Totally Tattoo Barbie, or for that matter, the non-custom made First Responder Nurse, whose description on Target’s website seems a bit retrograde, given the events of the last year and a half:

Wearing cute scrubs featuring a medical-tool print top, pink pants and white shoes, Barbie nurse doll (12-in/30.40-cm) is ready make her rounds and check on patients!

The real life O’Sullivan, who was very involved in the creation of her custom doll, seems tickled by Mattel’s faithful recreation, telling The New York Post:

When I was younger I always felt like an outsider — nobody ever looked like me, talked like me, walked like me. I had no role model at all when I was growing up. So if I can be some little girl’s role model that feels like this, I would love that. 

Nurse O’Sullivan had stronger words for those who have aged out of the demographic, in a recent interview with Time:

I see these young people not wearing masks. And, you know, those are the people that COVID is affecting now, the younger generation. They’re becoming very sick. And it’s never going to go away until we get vaccinated and wear masks.

That might be a bit heavy for those on the younger end of Career Barbie’s recommended 3 and up age group (“especially those interested in caretaking and helping others!”), but hopefully her words will carry some weight with those responsible for protecting those children.

The other custom-made Barbies honor:

Dr. Audrey Cruz, who collaborated with other Asian-American physicians to battle anti-Asian-related bias springing from the pandemic

Canadian psychiatry resident at who battled systemic racism in healthcare a doctor in Las Vegas who is campaigning against racial bias against Asian-American physicians

University of Toronto psychiatry resident, Chika Stacy Oriuwa, whose activism includes creating initiatives to boost the number of Black students applying to medical school and create networks of support for scholarly and professional advancement within the Black community.

Biomedical researcher Dr Jaqueline Goes de Jesus whose team sequenced the SARS-CoV-2 genome within 48 hours of receiving samples from the first infected Brazilian patient, differentiating the variant from the one that caused infections earlier in the pandemic.

Dr Kirby White, founder of Gowns for Doctors,  an Australian initiative that addressed a nationwide shortage of personal PPE by delivering free, washable, volunteer-made reusable gowns to frontline staff.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.Follow her@AyunHalliday

 

Jocelyn Bell Burnell Changed Astronomy Forever; Her Ph.D. Advisor Won the Nobel Prize for It

A few years back, we highlighted a series of articles called The Matilda Effect — named for the feminist Matilda Joslyn Gage, whose 1893 essay “Woman as an Inventor” inspired historians like Cornell University’s Margaret Rossiter to recover the lost histories of women in science. Those histories are important not only for our understanding of women’s contributions to scientific advancement, but also because they tell us something important about ourselves, whoever we are, as filmmaker Ben Proudfoot suggests in his “Almost Famous” series of short New York Times documentaries.

Proudfoot casts a wide net in the telling, gathering stories of an unknown woman N.B.A. draftee, a would-be first Black astronaut who never got to fly, a man who could have been the “next Colonel Sanders,” and a former member of the Black Eyed Peas who quit before the band hit it big. Not all stories of loss in “Almost Famous” are equally tragic. Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s story, which she herself tells above, contains more than enough struggle, triumph, and crushing disappointment for a compelling tale.




An astronomer, Bell Burnell was instrumental in the discovery of pulsars — a discovery that changed the field forever. While her Ph.D. advisor Antony Hewish would be awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery in 1974, Bell Burnell’s involvement was virtually ignored, or treated as a novelty. “When the press found out I was a woman,” she said in 2015, “we were bombarded with inquiries. My male supervisor was asked the astrophysical questions while I was the human interest. Photographers asked me to unbutton my blouse lower, whilst journalists wanted to know my vital statistics and whether I was taller than Princess Margaret.”

In the film, Burnell describes a lifelong struggle against a male-dominated establishment that marginalized her. She also tells a story of supportive Quaker parents who nurtured her will to follow her intellectual passions despite the obstacles. Growing up in Ireland, she says, “I knew I wanted to be an astronomer. But at that stage, there weren’t any women role models that I knew of.” She comments, with understandable anger, how many people congratulated her on her marriage and said “nothing about making a major astrophysical discovery.”

Many of us have stories to tell about being denied achievements or opportunities through circumstances not of our own making. We often hold those stories close, feeling a sense of failure and frustration, measuring ourselves against those who “made it” and believing we have come up short. We are not alone. There are many who made the effort, and a few who got there first but didn’t get the prize for one unjust reason or another. The lack of official recognition doesn’t invalidate their stories, or ours. Hearing those stories can inspire us to keep doing what we love and to keep pushing through the opposition. See more short “Almost Famous” documentaries in The New York Times series here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Meet the Linda Lindas, the Tween Punk Band Who Called Out Racism & Misogyny and Scored a Record Deal

“Sticks and stones may break my bones,” we chanted as kids, but “words will never hurt me.” The saying seems to both invite physical violence and deny the real effects of verbal abuse. Maybe this was once effective as a stock playground retort, but it’s never been true, as anyone who’s been picked on as a child can attest. When the taunts are racist, the damage is exponentially multiplied. Not only are kids being singled out and mocked for immutable characteristics, but their family and entire culture of origin are being targeted.

What to do? Lash out? Fight back? Ignore it and pretend it isn’t happening? To quote another cliche, “the best revenge is success.” More appropriately for the case at hand, take an original line from Radiohead’s Thom Yorke: “Be constructive with your blues.”




The Linda Lindas, a four-piece punk band ranging in age from 10 to 16 would agree. When one of the girls was harassed by a classmate, they got bummed about it, then rallied, wrote a song, went viral, and scored a record deal. Dealing with bullies will rarely lead to such joyful results, but it’s worth paying attention when it does.

The song, “Racist, Sexist Boy” has “become something of a 2021 anthem,” writes NPR, with its gleeful call-outs (“Poser! Blockhead! Riffraff! Jerk face!”) and crunchy power chords. “In what has become a very familiar cycle to music-industry watchers, the band landed a record deal almost as soon as its video went viral,” signing with L.A.’s Epitaph Records. “By Friday, the band’s performance of ‘Racist, Sexist Boy’ had been posted on Epitaph’s YouTube channel.” The video comes from a performance at the Los Angeles Public Library, which you can watch in full above, with an introduction and interview with the band. (See a setlist on YouTube and don’t miss their cover of Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl” at 35:56.)

So, who are the Linda Lindas? On their Bandcamp page, they describe themselves as “Half Asian / half Latinx. Two sisters, a cousin, and their close friend. The Linda Lindas channel the spirit of original punk, power pop, and new wave through today’s ears, eyes and minds.” You can meet the multi-talented tweens and teens in the video above, made in 2019 by a fifth grade teacher to inspire his students. The girls are hardly new to the music business. Clips in the video show them performing with Money Mark and opening for Bikini Kill. They got their start in 2018 at Girlschool LA, “a celebration of females challenging the status quo,” and they’ve been mentored by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

The Linda Lindas also captured the attention of Amy Pohler, who featured the band in her Netflix documentary Moxie. See a clip above. Not every kid who fights bullying with music — or art, science, sports, or whatever their talent — can expect celebrity, and we shouldn’t set kids up to think they can all win the internet lottery. But the Linda Lindas have become heroes for millions of young girls who look like them, and who dream not of fame and fortune but of a united front of friendship and fun against racism, misogyny, and the pains of growing up.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Story of Elizebeth Friedman, the Pioneering Cryptologist Who Thwarted the Nazis & Got Burned by J. Edgar Hoover

Elizebeth S. Friedman: Suburban Mom or Ninja Nazi Hunter?

Both, though in her lifetime, the press was far more inclined to fixate on her ladylike aspect and homemaking duties than her career as a self-taught cryptoanalyst, with headlines such as “Pretty Woman Who Protects United States” and “Solved By Woman.”

The novelty of her gender led to a brief stint as America’s most recognizable codebreaker, more famous even than her fellow cryptologist, husband William Friedman, who was instrumental in the founding of the National Security Agency during the Cold War.

Renowned though she was, the highly classified nature of her work exposed her to a security threat in the person of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.

Hoover credited the FBI, and by extension, himself, for deciphering some 50 Nazi radio circuits’ codes, at least two of them protected with Enigma machines.

He also rushed to raid South American sources in his zeal to make an impression and advance his career, scuppering Friedman’s mission by causing Berlin to put a stop to all transmissions to that area.

Too bad no one asked him to demonstrate the methods he’d used to crack these impossible nuts.

The German agents used the same codes and radio techniques as the Consolidated Exporters Corporation, a mob-backed rum-running operation whose codes and ciphers Elizebeth had translated as chief cryptologist for the U.S. Treasury Department during Prohibition.

As an expert witness in the criminal trial of international rumrunner Bert Morrison and his associates, she modestly asserted that it was “really quite simple to decode their messages if you know what to look for,” but the sample decryption she provided the jury made it plain that her work required tremendous skill. The Mob Museum’s Jeff Burbank sets the scene:

She read a sample message, referring to a brand of whiskey: “Out of Old Colonel in Pints.” She showed how the three “o” and “l” letters in “Colonel” had identical cipher code letters. From the cipher’s letters for “Colonel” she could figure out the letter the racketeers chose for “e,” the most frequently occurring letter in English, based on other brand names of liquor they mentioned in other messages. The “o” and “l” letters in “alcohol,” she said, had the same cipher letters as “Colonel.” 

Cinchy, right?

Elizebeth’s biographer, Jason Fagone, notes that in discovering the identity, codename and ciphers used by German spy network Operation Bolívar‘s leader, Johannes Siegfried Becker, she succeeded where “every other law enforcement agency and intelligence agency failed. She did what the FBI could not do.”

Sexism and Hoover were not the only enemies.

William Friedman’s criticism of the NSA for classifying documents he thought should be a matter of public record led to a rift resulting in the confiscation of dozens of papers from the couple’s home that documented their work.

This, together with the 50-year “TOP SECRET ULTRA” classification of her WWII records, ensured that Elizebeth’s life would end beneath “a vast dome of silence.”

Recognition is mounting, however.

Nearly 20 years after her 1980 death, she was inducted into the National Security Agency’s Cryptologic Hall of Honor as “a pioneer in code breaking.”

A National Security Agency building now bears both Friedmans’ names.

The U.S. Coast Guard will soon be adding a Legend Class Cutter named the USCGC Friedman to their fleet.

In addition to Fagone’s biography, a picture book, Code Breaker, Spy Hunter: How Elizebeth Friedman Changed the Course of Two World Wars, was published earlier this year.

As far as we know, there are no picture books dedicated to the pioneering work of J. Edgar Hoover….

Elizebeth Friedman, via Wikimedia Commons

Watch The Codebreaker, PBS’s American Experience biography of Elizebeth Friedman here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her June 7 for a Necromancers of the Public Domain: The Periodical Cicada, a free virtual variety honoring the 17-Year Cicadas of Brood X. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Nerves of Steel!: Watch People Climb Tall Buildings During the 1920s.

Thrillseekers! Are you girding your loins to rejoin the amusement park crowds this summer?

No worries if you don’t feel quite ready to brave the socially distanced rollercoaster lines. Indulge in some low-risk vertigo, thanks to British Pathé‘s vintage newsreels of steeplejacks, steelworkers, and window cleaners doing their thing.

While these tradespeople were called in whenever an industrial chimney required repair or a steel beam was in need of welding, many of the newsreels feature iconic locations, such as New York City’s Woolworth Building, above, getting a good stonework cleaning in 1931.

In 1929, some “workmen acrobats” were engaged to adorn St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican with thousands of lamps when Pope Pius XI, in his first official act as pope, revived the public tradition of Urbi et Orbi, a papal address and apostolic blessing for the first time in fifty-two years.

Some gender boundaries got smashed in the aftermath of WWII, but “steeplejills” were novelty enough in 1948 that the scriptwriter predictably milks it by having the announcer crack wise to and about the unidentified woman ready to climb all the way to the rim of a very tall smokestack.

“There it is! That long thing pointing up there, it’s all yours!”

These days such a jib might constitute workplace harassment.

Did she get the job?

We don’t know. We hope so, whoever she is — presumably one of twenty female Londoners responding to the help wanted ad described in the Lethbridge Herald, below:

Watch more scenes of vintage steeplejacks — and jills — at work in a British Pathé “Nerves of Steel” playlist here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  She’s had a terrible fear of heights since a near miss in the Trogir Bell Tower some 14 years ago. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Discover the First Modern Kitchen–the Frankfurt Kitchen–Pioneered by the Architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky (1926)

Nearly 100 years after it was introduced, architect Margarete (Grete) Schütte-Lihotzky‘s famous Frankfurt Kitchen continues to exert enormous influence on kitchen design.

Schütte-Lihotzky analyzed designs for kitchens in train dining cars and made detailed time-motion studies of housewives’ dinner preparations in her quest to come up with something that would be space saving, efficient, inexpensively pre-fabricated, and easily installed in the new housing springing up in post-WWI Germany.




Schütte-Lihotzky hoped that her design would have a liberating effect, by reducing the time women spent in the kitchen. Nothing is left to chance in these 1.9 by 3.44 meters, with the main emphasis placed on the well-traveled “golden triangle” between worktop, stove, and sink.

The design’s scientific management honored ergonomics and efficiency, initiating a sort of household dance, but as filmmaker Maribeth Romslo, who directed eight dancers on a painstaking facsimile of a Frankfurt Kitchen, below, observes:

…as with any progress, there is friction and pressure. As women gain more rights (then and now), are they really just adding more to their to-do list of responsibilities? Adding to the number of plates they need to spin? They haven’t been excused from domestic duties in order to pursue careers or employment, the new responsibilities are additive.

 

(Note: enter your information to view the film.)

Choreographer Zoé Henrot, who also appears in the film, emphasizes the Frankfurt Kitchen’s design efficiencies and many of its famous features — the drawers for flour and other bulk goods, the adjustable stool, the cutting board with a receptacle for parings and peels.

At the same time, she manages to telegraph some possible Catch-22s.

Its diminutive size dictates that this workplace will be a solitary one — no helpers, guests, or small children.

The built-in expectations regarding uniformity of use leaves little room for culinary experimentation or a loosey goosey approach.

When crushingly repetitive tasks begin to chafe, options for escape are limited (if very well-suited to the expressive possibilities of modern dance).

Interestingly, many assume that a female architect working in 1926 would have brought some personal insights to the task that her male colleagues might have been lacking. Not so, as Schütte-Lihotzky readily admitted:

The truth of the matter was, I’d never run a household before designing the Frankfurt Kitchen, I’d never cooked, and had no idea about cooking.

Singer-songwriter Robert Rotifer is another artist who was moved to pay homage to Schütte-Lihotzky and the Frankfurt Kitchen, a “calculated move” that he describes as something closer to designing a kitchen than “divine inspiration”:

I sat on the train traveling from Canterbury up to London… I was about to record a new album, and I needed one more uptempo song, something driving and rhythmical. While the noisy combination of rickety train and worn-out tracks suggested a beat, I began to think about syncopations and subjects.

I thought about the mundane things nobody usually writes songs about, functional things that defy metaphor—tools, devices, household goods. As I listed some items in my head, I soon realized that kitchen utensils were the way to go. I thought about the mechanics of a kitchen, and that’s when the name of the creator of the famous Frankfurt Kitchen flashed up in my head.

There, in the natural rhythm of her name, was the syncopation I had been looking for: “I sing this out to Grete Schütte-Lihotzky.” Writing the rest of the lyrics was easy. The repetitive element would illustrate the way you keep returning to the same tasks and positions when you are working in a kitchen. In the middle-eight I would also find space for some of the criticisms that have been leveled at Schütte-Lihotzky’s kitchen over the decades, such as the way her design isolated the kitchen worker, i.e. traditionally the woman, from the rest of the family.

Rotifer, who also created the paintings used in the animated music video, gives the architect her due by including accomplishments beyond the Frankfurt Kitchen: her micro-apartment with “a disguised roll-out bed,” her terraced houses at the Werkbundsiedlung, a housing project’s kindergarten, a printing shop, and the Viennese Communist party headquarters.

It’s a lovely tribute to a design pioneer who, reflecting on her long career around the time of her 100th birthday, remarked:

If I had known that everyone would keep talking about nothing else, I would never have built that damned kitchen!

Museums that have acquired a Frankfurt Kitchen include Frankfurt’s Museum Angewandte Kunst, New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, and Oslo’s National Museum.

Learn more about the Kitchen Dance Project in this conversation between filmmaker Maribeth Romslo, choreographer Zoé Emilie Henrot, and Minneapolis Institute of Art curator Jennifer Komar Olivarez.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday

When Sci-Fi Legend Ursula K. Le Guin Translated the Chinese Classic, the Tao Te Ching

Brenda (laughing): Can you imagine a Taoist advertising agency? “Buy this if you feel like it. If it’s right. You may not need it.”

Ursula: There was an old cartoon in The New Yorker with a guy from an advertising agency showing his ad and the boss is saying “I think you need a little more enthusiasm Jones.” And his ad is saying, “Try our product, it really isn’t bad.”

Perhaps no Chinese text has had more lasting influence in the West than the Tao Te Ching, a work so ingrained in our culture by now, it has become a “changeless constant,” writes Maria Popova. “Every generation of admirers has felt, and continues to feel, a prescience in these ancient teachings so astonishing that they appear to have been written for their own time.” It speaks directly to us, we feel, or at least, that’s how we can feel when we find the right translation.

Admirers of the Taoist classic have included John Cage, Franz Kafka, Bruce Lee, Alan Watts, and Leo Tolstoy, all of whom were deeply affected by the millennia-old philosophical poetry attributed to Lao Tzu. That’s some heavy company for the rest of us to keep, maybe. It’s also a list of famous men. Not every reader of the Tao is male or approaches the text as the utterances of a patriarchal sage. One famous reader had the audacity to spend decades on her own, non-gendered, non-hierarchical translation, even though she didn’t read Chinese.




It’s not quite right to call Ursula Le Guin’s Tao Te Ching a translation, so much as an interpretation, or a “rendition,” as she calls it. “I don’t know Chinese,” she said in an interview with Brenda Peterson, “but I drew upon the Paul Carus translation of 1898 which has Chinese characters followed by a transliteration and a translation.” She used the Carus as a “touchstone for comparing other translations,” and started, in her twenties, “working on these poems. Every decade or so I’d do another chapter. Every reader has to start anew with such an ancient text.”

Le Guin drew out inflections in the text which have been obscured by translations that address the reader as a Ruler, Sage, Master, or King. In her introduction, Le Guin writes, “I wanted a Book of the Way accessible to a present-day, unwise, unpowerful, perhaps unmale reader, not seeking esoteric secrets, but listening for a voice that speaks to the soul.” To immediately get a sense of the difference, we might contrast editions of Arthur Waley’s translation, The Way and Its Power: a Study of the Tao Te Ching and Its Place in Chinese Thought, with Le Guin’s Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way.

Waley’s translation “is never going to be equaled for what it does,” serving as a “manual for rulers,” Le Guin says. It was also designed as a guide for scholars, in most editions appending around 100 pages of introduction and 40 pages of opening commentary to the main text. Le Guin, by contrast, reduces her editorial presence to footnotes that never overwhelm, and often don’t appear at all (one note just reads “so much for capitalism”), as well as a few pages of endnotes on sources and variants. “I didn’t figure a whole lot of rulers would be reading it,” she said. “On the other hand, people in positions of responsibility, such as mothers, might be.”

Her version represents a lifelong engagement with a text Le Guin took to heart “as a teenage girl” she says, and found throughout her life that “it obviously is a book that speaks to women.” But her rendering of the poems does not substantially alter the substance. Consider the first two stanzas of her version of Chapter 11 (which she titles “The uses of not”) contrasted with Waley’s CHAPTER XI.

Waley

We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that the
usefulness of the wheel depends.
We turn clay to make a vessel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that the
usefulness of the vessel depends.

Le Guin

Thirty spokes
meet in the hub.
Where the wheel isn’t
is where is it’s useful.

Hollowed out,
clay makes a pot.
Where the pot’s not
is where it’s useful.

Le Guin renders the lines as delightfully folksy oppositions with rhyme and repetition. Waley piles up argumentative clauses. “One of the things I love about Lao Tzu is he is so funny,” Le Guin comments in her note,” a quality that doesn’t come through in many other translations. “He’s explaining a profound and difficult truth here, one of those counterintuitive truths that, when the mind can accept them, suddenly double the size of the universe. He goes about it with this deadpan simplicity, talking about pots.”

Such images captivated the earthy anarchist Le Guin. She drew inspiration for the title of her 1971 novel The Lathe of Heaven from Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu, perhaps showing how she reads her own interests into a text, as all translators and interpreters inevitably do. No translation is definitive. The borrowing turned out to be an example of how even respected Chinese language scholars can misread a text and get it wrong. She found the “lathe of heaven” phrase in James Legge’s translation of Chuang Tzu, and later learned on good authority that there were no lathes in China in Chuang Tzu’s time. “Legge was a bit off on that one,” she writes in her notes.

Scholarly density does not make for perfect accuracy or a readable translation. The versions of Legge and several others were “so obscure as to make me feel the book must be beyond Western comprehension,” writes Le Guin. But as the Tao Te Ching announces at the outset: it offers a Way beyond language. In Legge’s first few lines:

The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and
unchanging Tao. The name that can be named is not the enduring and
unchanging name.

Here is how Le Guin welcomes readers to the Tao — noting that “a satisfactory translation of this chapter is, I believe, perfectly impossible — in the first poem she titles “Taoing”:

The way you can go 
isn’t the real way. 
The name you can say 
isn’t the real name.

Heaven and earth
begin in the unnamed: 
name’s the mother
of the ten thousand things.

So the unwanting soul 
sees what’s hidden,
and the ever-wanting soul 
sees only what it wants.

Two things, one origin, 
but different in name, 
whose identity is mystery.
Mystery of all mysteries! 
The door to the hidden.

All images of the text courtesy of Austin Kleon. 

Related Content: 

Ursula K. Le Guin Names the Books She Likes and Wants You to Read

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Daily Routine: The Discipline That Fueled Her Imagination

Ursula K. Le Guin Stamp Getting Released by the US Postal Service

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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