“Democracy may not exist,” Astra Taylor declares in the title of her new book, “but we’ll miss it when it’s gone.” This inherent paradox, she argues, is not fatal, but a tension with which each era’s democratic movements must wrestle, in messy struggles against inevitable opposition. “Perfect democracy… may not in fact exist and never will, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make progress toward it, or that what there is of it can’t disappear.”
Taylor is upfront about “democracy’s dark history, from slavery and colonialism to facilitating the emergence of fascism.” But she is equally celebratory of its successes—moments when those who were denied rights marshaled every means at their disposal, from lobbying campaigns to confrontational direct action, to win the vote and better the lives of millions. For all its imperfections, the women’s suffrage movement of the 19th and early 20th century did just that.
It did so—even before electronic mass communication systems—by building international activist networks and forming national associations that took highly-visible action for decades until the 19th Amendment passed in 1920. We can learn how this all came about from the sources themselves, through the “letters, speeches, newspaper articles, personal diaries, and other materials from famed suffragists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.”
So reports Mental Floss, describing the Library of Congress’ digital collection of suffragist papers, which includes dozens of famous and less famous activist voices. In one example of both international cooperation and international tension, Carrie Chapman Catt, Anthony’s successor (see a published excerpt of one of her speeches below), describes her experience at the Congress of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance in Rome. “A more unpromising place for a Congress I never saw,” she wrote, dismayed. Maybe despite herself she reveals that the differences might have been cultural: “The Italian women could not comprehend our disapproval.”
The fractious, often disappointing, relationships between the larger international women’s suffrage movement, the African American women’s suffrage movement, and mostly male Civil Rights leaders in the U.S. are represented by the diaries. letters, notebooks, and speeches of Mary Church Terrell, “a founder of the National Association of Colored Women. These documents shed light on minorities’ laborious suffrage struggles and her own dealings with Civil Rights figures like W.E.B. Du Bois.” (Terrell became an activist in 1892 and lived to fight against Jim Crow segregation in the early 1950s.)
The collection includes “some 16,000 historic papers related to the women’s rights movement alone.” All of them have been digitally scanned, and if you’re eager to dig into this formidable archive, you’re in luck. The Library of Congress is asking for help transcribing so that everyone can read these primary sources of democratic history. So far, reports Smithsonian, over 4200 documents have been transcribed, as part of a larger, crowdsourced project called By the People, which has previously transcribed papers from Abraham Lincoln, Clara Barton, Walt Whitman, and others.
Rather than focusing on an individual, this project is inclusive of what is arguably the main engine of democracy: large-scale social movements—paradoxically the most democratic means of claiming individual rights. Enter the impressive digital collection “Suffrage: Women Fight for the Vote” here, and, if you’re moved by civic duty or scholarly curiosity, sign up to transcribe.
And now? Meet Nellie Bly, cartoon action hero. (Heroine? Hard to say which honorific the opinionated and forward-thinking Bly, born in 1864, would prefer…)
Filmmaker Penny Lane‘s “Nellie Bly Makes the News,” above, is not the first to recognize this sort of potential in the pioneering journalist, whose 151st birthday was celebrated with an animated Google Doodle and accompanying song by Karen O, but Lane (no relation to Lois, the fictional reporter modeled on you-know-who) wisely lets Bly speak for herself.
Not only that, she brings her into the studio for a 21st-century interview, in which an eye-rolling Bly describes the resistance she encountered from the male elite, who felt it was not just unseemly but impossible that a young woman should pursue the sort of journalistic career she envisioned for herself.
Biographer Brooke Kroeger and brief glimpses of archival materials touch on some of the other highlights in Bly’s audacious, self-directed career.
The cartoon Bly’s hairdo and attire are period appropriate, but her vocal inflections, courtesy of broadcast reporter and voiceover artist Sammi Jo Francis, are closer in spirit to that of Broad City’s Ilana Glazer.
(Interesting to note, given Bly’s complaints about how prominently the one dress she took on her round the world trip featured in outside stories about that adventure, that dress is a preoccupation of The Appreciation of Booted Newswomen blog. Respectful as that site is, the focus there is definitely not on journalistic achievement.)
The seemingly never-ending era of female artists laboring in the shadows cast by their male colleagues is coming to a close.
Ditto the tyranny of the male gaze.
Women Who Draw, a database of over 5,000 professional artists, offers a thrillingly diverse panoply of female imagery, all created, as the site’s name suggests, by artists who identify as women.
Launched by illustrators Julia Rothman and Wendy MacNaughton in response to a dismaying lack of gender parity among cover artists of a prominent magazine—in 2015, men were responsible for 92%—the site aims to channel work to female artists by boosting visibility.
To that end, each illustrator tossing her hat in the ring is required to upload an illustration of a woman, ideally a full body view, on a white background.
The result is an astonishing range of styles, from an international cast of creators.
Not surprisingly, the majority of contributors are based on the East Coast of the United States, but given the site’s mission to promote female illustrators of color, as well as LBTQ+ and other less visible groups, expect to see growing numbers from Africa, the Caribbean, the Middle East, and Central and South America.
In addition to indicating their location, artists can checklist their religion, orientation, and ethnicity/race. (Those who would check“white” or “straight” should be prepared to accept that those categories are tabled as “WWD encourages people to seek out underrepresented groups of women.”)
Bean counting aside, the personalities of individual contributors shine through.
Some, like Paris-based American Laura Park, choose explicit self-portraiture.
Final words of encouragement from Lindsey Andrews, Assistant Art Director for the Penguin Young Readers Design Group:
Just keep putting your work out there in any form you can think of. Update your various social platforms regularly. Mail postcards of your work. Send emails. Network when you can. But, mainly, do what you love. Even if you have a portfolio full of commissioned pieces, I still like to see what you create when you get to create whatever you want. Also, let me know your process!
For most of scientific history, women who made contributions to various fields have been sidelined or ignored in favor of male colleagues, who reaped fame, professional recognition, and cash rewards that come with prestigious prizes like the Nobel. Cornell historian of science Margaret Rossiter coined the term “The Matilda Effect” to describe sexist bias in the sciences. Rossiter’s work and popular reappraisals like book-turned-film Hidden Figureshave inspired other women in academia to search for forgotten female scientists, and to find them, literally, in footnotes.
When systematic discrimination limits opportunities for any group, those who do receive recognition, the exceptions to the rule, must often be truly exceptional to succeed. There has been little doubt, both in her lifetime and in the many decades afterward, that Marie Curie was such a person. Although forced to study science in secret at a clandestine “Floating University” in her native Poland—since the universities refused to admit women—Curie (born Marie Salomea Sklodowska in 1867) would achieve such renown in her field that she was awarded not one, but two Nobel Prizes.
Curie and her husband Pierre shared the Nobel Prizein Physics with Antoine Henri Becquerel, discoverer of radioactivity, in 1903. The second prize, in Chemistry, was hers alone in 1911, “in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element.” Curie was not only the first woman to win a Nobel, but she was also the first person to win twice, and the only person to win in two different sciences.
These are but a handful of achievements in a string of firsts for Curie: denied positions in Poland, she earned a Ph.D. in France, awarded the degree in 1903 by the Sorbonne, the same year she won her first Nobel. “Her examiners,” notes the site Famous Scientists, “were of the view that she had made the greatest contribution to science ever found in a Ph.D. thesis.” Three years later, after Pierre was killed in an accident, Marie was offered his professorship and became the first female professor at the University of Paris.
Curie succeeded not in the absence of, but in spite of the sexist obstacles placed in her path at nearly every stage in her career. After she received her doctorate, the Curies were invited to the Royal Institution in London. Only Pierre was permitted to speak. That same year, the Nobel Committee decided to honor only her husband and Becquerel. The Academy relented when Pierre protested. Curie fell victim to a wave of xenophobia and anti-Semitism (though she was not Jewish) that swept through France in the 1900s, most famously in the so-called “Dreyfus Affair.”
In 1911, the year of her second Nobel, Curie was passed over for membership in the French Academy of Sciences. It would take another 51 years before the first woman, Marguerite Perey, a former doctoral student of Curie, would be elected to that body. That same year, Curie was persecuted relentlessly by the French press, the public, and her scientific rivals after it was revealed that she had had a brief affair with physicist Paul Langevin, one of Pierre Curie’s former students.
But no matter how many men in positions of power wanted to deter Curie, there always seemed to be more influential scientists and politicians who recognized the supreme value of her work and the need to help her continue it. After her second Nobel Prize, her native country finally recognized her with the offer to direct her own laboratory in Warsaw. Curie turned it down to focus on directing the Curie Laboratory in the Radium Institute of the University of Paris, which she founded in 1914, a major achievement and, again, only a small part of her legacy.
Curie is known, of course, foremost for her exceptional scientific work, but also for opening doors for women in science all over the world, though much of that door-opening may only have happened decades after her death in 1934, and much of it hasn’t happened at all yet. Incidentally, in the following year, the Curies’ daughter Irène Joliot-Curie and her husband Frédéric Joliot-Curie were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Since then, only two other women have claimed that honor, and only two women, including Marie Curie, have won the Prize in physics, out of 203 winners total.
There may be nothing yet like gender parity in the sciences, but those who know where to look can find the names of dozens of women scientists running women-owned companies, women-founded research institutes and academic departments, and, like the famous Curies, making major contributions to chemistry. Perhaps not long from now, many of those exceptional scientists will be as well-known and widely celebrated as Marie Curie.
In hindsight, it seems like a very different world when I first read Judith Butler’s Gender Troublein college in the 90s. (Mash together all your stereotypes about college campuses in the 90s and you’ve pretty much got the picture.) For one thing, columnists in major national newspapers and magazines weren’t writing controversial, or simply explanatory, articles about gender fluidity. The concept did not exist in the mainstream press. It seemed both hip and rarified, confined to theory discussion groups, academic seminars, and punk zines.
As radical as Butler’s ideas about gender seemed, she acknowledged that she did not originate the critique. She found it first articulated in Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, in which the French existentialist feminist wrote, “one is not born a woman, but rather becomes one.”
In the short film above, Devenir (To Become), by French filmmaker Géraldine Charpentier-Basille, Butler describes her reaction to reading the passage. “I wrote something about this problem of becoming. And I wanted to know: does one ever become one? Or is that to be a woman is a mode of becoming… that has no goal…. You could say the same of gender more generally.”
As the images illustrating this extract from a 2006 interview with Butler show, the goalposts of feminine and masculine identities move all the time, from year to year, from culture to culture. Gender is a pastiche of representations we inhabit. It is produced, performative, Butler thought, but we can never get it “right” because there is no true referent. The idea descends from the existentialist insights of de Beauvoir, who wrote about and dramatized similar problems of the personal and social self.
De Beauvoir extended Sartre’s claim that “existence precedes essence” in her pioneering feminist work—we come into the world, then acquire identities through acculturation, social conditioning, and coercion. Butler extended the argument further. “For her, writes Aeon’s Will Fraker, “gender wasn’t predetermined by nature or biology, nor was it simply ‘made up’ by culture. Rather, Butler insisted that gender resides in repeated words and actions, words and actions that both shape and are shaped by the bodies of real, flesh-and-blood human beings. And crucially, such repetitions are rarely performed freely.”
From our earliest years, we are trained how to behave as a gender, just as we are taught to perform other identities—trained by the expectations of parents, teachers, religious leaders, advertisers, and the bullying and social pressure of our peers. Hear Butler explain further how gender, in her theory, functions as “a phenomenon that is produced and is being reproduced all the time…. Nobody really is a gender from the start. I know it’s controversial,” she says. “But that’s my claim.” It is one that poses complicated questions more broadly, notes Aeon, about “the pursuit of the ‘authentic’ self” as a meaningful idea—questions Western philosophers have been asking for well over half a century.
What triggered the worst impulses of the Internet last week?
The world’s first photo of a black hole, which proved the presence of troll life here on earth, and confirms that female scientists, through no fault of their own, have a much longer way to go, baby.
If you want a taste, sort the comments on the two year old TED Talk, above, so they’re ordered “newest first.”
Katie Bouman, soon-to-be assistant professor of computing and mathematical sciences at the California Institute of Technology, was a PhD candidate at MIT two years ago, when she taped the talk, but she could’ve passed for a nervous high schooler competing in the National Science Bowl finals, in clothes borrowed from Aunt Judy, who works at the bank.
The focus of her studies were the ways in which emerging computational methods could help expand the boundaries of interdisciplinary imaging.
Prior to last week, I’m not sure how well I could have parsed the focus of her work had she not taken the time to help less STEM-inclined viewers such as myself wrap our heads around her highly technical, then-wholly-theoretical subject.
What I know about black holes could still fit in a thimble, and in truth, my excitement about one being photographed for the first time pales in comparison to my excitement about Game of Thrones returning to the airwaves.
I’ve always been very one-sided about science and when I was younger I concentrated almost all my effort on it. I didn’t have time to learn and I didn’t have much patience with what’s called the humanities, even though in the university there were humanities that you had to take. I tried my best to avoid somehow learning anything and working at it. It was only afterwards, when I got older, that I got more relaxed, that I’ve spread out a little bit. I’ve learned to draw and I read a little bit, but I’m really still a very one-sided person and I don’t know a great deal. I have a limited intelligence and I use it in a particular direction.
I’m pretty sure my lack of passion for science is not tied to my gender. Some of my best friends are guys who feel the same. (Some of them don’t like team sports either.)
But I couldn’t help but experience a wee thrill that this young woman, a science nerd who admittedly could’ve used a few theater nerd tips regarding relaxation and public speaking, realized her dream—an honest to goodness photo of a black hole just like the one she talked about in her TED Talk, “How to take a picture of a black hole.”
Bouman and the 200+ colleagues she acknowledges and thanks at every opportunity, achieved their goal, not with an earth-sized camera but rather a network of linked telescopes, much as she had described two years earlier, when she invoked disco balls, Mick Jagger, oranges, selfies, and a jigsaw puzzle in an effort to help people like me understand.
Look at that sucker (or, more accurately, its shadow!) That thing’s 500 million trillion kilometers from Earth!
I’ll bet a lot of elementary science teachers, be they male, female, or non-binary, are going to make science fun by having their students draw pictures of the picture of the black hole.
If we could go back (or forward) in time, I can almost guarantee that mine would be among the best because while I didn’t “get” science (or gym), I was a total art star with the crayons.
Then, crafty as Lord Petyr Baelish when presentation time rolled around, I would partner with a girl like Katie Bouman, who could explain the science with winning vigor. She genuinely seems to embrace the idea that it “takes a village,” and that one’s fellow villagers should be credited whenever possible.
(How did I draw the black hole, you ask? Honestly, it’s not that much harder than drawing a doughnut. Now back to Katie!)
Alas, her professional warmth failed to register with legions of Internet trolls who began sliming her shortly after a colleague at MIT shared a beaming snapshot of her, taken, presumably, with a regular old phone as the black hole made its debut. That pic cemented her accidental status as the face of this project.
Note to the trolls—it wasn’t a dang selfie.
“I’m so glad that everyone is as excited as we are and people are finding our story inspirational,’’ Bouman toldThe New York Times. “However, the spotlight should be on the team and no individual person. Focusing on one person like this helps no one, including me.”
Although Bouman was a junior team member, she and other grad students made major contributions. She directed the verification of images, the selection of imaging parameters, and authored an imaging algorithm that researchers used in the creation of three scripted code pipelines from which the instantly-famous picture was cobbled together.
One of the insights Katie brought to our imaging group is that there are natural images. Just think about the photos you take with your camera phone—they have certain properties…. If you know what one pixel is, you have a good guess as to what the pixel is next to it.
Part of the reason that some posters found Bouman immediately suspicious had to do with her gender. Famously, a number of prominent men like disgraced former CERN physicist Alessandro Strumia have argued that women aren’t being discriminated against in science — they simply don’t like it, or don’t have the aptitude for it. That argument fortifies a notion that women don’t belong in science, or can’t really be doing the work. So women like Bouman must be fakes, this warped line of thinking goes…
Even I, whose 7th grade science teacher tempered a bad grade on my report card by saying my interest in theater would likely serve me much better than anything I might eek from her class, know that just as many girls and women excel at science, technology, engineering, and math as excel in the arts. (Sometimes they excel at both!)
(And power to every little boy with his sights set on nursing, teaching, or ballet!)
(How many black holes have the haters photographed recently?)
Saying that she was part of a larger team doesn’t diminish her work, or minimize her involvement in what is already a history-making project. Highlighting the achievements of a brilliant, enthusiastic scientist does not diminish the contributions of the other 214 people who worked on the project, either. But what it is doing is showing a different model for a scientist than the one most of us grew up with. That might mean a lot to some kids — maybe kids who look like her — making them excited about studying the wonders of the Universe.
Seder-Masochism, copyright abolitionist Nina Paley’s latest animated release, is guaranteed to ruffle feathers in certain quarters, though the last laugh belongs to this trickster artist, who shares writing credit with ”God, Moses or a series of patriarchal males, depending on who you ask.”
It also lets the air out of any affronted parties’ campaigns for mass box office boycotts.
“The criticism seems equally divided between people that say I’m a Zionist and people that say I’m an anti-Zionist,” Paley says of This Land Is Mine, below, a stunning sequence of tribal and inter-tribal carnage, memorably set to Ernest Gold’s theme for the 1960 epic Paul Newman vehicle, Exodus.
Released as a stand-alone short, This Land Is Mine has become the most viewed of Paley’s works. She finds the opposing camps’ equal outcry encouraging, proof that she’s doing “something right.”
What would the ancient fertility goddesses populating both art history and Seder-Masochism have to say about that development?
In Seder-Masochism, these goddess figures, whom Paley earlier transformed into a series of free downloadable GIFs, offer a mostly silent rebuke to those who refuse to acknowledge any conception of the divine existing outside patriarchal tradition.
In the case of Assistant Professor Nguyen, perhaps the goddesses would err on the side of diplomacy (and the First Amendment), framing the dust-up as just one more reason the public should be glad the project’s lodged in the public domain. Anyone with access to the Internet and a desire to see the film will have the opportunity to do so. Called out, maybe. Shut down, never.
The goddesses supply a depth of meaning to this largely comic undertaking. Their ample curves inform many of the patterns that give motion to the animated cutouts.
Paley also gets a lot of mileage from replicating supernumerary characters until they march with ant-like purpose or bedazzle in Busby Berkeley-style spectacles. Not since Paul Mazursky’s Tempest have goats loomed so large in cinematic choreography…
The elements of the Seder plate are listed to the strains of “Tijuana Taxi” because… well, who doesn’t love Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass?
Paley’s own religious background is of obvious interest here, and as with her previous feature, Sita Sings the Blues—also in the public domain—the autobiographical element is irresistible. A 2011 audio recording provides the excuse to portray her father, Hiram, who died the year after the interview was conducted, as a Monty Python-esque God. The senior Paley was raised in an observant Jewish household, but lost faith as a young man. An atheist who wanted his children to know something of their heritage, Passover was the one Jewish holiday he continued to celebrate. (He also forbade the kids from participating in any sort of secular Christmas activities.)
A wistful God with the complexion of a dollar bill, Hiram is at times surrounded by putti, in the form of his parents, his contentious Uncle Herschel, and his own sweet younger self.
As you may have gleaned, Paley, despite the clean elegance of her animated line, is a maximalist. There’s something for everyone (excepting, of course, Mimi Thi Nguyen)—a gleaming golden idol, a ball bouncing above hieroglyphic lyrics, actual footage of atrocities committed in a state of religious fervor, Moses’ brother Aaron—a figure who’s often shoved to the sidelines, if not left outright on the cutting room floor.
We leave you with Paley’s prayer to her Muse, found freely shared on her website:
It’s too easy, when our historical knowledge is limited, to mistake effects for causes, to fall for just-so stories that naturalize and perpetuate inequality. Many of us may have only recently learned, for example, that the moon landing would not have been possible without mathematician Katherine Johnson and her Hidden Figures colleagues, or that the Hubble telescope would not have been possible without astronomer Nancy G. Roman (now immortalized in LEGO). Prior to this knowledge, we might have been led to believe that women had little to do with humankind’s first leaps into outer space, to the surface of the moon, and beyond.
When Brown University’s Emilia Huerta-Sánchez and San Francisco State University’s Rori Rohlfs saw Hidden Figures, they decided to research their specialization, theoretical population genetics. It may not be as glamorous as space travel, and their research may not become a Hollywood film or LEGO set, but the results they unearthed are revelatory and important. During the 1970s, for example, “a pivotal time for the field of population genetics,” notes Ed Yong at The Atlantic, the two researchers and their team of undergraduates found that “women accounted for 59 percent of acknowledged programmers, but just 7 percent of actual authors.”
Those women were scientists doing “crucial work,” writes Yong. One programmer, Margaret Wu, created a statistical tool still regularly used to calculate optimal genetic diversity. Her model appeared in a 1975 paper and is now known as the Watterson estimator, after the “one and only” named author, G.A. Watterson. “The paper has been cited 3,400 times.” Today, “if a scientist did all the programming for a study, she would expect to be listed as an author.” But the practice only began to change in the 1980s, when “programming began changing from a ‘pink collar’ job, done largely by low-paid women, to the male-dominated profession it remains today.”
The marginalization of female programmers during some of the field’s most productive years—their relegation to literal footnotes in history—has created the impression, as Huerta- Sánchez, Rohlfs, and their co-authors write, that “this research was conducted by a relatively small number of independent individual scientists nearly all of whom were men.” See a summary of the authors’ findings in the video above. To obtain their results, they combed through every issue of the journal Theoretical Population Biology—nearly 900 papers—then pulled out “every name in the acknowledgments, worked out whether they did any programming, and deduced their genders where possible.”
The study, published in the latest issue of Geneticsdoes not comprehensively survey the entire field, nor does it definitively show that every programmer who contributed to a paper did so substantively enough to warrant authorship. But it does not need to do these things. The disparities between named authors and marginally acknowledged scientific laborers in a major journal in the field calls for an explanation beyond selection bias or chance. The explanation of systemic bias not only has the benefit of being well-supported by a huge aggregate of data across the sciences, but it also presents us with a situation that can be changed when the problems are widely seen and acknowledged.
The study‘s results “dispel the misconception that women weren’t participating in science,” the researchers point out in their video, and they suggest that a significant number of women in genetics weren’t given the credit they deserved. Huerta- Sánchez and Rohlfs walk their talk. The undergraduate researchers who worked on “Illuminating Women’s Hidden Contribution to Historical Theoretical Population Genetics” are all named as authors in the paper, so that their contributions to writing a new history of their field can be recognized.
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