The History of Birth Control: From Alligator Dung to The Pill

The his­to­ry of birth con­trol is almost as old as the his­to­ry of the wheel.

Pes­saries dat­ing to Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt pro­vide the launch­ing pad for doc­u­men­tar­i­an Lind­say Hol­i­day’s overview of birth con­trol through­out the ages and around the world.

Holiday’s His­to­ry Tea Time series fre­quent­ly delves into women’s his­to­ry, and her pledge to donate a por­tion of the above video’s ad rev­enue to Pathfind­er Inter­na­tional serves as reminder that there are parts of the world where women still lack access to afford­able, effec­tive, and safe means of con­tra­cep­tion.

One goal of the World Health Organization’s End­ing Pre­ventable Mater­nal Mor­tal­i­ty ini­tia­tive is for 65% of women to be able to make informed and empow­ered deci­sions regard­ing sex­u­al rela­tions, con­tra­cep­tive use, and their repro­duc­tive health by 2025.

As Hol­i­day points out, expense, social stig­ma, and reli­gious edicts have impact­ed ease of access to birth con­trol for cen­turies.

The fur­ther back you go, you can be cer­tain that some meth­ods advo­cat­ed by mid­wives and med­i­cine women have been lost to his­to­ry, owing to unrecord­ed oral tra­di­tion and the sen­si­tive nature of the infor­ma­tion.

Hol­i­day still man­ages to truf­fle up a fas­ci­nat­ing array of prac­tices and prod­ucts that were thought — often erro­neous­ly — to ward off unwant­ed preg­nan­cy.

Some that worked and con­tin­ue to work to vary­ing degrees, include bar­ri­er meth­ods, con­doms, and more recent­ly the IUD and The Pill.

Def­i­nite­ly NOT rec­om­mend­ed: with­draw­al, hold­ing your breath dur­ing inter­course, a post-coital sneez­ing reg­i­men, douch­ing with Lysol or Coca-Cola, tox­ic cock­tails of lead, mer­cury or cop­per salt, any­thing involv­ing alli­ga­tor dung, and slug­ging back water that’s been used to wash a corpse.

As for sil­phi­um, an herb that like­ly did have some sort of sper­mi­ci­dal prop­er­ties, we’ll nev­er know for sure. By 1 CE, demand out­stripped sup­ply of this rem­e­dy, even­tu­al­ly wip­ing it off the face of the earth despite increas­ing­ly astro­nom­i­cal prices. Fun fact: sil­phi­um was also used to treat sore throat, snakebite, scor­pi­on stings, mange, gout, quin­sy, epilep­sy, and anal warts

The his­to­ry of birth con­trol can be con­sid­ered a semi-secret part of the his­to­ry of pros­ti­tu­tion, fem­i­nism, the mil­i­tary, obscen­i­ty laws, sex edu­ca­tion and atti­tudes toward pub­lic health.

From Mar­garet Sanger and the 60,000 women exe­cut­ed as witch­es in the 16th and 17th cen­turies, to econ­o­mist Thomas Malthus’ 1798 Essay on the Prin­ci­ple of Pop­u­la­tion and leg­endary adven­tur­er Gia­co­mo Casano­va’s satin rib­bon-trimmed jim­my hat, this episode of His­to­ry Tea Time with Lind­say Hol­i­day touch­es on it all.

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

The Birth Con­trol Hand­book: The Under­ground Stu­dent Pub­li­ca­tion That Let Women Take Con­trol of Their Bod­ies (1968)

I’m Just a Pill: A School­house Rock Clas­sic Gets Reimag­ined to Defend Repro­duc­tive Rights in 2017

The Sto­ry Of Men­stru­a­tion: Watch Walt Disney’s Sex Ed Film from 1946

Meet Anita Berber, the Cabaret Star Who Scandalized Weimar-Era Berlin

Ani­ta Berber, the taboo-bust­ing, sex­u­al­ly omniv­o­rous, fash­ion for­ward, fre­quent­ly naked star of the Weimar Repub­lic cabaret scene, tops our list of per­form­ers we real­ly wish we’d been able to see live.

While Berber act­ed in 27 films, includ­ing Pros­ti­tu­tion, direc­tor Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse: The Gam­bler, and Dif­fer­ent from the Oth­ers, which film crit­ic Den­nis Har­vey describes as “the first movie to por­tray homo­sex­u­al char­ac­ters beyond the usu­al innu­en­do and ridicule,” we have a strong hunch that none of these appear­ances can com­pete with the sheer audac­i­ty of her stage work.

Audi­ences at Berlin’s White Mouse cabaret (some wear­ing black or white masks to con­ceal their iden­ti­ties) were tit­il­lat­ed by her Expres­sion­is­tic nude solo chore­og­ra­phy, as well as the troupe of six teenaged dancers under her com­mand.

As biog­ra­ph­er Mel Gor­don writes in The Sev­en Addic­tions and Five Pro­fes­sions of Ani­ta Berber: Weimar Berlin’s Priest­ess of Deprav­i­ty, Berber, often described as a “strip­per”, dis­played the pas­sion of a seri­ous artist, “respond(ing) to the audience’s heck­ling with show-stop­ping obscen­i­ties and inde­cent provo­ca­tions:”

Berber had been known to spit brandy on them or stand naked on their tables, dous­ing her­self in wine whilst simul­ta­ne­ous­ly uri­nat­ing… It was not long before the entire cabaret one night sank into a groundswell of shout­ing, screams and laugh­ter.  Ani­ta jumped off the stage in fum­ing rage, grabbed the near­est cham­pagne bot­tle and smashed it over a businessman’s head.

Her col­lab­o­ra­tions with her sec­ond hus­band, dancer Sebas­t­ian Droste, car­ried Berber into increas­ing­ly trans­gres­sive ter­ri­to­ry, both onstage and off.

Accord­ing to trans­la­tor Mer­rill Cole, in the intro­duc­tion to the 2012 reis­sue of Dances of Vice, Hor­ror and Ecsta­sy, a book of Expres­sion­ist poems, essays, pho­tographs, and stage designs which Droste and Berber co-authored, “even the bio­graph­i­cal details seduce:”

…a bisex­u­al some­times-pros­ti­tute and a shady fig­ure from the male homo­sex­u­al under­world, unit­ed in addic­tion to cocaine and dis­dain for bour­geois respectabil­i­ty, both high­ly tal­ent­ed, Expres­sion­ist-trained dancers, both beau­ti­ful exhi­bi­tion­ists, set out to pro­vide the Baby­lon on the Spree with the ulti­mate expe­ri­ence of deprav­i­ty, using an art form they had helped to invent for this pur­pose. Their brief mar­riage and artis­tic inter­ac­tion end­ed when Droste became des­per­ate for drugs and abscond­ed with Berber’s jew­el col­lec­tion.

This, and the descrip­tion of Berber’s pen­chant for “haunt(ing) Weimar Berlin’s hotel lob­bies, night­clubs and casi­nos, radi­ant­ly naked except for an ele­gant sable wrap, a pet mon­key hang­ing from her neck, and a sil­ver brooch packed with cocaine,” do a far more evoca­tive job of res­ur­rect­ing Berber, the Weimar sen­sa­tion, than any wordy, blow-by-blow attempt to recre­ate her shock­ing per­for­mances, though we can’t fault author Karl Toepfer, Pro­fes­sor Emer­i­tus of The­ater Arts at San Jose State Uni­ver­si­ty, for try­ing.

In Empire of Ecsta­sy: Nudi­ty and Move­ment in Ger­man Body Cul­ture, 1910–1935, Toepfer draws heav­i­ly on Czech chore­o­g­ra­ph­er Joe Jenčík’s eye­wit­ness obser­va­tions, to recon­struct Berber’s most noto­ri­ous dance, Cocaine, begin­ning with the “omi­nous scenery by Har­ry Täu­ber fea­tur­ing a tall lamp on a low, cloth-cov­ered table:”

This lamp was an expres­sion­ist sculp­ture with an ambigu­ous form that one could read as a sign of the phal­lus, an abstrac­tion of the female dancer’s body, or a mon­u­men­tal image of a syringe, for a long, shiny nee­dle pro­trud­ed from the top of it…It is not clear how nude Berber was when she per­formed the dance. Jenčík, writ­ing in 1929, flat­ly stat­ed that she was nude, but the famous Vien­nese pho­tog­ra­ph­er Madame D’O­ra (Dora Kalmus) took a pic­ture enti­tled “Kokain” in which Berber appears in a long black dress that expos­es her breasts and whose lac­ing, up the front, reveals her flesh to below her navel.

In any case, accord­ing to Jenčík, she dis­played “a sim­ple tech­nique of nat­ur­al steps and unforced pos­es.” But though the tech­nique was sim­ple, the dance itself, one of Berber’s most suc­cess­ful cre­ations, was appar­ent­ly quite com­plex. Ris­ing from an ini­tial con­di­tion of paral­y­sis on the floor (or pos­si­bly from the table, as indi­cat­ed by Täu­ber’s sceno­graph­ic notes), she adopt­ed a pri­mal move­ment involv­ing a slow, sculp­tured turn­ing of her body, a kind of slow-motion effect. The turn­ing rep­re­sent­ed the unrav­el­ing of a “knot of flesh.” But as the body uncoiled, it con­vulsed into “sep­a­rate parts,” pro­duc­ing a vari­ety of rhythms with­in itself. Berber used all parts of her body to con­struct a “trag­ic” con­flict between the healthy body and the poi­soned body: she made dis­tinct rhythms out of the move­ment of her mus­cles; she used “unex­pect­ed counter-move­ments” of her head to cre­ate an anguished sense of bal­ance; her “porce­lain-col­ored arms” made hyp­not­ic, pen­du­lum­like move­ments, like a mar­i­onet­te’s; with­in the pri­mal turn­ing of her body, there appeared con­tra­dic­to­ry turns of her wrists, tor­so, ankles; the rhythm of her breath­ing fluc­tu­at­ed with dra­mat­ic effect; her intense dark eyes fol­lowed yet anoth­er, slow­er rhythm; and she intro­duced the “most refined nuances of agili­ty” in mak­ing spasms of sen­sa­tion rip­ple through her fin­gers, nos­trils, and lips. Yet, despite all this com­plex­i­ty, she was not afraid of seem­ing “ridicu­lous” or “painful­ly swollen.” The dance con­clud­ed when the con­vulsed dancer attempt­ed to cry out (with the “blood-red open­ing of the mouth”) and could not. The dancer then hurled her­self to the floor and assumed a pose of motion­less, drugged sleep. Berber’s dance dra­ma­tized the intense ambi­gu­i­ty involved in link­ing the ecsta­t­ic lib­er­a­tion of the body to nudi­ty and rhyth­mic con­scious­ness. The dance tied ecsta­t­ic expe­ri­ence to an encounter with vice (addic­tion) and hor­ror (acute aware­ness of death).

A noble attempt, but for­give us if we can’t quite pic­ture it…

And what lit­tle evi­dence has been pre­served of her screen appear­ances exists at a sim­i­lar remove from  the dark sub­ject mat­ter she explic­it­ly ref­er­enced in her chore­o­graphed work — Mor­phine, Sui­cideThe Corpse on the Dis­sect­ing Table…

Cole opines:

There are a num­ber of nar­ra­tive accounts of her dances, some pinned by pro­fes­sion­al crit­ics, and almost all com­mend­ing her tal­ent, finesse, and mes­mer­iz­ing stage pres­ence. We also have film images from the var­i­ous silent films in which she played bit parts. There exist, too, many still pho­tographs of Berber and Droste, as well as ren­di­tions of Berber by oth­er artists, most promi­nent­ly the Dadaist Otto Dix’s famous scar­let-sat­u­rat­ed por­trait. In regard to the naked dances, unfor­tu­nate­ly, we have no mov­ing images, no way to watch direct­ly how they were per­formed.

For a dishy overview of Ani­ta Berber’s per­son­al life, includ­ing her alleged dal­liances with actress Mar­lene Diet­rich, author Lawrence Dur­rell, and the King of Yugoslavia, her influ­en­tial effect on direc­tor Leni Riefen­stahl, and her sad demise at the age of 29, a “car­rion soul that even the hye­nas ignored,” take a peek at Vic­to­ria Linchong’s bio­graph­i­cal essay for Messy Nessy Chic, or bet­ter yet, Iron Spike’s Twit­ter thread.

via Messy Nessy

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Expe­ri­ence Footage of Roar­ing 1920s Berlin, Restored & Col­orized with Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence

The Nazis’ 10 Con­trol-Freak Rules for Jazz Per­form­ers: A Strange List from World War II

Down­load Hun­dreds of Issues of Jugend, Germany’s Pio­neer­ing Art Nou­veau Mag­a­zine (1896–1940)

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Marie Curie Became the First Woman to Win a Nobel Prize, the First Per­son to Win Twice, and the Only Per­son in His­to­ry to Win in Two Dif­fer­ent Sci­ences

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

Women Sci­en­tists Launch a Data­base Fea­tur­ing the Work of 9,000 Women Work­ing in the Sci­ences

“The Matil­da Effect”: How Pio­neer­ing Women Sci­en­tists Have Been Denied Recog­ni­tion and Writ­ten Out of Sci­ence His­to­ry

The Lit­tle-Known Female Sci­en­tists Who Mapped 400,000 Stars Over a Cen­tu­ry Ago: An Intro­duc­tion to the “Har­vard Com­put­ers”

Real Women Talk About Their Careers in Sci­ence

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Women Sci­en­tists Launch a Data­base Fea­tur­ing the Work of 9,000 Women Work­ing in the Sci­ences

How Zora Neale Hurston & Eleanor Roo­sevelt Helped Cre­ate the First Real­is­tic African Amer­i­can Baby Doll (1951)

The New David Bowie Bar­bie Doll Released to Com­mem­o­rate the 50th Anniver­sary of “Space Odd­i­ty”

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

“The Matil­da Effect”: How Pio­neer­ing Women Sci­en­tists Have Been Denied Recog­ni­tion and Writ­ten Out of Sci­ence His­to­ry

How the Female Sci­en­tist Who Dis­cov­ered the Green­house Gas Effect Was For­got­ten by His­to­ry

Marie Curie Became the First Woman to Win a Nobel Prize, the First Per­son to Win Twice, and the Only Per­son in His­to­ry to Win in Two Dif­fer­ent Sci­ences

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Ven­er­a­ble Female Artists, Musi­cians & Authors Give Advice to the Young: Pat­ti Smith, Lau­rie Ander­son & More

Ele­men­tary School Kids Sing David Bowie’s “Space Odd­i­ty” & Oth­er Rock Hits: A Cult Clas­sic Record­ed in 1976

Hear 11-Year-Old Björk Sing “I Love to Love”: Her First Record­ed Song (1976)

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

The Enig­ma Machine: How Alan Tur­ing Helped Break the Unbreak­able Nazi Code

How British Code­break­ers Built the First Elec­tron­ic Com­put­er

Three Ama­teur Cryp­tog­ra­phers Final­ly Decrypt­ed the Zodi­ac Killer’s Let­ters: A Look Inside How They Solved a Half Cen­tu­ry-Old Mys­tery

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

The Sto­ry Behind the Icon­ic Pho­to­graph of 11 Con­struc­tion Work­ers Lunch­ing 840 Feet Above New York City (1932)

Watch the Com­plete­ly Unsafe, Ver­ti­go-Induc­ing Footage of Work­ers Build­ing New York’s Icon­ic Sky­scrap­ers

Watch 85,000 His­toric News­reel Films from British Pathé Free Online (1910–2008)

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.

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