Saturday, 18 February 2017

Raising a feminist

Being a new parent is full of trials and tribulations. Some are practical challenges that you never envisaged in your life. Like trying to change a nappy on a vigorously rolling one year old without getting covered in poo. Others are more philosophical, like how do I raise a feminist? For this I turn to Eva and Jude, two children who were on a programme called the Secret Life Of Five-Year-Olds (if you haven’t seen it, find it on Channel 4, it’s immense). Why can’t girls be scientists? Jude, a 5-year-old boy, replies that they’d ‘make silly potions’. His companion, a 5-year-old girl named Eva, promptly volunteers ‘I extracted the DNA from a banana once’. Boom. Drops mic. 

I’m not alone in thinking Eva is a feminist icon. I want to write to Eva’s mum and ask for a guide to raising a little girl who schools boys on karate and is aware of the suffragette movement. I suspect step one is to be a well informed feminist yourself. I asked my husband to name some famous females in science or medicine and he could name more than I could. Ugh. I have therefore been schooling myself on some of the less well celebrated, but seriously fierce, females that have blazed a trail in science or medicine. Let me share:

Image: American Red Cross
Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross in 1881 at the age of 60, and headed it for 23 years. This formidable lady also provided aid to soldiers during the American Civil War, venturing into the heart of the battlefield, where medical units feared to tread. In addition to nursing, caring and cooking for soldiers, one of her most significant contributions came towards the end of the war when families sought information about missing loved ones. Then President Lincoln wrote: “To the Friends of Missing Persons: Miss Clara Barton has kindly offered to search for the missing prisoners of war. Please address her . . . giving her the name, regiment, and company of any missing prisoner.” Over four years she and her team responded to over 63,000 letters and identified over 22,000 missing men. Today the Red Cross still provide this searching service and describe it as one of their most valued activities.

Image: Nobel
Irene Joliot-Curie had rather big scientific shoes to fill, with her parents Marie and Pierre Curie having both earned Nobel Prizes. Yet fill them she did - sharing the 1935 Nobel Prize for Chemistry with her husband Frederic Joliot. Irene worked with her mum to provide mobile X-ray units during World War I, returning to her studies in Paris before going on to work at the Institut de Radium which had been founded by her parents. It was here that she and her husband bombarded a piece of aluminium with alpha particles, artificially creating a radioactive substance for the very first time and earning them a Nobel Prize.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler made history in 1864 when she became the first African American woman to be awarded a medical degree. Little is known about her life, and despite her massive achievement no images of her exist today. What we do know of her comes from her 'Book of Medical Discourses', whose existence is further testimony to her intelligence and fortitude as it was one of the first medical publications by an African American. Reflecting on why she had entered into medicine she said: "It may be well to state here that, having been reared by a kind aunt in Pennsylvania, whose usefulness with the sick was continually sought, I early conceived a liking for, and sought every opportunity to relieve the sufferings of others.” Her desire to alleviate suffering was such that she treated children without concern for their parents ability to pay her.

If you’re interested in more impressive women, there’s a helpful (though woefully short) list of female Nobel Laureates available here. The NIH also has an interesting project called Changing the Face of Medicine which celebrates female physicians. 

In the week of Galentine’s Day, I’d like to say a big thank you to these women and to all the strong women I’m lucky to have in my life. I look forward to raising my little feminist with my staunchly feminist hubbie, and maybe toots will follow in the footsteps of these illustrious women. Or maybe she’ll carve her own unique path. Whatever road she chooses I hope she’ll know that well-behaved women rarely make history.