Kickass Women

History is filled with women doing all kinds of kickass stuff.

Smart Girls

Watch these girls... they're going places!

Inspiration

Need a dose of inspiration? Here you go.

SRPS Entertainment

Some of my entertainment recommendations with awesome female characters and stars.

She's Crafty!

Some of the awesome items made by kickass women!

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Katharine Burr Blodgett

Katharine Burr Blodgett (January 10, 1898 – October 12, 1979) was the first woman to to earn a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Cambridge, in 1926. She spent her career working for General Electric, where she invented low-reflectance "invisible" glass.

What I'm struck most by when reading about her life and work is that she just did her thing and didn't let anything get in her way. I'm sure it wasn't entirely that simple, of course.



She knew what she wanted to do with her life, and did it.

Her childhood was spent in France, where her mother moved the family a few years after Katharine's father was killed. She did well in school. The family's finances made it easy for her to enroll in private schools, but she had a scholarship for Bryn Mawr, where she earned her undergraduate degree.

She went on to earn a master's in chemistry from the University of Chicago in 1918, and was quickly hired by General Electric, where her father had worked as a patent attorney in the years before he was shot. She worked with Irving Langmuir, who'd worked with her father, making her the first female scientists hired by GE.

With his encouragement, she pursued a Ph.D. in physics, becoming the first woman to earn that degree at Cambridge when she graduated in 1926.

Over the course of her long career with GE she developed a wide variety of projects, including several with military applications during both World War I and II. She is most well known for her invention of nonreflecting glass in 1938 -- a technique still used in the manufacture of optical equipment, cameras, telescopes, and eyeglasses to cut down on glare.

She lived her personal life in a similar vein. She never married, and instead lived in a kind of long-term platonic (or maybe not?) relationship with two different women over the course of her lifetime. She was active in her community, and visited with her family regularly.

Her niece, Katharine Blodgett Gebbie, was named after her, and grew up to follow in her aunt's footsteps, pursuing her own career in physics.

You can read more about her work at GE at the Chemical Heritage Foundation's historical profile of Irving Langmuir and Katharine Burr Blodgett

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Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Edith Quimby - pioneering medical physicist

In the early decades of the 20th century scientists around the world were busy looking for ways to use radioactive materials. Following its groundbreaking discovery by Marie and Pierre Curie in 1898, and then the isolation of radium as a pure metal by Marie Curie and André-Louis Debierne in 1910, radium seemed to hold the most promise. The two most common applications were in luminescent paint applied to clock hands so they glowed in the dark, and in medicine where it was used to treat cancer.

We know from learning the story of the Radium Girls, using radium as a component of paint would have deadly repercussions. By the mid-1920s, countless young woman had died after working painting on the dials of watches and clocks. They'd been instructed to lick their paintbrushes to create a finer point, and thus they ingested radium in unknown quantities before becoming sick.

The field of nuclear medicine was somewhat more promising. There are some horrific stories of radium being used in large quantities to treat cancers where doctors sewed capsules of radium directly to the tumor, as in the case of Henrietta Lacks and the treatment she received for cervical cancer. But it seemed that smaller doses had some positive effects. The question was how much was the right amount?

That answer came from medical physicist Edith Quimby. In 1919, after having earned a bachelor's in mathematics and physics, and completed a master's in physics, Edith set out to find a research position. She accepted a position as assistant physicist at the Memorial Hospital in New York City, working with Gioacchino Failla who had established the first laboratory devoted to researching the medical uses of radiation.

It was her task to determine the precise dosage needed for each patient that would have the fewest side effects. At the time, radiotherapy (where radium-containing needles are directly applied to tumors) was in its infancy. There was no consistency in regards to placement or dosage, and no way to determine if the tumor was receiving the correct exposure needed for proper treatment. It was her research that led to a set of guidelines for the most effective arrangement of needles in 1932. Known as the "Quimby rules" they were the standard used until computer-aided placement techniques became available in the 1980s.

She moved to Columbia University in 1942 where she taught radiology and medical physics while conducting research using the new kinds of radioactive materials being created by accelerators and nuclear reactors. She was named as a full professor there in 1954. It was here where she taught future Nobel Laureate Rosalyn Yalow.

Her research also included quantifying the amounts of different kinds of radiation needed to have the same effect, which laid the foundation for future studies to understand how cumulative exposures of each would affect a body. This calculation could not only help inform the doctors about a patient's long-term side effects, but would also help radiation technicians protect their own health by reducing risks of repeated exposure. She created a "film badge" system where X-ray film strips were covered with black paper and distributed to laboratory personnel to measure incidental exposure.

Also in 1954, she became the first woman and first physicist to be named president of the American Radium Society. In her acceptance speech, she outlined the need for an organization of medical physicists in the US. And thus, because of her call to action, the American Association of Physicists in Medicine was founded in 1958.

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For more information:

Her New York Times obituary: "Edith Quimby Dies; Radiation Expert"

Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons: "Edith Quimby: First Woman Medical Physicist"

Photo source: Whitman College Archives

Monday, May 7, 2018

Science Fair Rock Stars: Mikayla Sharrieff, India Skinner, and Bria Snell

High school juniors Mikayla Sharrieff, India Skinner, and Bria Snell have been in the news quite a bit in the last week, but the articles have only barely touched on what I consider to be the really exciting part of their story: these smart girls came up with an inexpensive and easy way to filter lead out of drinking water! And not only lead, but other impurities and bacteria like e. coli.



Their creative system builds on NASA Spinoff technology using specially created filtering floss made from nanofibers. A spinning fan circulates the contaminated water through the floss, which traps the unwanted particles. The clean water is then transferred to the storage container.

Their project "From H2NO to H2O" earned them a spot in the finals of the 2018 NASA Transformers Optimus Prime Spinoff Promotion and Research Challenge (OPSPARC) contest, which was created to encourage students to come up with creative uses for existing NASA technology in projects that would benefit the general public. Mikayla, India, Bria decided to turn their attention to the problem of lead-contamination in school water fountains.

Tragically, contaminated drinking water is an everyday issue for far too many students around the country, and one that hits home for these three burgeoning scientists: their school, Benjamin Banneker High School in Washington, DC, has several drinking fountains that have been taken out of commission because of concerns regarding lead contamination.

They took their idea to their mentors at the Inclusive Innovation Incubator, a technology incubator whose mission is to support entrepreneurs and businesses from underrepresented communities that provide products and services benefiting under-served communities, who gave them the encouragement and guidance they needed while building their prototype for the NASA OPSPARC contest. Their mentors' confidence is well-placed. This team of resourceful young women are the only all-black, all-female team to make it to the finals.

The winning team will be announced later this month. Winners will be invited to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center for a two-day workshop, and a $4000 stipend to cover their expenses for the trip. But these girls are already winners! They've caught the attention of celebrities and politicians alike. The Washington, DC, mayor Muriel E. Bowser has pledged a $4000 award to help the girls continue work on their filtration system.

Not only are these young women looking at careers in STEM, they're already looking for ways to inspire others. As Mikayla, who is looking at becoming a biomedical engineer, put it, "It’s important to be role models for a younger generation who want to be in the STEM field but don’t think they can." India, who wants to be a pediatric surgeon, wants to make sure others see their full potential, to "see our faces, and see we’re just regular girls, and we want to be scientists."

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Friday, May 4, 2018

Eugenie Clark and the power of passion

I wonder how many scientific discoveries have been made by people who were just curious about a subject and wanted to know more about it? How does it work? Why is it like that? What else is there like this?



Honestly, I have a special place in my heart for stories about people who first realized their passion as a child and spent their life pursuing it. And especially for those who had to overcome some kind of naysayers, ignoring anyone who said they couldn't or who questioned the value of their work. Imagine the determination needed to just keep going anyway, just "doing your thing" simply because it's just so fascinating. And to then have it pay off in such a huge way with some unexpected discovery that changes everything.

When Eugenie Clark (May 4, 1922 – February 25, 2015) was a kid she visited the New York Aquarium and was immediately entranced. So much so that she returned nearly every weekend to stare at the fish and try to learn as much about them as she could. She wrote school papers about what she learned and followed the doings of other marine scientists of the era. Her hero was the explorer/naturalist William Beebe, famous for his deep dives in a kind of personal submarine off the coast of Bermuda.

Despite her evident passion for the subject and her determination to learn as much as possible, when she told her parents she intended to become a marine biologist, they tried to discourage her. "I told my family, I said, 'I'd like to go down and be like William Beebe,' and they said, 'Well, maybe you can take up typing and get to be the secretary of William Beebe or somebody like him.'"

She did it anyway.

She studied zoology at Hunter College and spent her summers working at the University of Michigan Biological Station. She went on to graduate studies from New York University, and prestigious research opportunities at places like Woods Hole Marine Laboratory and the American Museum of Natural History. She traveled to Micronesia for an Office of Naval Research project to study fish populations. And she earned a Fulbright Scholarship to study fish in the Red Sea, which she wrote about in her wildly successful book Lady with a Spear, which brought her to the attention of the wealthy Vanderbilts who built Cape Haze Marine Laboratory along the coast of Florida for her.

It was at Cape Haze where she began to study sharks more seriously. She worked with a local fisherman to catch sharks for research. Through her research many of the dangerous myths about sharks have been dispelled, replaced by newfound respect for their intelligence and understanding of their behavior, which she wrote about in her second book, The Lady and the Sharks.

When she left Cape Haze in the mid-60s, it was to teach college zoology and marine biology classes for another four decades, only semi-retiring at the age of 77. She continued diving until the year before her death, and was still working on research projects right up to the end.

"Not many appreciate the ultimate power and potential usefulness of basic knowledge accumulated by obscure, unseen investigators who, in a lifetime of intensive study, may never see any practical use for their findings but who go on seeking answers to the unknown without thought of financial or practical gain."

I'll say she knew more than most the power and potential usefulness of following one's passion, seeking answers to the unknown. Over the course of her long career, she traveled the world, taught thousands of students, conducted over 70 dives using submersible equipment, led more than 200 field research expeditions, and helped create the very first IMAX film.

And she did it all because she was curious about fish and wanted to know more.

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Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Aggretsuko - adorable badass

Yesterday I was logging into Netflix to watch my current obsession (Offspring, a charming comedy-drama from Australia), and saw an interesting looking teaser for something called Aggretsuko, based on a character from the Sanrio franchise. I thought it looked cute but maybe annoyingly so, and I didn't have high hopes for the story, but I figured I should probably check this out anyway, just to have an informed opinion.

A couple of hours later I'd binged the entire thing in one sitting and ran off to rave about it to my friends.

Image of a cute red panda anime character surrounded by office equipment and the title "Aggretusko" in yellow and red lettering.


It starts out showing us young Retsuko, a fresh-faced college grad starting her new job in a big office, full of possibility and hope for the future. Fast forward five years, and she's a burnt out corporate zombie who has to psych herself up to get out of bed each morning. I think many of us can relate.

Retsuko is the dutiful worker who performs her tasks without complaining and doesn't balk when others dump their work on her or when her sexist pig of a boss (who is literally a pig) goes on and on about how useless women are. She's the kind of person who's afraid of speaking up for herself, even when being followed around a store by an annoying sales clerk. In fact, she buys some socks she doesn't even like because she feels bad for leaving without purchasing anything.

A cute anime red panda character sits at a computer in a dark office with a stack of papers on her head.


As meek and timid as she appears, she has a secret. One that involves a microphone: she screams her rage out to death metal where no one else can hear her.

And that's where Retsuko's story really begins. Over the course of 10 episodes, we get to watch her come into her own power, with the help of her friends and the guidance of two older, badass professional women who take a liking to her and see a spark of something great behind the anxiety.

OK, so I don't know the characters in the Sanrio universe other than Hello Kitty, and isn't there a chocolate one? But now I'm starting to rethink my assumption that it was all silly fluff. There's something truly subversive going on in Aggretsuko (Aggressive Retsuko) around women's righteous anger as a force for change.

I'm sure there are some self-rescuing princess types out there who came out of the womb already kicking ass and taking names (yay you!), but most of us have had to overcome a huge amount of societal training. As Amy Pohler said, "It takes years as a woman to unlearn what you have been taught to be sorry for." So much of what we've been taught about our worth and how to interact with the world holds us back. Like Retsuko, we were taught not to speak up or talk back, but instead suffer in silence and rage in private.

A cute, but angry, anime red panda is screaming into a microphone as an anime gorilla and anime bird watch.


Another thing Aggretsuko gets totally right is the role of other women in the process of unlearning. The real power comes from truthful conversations with other women, learning from each other's stories and reveling in the support that comes from that kind of shared experience. It's through her friendships with the two older company women, Gori and Washimi, and her coworker Fenneko, that Retsuko is able to imagine other ways of responding to the injustices of life, both professional and romantic.

Aggretsuko earns the Self-Rescuing Princess Society seal of approval for its story of a young woman coming into her own power, and its positive portrayal of female friendships. We get to watch Retsuko unlearning. It's not a straight line. She has setbacks and stumbling blocks. Who doesn't? But with the help of her friends, she is able to grow into a kickass young woman. I guarantee by the end of the season you'll be giving a super feminist fist pump in her honor.

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Monday, March 5, 2018

Louise Pearce - medical trailblazer

A medical pathologist, Louise Pearce (March 5, 1885 – August 10, 1959) was the first female scientists hired at the Rockefeller Institute, where she studied treatments for African sleeping sickness. She traveled to the Belgian Congo in 1920 to carry out trials of the drug she helped develop, which had an impressive 80% cure rate. Her research involved studying disease in rabbit colonies over several generations, where she was able to isolate diseases to study their transmission and immunology.



Education was important in her family. When she was still quite small, her family moved from Winchester, Massachusetts, to southern California. When it was time for her to attend school, she studied at the Girls Collegiate School in Los Angeles, where she took classes in a wide range of academic studies. In 1907, she graduated from Stanford University with a degree in physiology and histology, the study of microscopic anatomy of plant cells and tissues. She continued her studies at Boston University and earned her MD from Johns Hopkins, where she graduated third in her class.

Her attention to detail and dedication to her research made her an ideal pathologist, and in 1913 she was hired as a researcher at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. She was the first woman hired there, and she remained there for her entire career. It was here where she began her important research on treatment for sleeping sickness, an epidemic that was devastating entire regions across Africa.

After performing numerous animal trials her team found that the drug tryparsamide was quite successful in treating the disease in rabbits, the closest animal model to the human course of the disease. They published their results in 1919. In 1920, she traveled to the Belgian Congo, at considerable risk to herself, in order to carry out human trials to determine the drug's safety, effectiveness, and appropriate dosage. At the time, the Belgian Congo, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was a colony of Belgium, and was controlled through state violence against the native populations who were often conscripted into working to help deplete the natural resources. At the time of her arrival, post-World War I, efforts were underway to improve the country's economic infrastructure to support private companies. The horrific brutality of the Belgium regime of Leopold II is well documented now, but it is unclear if Louise Pearce was aware of it before she agreed to travel, or what her motivations were aside from a humanitarian need.

Working closely with a local hospital and laboratory, her research met with immediate success. For a disease that was nearly always fatal, she was able to cure more than 80% of infected patients, even those with late-stage illness. For her life-saving research, she was awarded the Order of the Crown of Belgium, and elected as a member of the Belgian Society of Tropical Medicine.

After returning to the states, she then turned her attention to the treatment of syphilis, using the same drug. Because the two diseased operated in similar ways in humans, she suspected it would be an effective treatment for syphilis of the brain and spinal cord, as well as the chronic form of the disease. It was, and tryparsamide became the standard treatment until the discovery of penicillin in 1950.

Much of her research was performed on rabbits, and it was during this time that she discovered a malignant epithelial tumor that was then transferred to several other rabbits, each showing a variation in malignancy. She began to study these differences in an effort to understand its transmission, growth and remission. This tumor, referred to as the Brown-Pearce tumor, became the standard test material in cancer research. And she spent much of the rest of her career studying the relationship between the basic health of an organism and its probability of developing disease. Her research focused on rabbit subjects, and during her many trials she was able to isolate the rabbit pox virus and study its transmission and immune reactions.

But she did not spend all of her time working in the lab. She was a member of Heterodoxy, a feminist debating group in Greenwich Village. She taught at several prestigious institutions, including Peiping Union Medical College in China, and sat on the board more than 15 medical associations, including the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania, where she also served as president from 1946 to 1952.

She spend the latter part of her life living on a farm in New Jersey with two other women, author I. A. R. Wylie, and public health physician Sara Josephine Baker, who is most well known for having tracked down Mary Mallon (aka "Typhoid Mary), the first person identified as an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever. There is some speculation that they were probably romantically involved, perhaps in a polyamorous relationship, but there is no definitive documentation. Wylie and Pearce are buried next to each other at the farm's little cemetery, though, which supports the idea that they were more than simply platonic friends.

Louise Pearce lived her life on her own terms. She was fortunate to have been able to pursue her education at a time when college education for young women was still quite rare. She was both a groundbreaking medical researcher and trailblazer for other women in medical science, dedicated to improving the lives of her patients and opening new doors to women in all fields.

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For more information:

The Rockefeller University: "Louise Pearce – An Extraordinary Woman of Medicine"

AAUW: "AAUW Member Saves Lives: Dr. Louise Pearce"

Al Jazeera: "Unsung Hero: Louise Pearce"

Monday, February 26, 2018

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell - science star

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell (born 15 July 1943) is an astrophysicist with a long and prolific career, who is best known for her discovery of the first radio pulsars in 1967. She served as president of the Royal Astronomical Society from 2002 to 2004, and president of the Institute of Physics from 2008 to 2010. She was the first woman to serve as president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and in 2007 she promoted to Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.



Growing up, her father was an architect who worked on the Armagh Planetarium. When she was still quite young, she discovered his astronomy books, which she enjoyed immensely. As a student at the Preparatory Department of Lurgan College, she had to fight to be allowed to take classes in science. The school's policy was changed after several parents complained. Unfortunately, when she was ready to move to secondary school she failed the eleven-plus exam, and was instead sent to study at a Quaker boarding school.

This was a good move, giving her the preparation she needed for her college studies. Still interested in astronomy, she attended the University of Glasgow, where she earned a BS in physics in 1965, and then went on to the University of Cambridge, where she studied quasars with Antony Hewish. It was here where she helped construct the radio telescope that she used to discover the first radio pulsar.

In July 1967, she was recording signals received by the radio telescope when she noticed a little bit of "scruff" in the data. They were looking for more quasars, analyzing data from scanning the sky once every four days. All the data was printed on a kind of chart-reporter -- a device with three pens that tracks input, similar to a seismograph, only in this case tracking radio waves rather than seismic waves. After seeing this "scruff" on her reports enough, she could tell it wasn't from human-made radio transmissions, and it wasn't from a quasar. But what was it?

She set up some new recordings to try to figure out its source, but it wasn't until November that she was able to get a clear chart showing a series of pulses, exactly 11/3 seconds apart. When she showed her data to Antony Hewish, he was skeptical, but agreed to visit the observatory with her to check it out. When it was clear that it wasn't something coming from the earth (not radar bouncing off the moon, satellites in orbit, or other bits of human-made interference) they started to wonder if it was some kind of transmission from an alien world, hence her readings were dubbed "Little Green Man 1" or LGM-1..



My eureka moment was in the dead of night, the early hours of the morning, on a cold, cold night, and my feet were so cold,
they were aching. But when the result poured out of the charts,
you just forget all that. You realize instantly how significant
this is—what it is you’ve really landed on—and it’s great!



It wasn't until she was analyzing data from a completely different part of the sky and found a similar bit of "scruff" at the same frequency that she began to suspect it was something else entirely. It was unlikely that the first reading was from aliens, and even more unlikely that there was a second set of aliens transmitting at the same frequency from somewhere else in the universe.

More analysis, and more "scruff," and now there were four different sources. By now they had a term, "pulsar" -- so named because it was a rapidly rotating neutron star that emitted regular pulses -- which they used in a paper in January of 1968. When the news about LGM-1 hit the press, she and the rest of the team were inundated with interview requests from all sides. Sadly, but not surprisingly, the majority of the questions she fielded were along the lines of "How many boyfriends do you have," and whether she was "taller than or not quite as tall as Princess Margaret?" When the excitement died down, she handed off the research to other students while she wrapped up her thesis. She graduated with her PhD in 1969, got married and moved from radio astronomy to gamma-ray astronomy, glad to be able to do some "reliable and solid, undramatic science."

And she has. She worked at the University of Southampton from 1968 to 1973, the University College London from 1974 to 1982, and the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh from 1982 to 1991. In addition to her duties on campus, she also worked as a tutor, consultant, examiner, and lecturer for the Open University -- a public distance learning and research university -- from 1973 to 1987, and served as Professor of Physics from 1991 to 2001. She was a visiting professor in Princeton University and Dean of Science in the University of Bath from 2001 to 2004, and is currently Visiting Professor of Astrophysics in the University of Oxford, and a Fellow of Mansfield College. In February 2018 she was appointed Chancellor of the University of Dundee.

She served as president of the Royal Astronomical Society from 2002 to 2004, and president of the Institute of Physics from 2008 to 2010. When asked about not being included in the Nobel Prize, she laughs it off good-naturedly, saying, "You can actually do extremely well out of not getting a Nobel prize, and I have had so many prizes, and so many honours, and so many awards, that actually, I think I've had far more fun than if I'd got a Nobel Prize - which is a bit flash in the pan: You get it, you have a fun week, and it's all over, and nobody gives you anything else after that, cos they feel they can't match it."

She's done alright. She's received a dozen or so awards, was the first woman to serve as president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and in 1999 she was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) and then promoted to Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 2007.

For more reading:

You can read her article about the discovery of pulsars, "Little Green Men, White Dwarfs or Pulsars?"

The Herald article "Face to Face: science star who went under the radar of Nobel Prize judges"

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Thursday, February 22, 2018

Joyita Mondal - trans trailblazer

In July 2017, Joyita Mondal was appointed as a judge on a Lok Adalat (a type of civil court) in West Bengal, India, making her the first transgender person to serve in such a role in that country. This comes after years of hard work fighting for the rights of the LGBT community, as well as for the rights of other marginalized communities -- the elderly, the disabled, and anyone else facing discrimination.



She didn't set out to become an activist. When she left home, she was simply trying to escape the oppressive environment of her small Hindu community, where she faced bullying by her peers and had few opportunities to live life on her own terms. She dropped out of school and moved to Islampur, a small city in the Uttar Dinajpur region, where, although she was able to find some work as a dancer in wedding ceremonies, she still had trouble finding a safe place to live and was often forced to beg for money to survive.

But she began to meet other transpeople, and after talking to them she founded her activist organization, 'Dinajpur Notun Alo Society' (Notun Alo means "new light") to help address some of their needs. "I started counseling sessions in hopes of reducing stigma by inviting relatives and family members of transgender persons. We showed films on the problems faced by the community. Further, sensitization of teachers and students in government and private schools and colleges started, and street plays at bus stands and other popular spaces were performed." She also began taking correspondence classes, and eventually earned a degree in law.

Her organization began looking for ways to assist other marginalized groups, and extend their outreach efforts beyond LGBT issues. "When I came to Islampur around nine years ago, my job was restricted to working for the rights and development of the transgender and LGBT community. But as I slowly progressed and got in touch with district administration officials, I felt the urge to work for all people and not just [the trans] community."

They began by addressing the needs of sex workers in local brothels, helping them register to vote and obtain identity cards, as well as locating services to help them with food and lodging. Then they began talking with the elderly members of their community. "We visited every house in the area for six months and shortlisted around 200 needy elderly people. We have submitted a proposal to the government for the construction of shelter home for elderly people."

Her work caught the attention of Judge Subroto Pole who appointed her as a Lok Adalat judge last year. Through her dedication to improving the lives of others, she has also made a huge change in her own life. "It gives me great satisfaction to know I have broken gender stereotypes. It is also gratifying to see those who once taunted me about my gender, stand before me with folded hands waiting for a judgment on their case."

For more reading:

Women's eNews "Meet the First Transgender Judge in India"

She The People "Meet Joyita Mondal, India’s First Transgender Lok Adalat Judge"

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