Kickass Women

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

Smart Girls

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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, June 22, 2017

SRPS Inspiration: Life Lessons from Octavia Butler

I've been thinking about Octavia Butler quite a bit lately. I hate to admit I haven't read much of writing, but I've been reading about her and finding more than enough inspiration from her life and struggles as an African American woman trying to find a place in the (still too) white male dominated field of science fiction.

She credits her perseverance for helping her overcome the challenge of trying to be a writer compounded by being an outsider. From a young age she had to navigate through the physical world where people like her -- female and black -- were told not to aim too high, and then find a place in a fictional world where people like her didn't exist. But she persisted, and through her struggles was able to tell stories that took the entire genre of science fiction to an entirely new level by showing us the complexities of humanity and how we are all connected while at the same we are limited by our perspective.

By reading about her struggles and successes, and what she learned from them, we can find guidance for our own lives and inspiration to continue pushing forward.

1. Allow yourself to dream and then get to work.
"We're all capable of climbing so much higher than we usually permit ourselves to suppose."
Fear of failure as well as fear of success can hold us back from pushing ourselves to find our upper limit. I see this in my own life when I'm afraid to follow through on an idea, afraid that it would be seen as silly, or a waste of time. Well, in a way it IS silly to think that following an idea would be a waste of time. No one was ever successful by just staying where they started.

Octavia knew she wanted to be a writer. She wanted her books read by millions of people. She allowed herself to dream of success. But she didn't just dream it into being, she did the long, hard work of making it happen. She wrestled with the uncertainty and fought writer's block and still sat down at the typewriter every day to create the books she had inside her.

2. Do the right thing. Always.
"I have a huge and savage conscience that won't let me get away with things."
Her father died when she was seven, leaving her mother to raise her with the help of her own mother. Together, her mother and grandmother impressed on Octavia the importance of character and following one's conscience. She said, later, that growing up in this strict Baptist home helped to build her adult morality.

This didn't just mean not stealing or telling the truth. It was her conscience that made her keep working even when it was difficult, and to then turn her success into a means to help pull others up the ladder behind her. She used her experience as a writer to help other aspiring authors, and especially writers of color. Even though she was a renowned recluse, she returned several times to the Clarion Writer's Workshop -- the same annual workshop she had attended during her early years -- to advise other struggling writers.

After her sudden death at age 58, an annual scholarship was set up to help writers of color attend the Clarion workshop, fulfilling a promise she'd made to herself to "send poor black youngsters to Clarion or other writer's workshops."

3. Find a way to be yourself.
"I began writing about power because I had so little."
Like others who are painfully shy in school, and often bullied because of it, she found comfort in books. She was particularly drawn to science fiction. She kept a notebook she filled with her own stories. When she was 10 her mother bought her a typewriter. In 1954, when she was 12, she watched Devil Girl from Mars, and decided she could write a better version. So she did. This early attempt was the template for what eventually became her Patternist series.

As a young black girl living in the 1950s, she had to find a way to be more than what society told her she was. Even if it was just on the pages in her stories, and in the dreams she had of herself. By carving out this space for the inner young Octavia, she fed the fire that lead her to become the adult Octavia, full of determination and perseverance.

4. Don't let anyone say you can't.
"No one was going to stop me from writing and no one had to really guide me towards science fiction. It was natural, really, that I would take that interest."
When she was 13, her aunt, probably more out of kindness than anything else, told Octavia that "Negroes can't be writers." Her aunt, of course, knew a bit more about the world and how it treated African Americans who try to step outside the accepted roles, and thought she was helping Octavia be more realistic in her career goals. But Octavia wasn't having it. She kept on writing, and by the time she was in high school, she submitted her first manuscript to a science fiction magazine.

Thankfully while her aunt was trying to advise her to lower her expectations, her mother was busy helping to raise them. It was her mother who encouraged her to write, who scrimped to buy her a typewriter on a housekeeper's salary, and who gave up her savings for much-needed dental work to help Octavia travel to the Clarion workshop that changed the course of her writing.

5. Representation matters. So does context.
"When I began writing science fiction, when I began reading, heck, I wasn't in any of this stuff I read. The only black people you found were occasional characters or characters who were so feeble-witted that they couldn't manage anything, anyway. I wrote myself in, since I'm me and I'm here and I'm writing."
In college Octavia won a college-wide writing contest, her first taste of success. This was also around the time the preliminary idea for Kindred came to her. It was the late-60s, and a fellow African American student railed against what he saw a passivity in previous generations of African Americans when confronted with injustice. Octavia knew the past was more complicated and dangerous, and wanted to find a way to place their actions into historical context. She wanted to show that what may look like passivity and subservience to the modern generation, was a kind of silent strength needed for survival.

She talked with her older relatives about their experiences as maids and gardeners, and listened to their stories of how it was "back then" and found a greater understanding of how they were able to survive by staying silent in the face of adversity, while also planting the seeds for future change. Her mother had to work as a maid, enduring the humiliation of going into the homes of wealthy white people through the backdoor, to pay for Octavia's education and support her dreams of adding her own voice to the stories. And in doing so, Octavia was also able to give voice to the silent generations before her.

6. You have to do the hard work.
"You don't start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it's good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That's why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence."
After college, she continued to write, taking part time and temporary menial jobs to pay for her small apartment and provide her with the time to write. But she hadn't quite found her voice yet. Her stories were patterned after the writing of white male science fiction authors she'd been reading and didn't accurately reflect her own experiences.

It took nearly a decade, and hundreds of rejection slips, for her to finally work through her early tendency to write like establish authors and find her own style. By the mid-1970s she was working on the novels that would become the Patternist series, and by 1978 she was finally able to support herself with her writing.

That's ten years of getting up each morning at 2 am to sit at the typewriter and write. Even when the words wouldn't come, or the ideas weren't inspiring. Even when she'd rather stay in bed or watch tv, or do pretty much anything other than sit there. Even when she was nearly convinced that everything was trash and she should just give up. She still got up in the dark, and got to work.

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Thursday, June 15, 2017

Margaret Abbott - unsuspecting Olympian

Imagine you're a wealthy young woman from Chicago who has traveled to Paris with your mother in order to take art lessons from the greats -- Dumas and Rodin -- and while you're there you join a golfing competition with some other wealthy white women for kicks. You win, accept a beautiful porcelain bowl, return to your studies, and live the rest of your life totally unaware that you're the first American woman to win an Olympic event.

That's exactly what happened to Margaret Abbott (June 15, 1878 – June 10, 1955). She was only 22 when she and her mother went to Paris. She had no idea that golf match competition was part of the 1900 Olympic Games, nor that by winning she was making history.

Actually, no one really knew until 1996 when University of Florida professor Paula Welch, who taught sports history tracked down the details of that year's Olympics -- a challenging bit of detective work as the Paris Games were so poorly organized, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) didn't officially add her golf match or other competitions to the list of Olympic matches until after the fact.

Thankfully because of Professor Welch's research, we now know that Margaret Abbott is the first official American woman Olympic winner.

The 1900 Paris Olympic Games was the first time women's sports were included in the official record. The IOC president as well as many other people were opposed to allowing women to compete, but the French Organizing Committee set up events, over the course of six months, for them anyway. It wasn't until later that year that the IOC approved some of the matches -- those that were considered more lady-like like yachting, tennis, and golf.

On October 3, 1900, Margaret Abbott, and her mother Mary Abbott, played in a tournament of 9 holes, where Margaret came in first with a score of 47, and her mother tied for seventh place. In fact, this is the only time in the history of modern Olympics where a mother and daughter both participated in the same event.

So I guess that means she made history twice that day.

To read more about her competition and the 1900 Olympics at Women Golfers Museum.

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Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Margaret Bourke-White - inspirational photojournalist

When I think of photojournalism the person who comes to mind is Margaret Bourke-White (June 14, 1904 – August 27, 1971), the first female photographer at Life magazine, the first woman photojournalist on the ground in World War II, and an all-round remarkable artist. Her career was a perfect melding of three factors: remarkable talent, dedication to her craft, and an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time.

She grew up at a time when photography was transitioning from a novelty to an art form, and as a child she was fascinated with cameras. Her father was a naturalist, and himself a photography hobbyist, and encouraged her curiosity about the world around her.

Still, when she enrolled in college at Columbia University she was there to study herpetology, not photography. But that changed within the first few weeks when she attended a photograph class. Sadly, she had to leave college after only one semester to deal with the death of her father and to help support her mother and younger brother.

Still, she was determined to earn her degree, and over the next several years, she took classes wherever she was -- Michigan, Indiana, or Ohio -- and eventually graduated with a  bachelor's in fine art in 1927. At first, she worked as general photographer, opening her own studio in Cleveland. She focused on architectural and industrial photography, where she refined her technique.

One of her greatest breakthroughs came while working for one of her biggest clients, the Otis Steel Company. She'd been commissioned to take photos of the factory during production, but the film at the time couldn't capture the color of red-hot molten steel, and all her images came out black. But she solved the problem by bringing some magnesium flares that gave off a bright white light, and had workers hold them to properly illuminate the hot steel.

Her work as a commercial photographer caught the attention of magazine publishers who were on the hunt for images to share. In 1929 she took a position as associate editor and staff photographer at Fortune magazine. In that role she was allowed to travel for international news stories, and was the first Western photographer allowed into the USSR to take photos of their factories.

In 1936, she was hired by the publishers behind a brand new magazine, Life, where her work was a regular feature. In fact, she earned the cover photo spot in their first issue. During her time with Life, she continued traveling to cover important events around the world. When World War II broke out a few years later, she was already on the ground in Europe, making her the first woman allowed in combat zones there. When German forces invaded Moscow, she was the only foreign photographer there, making her images a valuable resource documenting the firefight.

When the US entered the war, she found a spot with troops in North Africa, Italy, and even Germany. She was there with General Patton when Buchenwald concentration camp was liberated and captured the gruesome scenes, the first time these types of horrors were so clearly illustrated for an American public.

After the war, she traveled to India to report on the violence as a result of the contentious partition of India and Pakistan. While there, she was able to interview Gandhi, and take an iconic photo of him at his spinning wheel, just a few hours before he was assassinated.

After an extraordinary career, in the early 1950s she developed increasingly debilitating symptoms of Parkinson's disease and eventually had to step back from her photography. Considering her seemingly natural ability to capture complex human truths in her photos, I have to wonder how she would have used her talents to document the civil rights and feminist movements of the 60s and 70s. Thankfully she was an influence on future generations of photojournalists as well as an inspiration women worldwide to pursue their dreams regardless of difficulty.

You can read more about her life and work in her Library of Congress biography.

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SRPS Role Model: Pat Summitt - basketball icon

Pat Summitt (June 14, 1952 – June 28, 2016) is best known as the inspirational basketball coach with a record-setting 1098 career wins, but how much do you know about her life and how her basketball career highlights the changing climate for women in sports?

Pat was born in Clarksville, Tennessee, into a family filled with sports fans and athletes. When she was in high school, her parents moved to a nearby town just so she could play basketball. This was years before Title IX, and her hometown school didn't offer a girls team.

When she enrolled in the University of Tennessee at Martin, she didn't receive an athletic scholarship like her brothers did, because colleges didn't have to offer parity in sports funding and scholarships. And still, she won All-American honors. And I have to wonder what role her college coach, Nadine Gearin, the woman who founded the UT-Martin women's team, played in Pat's career choice?

After graduating from UT-Martin, Pat took a position as a graduate assistant at the University of Tennessee (Knoxville), where she was also appointed as the new head coach of the women's basketball team, the Lady Vols, to replace the previous coach who quit abruptly. This was certainly a fortuitous turn of events for both Pat and UT. Her first season with the team, 1974-75, they won their district championship, setting a precedent that would define her career.

The next year, while still coaching another winning team, she was also earning her master's degree in physical education AND training as co-captain for the 1976 Women's Olympic team. They won the silver medal in the first-ever Olympic women's basketball competition.

She and her Lady Vols went on to have 38 winning seasons. In fact, she never had a losing season in her long coaching career. And when she coached the US Women's Team in the 1984 Olympics she took home a gold medal to go next to her silver.

When she retired, she had won eight NCAA championships, a NCAA women's record, with an astonishing 1,098 wins, the most in the entire NCAA history. I'm sure it's no surprise that she's an SRPS Role Model. This woman who had to chase her dream of playing basketball at a time when women's sports weren't taken seriously, went on to have a serious impact on women's sports by coaching some of the world's best players and bringing world-wide attention to women's basketball.

You can read more about her coaching career in this 1998 Sports Illustrated article "Eyes Of The Storm."

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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

SRPS Women in STEM: Carolyn Eisele - mathematics historian

Carolyn Eisele (June 13, 1902 – January 15, 2000) was a mathematician, math educator, and a brilliant math historian, whose greatest contribution to the field was her research on the "mathematical method" devised by 19th century philosopher, mathematician and scientist, Charles Peirce. Through her diligent and detailed study, she brought about a better understanding of his philosophy of pragmatism, inspired by his study of mathematics.

Here's where I admit it had never occurred to me that there was such a thing as a math historian. Sure, I know there are science historians, so I don't know why I never thought the same could be applied to the study of mathematics. So you can imagine that when I first read about Carolyn Eisele my inner history nerd was immediately intrigued.

Carolyn Eisele didn't set out to become a math historian. Sure, she was a remarkable young woman who excelled at mathematics at a time when there were few women attending college, much less studying math or science. She graduated from Hunter College in 1923, and earned her master's in mathematics and education from Columbia, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1923.

She would have gone on to earn a Ph.D. at Columbia as well, but they didn't offer that level of education to women. (!!) So instead she took differential geometry classes at the University of Chicago and the University of Southern California. Sadly, she wasn't able to earn her degree due to a family illness that forced her to return to New York.

She returned to her alma mater Hunter College as a mathematics instructor, where she stayed for her entire career.

In 1947, though, her life took an unexpected and fortuitous turn. While doing research at the Columbia University library for a new class she was to teach -- history of math -- she came across a manuscript by Charles Sanders Peirce discussing his interpretation of Fibonacci's Liber Abaci -- a document published in 1202 offering evidence of the superior efficiency of doing calculations using Arabic numbers compared to Roman numerals.

The most important aspect of her research was her analysis of Peirce's mathematical method -- his application of mathematical principles to his philosophical work. She saw that his work on mathematics and science and his work on philosophy and history were not two distinct aspects of his intellect, but instead they worked together to inform his entire world-view.

It was through her meticulous research to understand his philosophy that she was able to make it more accessible to a wider audience. That's what historians do, really. She wasn't a stereotypical brilliant mathematician working in a laboratory in some college math department, trying to solve complex problems and writing equations on a chalkboard. She was a brilliant mathematician working in the library, reading about someone else's complex ideas and thinking about how best to share her findings with the world. This kind of work requires a level of mathematic genius that in some ways may be even more impressive, since she had to be able to understand and interpret the ideas of another mathematics genius.

Read more about the importance of her pioneering research on Charles Peirce's works [PDF].

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Monday, June 12, 2017

SRPS Women in STEM: Margherita Hack - "Lady of the Stars"

Margherita Hack (12 June 1922 – 29 June 2013) was born in Florence on a street named "via delle Cento Stelle" or "street of a hundred stars." An appropriate beginning for the astrophysicist who would go on to be known as the "Lady of the Stars."

She excelled in school, but when it came time to take her graduation exams, they were canceled due to the outbreak of WWII. That didn't stop her education, though. She attended the University of Florence where she enrolled in classes and participated in track and field events, specializing in both the long jump and the high jump. Initially her goal had been to study literature, but her fascination with the stars led her to the field of physics. In 1945 she graduated having written a thesis on Cepheid variables -- pulsating stars.

As an astrophysicist she worked closely with scientists around the world researching stellar spectroscopy and radio astronomy, as well as with the general public to foster a better understanding of the importance of science. She took a teaching and research position at the University of Trieste, where she eventually served as the director of the Astrology Department. In 1964 she became the first female administrator at the Trieste Astronomical Observatory.

Over the course of her career, she was the author of more than 200 scientific papers, and even founded a magazine, L'Astronomia, as well as acting as director for Le Stelle, another magazine with a focus on popular science and astronomy. She was a popular figure on Italian television, where she discussed important scientific findings in a way the average non-scientist could understand. So popular, indeed, that she was nominated for regional elections in Lombardy, where she earned a seat in the provincial government. She gave up the seat to another politician so she could dedication her time to her research.

In probably the best way to honor an astrophysicist, an asteroid discovered in 1995 was named 8558 Hack in her honor.

After her death, in keeping with her dedication to astronomy and education, she left to the city of Trieste her remarkable personal library containing over 24000 books on astronomy.

You can read an interesting interview with her from 2011 where she talks about the importance of scientific research.

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Sunday, June 11, 2017

SRPS Women in STEM: Mary Jane Rathbun - carcinologist

Mary J. Rathbun (June 11, 1860 – April 14, 1943) was a zoologist who worked at the Smithsonian Institution for nearly 60 years studying crustaceans. Over the course of her career she described more than a thousand new species and subspecies, and wrote or co-wrote 166 papers.

Mary Rathbun was born in Buffalo, New York, where she excelled in school. Unfortunately there weren't many options of attending college for women, so she pursued her own interests after graduation. In 1881, her brother took a position with zoologist Addison Emery Verrill, and Mary tagged along with him on a working trip to the ocean. This was her first time seeing the sea, and she was hooked. She spent the next three years volunteering to help label, sort and record specimens.

Her efficient and diligent work brought her to the attention of Smithsonian curator Spencer Fullerton Baird, who offered her a clerkship position. She remained with the Smithsonian Institute for nearly 60 years, working almost exclusively with crustaceans. In 1891 her first paper was published. During her time at the Smithsonian, she wrote or co-wrote 166 papers, describing 1147 new species and subspecies of crustaceans.

Although she was not able to attend college, because of her achievements during her remarkable career she was granted an honorary master's degree by the University of Pittsburgh in 1916, and in 1917 she qualified for a Ph.D. at George Washington University.

You can read more about her life and work on the Smithsonian Institute National Museum of Natural History blog post.

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Friday, June 9, 2017

Charlotte Angas Scott - trailblazing mathematician

Charlotte Angas Scott (June 8, 1858 - November 10, 1931) was the first British woman to receive a doctorate in mathematics, and one of the eight founding faculty at Bryn Mawr College.

Charlotte grew up in a somewhat unusual home in Lincolnshire, England, in the mid-1800s. Her father, a minister, and mother both believed in the value of education for girls as much as boys, and made sure Charlotte had tutors for all subjects, including math and science, starting at a very young age. So it's no surprise that she earned a scholarship to the recently opened women's Girton College, where she excelled in her studies.

In 1880, she obtained special permission to take the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos Exam -- the exam required to qualify for a bachelor's degree. Until then, only men were admitted, and even after she placed 8th overall she wasn't granted a degree, or allowed to attend the ceremony. Instead, she received a certificate and attended a special dinner in her honor at Girton. Even though she had to endure these insults, her performance opened the door to the Tripos for other women, the first of her many trail-blazing feats throughout her remarkable life.

Even so, in 1882, she was finally awarded her Bachelor of Science, and by 1885 she had earned her doctorate. During this time she taught other young women attending Girton, and reinforced her belief in the value of equal educational access for women.

In 1885 she was selected as one of the eight founding faculty members at the new American college for women, Bryn Mawr, where she served as Associate Professor of Mathematics. This was the role she had hoped for, and her entire career at Bryn Mawr was dedicated to improving the standards for women's education. In addition to serving as mentor to many of the women in mathematics who would go on to do great work, she was also responsible for setting the admission requirements for arithmetic  algebra, and geometry, and convinced the college to administer an entrance exam for math and science.

She also continued her own research, specializing in the planar geometry, and wrote and published over 30 papers as well as the text An Introductory Account of Certain Modern Ideas and Methods in Plane Analytical Geometry in 1894. In 1899 she was made co-editor of the American Journal of Mathematics, and her paper "A Proof of Noether's Fundamental Theorem" was published, quickly becoming the first research paper written in the US to find critical acclaim in Europe. (You might recognize the name Noether. In this case, it's referring to Max Noether, father of brilliant mathematician Emmy Noether.)

You can read more about her life and work at Biographies of Women Mathematicians.

And for even more info about her, check out Math History [PDF].

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