Kickass Women

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

Smart Girls

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


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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, August 17, 2017

Margaret Hamilton - pioneering software engineer

Today's the birthday of computer science pioneer Margaret Hamilton. A lot has been written about her over the last couple of years, and I think most everyone has seen the photo of her standing next to the stack of binders filled with the code written by her and her team for NASA's Apollo program.

What I find fascinating about her work was the fact that she was building the field of computer software engineering as she went along. The brilliance of her work wasn't so much that she build a system to help the astronauts reach the moon, but that she built it to basically save them from their own mistakes.

"There was no second chance. We all knew that."
When NASA began its quest to send the first humans to the moon, there was immense pressure to make certain that whomever went up into space also came back down safely. Too much was riding on the success of the moon landing and any mistake could have dire consequences for the astronauts. It would be devastating to the space program if something terrible happened with millions of people around the world sitting on the edge of their seats watching each space launch and landing.

Astronauts are highly trained, intelligent people, selected for their ability to function under extreme pressure. But even astronauts make mistakes, push the wrong button, switch the wrong knob. How do you reconcile the absolute need for "no room for error" with the fact that "to err is human?"

Margaret Hamilton figured out a way.

When she joined the team of engineers working on the Apollo program, she brought with her a brilliant mind trained in both abstract mathematics and philosophy. This might seem like an unusual combination of interests, but its exactly what made her the perfect person to solve the problem facing NASA. Not only did she manage the team that wrote the code for the computers running the space ships, she created the entire system that would handle each process and correct for any human error that might endanger the astronauts while in space. She studied the mistakes they made in training exercises and made sure to include responses in the code to prevent these kinds of accidents from becoming an international tragedy during the actual mission.

And because there was no such thing as a software engineer before, she did it all from scratch, creating an entirely new field of engineering in the process.

[Image: Margaret Hamilton in one of the Apollo capsules, with an overlay of a photo of the Apollo command code printed on green bar paper.]

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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Badass Women Who Fought Nazis

The mission of the Self-Rescuing Princess Society is, as I'm sure you have already figured out, to share stories of women and girls who have done or are doing good things in the world. Obviously, what constitutes "good things" is completely subjective, and this seems like an excellent time to make it absolutely clear what that means for this blog. Doing good things includes, but is not limited to: promoting fairness and equality for marginalized groups, using one's talents to improve the world, protecting herself and others against harm, challenging the institutions that support racism, misogyny, colonialism, etc., and pretty much anything else that would get someone labeled as a "social justice warrior."

This includes fighting Nazis. In fact, over the last few years, I've written several posts about women who bravely fought against the original Nazis during World War II. For them, it wasn't simply a matter of going to a protest on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Fighting Nazis was a day-in-day-out, life or death struggle, and some of them gave their lives for the cause.

Below is a list of these brave Nazi-fighting women, with a link to the posts where you can read more about them, their lives, and their bravery. You can be sure I will continue to write about other women who fought alongside them, as well as women from other parts of the world, and other eras, who have shown the same kind of strength and resolve in the face of tyranny and oppression. By reading their stories, we can find inspiration to continue our own mission for social justice for all.

Regina Jonas - the first woman rabbi
In 1935, Regina Jonas became the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi. She had been orphaned as a young girl in Berlin, and originally pursued a career as a teacher. But wanted more for her life, so she enrolled in seminary classes, with the intention of becoming a rabbi, even though no other woman before her had been ordained. On December 27, 1935, liberal Rabbi Max Dienemann, granted her ordination, just as the Nazis were beginning their rise to power.

She was never able to serve as a the rabbi in a synagogue, sadly. Before she could find a congregation, she was sent to a concentration camp with other Jews. Even there, she continued her work as a rabbi, ministering to the other prisoners, helping them cope with shock and disorientation. She worked there until mid-October of 1944, when she was deported to Auschwitz, where she was murdered two months later. She was 42 years old.

Sigrid Schultz - the dragon from Chicago
Sigrid Schultz was an American war correspondent for the Chicago Tribune whose European upbringing enabled her to mingle with high-ranking German officials without attracting attention, giving her plenty of opportunity share the truth of what was happening in Germany during the 1930s with the rest of the world. This put her at considerable risk and she often had to resort to writing under a pseudonym and filing her reports under false datelines out of other European offices.

She stayed in Germany for as long as she could, filing reports about concentration camps, government assaults on churches and other institutions, telling the truth about increasing persecution of Germany's Jews, warning about dangerous alliances with other countries, and otherwise trying to convince the world of the atrocities she was witnessing.

Malka Zdrojewicz - Jewish resistance fighter
By 1943, Jews throughout Europe were well aware of the incredible danger they faced. Everyone in the Warsaw Ghetto had been forcibly moved there -- often after they'd already escaped the Nazis as they passed through rural villages in eastern Poland on their way to the Russian front -- and they knew that it was only a temporary arrangement as the Nazis figured out what to do with them. They'd already seen large groups of their friends and family members taken away to Treblinka and Majdanek, two of the Nazi German Extermination camps in Poland.

Malka Zdrojewicz, along fellow resistance fighters Rachela and Bluma Wyszogrodzki, was arrested by the SS for having carried arms (guns and grenades, etc.) into the Warsaw ghetto. These brave young women risked their life as part of their active resistance of Nazi oppression.

Astrid Løken - fearless scientist and spy
Most of the people who worked with Astrid Løken never suspected she was a high ranking member of the Norwegian resistance movement during World War II. They only knew of her passion about bumblebees and her dedication to her research.

Shortly after the Nazi forces invaded Norway in 1940, the resistance force known as XU began recruiting researchers in natural science, realizing their field work would give excellent cover for their spy work. Astrid applied to the Nazi authority for permission to study bumblebees near otherwise restricted military areas. Because they assumed she was a harmless scientist watching insects, she was given free range, and routinely took photos of roads, bridges and other important structures, which she then developed back at the university where she was studying.

Lyudmila Pavlichenko - badass with a gun
It's all well and good to punch Nazis, but Lyudmila Pavlichenko did more than that. She shot them. And not just a few. As a USSR Army soldier in World War II she sniped 309 of them.

When she showed up at the recruitment office after the Germans invaded the USSR, she was initially offered a job as a nurse, but they agreed to let her prove herself. They handed her a rifle and showed her a couple of enemy fighters across the field of battle. She convinced them by handily dispatching both, earning her place as a sniper. In fact, there were over 2,000 female snipers in the Soviet Army. But Pavlichenko was the best. Her successes in the field earned her the respect of her superiors and the admiration of civilians near and far.

Leona Woods - visionary scientist
Not all of the Nazi-fighting occurred in Europe. Thousands of Americans worked tirelessly on stateside projects that helped support the soldiers and spies overseas. The scientists involved with the Manhattan Project worked day and night trying to beat the Germans to construct the first nuclear bomb. Leona Woods was the only female physicists on the team that built the world's first nuclear reactor, which helped the scientists in Los Alamos solve the puzzle of how to turn atomic energy into a weapon.

She knew that her work was most than just a science experiment. It was a desperate race to beat the Germans who would surely use such a weapon to expand their fascist goal of creating a new world order.

Irena Iłłakowicz - Polish resistance martyr
In September 1939, within 3 weeks, both the Germans and Soviets invaded Poland. In October, Irena joined the resistance movement with her husband. Irena was assigned to a branch responsible for conducting military, economic and information reconnaissance, and sent to Berlin to spy on the Germans.

When her network was discovered by the Germans, dozens of activists were arrested. Irena herself was arrested and taken to Pawiak, a prison that was being used to interrogate resistance members, and to process Jews and others for removal to concentration camps, where was tortured. She bravely refused to give up any info despite increased torture. Her resistance colleagues, hoping to spare her, sent her a vial of cyanide, but she refused to use it. She was eventually able to escape, after her husband bribe a guard and other resistance members forged documents to have her released.

Margaret Bourke-White - inspirational photojournalist
In 1936, talented photographer Margaret Bourke-White was hired by the publishers behind a brand new magazine, Life, where her work was a regular feature, creating a new job as a photojournalist. She continued traveling to cover important events around the world. When World War II broke out, 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 Germany. She was there to captured the gruesome scenes when the Buchenwald concentration camp was liberated, the first time these types of horrors were so clearly illustrated for the American public.

Josephine Baker - World War II spy
Internationally acclaimed singer and dancer Josephine Baker moved France in the mid-1920s to escape the soul-crushing racism she experienced in the United States. When the Germans invaded Poland, she refused to leave France for safer areas, and instead joined French Resistance when she was recruited by the French military intelligence to serve as a "honorable correspondent." Her role was to use her celebrity to mix with high-ranking officials at embassy parties, and gather information about troop locations. She moved freely all around Europe, Northern Africa, and even South America as an entertainer, carrying info about airfields, harbors, and troop concentrations back to officials in France or Britain written in invisible ink on her sheet music.

For her efforts, she was awarded the honorary rank of lieutenant in the Free French Air Force, and after the war she received both the Croix de Guerre and the Medal of the Resistance, and was made a Chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur, an honor usually reserved for French citizens.

Katya Budanova - brave young role model
Katya Budanova was born into a peasant family in rural western Russia. After the death of her father she was sent her to live with her sister in Moscow. It was there, working as a carpenter in an aircraft factory, where she began to show an interest in flying. The factory had an aeroclub, and Katya, always the brave one, joined the parachute team. In 1934, at the age 18, she earned her flying license, and in 1937, she graduated to flight instructor.

When Hitler's forces attacked the USSR, like many of her compatriots, she rushed to enlist in the military. She was assigned to the all-female 586th Fighter Regiment, led by the infamous Marina Raskova. With the war raging all along the western border, her regiment was called in to take the place of male fighters. Katya flew her first combat missions in May 1942, defending the rail-lines near Saratov. Over the course of the next year, Katya showed extreme bravery and skill, defending her country by shooting down enemy planes of all types, earning the Order of the Red Star, the Order of the Patriotic War, and the title of Hero of the Russian Federation (posthumously).

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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Cathleen Morawetz - relentless problem solver

"Her courage and determination in tackling a hard problem relentlessly are characteristic of the finest problem solvers," Peter Sarnak, Professor, School of Mathematics at the Institute for Advanced Study, describing mathematician Cathleen Morawezt.
So often I write about women who've had to overcome multiple setbacks and fight for their place in history against incredible odds. In the case of Cathleen Morawetz (May 5, 1923 – August 8, 2017), it almost seems as though she was destined to take up a career in mathematics. Her parents met at Trinity College Dublin where her mother had recently switched majors from mathematics to history, and where her father John L. Synge began his life-long career in mathematical physics. As you would expect, both supported her interests in math and science from an early age. When she was still a very young child, her answer to the perennial question adults ask children "What would you like to be when you grow up?" was "I want to be a mathematician!" She said later that she didn't really know what a mathematician did, but she knew she wanted to be one just like her dad.

Growing up in a supportive home isn't enough to ensure a successful career, though. She needed the support of a wide variety of people along the way. When she was considering becoming a teacher in India after earning her bachelor's at the University of Toronto in 1945, a chance encounter with family friend and mathematician Cecilia Krieger steered back toward mathematics. Krieger encouraged her to apply for a scholarship to attend MIT to continue her studies.

But even having a master's degree isn't enough to ensure a successful career. When she was looking for a job in the post-war technology boom, she was told that companies didn't hire women. Luckily, her blessed father pulled a few strings and got her a job editing a mathematics manuscript on supersonic flow and shock waves by Richard Courant and Kurt Otto Friedrichs. This turned out to be more than simply an temporary gig to help pay the bills. It formed the foundation of her future research as well as introducing her to Richard Courant, the influential German American mathematician who founded the Courant Institute for graduate studies in applied mathematics at New York University.

Years later she would be the first to point out how fortunate she was to find that initial position at Courant, where she spent the the next six decades working through some rather hairy mathematical problems. During her first years, it was a fortuitous position which allowed her to work part-time and paid her enough to afford childcare and housekeeping help while also giving her the freedom to focus solely on her research when she was in the office. Like many women then, and now, she had to deal with inappropriate questions from colleagues about her ability to juggle motherhood and a career, often not even bothering to disguise the judgment that she was harming her children by being away from them. When asked if she found herself distracted at work worrying about her children, she quipped, "No, I’m much more likely to worry about a theorem when I’m with my children."

The job of a theoretical mathematician wasn't one that attracted many women, perhaps due to the expectation that mathematicians would stay in the office late into the night working through theorems -- a prospect that likely wasn't appealing to most people who had interests outside of mathematics. But because of the job flexibility at Courant, she was able to find a balance that worked for her. It was during this period that she came up with her first major breakthrough. Her research on the mathematics involved in transonic flow -- where both subsonic and supersonic sound waves exist simultaneously -- proved that engineers attempting to design airplane wings that eliminated shock waves altogether were impractical because changes in alignment and wind gusts could not be controlled, and instead the focus should be on designs that minimize the impact of shock waves.
"One of my daughters said to me that the problem of being a mathematician is that you're on stage all the time in the sense that you're constantly trying to achieve something in the form of proving a theorem. That's unending. You compete against yourself as well as others and it provides a special fascination in life."
As her children (four in all) grew up, she was able to take on more duties at Courant, including teaching. But she continued her research developing detailed mathematical models, many of which are still used in aerodynamics, acoustics, and optics. It was the research -- the unending work on trying to prove a theorem -- that fascinated her from the beginning. She realized early on in her career that her passion was for theoretical mathematics, and not in the actual work of applying it engineering or accounting. Her talent was in thinking about abstract concepts and then finding ways to express that using mathematics.

Over the course of her career she was awarded numerous award and honors. She was often the first woman to have earned that recognition, but she never stopped thinking about what a privilege it was and how she could use her position to encourage other women to pursue a career in mathematics. In 1998, at the age of 75, she received the National Medal of Science from President Bill Clinton, saying "It's a tremendous moment for me. And I hope it will draw attention to the idea that women can do math and will have some influence on women all the way from grade school to graduate school and beyond."

Cathleen Morawetz's story isn't one of overcoming hardships, but it is inspirational nonetheless because it shows us what women can achieve when given the chance, and echoes many of the modern day calls for a better work-life balance for all researchers, regardless of gender or parenting-status. She was given the early support she needed to take a chance on a difficult career, and then she found a place that enabled her to do her best work while also helping her to maintaining a life outside of research.

You can watch a series of fascinating interviews with her from 2010 and 2012 on the Simons Foundation.

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Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Leona Woods - visionary scientist

Leona Woods (August 9, 1919 – November 10, 1986) is best known as the only female physicists on the team that built the world's first nuclear reactor, which is a worthy memorial. But it was what led her to be on that team, and what she did afterward, that is truly worth celebrating.

Her intelligence was evident early in her life when she graduated from high school early and then earned her BS in chemistry at the age of 18. Her doctoral thesis on silicon oxide bands earned her the respect of fellow post-doc researchers, who hired her to be a part of Enrico Fermi's team studying nuclear physics as part of the Manhattan Project in the early years of World War II. In fact, they were working on building a nuclear reactor underneath the abandoned football stadium at the University of Chicago (the same one she had played on as a student), hoping to beat the Germans to unlocking the power of the atom.

They did, with her help. It was her idea to build and use geiger counters during experiments to analyze the results. And she was there when their reactor, known as Chicago Pile-1, went critical, setting the foundation for the work of other scientists at Los Alamos building the first atomic bomb which, in turn, helped end the war.

After the war, she continued her research in high-energy physics, astrophysics and cosmology, moving from laboratory to laboratory, teaching physics and publishing papers. Over the course of her career, she continually showed her visionary brilliance tackling a wide range of subjects using science to try and solve problems facing humanity. She wrote over 200 papers, including one on how to create an atmosphere on the moon.

Later in her career, she applied her experience teaching classes on environmental studies, engineering, engineering archaeology, mechanical aerospace and nuclear engineering. Her interests included using nuclear science to understand and protect the environment. She created a method to study tree rings using isotope ratios in order to learn more about prehistoric climate fluctuations. In fact, her research has contributed to our own understanding of human-caused changes to the climate.

Leona Woods was a forward-thinking scientist whose contributions to science are still influencing our understanding of the world around us. She is truly a Self-Rescuing Princess Society role model worth celebrating.

Check out this great interview she gave in 1986 about her time working on the Manhattan Project.

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Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Guiding Stars in Astronomy: Williamina Fleming

In celebration of the solar eclipse later this month, I am sharing stories of amazing women in astronomy in my series of Guiding Stars in Astronomy. Today's post shares the story of Scottish-American astronomer Williamina Fleming, who went from being a single mother working as a maid to one of the most proficient astronomers of the late-19th century.

Image of Williamina Fleming with the text: Williamina Fleming (May 15, 1857 – May 21, 1911) A Scottish-American astronomer, who went from being a single mother working as a maid to one of the most proficient astronomers of the late-19th century. She discovered over 10,000 stars and other astronomical phenomena.

Williamina Fleming (May 15, 1857 – May 21, 1911)

Image of Williamina Fleming wearing a spectacular hatWilliamina Fleming was the first member of the all-female team of Harvard computers, the women who calculated so many of the early astronomical discoveries and who are just now beginning to get the attention they deserve.

Williamina didn't set out to have a career in astronomy. She married James Fleming in Scotland in 1877, and when she was 21 they emigrated to Boston, where shortly thereafter he abandoned her with their small child, leaving her to fend for them both. She'd worked as a teacher before, but as a single mother, she was ineligible for any teaching position -- those were only for men and unmarried women. Instead, she took a position as a maid.

It was a placement that turned out to be a happy accident that changed the course of her life. Her employer happened to be Edward Pickering, director of the Harvard College Observatory. She performed her duties efficiently, and earned his respect as a housekeeper. He was having trouble with the computers he'd hired to process astronomical data, running the seemingly endless computations needed to analyze the information from the photographs taken with the observatory's telescope. Frustrated with them one day, he scoffed, "My Scottish maid could do better!"

As it turns out, she could. In 1881 he taught her how to analyze stellar spectra -- the emissions of the stars they were studying -- as shown on the photographic plates, and to make the necessary calculations to understand what they were looking at. By 1886, she was in charge of a large group of women hired to run these calculations -- the Harvard calculators, as they've come to be known. Many of them are some of the brightest women in astronomical history, such as Annie Jump Cannon, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, and Anonia Maury.

Image of several women studying photographs or making notes, with Williamina Fleming and a man (Edward Pickering?) overseeing their work. Photo Caption: Williamina Fleming (standing) presides over women computers at the Harvard College Observatory, 1891. Photo source: Harvard University Archives.
Harvard Computers hard at work. Photo Caption: Williamina Fleming (standing) presides over women computers at the Harvard College Observatory, 1891. Photo source: Harvard University Archives.

She devised one of the earliest systems for classifying stars, using the information about their relative amount of hydrogen observed in their spectra. It was a brilliant beginning of trying to organize stars by type, and was the predecessor for Annie Jump Cannon's classification system later on.

Over the next nine years, she catalogued more than 10,000 stars and other astronomical phenomena -- a significant contribution to the Draper Catalogue of Stellar Spectra, published in 1890, a substantial project undertaken by Pickering in honor of his predecessor Henry Draper to survey of the sky and to catalogue the stars. Perhaps her most notable discovery was the Horsehead Nebula in 1888, although there were many more discoveries over the next 20 years. She became so well respected in the astronomical field she was the first American woman to be named as an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society of London in 1906.

Her outstanding contribution to astronomy is even more remarkable when you consider that, unlike many of her computer colleagues, she never studied astronomy. In response to her skillful research she was given the position as Curator of Astronomical Photographs at Harvard in 1899, a role she cherished. She continued her research until her death in 1911, discovering an astounding 310 variable stars, as well as 10 novae and 52 nebulae. In 1910 it was her research that led to the discovery of the first white dwarf star.

You can read her journal on the Harvard University Archives.

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Thursday, August 3, 2017

Guiding Stars in Astronomy: Helen Sawyer Hogg

In celebration of the solar eclipse later this month, I am sharing stories of amazing women in astronomy in my series of Guiding Stars in Astronomy. The first post featured Maria Mitchell, the first woman to work as a professional astronomer in the United States. Today's post shares the story of Canadian-American astronomer Helen Hogg, who spent her career researching variable stars and spreading the love of astronomy to students and the general public throughout her remarkable career.

Image description: Photo of Helen Sawyer Hogg sitting at a table with shelves of astronomy and science magazines behind her. Caption: Helen Sawyer Hogg (August 1, 1905 – January 28, 1993) Dr. Hogg’s career as an astronomer spanned six decades. She discovered 132 new variable stars, and published astronomy catalogues still in use today. She wrote a regular column in the Toronto Star as well a popular book The Stars Belong to Everyone, sharing  her love of astronomy with the general public.

Helen Sawyer Hogg (August 1, 1905 – January 28, 1993)

Helen Sawyer Hogg standing in front of a large telescope at the David Dunlap Observatory, University of Toronto. Photo source: University of Toronto Archives
I love that Helen Sawyer Hogg's middle name was Battle. What a great middle name, right? I can't help but wonder what kind of role it played in her life. Did she feel a little bit extra inspired to keep fighting when things got hard? Did it give her an extra burst of energy when she was pushing for more opportunities for women in astronomy, both when she was a young researcher who couldn't get a paid position, and again when she was an established icon of science working to open doors for younger women to follow their own guiding stars?

Helen Sawyer was a smart young woman who graduated from high school at the age of 15, and went off to Mount Holyoke College at the age of 17. She had originally planned on becoming a chemist, but her career path changed dramatically in her junior year after attending introductory astronomy classes with Dr. Anne Sewell, and then an event with Annie Jump Cannon, the acclaimed astronomer from Harvard. She was inspired by these two women and their love of the stars, and changed her major to astronomy in her junior year. Despite a late arrival to the subject, she graduated magna cum laude in 1926.

(Photo of the cast of Harvard Observatory's production of H.M.S. Pinafore, dated December 31, 1929. Harlow Shapley is in the center of the back row. The women in the front row are (left to right) Mildred Shapley, Adelaide Ames, Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin, Henrietta Swope, Sylvia Mussels Lindsay, and Helen Sawyer Hogg. Source: Harvard College Observatory History in Images)

With the help of Dr. Cannon, she found a place at the Harvard Observatory for her graduate studies, although she was technically a student at Radcliff College because Harvard didn't allow women to earn graduate degrees in science at the time. She work with internationally renown astronomer Dr. Harlow Shapley -- a task master who expected precision work from his students. Helen performed well, spending long hours studying globular clusters, measuring their size and brightness and cataloging them as part of her research. Through her intense dedication she earned her master's degree in two years, and three years later she had a Ph.D. All while also teaching classes at both Mount Holyoke and Smith College.

Photo caption: Dr. Helen Sawyer Hogg '26 with Mount Holyoke's new reflecting telescope. Photo source: Mount Holyoke Digital Collection.
After graduation, she married Frank Scott Hogg and together they moved to British Columbia where he had a position with the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory. Because Dominion, like many other research organizations of the era, would not hire both husbands and wives using the excuse of avoiding accusations of nepotism, Helen was forced to work as a volunteer, with only a small stipend to help pay for childcare. While it wasn't the situation was completely unfair to female scientist who were married to men who worked in the same field, she made the best of it, pushing forward to make a name for herself. Using their 72-inch reflecting telescope she photographed variable stars and tracking their cycles of change in brightness. Overall, she found a whopping 132 new variable stars in the Messier 2 globular cluster, and published her findings in astronomical catalogues that are still in use today.

In 1935, the Hoggs moved to the University of Toronto, working at the David Dunlap Observatory. She continued her research on globular clusters, but also used began studying Cepheid variable stars based on discoveries by another pioneering female astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavittin, with the idea that they could help scientists understand the age, size, and structure of the Milky Way Galaxy.

She also took several international trips to work at different observatories where there were better views of her globular clusters. She was one of the first astronomers who did so, and through her travels she was able to build an extensive network of international astronomers. Over the next few years, she established herself as a leading authority in astronomy with her dedication to precise measurements and detailed reports. Among other prestigious awards, in 1950 she was awarded the Annie J. Cannon Award in Astronomy, a prize named in honor of her former mentor.

Members of the U of T astronomy department in 1962 with the David Dunlap Observatory in the background: from left to right, S. Van den Bergh, Helen Hogg, D.A. MacRae, Ruth Northcott, J.D. Fernie and J.F. Head (director). Photo source: The Canadian Encyclopedia
But her work as an astronomer was only one aspect of her remarkable career in science. She was also passionate about sharing her love of astronomy with others, both as a teacher as well as a public figure. Upon the outbreak of World War II, she was took over classes that had originally been reserved for male professors who were now off serving in the military. These classes were her opportunity to pass on the spark of inspiration she had received so many years before in that first astronomy class she took at Mount Holyoke.

Over the course of her 60 year career, she published over 200 papers, as well as more accessible publications for non-astronomers. She wrote a wildly popular weekly column in the Toronto Star, "With the Stars," as well as a series of columns in the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada filled with historical astronomical information.

In the 1970s, she expanded her outreach efforts. Her 8-part series on Canadian television in 1970 and the publication of her widely successful book The Stars Belong to Everyone in 1976 sparked an even greater interest in astronomy by the general public, and she used her notoriety to continue advocating for better science education and increased understanding of astronomy. She served as board-member or president of nearly every Canadian society associated with astronomy, often as the first woman in whatever position she held. And when she realized there wasn't an organization dedicated solely to promoting astronomical research and education she founded the Canadian Astronomical Society.

Plaque text: The Helen Sawyer Hogg Observatory. Recognized the world over for her contribution to professional astronomy, Dr. Helen Sawyer Hogg is much loved and respected for introducing the mysteries of the heavens to others. Few have done as much as Dr. Hogg to encourage and inspire the public to enjoy astronomy and to share her lifelong interest in the history of astronomy. A sought-after lecturer and frequent guest on radio and television, she also wrote a weekly newspaper column for many years. Through The Stars Belong to Everyone, her popular book on how to enjoy astronomy, Helen Hogg has brought her love of the stars to thousands of Canadians. She is the recipient of many awards, among them the Order of Canada. The National Museum of Science and Technology is proud to dedicate its Observatory to Dr. Helen Sawyer Hogg. Dedicated 23 September 1989.
There's not telling how many countless future scientists were inspired by her teachings, writings and outreach efforts. In particular, it would be difficult to judge how many young women entered science research based on her tireless efforts to promote better opportunities for women in astronomy. For this, she is considered an exceptional Self-Rescuing Princess Society role model!

Check out this great television interview from 1981

For more info about her life, you can read "She Walks in Beauty" from the University of Toronto Magazine 

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Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Guiding Stars in Astronomy: Maria Mitchell

Later this month, folks all across the US and most of Canada and Mexico will be treated to a total or near-total solar eclipse, the first time since 1918 according to the news reports I keep seeing about it. In honor of this exciting event, I'm declaring August to be a month full of guiding stars in Astronomy. I have a long, long list of women who have contributed to our understanding of how the universe works, and I'm planning on running special posts all month celebrating them.

It's especially appropriate to start off with Maria Mitchell, whose birthday was August 1, 1818.

Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818 – June 28, 1889)

The 19th century was full of amazing women who blazed trails in science, math, medicine and literature. Many of these women had parents who fought convention to make sure their daughters were given a good education and supported them in their interests. Others lived in a community that encouraged women to be independent or self-sufficient.

In Maria Mitchell's case, she had both. Her parents were Quakers, a religion that valued education and required equal opportunities for girls and boys to learn. Her father was a teacher, and Maria would attend classes at his school during the day, and then learn astronomy from him at night as the two gazed at the stars through his personal telescope. In fact, when she was 12, she and her father calculated the exact moment of an annular eclipse -- the kind where the moon is centered over the sun, giving the appearance of a ring of fire around it.

Living in Nantucket, Massachusetts, Maria was surrounded by the wives of sailors who spent much of their time running the household and whatever business interests the family was involved in. This atmosphere of relative equality must have certainly played an equally important role in her understanding of what women were capable of as well as giving her the self-assuredness needed to pursue her passion for astronomy and to take a stand when she encountered injustice. She spent her life doing both -- looking at the stars at night, and looking at the world around her during her days. She was a ardent abolitionist, giving up wearing cotton to protest slavery, and opening the first desegregated school in the area.

She also had strong feelings about the rights of women, and was the friend of many suffragists, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton. During her tenure as professor of astronomy at Vassar College she learned that, despite her decades of work in the field and her international reputation, she was earning less than many male professors with less teaching experience. She insisted on an increase in her salary and, incredibly, won.

Her reputation was well deserved. In 1847, while working as the first librarian of the Nantucket Atheneum, she spent her evenings looking through her own telescope, taking note of what she saw. On October 1, at 10:30 pm (we know because she took notes), she made a tremendous discovery: a new comet. "Miss Mitchell's Comet," as it became known (modern designation: C/1847 T1), was a "telescopic comet, meaning it could only been seen through a telescope. Her discovery earned her a gold medal from the King of Denmark, and brought international fame, launching her astronomy career. (She wasn't the first woman to earn one of these prestigious medals, though. She was preceded by astronomers Caroline Herschel and Maria Margarethe Kirch.)

In 1848, she was appointed a computer for the American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac, a paid position calculating the tables of positions of Venus, making her the first American woman to work as a professional astronomer, and was presented with a new telescope by a group of American women in recognition of her achievement.

That same year, she was the first woman elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1850 she was the first woman to join the American Association for the Advancement of Science. And in 1869, the American Philosophical Society opened its doors to women, electing Maria Mitchell along with Mary Somerville, astronomer and mathematician, and Elizabeth Cabot Agassiz, naturalist.

Not content to simply do her own research, she wanted to improve the opportunities for other women to study science as well. In 1865, she was the first person appointed to the faculty in the newly developed Astronomy Department at Vassar College, where she also served as the director of the Vassar College Observatory.

Later in life, continuing her push to include more women in the sciences, she co-founded the American Association for the Advancement of Women (AAW), where she served as president in 1875, and founded and chaired its Science Committee.

"Does anyone suppose that any woman in all the ages has had a fair chance to show what she could do in science? ... The laws of nature are not discovered by accidents; theories do not come by chance, even to the greatest minds; they are not born of the hurry and worry of daily toil; they are diligently sought, they are patiently waited for, they are received with cautious reserve, they are accepted with reverence and awe. And until able women have given their lives to investigation, it is idle to discuss the question of their capacity for original work."
"The Need for Women in Science," presented by Maria Mitchell at the 1876 Congress of the AAW.
Indeed. Just think what could women achieve in science if given a fair chance! While I'm sure Maria Mitchell would be absolutely thrilled to see how much things have changed for women in science in the last 141 years, I'm sure she would join with us in demanding even greater representation.

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Monday, July 31, 2017

SRPS Role Model: Dr. Fannie Emanuel

I love sharing stories of women pursuing their dreams, as you probably already know. It's kinda my thing. It's particularly important, though, to celebrate older women who take up a new and challenging goal in mid-life or later. We have too few role models for this age group, so when I come across stories of amazing older women I am extra excited to share them with you.

After working nearly 20 years as treasurer for her husband's business, Fannie Emanuel (July 31, 1871 – March 31, 1934) went looking for more ways to help her community in Chicago. She began taking college courses in social sciences, and possibly thinking about studying medicine. In 1908 she decided to put into action the concepts she was learning in her classes, and established the Emanuel House, a settlement house with the mission "to inspire higher ideals of manhood and womanhood, to purify the social condition, and to encourage thrift and neighborhood pride, and good citizenship."

Settlement houses were private organizations focused on improving the communities they served by offering a wide range of services. Emanuel House addressed the disparity in educational opportunities for the children in the poor, predominately black neighborhood by offering kindergarten classes and a boys' and girls' club. Mothers could take classes in cooking, sewing, or domestic science, as well as attend regular mother's meetings. Emanuel House also hosted a free dental clinic and an employment bureau.

The part of Fanny Emanuel's story I find inspiring is she never stopped reaching for more. In 1911, at the age of 40, she made the decision to pursue a medical degree. When she enrolled in classes at the Chicago Hospital College of Medicine her two adult sons were also earning their own college degrees. Here was a woman who worked helping her husband's business while raising a family and staying active her community who, instead of resting in the comfort she'd earned, set out to do more.

While operating her private practice in Chicago, and between family trips to her summer cabin in northern Michigan, Dr. Emanuel continued her social work with important community organizations. She gave her time, energy, and business expertise to groups addressing the needs of the black community, such as the WYCA, Ida B. Wells Women's Club, and Delta Theta sorority, as well as serving on the Board of Directors for the Phyllis Wheatley Club (named after Phyllis Wheatley, a slave poet who lived from 1753 to 1784), an institution serving African American women, often providing lodging for younger women as well as retirement homes for older or disabled or sick women.

Dr. Fannie Emanuel was a woman who never stopped working to improve the lives of her neighbors, and when given an opportunity to follow her dreams she took it, and for that she's most certainly a Self-Rescuing Princess Society role model.

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