At a party to celebrate a friend's birthday this past weekend, I was struck by how many strong women were on that balcony.
(Yes, the awkward hermit went to a party, but true to form, stuck mostly with her core group. Baby steps, people.)
It seems appropriate, then, that today is International Women's Day (the 112th observance), in the first full week of Women's History Month.
I've been lucky to have had more than a few strong women in my life, from my mom and Nanny Opal, great-aunts like Nita, Isabel and Irene, and sisters-in-law Karen and Carletta to teachers like Carol Ferguson, Jo Elsken and Jennifer Rogers, and friends like Sarah Kinsey (yes, Sarah, you are strong) and Kathy Phillips. It's because of women like them that girls and women after them have had opportunities they didn't have, even something as seemingly simple as being able to take shop class instead of home economics.
Without women ... well, you wouldn't have anything, really, would you? But women have had a far greater impact on the world other than giving birth and raising children. Women have made a significant impact on virtually all facets of life, though often their contributions have been overlooked. Katherine Johnson and other "computers" at NASA helped ensure that the U.S. would safely travel to and from space, yet they were mostly unknown outside their field until Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, followed by 2016's "Hidden Figures."
Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord and Lady Byron, was a highly talented mathematician when she met Charles Babbage, who was working on a calculating machine he called a "difference engine." He eventually abandoned that in favor of the "analytical engine," which would become the basis for the world's first digital computer. Lovelace's work on the analytical engine made her the first computer programmer, but in Babbage's view it was little more than an interpretation of his work.
British chemist Rosalind Franklin was pivotal to the discovery of DNA's helical structure; her colleague Maurice Wilkins showed her X-ray images of DNA to James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953. Franklin died in 1958 from ovarian cancer, and in 1962, Watson, Crick and Wilkins received the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine; though Watson suggested Franklin and Wilkins should receive the chemistry prize, the committee generally doesn't do posthumous nominations.
Josephine Grey Butler was integral to getting the Victorian-era Contagious Diseases Acts, which allowed the forcible examination and imprisonment of women suspected of being prostitutes while holding no consequences for the men, done away with in Great Britain. She also fought child prostitution and campaigned for women's rights to vote and to be better educated, as well as the right for married women to own and control property in their own right.
Then there are two of Arkansas' own. Maya Angelou was, among other things, a poet, author and civil rights activist who in 1993 became the first poet since Robert Frost in 1961 to make an inaugural recitation, reciting "On the Pulse of Morning" for Bill Clinton's presidential inauguration. Hattie Caraway, who was first appointed to her husband Thaddeus' U.S. Senate seat after his death, became the first woman elected to a full term in the Senate in 1932. The Library of Congress blog notes that she was called "Silent Hattie" since she rarely spoke on the Senate floor, explaining once, "I haven't the heart to take a minute away from the men. The poor dears love it so."
Lord, what she would make of the people in D.C. now.
No matter how some of these women might be viewed today (Caraway joined a filibuster with fellow Southerners against an anti-lynching bill, for example), it can't be denied that they paved the way for women today. But there's still far to go.
As E.J. Dionne pointed out in his Washington Post column Sunday, "The number of women who are voting members in one of the chambers of Congress hit a new high of 149 after the 2022 elections--106 Democrats, 42 Republicans and one independent, according to the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics.
"We should celebrate the achievement--and also ask why our democracy still lags far behind many others in electing women. While 28 percent of the members of the U.S. Congress are women, women make up between 40 to 50 percent of the parliamentarians in such democracies as France, Iceland, Mexico, Norway, Portugal, Spain, South Africa, Sweden and Switzerland."
But still, we'll march on, and in the meantime celebrate the history of the women who've gone before. As to whether that means history has been politicized, Dionne cautions that it's "only in the sense that political change always affects how we see history. The better view is that history is more accurate and more complete when we ask new questions, include more people's experiences and ... notice things our forebears didn't. It's why everyone has an interest in celebrating months in honor of those who were once written out of history altogether."
Women, this one's for you.
Assistant Editor Brenda Looper is editor of the Voices page. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at blooper0223.wordpress.com.