Tag Archives: Feminism

‘We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry.’ – Maria Mitchell, Astronomer

This is a chapter from the ebook ‘The Brilliant Women Collection’, posted here in honour of International Women’s Day. The whole book is available here for free.  

Maria Mitchell with her students.

Maria Mitchell with her students.

One starry night in the autumn of 1847 in Nantucket, USA, Maria Mitchell discovered a comet. She noticed through her telescope that 5 degrees above the North Star there shone a light that hadn’t been there before. She wrote down its coordinates and checked again the following night. Her father had taught her astronomy and she knew the skies well; she was confident that what she had seen was a comet. King Frederick VI of Denmark had promised a gold medal to anyone who discovered a comet through a telescope (because that’s just the sort of thing Kings did in those days). Typically, a man surfaced who claimed to have seen it first and he was awarded the medal. Thankfully, the misunderstanding was cleared up after some stern letter-writing; Maria claimed her prize a year later.

She was 29 when ‘Miss Mitchell’s Comet’ (now officially known as C/1847 T1) propelled her to fame; tourists came to see the woman astronomer (a shocking rarity in those days). Maria became the first female member of the Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1848; the fact that no other women members were admitted until 1943 shows how ahead of her time she was. Two years later she became the only female member of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences. Maria began to attend scientific meetings and became respected by many in the astronomical community. She got a job as a computer (a person that does computations, not like a human MacBook) monitoring the position of Venus.

In 1956, a rich gent by the name of General Swift employed her to escort his daughter, Prudence, on a trip around Europe. She jumped at the chance to see the stars from the other side of the world. Maria went to the Greenwich Observatory, and then travelled on without Prudence to France and Italy. When in Rome, she did as any Roman astronomer would do, and requested to see the Vatican Observatory. Again, she was stymied by foolish men who decided at first that they could not let a woman in. She finally succeeded in gaining special permission to enter, but only during the day, which rather defeated the object!

On her return to the USA, she was met with a more heartening surprise; women had collected money for the first woman astronomer and bought Maria her own telescope. She used this for many years to study sunspots. In 1865 she began work at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie in New York where she was Director of the Observatory and Professor of Astronomy. She was an enthusiastic teacher: before she became an astronomer, she had hired a room and started her own school. She was very keen on active learning and often called her students in overnight to watch a spectacular meteor shower.
maria2

She was also an early advocate of women’s rights and was active in the women’s suffrage movement. Maria believed that being born a woman should never be a disadvantage. She said, ‘Born a woman, born with the average brain of humanity, born with more than an average heart, if you are mortal what higher destiny could you have? No matter where you are nor what you are, you are a power.’ When Maria found out that younger, less senior male astronomers were being paid more than her, she successfully negotiated for higher pay. She was friends with Elizabeth Cady Stanton who famously rewrote a version of the constitution to say ‘All men and women are created equal’, and was a famous early female trouser-wearer. Together they vociferously opposed slavery. Throughout her life, Maria taught young women that they could be anything they wanted to be and encouraged their pursuit of science, echoing what her progressive father had taught her. She is remembered for her outstanding contributions to astronomy, teaching, human rights and women’s rights. An observatory in Nantucket bears her name, as does the 30km Mitchell crater on the moon (next to Aristoteles, near the north-eastern lunar limb if you were wondering. Come on, telescopes out!).

She famously said, ‘We have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us, and the more we gain, the more is our desire; the more we see, the more we are capable of seeing.’ The pursuit of discovery and learning more about the universe was her life’s work. She inspires me to constantly be curious about science and particularly the fascinating frontiers of space. She demonstrates that despite the awkward obstacles instituted by traditional male attitudes, great discoveries have been made by women. An inspirational teacher, she has also shown how important it is to pass on your knowledge and be a pioneer for the sake of future generations.

Read about more brilliant women here

Who inspires you? Comments Please! Likes and shares are also deeply appreciated.

Happy International Women’s Day!

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Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates

Everyday Sexism is the most important book of the year. I’m not the only person that who thinks so. It’s on the Waterstones Book of the Year shortlist and has received a wealth of critical praise. More importantly, it has inspired conversations about present day sexism and is part of a positive movement for change.

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The Everyday Sexism Project started as a way for women to share their experiences: The Everyday Sexism Project exists to catalogue instances of sexism experienced by women on a day to day basis. They might be serious or minor, outrageously offensive or so niggling and normalised that you don’t even feel able to protest. Say as much or as little as you like, use your real name or a pseudonym – it’s up to you. By sharing your story you’re showing the world that sexism does exist, it is faced by women everyday and it is a valid problem to discuss.

Laura Bates started the project as she began speaking to her friends about things that had happened to her and asking if they’d experienced anything similar. She thought they might have a smattering of examples, but each began with ‘This week..’ or ‘On the way here…’

The book is arranged thematically, with an informative introduction to each section establishing how things are for women at this moment. Anecdotes are closely linked to the topic and intelligently illustrative. Overall the book is brilliantly written: clear, accessible and honest.

Inclusivity is an important part of the ethos, and the chapter for men and about men is particularly welcome and well written. Consider this from a male contributor:

Unfollowed @EverydaySexism, weary of the constant barrage of horror. Then it clicked. That’s what it must be like being a woman #refollowed

This book should be required reading for all.

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Happy International Women’s Day!

 On the 8th March each year, millions of people around the world come together celebrating achievement or fighting for justice and equality. This year’s theme is inspiring change. Read more about it on the International Women’s Day Website and join the celebrations on Twitter.

To celebrate International Women’s Day, as is my tradition, my book about inspiring women is  absolutely free! Please download it here!

Flying with balloonsReviews say: ‘It is simply a celebration of those unselfish women who have forged ahead in their chosen field and raised awareness of women’s issues in the process. The consistent message in this book is: ‘be yourself’ and ‘never give up’.  A nice inspiring read.’

‘I think this is a book that every young woman should read, as it provides some essential perspective, brought together by Merrier’s confident voice.’

‘It’s a tonic for young and old… one to recommend to your daughters when they are making life decisions.’

Please do click here, download it and give it a go. Share it and help me spread the word about inspiring women. Thank you!

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Marilyn by Gloria Steinem

“When the past dies, there is mourning, but when the future dies our imaginations are compelled to carry it on.”Marilyn - Gloria Steinem

I’ve just finished the new ebook edition of this 1986 biography and I sort of miss it. I want more of it to exist, perhaps because of Steinem’s sensitive style, perhaps because mysteries which remain unanswered. More than a simple biography, this felt like a thesis on why things fell apart for Marilyn Monroe, or Norma Jeane. Steinem’s starting point is the sad young life of Norma Jeane: abuse, foster homes, her mother’s mental health issues. Steinem hypothesises how these experiences coloured Marilyn’s adult choices including her career and unsuccessful marriages. It is an intelligent study of fragility and celebrity.

Talking of intelligence, one of the most interesting aspects of the book was learning the depth of Marilyn and her love of reading and her natural intellectual curiosity.

“Her searches after knowledge were arbitrary and without context. It was as if she were shining a small flashlight of curiosity into the dark room of the world.”

She never finished high school as she was forced into an early marriage and always regretted her lack of education. She studied acting with great drive and devotion, striving to be better and brighter in every aspect of her life. She wanted children, but medical complications made that impossible. My heart broke with the description of her sitting alone on a park bench, disguised so that she could watch the children play.

The most profound moments of the book are when Marilyn’s own words are used. This includes passages from her unfinished autobiography and an interview conducted just weeks before her death. She cared little for money and turned down the offer of an older male friend to marry her so that she would inherit his fortune.

Marilyn_Monroe_by_George_Barris_1962‘Because she was sometimes forced to give in, to sell herself partially, she was all the more fearful of being bought totally.“What have you got to lose?” asked a friend who was urging the marriage to Hyde.
“Myself,” Marilyn said.’

Marilyn Monroe felt to Norma Jeane like a fictional construct: a person separate from herself that she often referred to in the third person and ‘turned on and off’ by doing the walk or adopting the mannerisms. This means that a lot of what she said is contradictory, unreliable, and probably not the truth. Steinem has done a thoughtful job of sifting through the claims and looking for evidence to piece together her life story. What is interesting about the book is that it critiques other biographies and seeks to get as close to the truth as possible, while recognising its limitations. Steinem used it to make wider points too, about the social construction of femininity, fame and psychoanalysis, with varying levels of success. There were pictures too: poignant, beautiful pictures.

I found it fascinating and deeply memorable. My ever-patient loved one listened to me recount the entire life story and then proceed to evaluate the book for a whole car journey. Be delighted, my dear readers, that I provide you with the condensed version!

Many thanks to NetGalley and  Open Road Integrated Media for the copy.

Have you read it? What did you think? I haven’t read a huge amount of biographies: do you have any recommendations? Do let me know in the comments!

As always, liking and sharing is hugely appreciated.

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International Women’s Day

To celebrate Women’s Day, you can have my ebook about inspirational women for free!

This uplifting illustrated collection warmly celebrates inspirational women from comedians to global campaigners. Entertaining descriptions of remarkable and ground-breaking achievements explain how these women have made particularly significant contributions. Admirable personal qualities form the theme of each biographical chapter: strong, inventive, cooperative, genuine and determined.

Download it now! Please share with anyone who might be interested! Thanks!

The Brilliant Women Collection

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An Evening with Diane Atkinson: Author of ‘The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton’

Happy International Women’s Day!

Any regular readers will know that I am a huge fan of women’s history (in fact I wrote a little book of it), so I was delighted to have the chance to listen to Diane Atkinson speak about her book ‘The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton’. Here’s the blurb:

The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton

Caroline Norton: beauty and wit, poet, pamphleteer and blue stocking. She was married to a boorish minor aristocrat at 19, who accused her, for his own political ends, of an affair, or a ‘Criminal Conversation’ as it was know, with Lord Melbourne (the Prime Minister) which ended in the ‘Trial of the Century’. Pilloried by society, cut off and bankrupted by her family she went on to be the most important figure in establishing women’s rights in marriage. This is the startling story of how one woman changed marriage and revolutionised women’s rights.

Atkinson relayed a brief history of Norton’s life from her marriage, and subsequent political struggles, to her death. I was most compelled by her vociferous legal battle to gain access to her children and extend this right to all separated mothers (in the past, children of divorced parents were considered the father’s alone: the mother had no legal rights to see them). The question and answer section was very interesting at Atkinson spoke more about her research; she spent two years going through over a thousand letters written my Mrs Norton. Atkinson was confident and knowledgeable – she held the room beautifully. 

It was heartening in my small town to see a room full to bursting of people interested in women’s history. 

Find out more about Diane Atkinson here.

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Bodies by Susie Orbach

Thirty years after the bestselling ‘Fat is a Feminist Issue’, Susie Orbach returns to the concept of culturally constructed ideas of the body. She argues that we no longer accept our bodies as they are, but see them as projects to be remade and perfected in line with mutable ideals propagated by the media and industries. Cosmetic surgery, diet pills, TV makeover programmes and other procedures are all advertised as means for ‘self-improvement’, but is this ethical? Orbach argues: 

 ‘The clash between the new imperative to be beautiful and the limited and limiting aesthetic of beauty we imbibe means that bodies in our time are constantly in need of our attention. They have become less where we live from and more what we can personally manufacture…a fit body, a lithe body, a healthy body and a beautiful body have become both the ambition and the obligation of millions. The supersized, digitally enhanced images of airbrushed and photoshoppped individuals which penetrate into our public and private spaces…makes us super-aware and hypercritical of our own bodies. This has created a cultural climate in which improving the way the body looks and functions is seen as a crucial personal responsibility.’

 Her global perspective and cultural knowledge reveal the idiosyncrasies of each culture’s beauty ‘ideals’, tellingly exposing how constructed and transient they can be. Her exposition of the changes wrought by globalisation and the dominance of Western images is particularly interesting and provides the most clear examples of the impact images can have. For example, she describes the normalisation of plastic surgery in Korea as over 50% of women have had their eye shape altered. She uses fascinating individual case studies to show how the body is experienced by different people and affected by their lives. I was shocked by the single-minded rejection of part of his own body that led a man to force doctors to amputate his legs. I was touched and compelled by the stories of children who had been physically hurt learning to gradually accept touch as potentially positive.

 Susie Orbach’s argument has a clear evidence base and is academic in structure and foundation, but stylishly remains clear and readable. There is no need to know anything about the issues or the field of psychology before reading it: topics are introduced with accessible examples. Though I was less keen on the parts where she discusses her clinical experiences with clients, particularly when she writes about ‘wildcat sensations’ and ‘unconscious transmissions’ from her patients. I feel that she is strongest when discussing the issues as a whole.

 She provides strong conclusions and sound recommendations, something some academics fail to do. I think this is definitely worth reading as it destroy myths around dieting, beauty and the body. However you feel about the issues, it gives a great deal of information worth considering. Essentially, she argues that physical beauty should not be the sum of our human worth. 

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Backwards in High Heels: The Impossible Art of Being Female

Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels. This famous assertion is the headline of Tania Kindersley and Sarah Vine’s modern guide to life as a woman. The tone is friendly and the advice is cheering. It was a supreme joy to read. It is the antidote to all the women’s literature and magazines that proscribe strict beauty regimes, career plans and parenting perfection that amount to an implausible, and frankly tiring, way to live. By drawing from their own life experience, they provide a guide that is sensitive to the complexities of modern life and celebrates a range of female achievements and lifestyle choices.

The wittily titled chapters are brief enough to dip in to, but still retain impressive depth of insight and understanding. For example, ‘The Art of Reconciling the Fantasy World of Work Painted for Your Younger Self With the Mundane and Often Alarming Adult Reality’, ‘How To Call in the Perspective Police’ and ‘How To Read a Fashion Magazine Without Wanting To Cut Your Head Off With a Penknife’ were particularly pleasing and heartening.

It covers multiple facets of life including love, loss, philosophy, friendship, finance, age and politics. Additionally, the ‘Practical Chapter’ has everything from recipes to how to deal with a bore. As well as being thoroughly useful, it is a beautiful book. The illustrations throughout are charming and it even comes with a ribbon to keep your page! They really have thought of everything.

Every woman should read this book. It is honest, helpful and ultimately reassuring. Their positive spin on old age has me rather looking forward to it!

‘Things you can do as you get old.

–          Never again have to go to the gym and do physical jerks while an idiot in a leotard shouts things like, ‘Yeah, ladies, take it to the max!’

–          Admit that you like going to bed at 9.30 with a good book…

–          Never have to sit at a bus stop in a very small skirt at 3am waiting for the N70…

–          Take as long as you damn well need to pull out at junctions…

–          Stop making excuses.

–          Keep the radio permanently tuned to Radio Four.

–          Pretend selective deafness.’

Buy it, find it, borrow it; it is wise and liberating.

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