December 20, 2017 • Sarah Jean Gosney
Most women are not meant to excel, nor are most men. It should hardly be controversial to say that most people are average. But what about truly-above average women? In feminist rhetoric, I often hear complaints that there aren’t enough women in CEO positions or in other seats of power, then typically the argument turns to the claim that a feminist imperative is to get more women into those spots. It is true that there are an unequal number of men and women in positions of power (though whether this is good, bad, or neutral is a separate topic).
As a woman with a 96th percentile IQ and a track record of high achievement, I have often thought that I might find myself bored if confined purely to housework and child-rearing (both admirable and necessary pursuits). Then again, I don’t have kids and understand that they are quite a handful. But were women truly limited to those pursuits in the past? I began to wonder what women like me were doing before feminism found its way into popular culture and legislation.
To my surprise, women were excelling long before feminism made a dent in the public consciousness. Today, I want to highlight the lives of four women who left a significant mark in their fields far before feminism was in full swing: Marie Curie, Amelia Earhart, Jane Austen, and Ada Countess of Lovelace.
Before I do so, I’d like to establish some dates. Feminism is widely thought to have three main waves (though I’ve heard some argue that we’re in the fourth), the first of which was usually concerned with women’s suffrage. Women’s suffrage was passed into law in 1920 in the U.S., 1944 in France, and 1918 for female landowners over 30 in the UK, which was extended to all women over 21 in 1928. Our ladies of the hour hail from (or at least did their main work in) these three countries. The Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963 in the U.S. and was considered a hallmark piece of legislation for the feminist movement.
Marie Curie, born in 1867, was a Polish-born physicist and chemist who moved to Paris at the age of twenty-four to pursue a scientific career. She is well known for winning two Nobel Prizes, one in Physics and one in Chemistry. She won these prizes in 1903 and 1911 respectively. She was the first person to win two such prizes, and as of today, is the only woman who has won two. In 1906, she became the first female professor the University of Paris, teaching physics in the place of her husband who had tragically died before taking up the position. She is credited with discovering the elements polonium and radium and for developing the field of radioactivity. She died in 1934 of complications from radiation exposure, ten years before women were granted suffrage in her naturalized country of France.
Amelia Earhart, born in 1897, was an American pilot, well known for being the first female to fly alone across the Atlantic Ocean. Although Earhart would probably have considered herself a feminist, being a member of the National Women’s Party and supporting the Equal Rights Amendment, the latter was never passed into law. After about seven years of flying, she achieved some celebrity status after accompanying pilot Wilmer Stultz on his transatlantic flight in 1928. Participating in several flying competitions, she established a name for herself and even set a world record for altitude in 1931. In 1932, she completed her famous solo transatlantic flight, leaving from Newfoundland and landing in Northern Ireland. Earhart wrote several books and was the aviation editor for Cosmopolitan magazine for two years. She disappeared in 1937 on the last leg of her world flight.
Jane Austen, born in 1775 in England, was a novelist, well-beloved by many young girls to this day. She published four works in her lifetime, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma. After her death in 1817 (over one hundred years before any woman was granted suffrage in England), three more of her novels were published. She focused her writing, often critically, on the British landed gentry. She shared her writing talent with friends and family through her Juvenilia (poems and short stories she wrote as a young girl) and by penning over three thousand letters in her lifetime. Sadly, most of these letters were destroyed by her sister Cassandra in order to protect Jane’s reputation from her own wit, as it often prompted her to make cutting remarks about family members and neighbors. While she did not receive fame for her work during her lifetime, her novels gained wide acclaim in the decades after her death and several were adopted into film beginning in the 20th century.
Ada Countess of Lovelace, born 1815, was the only legitimate child of the famous Romantic poet Lord Byron. Spending a fair amount of time struggling with illness in her childhood and after the birth of one of her children, she devoted herself to studying math. In her youth, her mother encouraged her mathematics education in order to counteract the influence of her philandering, absent, poet father. Another English lady, she was a mathematician who became famous for working with Charles Babbage in the 1830s on his Analytical Engine, a mechanical computer. She is considered to be the first computer programmer. She even translated from Italian a paper about Babbage’s machine. She was well known in social circles for her charm and wit. Succumbing to uterine cancer at the age of 36, she died in 1852.
You might claim that these women’s influence was a factor of their wealthy upbringings, but that was hardly the case for any of them except for Ada of Lovelace. Amelia Earhart saved money through odd jobs to pay for flight lessons, Marie Curie’s family lost all of its wealth and holdings through political participation in the Polish national uprisings, and Jane Austen’s father was a humble church rector.
Truly exceptional women have always found a place to excel in society.
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