It’s International Women’s Day

March 8, 2014 • 8:29 am

. . . to celebrate the oft-oppressed and oft-ignored sex that nevertheless holds up half the sky.

In its honor, Google has a special doodle, and when you click on the arrow, you get a video and a language lesson.

This is a screenshot only, so click here to see the Doodle.

Screen shot 2014-03-08 at 5.30.36 AM

If you’re at the Guardian and know things British, you can take a quiz on “how much you know about feminism and sexism in the media, politics, and culture.”

The woman I’ll celebrate today is, of course, a scientist: Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (1910-1994), who won the Nobel Prize in 1964.

She became interested in crystallography at the age of 10 (!), and, after attending Oxford, went to Cambridge to study under J. P. Bernal, a polymath known as “Sage.” Her tireless efforts (which involved designing apparatus and the extremely complex method of calculating molecular structure) helped launch the field of X-ray chrystallography. She won the Nobel for those efforts, which led to her determining the molecular structure of penicillin, vitamin B12, and (after her prize), of insulin. Here, from Wikipedia (which has a nice biography; do read the Guardian’s, too) is one of her models of penicillin:


The tale I always tell about her—which is a true one—shows the way women were regarded in science in those days.  It’s best recounted by the Guardian:

When, in 1964, she was awarded the Nobel Prize, did the press regard her in the same light as they would a man in the same position? Absolutely not. The Daily Telegraph announced “British woman wins Nobel Prize – £18,750 prize to mother of three”. The Daily Mail was even briefer in its headline “Oxford housewife wins Nobel”. The Observer in its write-up commented “affable-looking housewife Mrs Hodgkin” had won the prize “for a thoroughly unhousewifely skill: the structure of crystals of great chemical interest”.

Hodgkin is still the only British woman who has won a Nobel Prize in science. Here she is in 1947, the year that this “Oxford housewife” was elected to the Royal Society:


There’s also this from the Guardian:

Hodgkin was a woman not prepared to let her gender get in the way of her work. When married, but still working under her maiden name of Crowfoot, she presented a key paper at a major meeting at the Royal Society in 1938 when eight months pregnant. Another long-term collaborator, Nobel Prize winner Max Perutz, referred to her appearance at this meeting in his speech at her memorial service: “Dorothy lectured in that state as if it were the most natural thing in the world, without any pretense of trying to be unconventional, which it certainly was at the time.”

46 thoughts on “It’s International Women’s Day

  1. “Oxford housewife wins Nobel”

    Wow. I know issues relating to women’s rights are depressingly recent, but this sentence still shocked me a lot. I’m guessing it was considered a compliment back then.

    1. It was probably just considered an apt description and the author couldn’t fathom a woman doing such work. Even growing up in the 70s, I was often taught women were less intelligent than men. They thought we had the most fragile bodies too – I remember not being allowed to do long jump because the teachers told us it would harm our reproductive organs. Even as a child, I found that hilarious because, have you seen us play outside? I went along with it anyway as I didn’t like long jump & it got me out of doing something I didn’t like.

      More about “house wife”. When I was in high school, my cheap school used old 1930’s German books. One of the first stories was about a “Hausfrau”!!

      1. Yeah you’re right. The assumption of “married woman = housewife” is still common these days in many places.

        1. I was told I was too old at 26 to go to med school (I would just have babies), despite having the same grades and MCATs as my soon-to-be-med-student hubby. This in the mid-late 70s…
          As for long jump, I went to the then tiny American School in London for 9th and 10th grades. There were 4 girls in the whole 9th grade and I was assigned the broad/long jump at our field day. Everyone had to do about 5 different events (in Regent’s Park) – no choice. I had never done it before but got the blue ribbon. Beat all the older girls, and me at a scant 5’2″. Ah, tales for the future grandkiddies – LOL.

          Before teaching high school Math full-time I did a lot of tutoring. One young lad called me 10 minutes into his hour saying he wasn’t going to make it. I told him that that was fine, but he would be responsible for paying me anyway. He said something like Oh, I thought you were a housewife who was just doing this for fun…Imagine the smoke coming out of my ears…

        2. Indeed.

          I would *not* be shocked to see such headlines, even today, especially coming from certain news outlets.

          My wife and I both work, but I have a very flexible job which doesn’t require me to put in lots of hours. She has a 9-5er. So I’m the de facto stay-at-home parent. Let me tell you, even in more liberal metropolises, stay-at-home moms are still the rule. I almost never see dads out with their kids during the day.

  2. I was just reading about the woman who discovered Down Syndrome, only to have her data stolen by a senior male scientist. The foundation established in his honor is still defending him, apparently.

      1. There are also articles in Nature, Science and other places, I’m sure. What I gather is that she discovered the extra chromosome, but that he was able to identify it (by virtue of the superior equipment he – but not she – had access to) as chromosome 21.

        1. …in which case she should have been the first author on the paper, and he should have been the second. Further, she should have written the paper (and not found out at the last minute that it was being published) AND her freakin’ name should have been spelled correctly!

          1. Yes, I was specifically asking if you were referring specifically (that’s enough specifically’s [damn it!] for one sentence) to reading PZ’s article…

  3. Last year at the Grolier Club in New York there was an exhibit, “Extraordinary Women in Science and Medicine.” Hodgkin, Rosalind Franklin, and many others were included, and there were many photographs and manuscripts. One of the most interesting was a brown paper bag on which Barbara McClintock had written the solution to some observations on jumping genes in maize. These bags were used to control pollination, but evidently this one was the only paper that was at hand when the idea came to her!

    1. There’s this wonderful pic from 1929 of McClintock as a grad student with four other corn geneticists @ Cornell who went on to varying degrees of fame: Charles Burnham (who as an emeritus professor spearheaded the founding of the American Chestnut Foundation, enlisting his grad student/Nobel Peace laureate Norman Borlaug in that effort; future Nobelist and UChicago President George Beadle (NB: with DOG – there’s another pic I’ve seen with the dog turned 180deg); Marcus Rhoades, also regarded as a pioneer in corn genetics & who like Burnham had a long career in that; and their advisor Rollins Emerson, who apparently played some role around 1900 in rediscovering Mendel’s work. Note that all but McClintock are carrying bundles of brown paper bags.

    2. Barbara McClintock is quite something! I saw her interviewed recently on Charlie Rose, I believe. She’s something like in her late 80s and so full of piss and vinegar. Wonderful woman.

      1. It must’ve been an archival interview, since she died over 20yrs ago.

        But there’s this story about her from a Beadle biography that I love, that has nothing to do with science except that it shows her quick mind. In the same timeframe as the pic, she was riding with Beadle and his wife in his (two-seater) Model A Ford roadster. Beadle’s wife was driving and BMcC was riding shotgun. Beadle was standing on the running board, which was illegal since it obstructed the driver’s view. They were pulled over, and McClintock tells the cop, “Oh, it’s OK, officer. You see, he’s her husband and she can see right thru him.” They didn’t get a ticket.

        1. I just realized that I mixed up Barbara Mc with Admiral Grace Hopper, the computer scientist. Whoops…But Grace was quite something as well.

  4. International Women’s Day: proudly keeping sexism alive for as it takes to serve the political agenda of the libs!

      1. Funny, I thought sexism was being kept alive by men spewing vitriol all over the internet, among other places.

  5. Over the past few centuries rather significant social progress has been made regarding attitudes toward ancient attitudinal values. Slavery, gender issues (see enfranchisement of women), more recently homosexuality: three prominent areas where ill-reasoned “norms” have each somewhat changed for the better.

    Each of the three still exists and thrive, unfortunately, in both legally enshrined and various illegal (the forced bondage market is large and booming); and unethical though still — to humanity’s great discredit — not illegal realities (glass ceiling, wage disparity, & many other repugnant conservative attitudes/policies).

    Some federal laws enacted to correct abuses mentioned do exist. Sufficient public will necessary to compel implementation by economic and political elites never quite materializes. So far.

    Religion perhaps does not own sole responsibility for these and like human ailments, but as practiced by many it suppresses and/or impeaches the results of critical examination of the institution.

    Religion is not the only authoritarian ideology ever devised, but from its inception has always provided a safe haven and source of nourishment for intense emotional investment in patriarchal hierarchy, as well as an edifice of authoritarian structure necessary to maintain, nurture, protect and defend authoritarian suppression. Religion almost solely is the cause of gender inequality.

    1. I think biology didn’t help either. Women (without the intervention of science & medicine) are trapped in a never-ending cycle of breeding. Anyone who confuses how things are with how things ought to be ends up endorsing the servitude of half the population.

      That is perhaps why contraception and related services are so vital to a society that wants to be prosperous.

    2. Slavery, gender issues (see enfranchisement of women), more recently homosexuality: three prominent areas where ill-reasoned “norms” have each somewhat changed for the better.

      Add in civil rights. Something important to know is that a large percentage of the leaders in each of these expansions of liberty and human rights were unbelievers. Details in Susan Jacoby’s wonderful book, Freethinkers.

    3. There’s been a lot of talk about how feminism only went so far. I suspect that things will change greatly with the 30 somethings as I can see the change in my own work place with that generation. Sadly, it’s just a little too late for me. Much of it is unconscious (and embarrassing bias) – like not expecting a female CEO or similar because you just don’t see them and therefore they don’t fit your image of what a CEO looks like. I know this bias exists because even I’ve caught myself experiencing it (& I’m a woman!).

      At least I don’t have to worry about being condescended going into electronics or telescope stores like I did in the past!

  6. Is there a typo for J.D. Bernal?

    Oxford Housewife? Did the Daily Mail really confuse crochet and crystallography? Wasn’t that likely a deliberate dismissal?

    1. By the way, the quiz is sort of a gag. Apparently the answers are supposed to be so obvious that anything less than ten out of ten means failure. The appalling thing is that a US national still scored 8 but still beat the average of 6. And yes, some of the questions were pretty UK-oriented.

  7. A classy human being. I shook her hand briefly in 1985 as she handed me my degree at Bristol University, where she was Chancellor. My wife got her M.A. at the same ceremony, and got an especially warm “well *done*, my dear” from DH.

  8. I actually quite liked Black Swan, although it hardly even compares to Aronofsky’s opus: Requiem for a Dream.

  9. There are people who accomplish they want to do, regardless of who they are, or the odds against them. I’m impressed.

  10. None of my science teachers ever made clear to me just how valuable the study of crystals has been to chemistry. I’ m beginning to wonder if that was somehow due to the fact that women have made such advances in the field?

    1. And furthering that thought, since crystals have such a natural attraction to little girls, maybe an enhanced emphasis on crystallography could attract more girls into chemistry?

  11. Back in the mid 1990s, my university had a female presedent, whom I thought was very good. Chatting with a colleage, a past Dean, I was shocked when he remarked that he did not like working for a woman. I responded that I thought she was doing an excellent job, and I was more interested in how competint she was rather than what sex she was.

  12. I can still remember that when Maria Goeppert Mayer was awarded the 1963 Nobel for the nuclear shell model, the San Diego Union headline read “San Diego Housewife Wins Nobel Prize.”

  13. The second worst decision of the Nobel committee was its failure to recognise the discovery of pulsars by the British scientist Jocelyn Bell. The only worse one was ignoring the demonstration of the non-conservation of parity in beta decay by Chien Shiung Wu. Why does the Nobel committee hate women?

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