Saturday, June 18, 2016

Wonder Women by Sam Maggs

Rating: WORTHY!

This is a book about twenty five women in various fields of endeavor who have distinguished themselves as 'innovators, inventors, and trailblazers'. I would say twenty five plus women, but that gives entirely the wrong information! But there are more than twenty five women discussed here and every one of them is interesting - some much more so than others. Note that there's a score of books out there with 'Wonder Women' in the title - make sure you ask for the genuine article by name: Sam Maggs!

I was impressed that the mini-bios began with women of science, which featured astronomer Wang Zhenyi, mathematician Ada Lovelace, nuclear physicist Lise Meitner, mathematician Emmy Noether, and Chemist Alice Ball. Next, in medicine were Jacqueline Felice de Almania, Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell, Ogina Ginko, Anandibai Joshi, and Marie Equi, all doctors. On the secret world of spies, there was Brita Tott, Mary Bowser, Sarah Edmonds, Elvira Chaudoir, and Noor Inayat Khan. Among Innovators were Huang Daopo, Margaret Knight, Mariam Benjamin, Bessie Blount Griffin, and Mary Sherman Morgan (who actually was a rocket scientist!), and explorers/adventurers featured Maria Sibylla Merian, Annie Smith Peck, Ynes Mexia, Annie Londonderry, and Bessie Coleman.

These women lived from the thirteenth century to the latter half of the twentieth, so there's some serious history here too, and each section was punctuated with some mini bios about yet more women, and interviews with contemporary trailblazers, including a transgender woman who was fired by IBM for...wanting to be who she felt deep down she was, as well as one with Buddhini Samarasinghe, founder of STEM women. The book was a fun read and a great introduction. Many of these women, such as Zhenyi, Anandibai, Noor, and Annie I had not heard of before. Others such as Ada, Emmy, Lise, and Hypatia were much more familiar. These women were cutting edge in their time, and enlightened even by our standards.

I never read introductions and what-have-you so I skipped that, and launched right into the bios which was all the introduction I needed. The author's tone is warm and light-hearted, which makes for a cool refreshing read for the most part, despite the wealth of facts which are delivered. Plus the author is evidently into Doctor Who, which is never a bad sign! I did have one issue that I have to raise though. I can understand and appreciate the author's enthusiastic tone despite it being rather over the top at times. That's fine! These women need to be celebrated and in far too many cases it's long overdue, but I don't think you serve the cause of feminism well by insulting half the population on what felt like every other page.

It made me wonder who the target audience was - are we preaching only to the choir? If we are, isn't that simply putting the same limitations on these women as they suffered during their lifetime! Are we to confine these revelations only to a female audience? Even if that's the plan, it's still no excuse to indulge in flagrant and liberal man-bashing here and there, as though modern men are no better than men have historically been.

Yes, male-dominated societies have treated women abominably historically, and still do in far too much of the world, but it's only recently that this injustice has been widely recognized and combated. In the past, it was the way things were because so few people had the wisdom, education and influence to change it into what it needed to be. That doesn't excuse what it was, nor does it make it acceptable, nor should we ever forget it, because that's the surest way to let it come romping right back through the front door. In fact, trying to wedge that door open is precisely what the Republicans are doing right now in the US as I write this review. Next they'll be trying to get us to believe that if Hilary wins, she's going to rename her workplace 'the ovum office'. I sincerely hope she does win not only because of what she can bring to the table, but also - given the current alternative - it's a dangerous step backwards for the US if she doesn't.

The way to address a pendulum which has swung too far in one direction is not to swing it to the same extreme in the opposite one. The solution is to bring it to a stop at dead center and nail it down so securely that it never moves again! Writing as though modern men are inevitably tarred with the sins of their forefathers, or trying to project modern views backwards to show how shockingly far short of today's standards men fell a hundred or five hundred years ago, isn't a wise move in my view, especially not in a book of this nature.

That said, I really enjoyed this for the most part. There was some great humor in it, such as an aside that daguerreotypes are "...not something that steampunk authors made up," and "...the late Middle Ages, a time when everybody had weirdly flat faces if you believe the artwork..." were most welcome. The stories needed this to leaven the ofttimes heart-breaking revelations I was reading, such as in Lise Meitner's story. On a related note, I personally found it interesting how many unsung women of Jewish descent have made their gender proud over the years.

Describing Emmy Noether as "a total BAMF" might not be the wisest description, although it is a powerful one! I'm sure that the author humorously intended it as the acronym for Bad-Ass Motherfucker, but it’s also become a well-known word in the comic-book world used to describe the sound that Nightcrawler makes when he teleports, and by extension, a word used to describe teleporting in general. Might be a bit confusing, although given what's been learned of late about quantum teleportation, maybe there is a tie-in!

The 'Sub' articles on people like Hypatia, Sophia Brahe (yes, that Brahe!), Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet (whose name alone is worthy of celebration), Marie Curie, Lanyang Lin, Rosalind Franklin, Marie Daly et al were most welcome, and I couldn't help but wonder how it was determined who got a long article and who got an honorary mention. I'll bet it was tough. Of course, with some of these women, there is very little known about them - another problem with how history treated women. Others are still living today, such as Dr Lynn Conway of whom I had never heard, so I owe the author a dear thanks for that education!

The story of the Blackwell sisters was another welcome learning experience. Elizabeth Blackwell became, despite strenuous opposition, the first woman in the USA to graduate with a medical degree. She went on with her younger sister Emily, who became the third woman in the USA to graduate with a medical degree (the second was Lydia Folger - not that Folger! - Fowler who graduated the year after Elizabeth), to start up the very excellent New York Infirmary for indigent Women and Children. Having said that, I was sorry to read the author citing their policy of "no boyz allowed" as she puts it, as though it was a proud credential. It made me sad, because this was just as discriminatory as it was for the male-dominated colleges and universities to declare no women allowed in their medical programs. Or indeed to abuse women in places like Pakistan for wanting nothing more than a basic education. I didn't see that approach as a positive or commendable step. It's that pendulum again! This kind of thing is one reason why I wrote and published Seasoning!

It isn't mentioned in this brief bio, but Elizabeth was also instrumental in founding and running a school aimed at supporting her family after her father died prematurely, and she started a slave Sunday school. She was a self-starter to her core! Elizabeth never married - claiming she could never find anyone good enough to make up her other half, although some would say that Florence Nightingale was a contender. That didn’t happen, but her sister Emily moved in with yet another female Doctor, Elizabeth Cushier. I guess female doctors were a very close-knit community back then!

I encountered another similar instance in the story of innovator Margaret Knight who invented (inter alia) a machine which could create flat-bottomed paper bags. I know! It's not something to which anyone pays attention in our spoiled-rotten modern (western) world, but back then it was a labor intensive process to make such an ostensibly simple thing. Margaret fixed this by creating a machine to do it and do it well (and almost got ripped off for it).

The author casually mentions that the machine "did the work of thirty humans!" I know (at least, I assume!) that she intended this as an enthusiastic compliment on Margaret's ingenuity, but this was in 1868, and back then it would have been a tragedy for thirty people to lose their livelihood - multiplied over and over again for each machine which was produced. Progress runs rampant and people do lose their jobs. Tesla and Edison between them, for example, put professional lamplighters and snuffers out of work, and this kind of thing was repeated over and over again with every new "labor-saving" device.

It bothered me that the author trotted this out with such abandon when it was clearly bad news for those self-same poor families from which Margaret herself had only just risen. Whilst I commend the enthusiasm, I think for the sake of balanced reporting, this wasn't something which should have slipped by so cavalierly, especially when it's still going on today as robots take over more and more jobs which thirty (and more) humans were once earning their keep from. And no, this is not a Luddite call to arms! It's just something we should not let slide by our attention.

Aside from having an amazingly cool name that I'm totally going to steal for a novel at some point, Ogino Ginko (that would be Ginko Ogino in western cardinality), did in Japan what Elizabeth Blackwell did in the US, and against tougher odds, in my estimation. The Indian equivalent to these two women was Anandi Joshi, who said, "I thought that I should never learn any more, and I would rather have died." if that doesn’t emote a tear in your eye, you’re a statue. In pursuing a medical education, she faced the same kind of abuse that too many Muslim women (and one is too many) face even today.

I read with pure pleasure the stories of the unstoppable force of nature named Marie Equi, and the mini-bio of Agnodice, an Athenian woman who was equally feisty, and who exposed herself in a court room and got away with it because it was evidence! There's also Maria Dalle Donne, the first female MD ever, in 1799, Rebecca Lee Crumpler (whose name might have been better assigned had it been owned by Marie Equi!), the first African American woman to become a doctor of medicine, Okami Keiko, the first Japanese woman to earn a medical degree in the West, Sarah Josephine Baker, Fe del Mundo, the first woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School (they evidently didn’t know that Fe was a Filipina name...), and Gurubai Karmarkar. There is a bunch more, and every one is worth reading about.

The book was well-written, as I mentioned. There were a couple of minor writing issues, such as "Margaret Knight was born the youngest of five children with two older brothers and sisters" and which seems not to make sense at first glace, or which seems to be tautologous. It actually does make sense. I just think it could have been better worded! The last gripe I have is about factory safety. The author mentions at one point men objecting to women's hooped skirts in the factory, and she dismisses it as sexism. I agree that genderism was a part of this back then, but there is also a very practical safety issue here. I've worked in places like that (not, thankfully, in nineteenth century conditions!), and even today there are safety rules in place about loose clothing for very, very good reasons which have nothing whatsoever to do with genderism and everything to do with protecting limbs. About every four days in the US someone gets injured because hair or clothing is caught in machinery. This is what I meant about commentary being a bit over the top at times.

But those issues aside, I highly recommend this book, because the problems I encountered with it are far less important than it is that knowledge like this be preserved and disseminated.

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