Monday, 19 August 2013

You've probably never heard of her.

As we come into the final week of Blog Every Day, I've had some more time to reflect on the impact it's had on the past few weeks. There's been some really great effects, like making 26-and-counting new pieces of writing in one form or another. There's also been some things that haven't changed, like my conviction that I don't ever have any good ideas for writing ‒ objectively, I'm genuinely not a prolific question-generator but an "oh, there's one idea, looks good enough, let's go with it" type of person", but evidence would suggest I do come up with some interesting things to talk about ‒ and some things that have actually been pretty rubbish. Foremost among the rubbish things has been the imbalance between the new data collections and potential information I'm taking in, and the amount of time I have to actually sit down with some of the stuff I've collected and really get to grips with it. I miss reading things that aren't on seven columns of Twitter! 

There's a similar trade-off with living at home. On the one hand, I have already gushed about how amazing my living space currently is, especially compared to the cupboard dorm I was living in in China. On the other hand, I have to get up reasonably early each morning to make sure my dog doesn't eat the post. It's all one big, exciting trade-off. The most exciting thing about being at home, of course, is having a telly that gets english channels and the most exciting thing on that telly is the wonderful afternoon quiz show Pointless.

A ridiculous number of these appear to be uploaded to Youtube, so if you like you can discover the magic for yourself, but basically the premise is this: four teams have to give answers to questions in different categories: either by naming something that fulfils a certain criteria (Matt Damon films, eponymous Beatrix Potter characters, nationalities that end in -ian) or by answering something from a set of themed questions. The catch is that these questions have all been asked to 100 hapless bystanders somewhere in the country before the show, and each answer has a score based on the number of bystanders who answered it right. The aim is to score as low as possible, which you do by giving answers that most of the 100 people didn't know. An answer that none of the 100 people knew is a Pointless answer, both because you got no points and because it is likely to be a very obscure piece of knowledge that you had no use for before coming onto a quiz show. It's great because sometimes they ask questions in categories where I can't possibly see how anybody could get anything wrong (like how could you not name every male Disney hero, who doesn't know what the Beast's real name is in this day and age, come on) and I feel very clever, and also because despite both being male, the presenters have some pretty awesome banter.

Therefore, in honour of my favourite daytime TV show, and of things I desperately want to read more about, let's play a Pointless inspired game! I am going to show you five pictures of different awesome women, and you are going to see which ones you can recognise. I haven't gone to the lengths of asking 100 people to tell me if they know them because if I had time to do that, I'd just read the damn books I want instead. But here goes:

Number 1: 
I may be deliberately choosing pictures of women who look like they will take no shit from anyone. Which is... ironic.
Number 2:

Occupation should be easy here at least...
Number 3:

Too easy again!
Number 4:
... yeah.
And finally, number 5:

This one's technically the easiest but I've made it harder by choosing another "not taking your shit" picture.

If we were playing the gameshow, this is the point where pairs of contestants would be looking at each other in horror, wondering why they are trapped with such an awful subject as "awesome women" (to be fair it is a little broad). If you don't guess right, you score the maximum 100 points which as we can all agree would be terrible for everyone involved, because TV quiz shows are very serious business. Anyway, think for a while about who you know out of those women, and how many other people you think 

Alright. Thought enough? Let's go through the board, as they say. Up there are the top in Number 1 is Cecelia Payne-Gaposchkin, who casually formulated the theory that the majority of the universe was made of hydrogen and helium in her doctorate thesis. Second is Mae Jemison, epic physicist who was the first African-American woman astronaut and the first real astronaut to also appear in Star Trek. Third is Stephanie Kwolek, who is holding kevlar in that picture because guess what, she invented it. Fourth, Nellie Bly, or Elizabeth Jane Cochran as she was secretly known to non-readers, who faked insanity to undertake one of the first pieces of investigative journalism from a women's mental institution in 1887 (she was trying to avoid being forced to write the "culture" section). And last is the "easy" one, Ada Lovelace, who effectively invented computer programming about a century before computers actually came about. How did you do at home?

I'm being a little unfair, because scientists of both genders are rarely recognisable visually unless they're either a bit of a celebrity like Professor Brian Cox. But even without making you guess from photos, how many of those women did you actually know about before that paragraph? My guess is "not five". Cecelia Payne-Gaposckin is almost definitely a "pointless" answer, despite the fact that she figured out the composition of 75% of the universe in her PhD thesis. How many soldiers and police officers (and skiiers!) running (or skiing) around in their kevlar know that they owe this innovation in their safety (or skiing speed (or in the case of Scandinavia, both)) to a mere woman? And this is not even scratching the surface of the historical women I wanted to talk about here. Rosalind Franklin, whose work was integral to the understanding of DNA, is held up as the prime example of a woman who was screwed over and shoved aside by the men she was working with. Gertrude Bell, whose new biography is sitting on my Kindle begging to be read, spent decades in British colonial politics in the 19th century ‒ a very dodgy area to be celebrating, so don't think for a minute I am, but she spent that time fighting for independent Arab countries during the colonial period and eventually helped to install Hashemite dynasties in Iraq and Jordan, which was politically quite momentous*. Despite this, you're much more likely to have heard of T.E. Lawrence of Arabia. Oh, and who discovered nuclear fission? Not just Otto Hahn.

These women are all anything but pointless. They all did incredible things that change the ways we live in ways both big and small. But we completely overlook most of them when we look back at history, in favour of thinking that history is a men's game. Women have been adding to the stock of human knowledge, often against huge personal odds, for as long as human beings have been around, and we've been casually taking that knowledge and forgetting where it came from for just as long. And then people look back at the historical record and have the gall to suggest that because they don't "see" women, there must be something particular about men which just makes them naturally better at all these things. We sometimes make the mistake of thinking it's a particular problem of the current age that the best self-publicists win out over the most talented people in a lot of fields, but really this has been going on for quite some time. And it's much easier to self-publicise, or to get other people to like you, when they're not instead spending all their time suggesting you are worthless and out of place.

From Friday onwards, I get a bit of a break from extreme writing, and whilst I certainly won't be shutting up after that, I'm very much looking forward to having some time to actually read and reflect on some of the things I've collected about these women, and a million other topics, in the last month. Not just because I'm a rabid feminist who only thinks women are interesting (although that becomes more true every day, to be honest), or because I'm about to write a novel involving historic women scientists (FACT, so pass on any and all others that cross your mind if you are an expert on this topic because chances are I only know a fraction of what I should still!). Mostly, because these are not pointless people, and shouldn't be in any sense of the word.

*I should also point out that she was a member of the anti-suffrage league because too many women thought they belonged in the kitchen and bedroom! and shouldn't be in politics! So with that and the whole colonial figure thing I'm not actually suggesting she is any kind of feminist hero, just that she's a woman who did stuff in history that you don't know about. Which is the kind of person I am talking about here.